Viva Lola!

August 2009

I would like to tell you the story of some remarkable women my wife Ruth and I met last spring. Our hearts were warmed by being with people for whom adversity became an opportunity to do something better. Because of the vision and hard work of these women, they assisted working mothers, preserved a precious social tradition and made available to all of us the artistry of their cooking, even though we may be a continent away. 

It all began when a sugar beet refinery was built in rural Córdoba during the early 1950’s. It was a time when parts of Spain faced famine, and Andalucía was barely awakening from the economic devastation wrought by the Spanish Civil War and World War II. The factory, Azucarera San Rafael, was a boon to the region as they processed locally grown beets into sugar. Before the factory was founded, only subsistence farming provided income to that part of rural Córdoba. 

It was not long after the factory was built that the village of Villarrubia began to take shape. Workers built their houses close to the factory so it would be easier for they and members of their family to go to work or school, and return home for midday meal and siesta. This desire to integrate all phases of their daily life: work, school, food preparation and dining is the basis of the traditional Spanish culture. It is inter-related families working together and supporting one another for the good of them all. In the small town of Villarrubia families were able to sustain the natural rhythms of their lives. 

Each day the family would arise, children would head for school, father would go off to the Azucarero and mother would go to market and bring home fresh produce. The rest of her morning was spent preparing the midday meal for her family who would gather from work or classroom at about 1300 or 1400 to share the central meal. After they enjoyed their meal together, family members would relax or nap, and then head off to school or work until they would rejoin at the end of the day.

But then a shattering event occurred: after over forty years of production, Azucarera San Rafael closed its doors. The owners could not sustain any more losses and determined that their business was no longer viable, leaving hundreds of people without their jobs. The traditional fabric of life became frayed. 

Fathers no longer could go to work and come home to be with their families at dinnertime. Many of them were traveling over the countryside – some as far as the city of Córdoba - looking for any kind of job to bring food to the table. Many mothers had to leave the home too, in search of income. If the family was fortunate enough to gather for the mid-day meal, it had to be something made quickly, for there was no one home during the morning to prepare the traditional fare that had been integral to their daily experience together. 

One woman, Lola León was a woman of action. When she heard the news of the plant closing, she recognized the pending crisis. She and her husband Antonio were the parents of two daughters, Lola and Melissa, who were students in the local school. There was no time to be lost. So she gathered with some of the other mothers at the local center in Villarrubia, and inspired them to take action to protect their way of life. 

For years, Lola had dreamed of creating a selection of traditional products that would make it easier for working mothers to continue the tradition of serving good food to their families. It was her treasured recipe for sofrito, the cooking base for almost every Mediterranean meal. She thought sofrito mild pepper and tomato sauce would be especially valued by working mothers who had pride in their own cooking but had not the time to maintain the quality demanded of traditional recipes. Many other women responded enthusiastically, suggesting recipes from their mothers and grandmothers – all typical of the traditional cuisine of Córdoba.

It was time for them to roll up their sleeves and get to work to make Despensa la Nuestra (Our Pantry) a reality. For the next year, the women worked together to gather and test recipes from home, took classes to learn the standards required for food preparation and planned the layout of the kitchen where they would work together. There were labels to design, food resources to identify, equipment to buy – the details seemed endless. Nevertheless, through diligence Lola’s dream became a reality – today the combined labor of many families is producing some of the finest artisan food in all of Spain. 

Over ten years later, Envasados Lola still is composed of the original core of women. In addition to Lola, there is Amalia Moreno, a mother of two daughters Gema and Sandra. Her husband is Manuel, a builder. Margarita Almagro is married to Matías, a farmer, and they have two sons, Matías and Sergio. Ana María Sierra and her husband Jose Antonio have two daughters, Ana Belén and Lola, who go to school in Villarrubia with the rest of the children. Paqui Hermoso lives at home with her dad, after her mother died. Together these women have created in their rural town an amazing commercial kitchen which produces the highest quality artisan foods for our tables here in America!

These women believe in what they are doing - theirs is a vocation, not just a job. The mothers on the staff come to work early in the morning so that they will finish in time to pick up their children at the village school. Sandra, Matías, Sergio, Ana Belén and Lola all come home from school as they always have, and Mom continues to serve her family a wholesome traditional mid-day meal. The other women without young children finish the daily cleanup at the commercial kitchen, so that their “sisters” can go home. It takes some sacrifice on every one’s part, but there is never a complaint.

When my wife Ruth and I visited Villarrubia, we were greeted with a warm and expansive smile by Lola and her young associate Angela, who joined the staff recently. With great pride Lola introduced us to the women who were hard at work in a spotless kitchen. One was stirring a caldron of fresh Crema de Coliflor soup. Another was bottling some tomate frito. In the storeroom, we saw nothing but the highest quality ingredients. They were even using Señorío de Vizcántar extra virgin olive oil – the very favorite olive oil of the Tienda community and the same that graces our salads and sauces at home. 

Then we sat at a long table where Angela, who spoke perfect English (which she learned from her Swedish boyfriend!) and Lola proudly served us all of their products – all of them were probably better than anything we serve from our kitchen at home! As I remarked before, it warmed our hearts to be with people for whom adversity became an opportunity to do something better. Such fine, down to earth people doing the best they can to make their world a better place. I think of the 19th C aphorism: “Tis an ill wind that blows no good.” Hats off to Lola and the women of Villarrubia!

Tu amigo,

P.S. Other people share our enthusiasm. These dedicated women have received the following national honors:
Premio Meridiana 1999. Instituto Andaluz de la Mujer.
Premio a la Mejor Empresa Alimentaria Española 2006. Modalidad La Mujer en el Mundo Empresarial. Ministerio de Agricultura, Pesca y Alimentación.
Premio a la mejor iniciativa de mujeres, 2008. Consejería de Agricultura y Pesca de la Junta de Andalucía.