Here’s a short travel piece I wrote on ‘understanding a culture through food’. It was first posted here, but since I didn’t win that competition, I am posting it with my stuff. I think it could be the beginning of something longer…
I lived ten minutes walk away from Pilar’s building, and yet it was on the other side of town in Valencia de Alcántara in rural Extremadura. To get there, I made my way through a maze of white and brown terraces, under archways and stork’s nests, tripping over cobbled stone paths, and past the gaze of a black-clothed abuelita sweeping her patch of pavement for the third time that day. Pilar was a biology teacher at the high school at which I taught English. She had once studied it herself and was keen to keep it alive. Being bashful about money, we made a deal that in return for English conversation, Pilar would show me how to cook Spanish dishes. We ate lunch – the main meal of the day – while we talked.
I told her about my time so far in the country; how I had got used to the supermarket aisles. The tomato aisle, the tuna aisle, the legumes aisle, the olive oil aisle and fresh and cured produce. I watched Pilar do most of the cooking on the stove top with a handful of ingredients, and asked, “Is that it?”. She explained that the basis of Spanish cuisine was to keep flavours simple. Let foods speak for themselves. The lack of choice didn’t inhibit good eating; you had to learn to enjoy the subtleties within each staple. This might be a hangover from rations during the civil war, but I thought it encapsulated the Spanish character well.
During the colder months, Pilar and I spent lunch with heavy blankets on our laps. Pilar eschewed the traditional brasero de mesa – a heater put underneath the dining table. She laughed and said that it was a silly invention: your legs burned and you caught a cold through your back. Though, when a Spaniard laughs at their own traditions, it’s as if they have a rapier at your throat daring you to laugh with them. “What about it?” they might say, eyes narrowing to size you up. “This is all we have. Laugh and freeze. Laugh, and you choose to starve.” It was thus I took great care to start listening to what the food had to say.