The pleasures of traveling include exposure to new foods, drinks, and customs. I had some exceptional opportunities in tiny La Alberca, Spain, and jumped at them. For example, one evening, we went to a celebration involving the making of a specialty drink made in Galicia, an autonomous region in the northwest of Spain that maintains its own language and traditions.
In Galicia, locals have been making orujo, an artisanal clear brandy, since the 16th century. They call it aguardiente or firewater (for good reason). It’s made by distilling the remains of pressed grapes, seeds and stems left over from making wine. Using a copper still, they create the alcoholic drink that is 50% or 100 proof and sometimes way higher, especially the ojuro from secret family recipes.
Orujo is similar to grappa in Italy, a drink that curled my hair and toes when I tried it in Venice a couple years ago.
So I was a bit leery about drinking this local version. Luckily, one does not have to drink ojuro straight. From this clear alcohol, Galicians make a drink called queimada. They mix the alcohol with sugar, lemon, coffee beans, cinnamon stick and perhaps some fruit, and set it afire to burn off a bit of the alcohol. The process I witnessed took about 15 minutes, with continual stirring in a large pot (traditionally the pot is clay or a hollow pumpkin). It is important to lift the flaming liquid with a ladle and let it fall back into the pot at some distance, flaming all the way. This is best seen at night with the lights off.
As if making the queimada wasn’t enough ceremony, the tradition includes reciting an incantation so that the brew bestows special powers on the drinkers to keep away witches who might harm them. In a novel twist on this Galician tradition, we conjured the witches – so much more fun. Note that scholars differ on the origin of the connection of making queimada with the incantation. Some say it goes back to Galician Celtic roots; other far less romantic scholars, claim it originated in the 1950s.
Of course the La Alberca experience was not all drinking. There was plenty of eating as well, and nothing better than the famous Iberian ham, or jamón ibérico, from the local black pigs. This ham is like no other, and I was determined to buy some. My compatriots said, “Don’t wait; buy it here, because the pigs are raised in this region.” During our group tour of La Alberca, I found a butcher shop. The ceiling was full of legs from the famous black Iberian pig, each with a little plastic cone at the bottom to catch any liquid still discharging from the curing ham.
But I can’t speak Spanish, so I took one of my new friends with me and he kindly translated. One of the legs was set up in the holder made especially for this, a jamonero. Apparently, cutting this ham is an art, where an expert can obtain seven different flavors, just by the cut. The butcher told Jose that it costs 79€/kilo, about $38/lb. I requested a quarter kilo. He nodded, but must finish his current task first. Everything in its own time. On a large butcher block, he chopped through pork ribs with a cleaver, a satisfying rhythmic smack, smack, smack filling the little shop. A local homemaker rushed in, and he paused long enough to hand her a prearranged package full of different cuts of meat wrapped in paper.
Finally he moved to the jamonero, and began the task of cutting the leg. I can have it wrapped in paper if I plan to eat it now. But I requested it to be vacuum packed, so that I can share it with my daughter later in this trip. He handed me a piece for tasting. It’s like no ham I have had.
Historians believe that the Phoenicians brought the first pigs to the Iberian Peninsula. Once here, the pigs interbred with wild boars, thus their color. The distinctive taste of the Iberian ham comes from the pig’s diet of acorns. They are rated based on the percentage of their diet that is acorns and whether they are pure-bred black pigs. To obtain a good rating, the pig must eat at least 50% acorns, up to 100%. One sees large grassy pastures of carefully spaced Holm oak trees in the countryside around La Alberca where they eat. It takes about a hectare (2.5 acres) of pasture to raise one pig. Whole legs can cost €200 to €2000 and more.
While the butcher arranged the ham slices on the foiled cardboard, I looked at the other products in his chilled cases. I decided to purchase a hard cheese made from sheep, something I’d not yet tried. Sheep cheese is very common in Spain. Tasting it later, I found it to be pungent and very good, somewhat like the goat cheese I buy at the Hāmākua Harvest Farmers Market back home.
We rejoined our group and walk to one of the ancient tapas bars in town, with its medieval Spanish bar customs. An expert ham slicer carved one of the specialty Iberian hams for us to taste. Done properly, you can see through the slice, as with his. After ample plates made their way around the group, he offered to show us how to cut the ham and I volunteered. The expert guided my cutting hand, but even with his help, I could not see through my slice (oh well, more to eat!).
Then they offered a bota drinking demo with a chance to try it. The bota is a leather bag for wine. I learned about this tradition among peasants and sports fans in the novels I read to prepare for this trip. They pass the bag around, so it’s not polite to put your lips on the neck. The idea is to squirt the wine directly into your mouth. The further away from your mouth you hold the bag, the more expert you look. Of course, the experts don’t wear towels to protect their clothing.
As for other food, if you find yourself in Spain, you must also try paella, the famous rice dish. While paella may seem to be the national dish of Spain, it is actually a regional dish from Valencia. None-the-less, it is on the menu in many places. I had it several times and plan to continue sampling, though the prettiest so far is the dish for two I shared with my daughter in Barcelona.
I can also say I loved every soup I’ve had so far in Spain, about 15 varieties. The one pictured is Spanish onion soup, far heartier and thicker than the brothy French version. Sometimes the chef drizzles olive oil on it – yum. And I haven’t even tried the gazpacho yet!
I thank Julian Trinchet Romero, for his permission to publish his photos.
For information on how to visit this region of Spain with free lodging and meals, see Free room and board in Spain for a week with Diverbo.
For more insights on La Alberca, see In love with rural Spain – the village of La Alberca.
For the rest of my adventure in Spain, see:
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