Friday, 24 May 2013

International Man of Mystery (+ nuns)

The moon is still a few days from full, but the Camino Characters are rolling in.

Paddy is looking at art in Barcelona for a few days. I am on my own out here on the perimeter. I am listening to old CDs and gardening, and seeing what pilgrims filter through.

The camino heaves with pilgrims. The Moratinos albergue and hostel are full. Peaceable is listed now as a Place of Christian Welcome, so I was not surprised today when two young nuns arrived, sisters from an obscure order someplace in France, or maybe French Canada. Something immaculate.

Now over the woodstove their immaculate linen hangs, scrubbed free of all human stain in the big sink out back.

We did not communicate well, but the sisters were done-in and dehydrated. I offered water and gazpacho and cheese, bread and fruit and eggs. I bandaged and massaged and insisted on a bit of watered wine, for anaesthesia. They were wise and did not resist. No meat at dinner, in case it's a fast day. One of them, Therese, knew all the words to Elvis Costello's "Allison," she sang along. That song means a lot to her, she said, that and ''Every Day I Write the Book.''

It's been years since Therese heard that music. Therese has a beautiful voice, she sang with tears in her voice (Maria Alacoque was doing their laundry.) The camino does that to you, out here  on the plains, it brings back things.

Therese kissed me twice good night. God keep her.

The nuns were asleep by 9 p.m. They will sneak out at sun-up. I will not see them again.

Religious are wonderful that way, utterly flexible and sensible and sleepy after 31 km of sun and exertion -- adjusting themselves to my convenience. I love nuns and monks. They love me back. We all will meet someday in heaven.

Nuns often sing before they sleep. These ones sang a blessing over their dinner, and blessed Murphy and Moe and Rosie and Tim, and even laid-on their four hands and sang over me. I dig this in a deep sort of way. It is worth far more than rubies. Or even Euros.

I am happy the sisters are here, even though they are asleep.
Because at 9:15 came Luis Manuel, an International Man of Mystery. (If I did not have women sleeping here already, I would have fed him, but turned him away for a bed. The neighbours will talk, you know.)

Luis Manuel says he is a pilgrim, but he looks much too fine for the role. He arrived at sunset, well after any pilgrim ought to. His pack is small. His shoes are high-end Nike trainers, his Adidas sweatpants are pressed and clean, free of any trace of sweat or dirt. He smells not just OK, but good. I suspect an Audi lurks someplace down Calle Ontanon.

Luis Manuel did not want any dinner. He waved away the water pitcher. Matter of fact, he brought drink. He brought a bottle of Vega Siciliana Reserva. Very, very good wine.

He said this bottle is a gift. He carried it for us all the way down the camino from Logrono, La Rioja, from my good friend Miguel Angel from the PSOE.

The PSOE is the Socialist party, now out of power. I was gracious, but puzzled. I am not allied with any politicos. I corresponded briefly with Miguel Angel Moratinos, the PSOE foreign minister two elections back, when the Socialists were in power in Spain. I invited him over for dinner and he said he'd love to...

But these days, the only socialist Miguel Angel I know is from Mexico. He lives in Paris, poor as a church-mouse, well out of range of the PSOE and Vega Siciliana. When I go to Paris, me and Miguel Angel treat ourselves to oysters and Mosel wine, but... my Miguel Angel is a classical Freudian psychiatric analyst. He is not a politician.

And Vega Sicilina wine is not from La Rioja. It is from Ribera del Duero, almost local, from south of here. Luis Manuel's story does not quite add up.

But like many suspects, Luis Miguel was happy enough to share a glass or two with me. I decided that Paul Simon music would go well with my home-made whole-wheat bread and the ewe-milk cheese from Melgar de Arriba... and apples from this morning's market in Carrion de los Condes. I knew the wine was going to be memorable. I set it up perfectly, if I say so myself. This was an opportunity. I wished Paddy was here to enjoy it too.

Luis Manuel speaks Spanish beautifully, without any regional accent I can hear. He only corrected my most egregious mistakes. Tim Dog liked him, so he cannot be too bad. (but dogs are notoriously bad judges or character, I find... Sausages are given much too much moral weight.)

When the fine, fine wine was gone, I asked Luis Manuel if he minded moving on to Rioja wine. He answered with an inclination of his head and a subtle tip of his wine glass, not letting on that I had let-on to his wine's origin. I told him our Rioja is rough, common stuff, with my husband away I have not been today to the bodega. Nothing like the nectar he'd provided. He said he could not distinguish any difference between wines, he was not "cultivated."

I assured him he would notice, and right away.

And so I took the decanter down to the little kitchen by the front door and filled it up with Faustino Garcia Marquez. Cosecha.

And at the first pour, Luis Manuel was blown away. He sniffed and rolled it round his glass, he wrote down its name on his electronic notepad, he knocked down three glasses to my one. I did not tell him I'd decanted it from a plastic bag inside a cardboard box. Faustino Garcia Marquez is on special offer at the feed-store. It is extraordinarily good, yes. And you can buy 6 liters of the stuff for 11 Euro.

Luis Manuel then offered a pointed analysis of Spanish socio-economic policy. He sniffed and expanded on the benefits of immigration and the effects of foreign investment on the arts in Spain. He even extolled the influence of French nuns on his life in years past.

By 11 p.m. he took himself off to bed after a moving (but subdued, for the sake of the Good Sisters) version of "Mother and Child Reunion."

I sat up late with the mystery. Who is the Miguel Angel is who sent the fine wine? Whoever it is, I am deeply grateful to him. I would never have otherwise tasted Vega Siciliana. And never in my own home, the finest place in the world to taste good wine.

Who is this Luis Manuel Peregrino, snoring now in the blue bedroom? What is he about?

I will likely never know. He brought me a gift, and helped me enjoy it. I will leave it at that.

It is lovely here. The clothesline loaded with the linen of French nuns, and Tim twitching in his sleep by the wood-stove, which is still going halfway through May.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Isidro Comes Alive!

(I took a nice photo to put here. Blogger does not allow me to post it. I do not know why.) 

Yet again it´s San Isidro day, and yet again the entire village carried our San Isidro statue out to the fields for an annual blessing. José says the crops are coming along beautifully, despite unseasonably cold nights -- the long days of rain have trumped the cold, if you don´t count all the fruit crops lost when the blossoms froze.

San Isidro is a tough cookie. You gotta be tough, if you are the patron saint of people as hard-to-please as farmers, laborers, and Madrileños! Our statue makes him look pretty girly, but during his life he got his jobs done and fed the poor and made it to church every day as well... and he was married to a saint, too! He had an angelic work crew helping out, but hey...  sainthood´s got to have some benefits.

But in Moratinos, after the blessing and an ExpressMass (Don Santiago had five such Masses and crop-blessings today) we all had a big get-together in the ayuntamiento, with olives and bread, cold cuts, German weisswurst sausage and sweet mustard from Martina and Daniel, pizzas from Albergue San Bruno, as well as the usual hot tortillas españoles for the not-quite-so-international palates that abound around here. Several lucky pilgrims got their fill, too, and at least three decided to stay at Bruno´s to soak up even more local color. This is Nestor, one of the French pilgrims. He volunteered to mow all the grass in the prado.
(Blogger will not allow me to upload Nestor´s picture. Suffice to say he is a genial donkey. I will add his photo when I can.)
This celebration happens every year, and every year I think it gets more collegial and merry -- even though few of us are professional farmers any more.
(A picture of happy people round the table should go here.)
And at the end of the day, whilst showing some pilgrims round the bodegas, my faith in San Isidro was called into question. "Cover your garden beds, bring in your budding flowers," Milagros warned me. "The TV´s posted a four-snowflake yellow frost alert for overnight!"
So out come the feed bags and fleece and milk cartons cut in half... Jeez. Bring in the donkey from the field...  It´s time to get on the stick, Sid.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Voice calls "Reb!"

"Reb," comes The Voice from downstairs.

Paddy's voice, calm but hard on the edge. In that tone that says something is really wrong. That tone that takes me from 7:30 a.m. doze to wide awake in half a second.
I get there, and it's bloody. Blood on the tea-towel, blood on his hands, blood in the sink. He's cut himself, cutting bread for his breakfast -- the reason why sliced bread is supposed to be so great is there's not so much blood involved in breakfast.
The cut is not so bad, really. It only needs a pressure bandage to stop bleeding, and those require two hands. A person can't apply one of those to himself, Paddy explains. Otherwise, he never would have wakened me.
("I never ever wake up a woman," he says, ad nauseum. "They are no trouble when they are asleep." And he is serious about that. Can't tell you how many times I've overslept, outslept an alarm even, because he will not wake me up.)

When I heard That Voice, I knew. Thank God I hear it rarely, and even less on weekends. When accidents or illnesses happen on weekends, we are well and truly up the creek, especially when there are animals involved. There is no emergency veterinarian within 50 kilometers. The nearest open pharmacy is nine kilometers from here, the nearest medical help 13 kilometers. And Paddy does not drive cars any more.

I am extra careful now when I climb ladders. I ask for help a lot more than I ever did before. I cannot afford to be injured.

We keep many animals, so the two of us rarely go anywhere together for any length of time. When we do go away, there's always a nagging worry that someone will chuck a wobbler and the house-sitter won't know what to do. And

When I go away on my own and Paddy stays home alone, I worry even more. I never know what Paddy's going to get up to when I am not around. Or the dogs. Not to mention the ^%%$ cats.

Today we walked the dogs together, seeing as Paddy was one-handed. We discussed my upcoming two-week odyssey in Portugal, who is coming to help out here, what jobs need to be done. We walked down to the labyrinth and picked up a load of litter. Lulu the greyhound leapt through the high green grain, showing off for the many pilgrims. She is spectacular, a picture of grace and speed, loving and silly and dumb as a box of rocks.

Back at the Peaceable a Canadian-Ukrainian pilgrim came for a chat. I planted-out courgettes and zinnias and yellow wax beans, assembled two lawn chairs and a little table, made a lasagna for dinner. Paddy was out on the patio, pottering around with paint. Bob sang along to the Vienna Philharmonic.  

I grated cheese, careful to keep my fingers out of the blades. I tore lettuce leaves, lovely lettuce from out back.

And That Voice came from out on the patio, over the Beethoven. Again. "Reb. Reb!"

I dropped the cheese and ran outside, and Paddy was kneeling beside the dining table. Lulu was underneath, pitching her head back, arching her spine, kicking her legs in a bizarre parody of her perfect run. Her eyes were wide and staring, her mouth drooling, her teeth clenched. She was having a seizure.

I got myself under there, and Paddy and I put our arms under Lulu's pointy head, so she would not smash it so hard against the tiles. I spoke quietly to her, calmly, trying not to let the horror slip into my voice. I stroked her neck, and after a few seconds she seemed to calm a little. Her heart was racing, she breathed so fast... I slowed  my breath, I slowed my words, I cradled her snout in my hands and tried to give her peace.

She was dying, I thought. I told Paddy that. A stroke. A heart attack. Poisoned, maybe. She might die, Pad. Get water, I said, and water arrived. She was not interested. She stared into my eyes, but she was not seeing me. "Lulu. Lulu. Quiet now. Breathe with me," I told her.

And she did. Slowly, eventually, she rolled up onto her haunches and came back to where we were. She lapped some water from my hands, she licked Paddy's fingers. She shook. For a moment it seemed like we were losing her again, but after a deep breath she was okay. I told her that. I told Paddy that, and I tell myself. It's over now. We all are still alive.

No veterinarian until Monday. The online vet advice says there's not a lot a vet can do anyway. We will just watch her, and see.

She is back to herself again now, maybe a little embarrassed. She ate all her dinner, and kicked Harry off her end of the sofa in the barn.

Pad and I, we keep looking at one another, wondering if this is a one-off, or do we have an epileptic dog? There is no cure for epilepsy, and the only real treatment available for dogs is heavy tranquilizers. That would erase the very thing that makes Lulu what she is -- mad joy.

The day is beautiful and productive, everything that is green is suddenly lush. Bob sings, the swallows swoop, the little grackle-bird chuckles and waves his wings from atop the internet aerial. We have turned down the philharmonic, though. Just in case. It's not as if we could hear Lulu having another fit out in the barn.

But if That Voice calls "Reb!" again, I've gotta hear it.  

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Tamales are not lonesome food

You´re supposed to make tamales with a bunch of other people, with music and beer and good cheer. It is party food, tamales, or so all the recipe websites tell me. They wheeled out the tamale and taco and nachos recipes for Cinco de Mayo, a rather plastic sort of holiday along the lines of St. Patrick´s day, a nice excuse to drink adult beverages and eat strange food -- evidently always with smiling friends and family.

I am not Mexican, but I love real tamales. Today, I just happened to have all the ingredients -- a rare and wonderful event.

I made my tamales myself, alone in my kitchen. I had a glass of wine and jazz clarinet on the little stereo. I had delayed the project long as I could without risking food poisoning. Today was get-it-done day.  I pulled a block of patisserie shortening from the freezer, stuff I bought when we visited friends in Moissac, in France. (Shortening as we know it does not exist in these parts. They have lard, but when I eat lard I want to die.) The shortening package was dated 2009, but it had been frozen... I mixed some in with the very last of the Crisco shortening my mother brought when she visited three years ago. I added masa harina, the Mexican corn meal used in tamales, masa harina brought here in January from my trip to the USA. I used six cups, almost the entire package. To that I added the juices from a hunk of pork I slow-roasted on Saturday, mixed in with a bag of pumpkin and sesame seeds, a bay leaf, an ancho and a New Mexico pepper, a block of anatto -- all that contributed by Eric, our architect friend in northern California. He sends wonderful ethnic foodie gifts, and I think that came with last year´s great 50th birthday abundance. I used it all.

I mashed the dough together and added a handful of chipotle chili powder, brought four years ago from New Mexico by Elyn, the American lady who lived for a while in Sahagún.

I patted little handfuls of masa into corn husks I´d soaked overnight. Fred brought those over last summer from Green Bay, along with a gorgeous stack of fresh tortillas. I put a stripe of meat down the middle of the dough, then picked the husk up in my hand and folded it carefully over onto itself. I made a roll, and then folded one end over into a little package. I did that about 55 times, thinking all the while about all the people who bought and brought all these elements here, from places so far away. I thought about the Mexican grocery near my daughter´s place in DC, how the clerks there roll their eyes when I speak to them in Spanish. I thought about Eric, about the adobe mission churches in his part of the world, how Spanish, so far away. I wondered how Elyn is doing, now that Catalunya is trying to leave Spain and declare independence. The chili in the masa made my fingers sting. I took off my ring.

I thought about my son, who is now engaged. He and his sweetheart are both poor as church mice, living on student stipends as they study their way through law school. This week I sent him my old engagement ring, its almost-invisible diamond somehow appropriate to these lean times. I wonder if she will like it. I wonder if she will agree to wear it. I hope it brings them good luck. She is Pakistani-American. She cooks. She is routinely harassed by airport security agents for traveling with odd ingredients for her incendiary curries.
I thought about the first tamale I remember eating. It was at Mamasita´s, a hole-in-the-wall taqueria in Denver, Colorado. I was probably about 6 years old. I have never tasted another tamale as good as that one.

Back then, Mexican food was exotic and fabulous. Going out to a taqueria was a major event.
And here in Spain I have come full circle. If I don´t make my tamales from scratch in my own kitchen, I must seek out the ethnic corners of big cities, where immigrants live and cook. In Madrid, in the past year, I have feasted on tamales in Cuban and Peruvian cafés. Theirs are huge and piquant and elegantly wrapped, but they are not generous like mine are -- mine have plenty of meat inside, and red peppers. 

I eke out my rare ingredients, but this time, because supplies were low, I lashed out and just used them up.  Now I don´t have any more masa or salsa verde or tamale spices or shortening, but I have 50 tamales stashed in the big  freezer. And I have friends, people on their way -- if not next week, then next year. When I see corn husks someplace, I snap up a big bag and stash it in a cupboard, or I will pick up the fresh husks thrown on the ground at the produce market and take them home and try them out. When someone asks if they can bring me something from home, I say YES.

When I don´t have what I need, I sometimes improvise. Other times, I do without. But never for very long. Because I have friends, and my friends and family take care of my strange culinary desires. 

My tamales are not fingerprinted by friends and family. But I considered each one of them as I stirred-in each of the elements they´d provided, as I remembered and compared and tasted. And as my mind moved down the recipe, I blessed each one of them.

And so my friends dwell, in some way, in my dinner.
That may be why my tamales taste so amazingly good.