Monday, 25 July 2011

Pilgrims dinner

I should write something celebratory here in honour of St. James. The 25th July is his Feast!! 

By all accounts I should be posting a delicious recipe to celebrate. Instead, I want to tell a story. Walking the camino changed the way I look at many things: distances, people, hospitality, effort, pain, reward. I measure distances in the number of days it would take to walk, if is less than a week away, it is not far. I never worry about how long a stroll it is into town, or to the pub or whatever other place I might be headed. I am a people watcher, and love to find quiet corners from which to watch them go on their way: buen camino. There are people whose names I do not know who gave me food and shelter when I most needed it, I will be grateful to them for as long as I live, and I feel I owe others the same - always. Everything is always worth the effort. Often, the more effort it is worth, the more valuable it is. The key thing is to keep going. Pain on the camino shifts about a bit. At first, when you get a pain in your leg, foot, back, head, stomach or whatever, you cannot think about anything else. It absorbs you. When others come along and ask you how you are, the only thing you can say is, 'I have a pain'. Then, some other part of you will begin to ache, and you forget the first pain to think of the next. Eventually, you learn not to think about your aches, but to look out and think of others - to help them soak their feet, bandage their blisters, ease the tension in their back. When that happens, pain begins to go away.  Moments of arrival, when you learn things like that, the kindness of others, the cool of the shade, warm water, hot food, laughter and friendship - these are the rewards of the camino, and they keep coming long after you stop walking.

Anyhow, that story. The first day I arrived in Galicia in 2003 I had a most memorable food experience. I arrived in a small village. There was a cattle market on. The beasts were black and beautiful. The men selling them looked like Kerry men to my eyes, they were small, sunburnt, with caps pulled low over their twinkling blue eyes. They hollered and joked, and shouted prices for their cattle. Clearly, women were a novelty. I went and sat on a wooden bench at a table near where the cattle were being kept. The cows big, black, wet noses poked curiously through a makeshift metal barrier to give me a sniff. A man with a most enormous beer belly approached me and asked me if I would like to eat. I asked what their was. He said: 'Pulpo'. I had never eaten octopus before, and was not that keen on dinner prepared in the cattle market, but you take your chances on the camino. I agreed that I would like to eat. The man went away. When he returned he had a earthenware jug and cup, he poured me a large cup of red wine and left the jug. Then he came back with a loaf of bread held in one great fat hand, and a cleaver in the other: 'Do you want half of this, or the whole?' 'Half, please,' I answered timidly. He put the loaf on the table and chopped it in two with one swoop. There was a mark on the table where his cleaver fell. I looked over to where the octopus was being prepared. There were two big cauldrons over open fires. A short woman with the most enormous breasts was stirring the pot. She had some steps so as she could look into the pots. She looked as though she might topple over at any given moment. In a barrel to the side she had the poor creatures soon to be supper. There was a magical mix of spices being thrown around: paprika, salt, pepper; olive oil a plenty. Dinner came on a round wooden breadboard. It looked 'adventurous', but once I tasted it I knew it was good. I throughly enjoyed my dinner, with my half loaf of bread, a carafe of deep red wine and some beautiful black cows looking on. Pulpo a la Gallega is the signature dish of Galicia, it turns out. I recommend it. After dinner the man with the big belly came and sat at my table. 'Do you like our food, chica?' He asked. 'Yes, very much. Thank you,' I replied. Then, for the first time, he smiled a big big smile. His wife came over and smiled too. And we all laughed while we struggled to make conversation.

Today though, I am not going to make anything special. This is not because I do not want to. I am on my own at the minute, and it is the end of the month. Simplicity is the order of the day, and I do not want to head off and buy fancy ingredients. I made some fabulous daal today, and have the flour to make bread tomorrow. That is going to see me through. James wouldn't mind. I am almost sure, fisherman though he may well have been, he never ate octopus. I am not sure they did that kind of thing near the Sea of Galilee. Simple food made well is life as good as it gets, so I will stick with what I have and be happy with that. After all, the day I ate octopus for the first time, though I thought it was 'exotic', it was simply what people had, and I was grateful for their hospitality.

Who was St. James anyhow? He was the brother of John and, like him, a fisherman. He was one of the witnesses of the Transfiguration, of the raising of Lazarus and one of those who slept in the Garden of Gethsemane - full of wine, after dinner. He was one of the first apostles to be martyred, beheaded by King Herod Agrippa to appease enemies of Christianity. He was buried in Jerusalem, and nothing more is known about him until the ninth century.

The relics of St. James were brought to Spain some time after his martyrdom, perhaps as late as 830CE, and his shrine in Galicia grew until is became the greatest pilgrimage centre in Western Europe. Almost every place I have ever been to has had a Church or street dedicated to St. James, vestiges of ancient pilgrimage routes. In England these routes led to the major ports, often via Canterbury. The Middle Ages were not a static, stay at home time. Everyone must have known someone who had made the pilgrimage. Pilgrims wore the scallop shell as a mark of their destination. Today it is a symbol of pilgrimage more generally, and I have seen it worn in Lourdes, Rome and Walsingham. I always want to ask, 'have you been to Santiago?', but never dare. 1987 saw the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela declared of 'international importance', and work has been going on since to ensure the paths are kept and refugios equipped to offer hospitality to those who undertake the journey today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hola Amiga,

Recuerdo muy bien esa cena que comemos juntas! Mirando las vacas y los sonidos y los olores - una escena que nunca he olvidado y me alegra mucho que te recuerdes tambien. Triacastela fue el nombre del pueblo, recuerdas?

Bueno chica, una abrazo fuerte y Recuerde te: - Amor, donde estas?
Estoy aqui
Soy aqui