Excepted from The Travelologies of Harris Proctor
The Muslims never saw this- my guide Luis reminds me as we crest the northern ridge of the Picos de Fe, the mountain range running the length of Costaria in northern Spain. The Moors never laid eyes on the waves falling at the feet of the cliffs of Ninguona. At least that is one of the stories as familiar to Spanish schoolchildren as Pilgrims and Indians gathered around a roast turkey is to Americans. I must admit that I was ill-prepared. It really is one of those spots on the planet Earth that was designed by some higher power for postcards and prints. I hadn’t come for the sweeping vistas, though. I was on my way to my second peculiar bowl of soup in two days.
Here and there a surfer braves the frigid waters of the Bay of Biscay. The whitecaps are known as the Hands of the Holy Ghost because it was here that the tide of Islam was pushed back by the will of God. Like so many legends and symbols of the Reconquista it is a powerful image, and one under increasing assaults on its accuracy. It sure looks heavenly. We cross a bridge spanning the gorge of the river Xaxu and start to plummet to the coast on a cascade of switchbacks. Luis speeds us to the village of Aborredo with all the furious grace European driving can muster.
The village lies on the coast, west of the river’s mouth. Earlier in the day I was reading about the archaeological dig to the east. Moorish artifacts were being unearthed on the shore of this fiercely Catholic region. The gorge is where local and national lore says the warrior-saint Andreas Cortu repelled the invaders, keeping Costaria (and therefore Spain) from being completely Islamified. I certainly had never heard of this folk hero although most Americans are pretty familiar with the seismic fault line in California that bears his name. The stories about him are legion and I had spent the last day reading everything I could find. In my quest for culinary adventure I had come across a strange slice of history that has echoed through the centuries. Truth be told, I hadn’t come to this corner of Spain looking for soup either. I got here by mistake. By a big mistake.
I came to Spain to find an Italian villa at the behest of the producers of Ciao, America!, the flagship program of what became the runaway brand known as Enrico Puttano Jones. While I am certain there are precious few Italian villas in Spain, I remembered that Enrico started out as Ricky Jones and the show was first launched as Chow America!! Rumor has it that Ricky was tired of defending his partial Sicilian heritage and explaining that many Italians have red hair. If Reality T.V. is the reigning champ of oxymorons, then Enrico must be the challenger. I weighed the ethics of pretending the mountains of Spain were in fact the Tuscan hills, but a free trip to Spain is always a free trip to Spain so I took the assignment. I’d already been doing some writing and a bit of location scouting for the Dining Network. My friend and mentor, the incomparable gourmand Karl Jabbar, had gotten me in with the suits. I was told that Spain was Enrico’s idea. A scathing review of his fast-service operation in Times Square (Pata Dada) ran opposite a story about entire villages in Spain up for sale in the wake of the latest Euro panic.
It was a bald-faced attempt by Enrico to get the network to buy him a vacation home. Enrico would have a new show where a dozen cooks would compete to earn a spot on his other show. Most of the challenges on the new program would involve cleaning up a dilapidated village. I couldn’t care if the show worked or if Enrico saw a dime, I wanted to go to Europe and drink really nice wine and take naps. It was only after I landed in Madrid-Barajas that I was aware of the very public implosion going on with the network’s golden boy. It started with a text from the executive/show-runner/producer/whatever.
CALL ME NOW
I left a message. Two in the morning in New York, but I don’t think Ms. Caroline Dubonet sleeps. I was in a taxi when she called back. She didn’t dissect his infamous drunken tirade for me (she is far too tactful) but cautioned me to put the brakes on my activity. By the time I got to the hotel, the gossip site VVIPP had posted a video of Enrico from two years prior spewing the same nonsense. A cat nap and a shower later I started getting all kinds of messages from New York.
VVIPP HAS MORE AUDIO
ENRICO’S AGENCY HAS DECLINED TO COMMENT
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY WEIGHS IN ON THE RANT
ENRICO PUTTANO JONES CHECKS INTO TIJUANA REHAB CLINIC
MOSTABAMOULAS HAS DROPPED ENRICO AS NATIONAL AMBASSADOR FOR THE CITY-STATE OF GREEK YOGURT FRUITY PATOOTY POUCHES AND POPS
ENRICO’S AGENCY HAS DROPPED HIM
I was in a small café in the Plaza de los Santos Perdidos that I received the last word from Ms. Dubonet. She said the untitled Puttano Jones project was on hiatus for the foreseeable future. The network had paid for most everything in advance. I was free to use what was paid for. Apologies for inconveniences. Safe travels and so on.
Okay, I thought as I flagged the server for more wine. Now what?
We hit level ground with the rapid descent (and inner relief) of a jet touching down. From the narrow coastal road the incoming waves look downright Tsunamish. This is not the Spain I remember from my youthful days of hostels and hospidajes. No warm Mediterranean here, no dance club in sight. Luis does mention the revelry in the nearby college town, Gauli, is legendary. It’s hard to imagine civilization anywhere nearby. The place looks wild, inhabited by fairies and elves, not Spaniards. I would sooner expect to see a Viking longship cutting through the mist than a Caravel. I mention this thought to my guide and he laughs.
“Costaria is the real Spain. Spain’s heart. Spirit.” His English is slow but impeccable, one of twelve tongues he speaks including four dialects of Spanish. His grandfather was a native speaker of Costarian and part of the generation that resisted Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s efforts to homogenize the nation’s language. Still, it has been flagged by the ISLPO as one of the world’s dying languages. Despite participating in Academic preservation efforts, Luis doesn’t think the locals would let their tongue disappear. “Never,” he says. “Too much pride.”
We drive along the shore, my guide focused on ignoring the posted speed limit. The cliffs and sea rocks remind me of stretches of the Pacific Northwest I saw when I worked on the Roberson Project. This place is much more ancient. Older than humanity as we know it. The Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon were in the Picos millennia before the Bering Strait invited humankind to the New World. It was thought that they arrived in different eras, but the University of Gauli has been excavating several sites and uncovering ample evidence of conflict and interbreeding between them. The Phoenicians were leaving cuneiform graffiti here when the Athenians were tinkering with literacy. The Greeks were mining Costarian copper while Rome was knocking heads with the Etruscans. Celts and Visigoths, Christians and (it seems) even Moors made this place their home. Those who tried to conquer failed. The place is populated by the people who surrendered to the land.
Aborredo pops up like a cuckoo from around a bend. The natural harbor is shaped like a light bulb with buildings arranged like a corona radiating from the waterfront. Half the buildings look brand new, and half look older than the cliffs around us. I ask Luis why the harbor is empty. He says the return of the boats is the start of the festival. We drive the full length of the harbor. It is simple and beautiful, most of the structures modeled after the Gorrego, a local and ancient style of building that looks like a mash-up of an Irish cottage and a yurt. It is quiet. The businesses along the main drag are open and lit but appear empty. I can picture someone popping into the grocery for last minute supplies or perhaps a stiff drink- the local cider is crisp and very strong- before their relatives descend. The Fosto do Sang Andreas duo Aborredo (as it is spelled on the banner hanging across the hotel) is centered on family but seems to be surrendering some of its solemnity in exchange for merry-making. It remains an opportunity to gather with loved ones. A Thanksgiving with a seafood stew in lieu of turkey.
We park on the far side of town, east of the harbor. The lot is a bit of reclaimed land, and Luis explains that the sea could easily remove it, so it is used only for parking. Cars are seen as expendable here. We walk along the sea wall and I can see the lights of the approaching ships cut through the mist and waxing night.
“Soon the horn sounds,” says Luis. “The boats arrive one by one. A parade on the water.”
Gotcha. Who doesn’t love a parade?
Two days earlier, Luis and I are standing in front of a monastery in the mountain village of Inxeuno watching a parade of cheese. A parade of a specific kind of cheese, so rare I had never heard of it even after two years in the James Beasley Cold Tapas Program at Yale. It’s called Caprecarnales, a blue cheese pungent enough to repel an invasion. I had once sampled its better known cousin, Monte Azale, and been smitten by its unusual texture, tremendous acidity and notes of golden raisins. I had been standing in line in Madrid waiting to sample a gram of Jamon Iberico Riserva de Riservas when I received a message from Karl Jabbar.
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