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.
I HEAR YOU ARE IN SPAIN AND IN NEED OF A PROJECT. CONTACT THIS MAN. HE OWES ME A FAVOR AND MIGHT GET YOU INSIDE THE WORLD’S BEST KEPT SECRET- AS FAR AS CHEESE GOES.
Karl was house-bound. His sweet tooth had gotten the better of him. He was powerless before figs. Fig anything. In his slimmer days he had helped a young Spaniard determined to make his mark on New York. Luis did better than many in the U.S. but quickly grew homesick and subsequently found a good niche as a gastronomic tour guide in his native country. I met him later that day. He is a mannered and classically handsome man- like Edmundo Haro or Peter Billingsworth from To Give and to Get. I could sense both his reluctance and his loyalty to Karl. Apparently Karl convinced him that I was owed some kind of a life-debt for my acquisition of the Dulcita de Paniagua and Luis agreed to take me to Costaria, his ancestral home. He told me the tour would be a taste of two related and completely different soups. I could see his concern for our mutual friend. When I explained that he had passed the half-ton mark, Luis muttered some kind of benediction. On the television behind him I saw a clip of Spanish tanks rolling in formation.
“This is called the River of Life,” he tells me as the Inxeuno parade begins in earnest. The children walk past carrying oaken buckets overflowing with fresh milk from goats, sheep, cows and the endangered local ungulate, the Xopaco. I ask him if they mind that so much was being spilled into the cobblestones. He tells me it is part of the custom. The Martyrs’ Share. As the children wind through the streets, the spectators snap their fingers and make an odd smacking/clucking sound with their lips. It sounds and looks like an admonishment. I lean in to ask my guide why they’re making such an ungodly sound. Before I can speak the cheese procession starts. Some are the size of cantaloupe. Some are bigger than basketballs and others larger than beach balls. A few were bigger than my Nana’s credenza. Alone and in crews the able-bodied men of the town walk past on the now-slick streets bearing aloft chunks of Caprecarnales cheese wrapped in the bluish leaves of Cetaga cabbage.
“Ahora,” the crowd shouts. “Ahora, mesto!” Now, in Costarian. Now, dammit!
“Aspera on minucho! Ya vamos! Esche es porcho poseyado!” the men grunt over and over- and over each other. Hang on a minute. We’re coming. This is a bit heavy.
So goes the cheese parade in blocks and wheels. A dozen men shuffle past with a chunk the size of my car. I ask Luis why all the yelling. He tells me it’s the way it’s always been. In between his translation of the hollering between the cheese-bearers and the spectators, Luis weaves a yarn about the nagging mother of San Andreas. She once made him late for battle because she demanded he fix a doorknob.
The crowd roars: Don’t drop the cheese!
The men growl: We won’t if you’d be quiet for ten seconds!
The crowd shrieks: You’re not doing it right!
The men sputter: This isn’t as easy as it looks!
The aroma of the cheese is already making my head spin. I feel like I’m swimming in a pool of sour milk, mold and unwashed feet. I ask Luis if the crowd wants to see them drop the cheese. Yes and no, he tells me. The spectacle of the cheese shattering in the street is the stuff of big fish stories, the size of the block growing with each telling. Those who drop the cheese used to be executed. Then banished. Now they are forced to wield a shovel in the stables until the next festival.
Crowd: Why are you moving so slowly?!
Men: You could help us and clean up some of this damn milk!
Amazingly, even after the penalties of death and banishment were removed, men will sacrifice themselves to save the cheese. So long as the cheese doesn’t touch the ground it remains pure. Many teeth have been chipped and ankles rolled. When the cheese weighs more than Karl Jabbar, the greatest price is paid. Fully two dozen names are listed on the doors of the church. Men who literally laid down their lives to save the precious Caprecarnales. Twenty four men who died for the sake of a custom. I ask Luis if, despite the honor and the tradition and the bravado, these men died simply for cheese.
“Yes,” says Luis. “But wait till you taste it.”
Bringing up the rear of the River of Life were the seniors, struggling to maneuver an ornate shrine of the Saint down the street. I ask if they ever drop Andreas.
“Happens all the time,” he says. “He is accustomed to it.”
And if one of the seniors dies trying to catch him?
“That happens all the time too. Mostly heart attacks, though.”
Watching these elderly Spaniards shuffling along, panged expressions and wheezing breath, I couldn’t help but imagine their funeral processions following the same route after such an ordeal. I thought for a moment about asking why the old folks had to bear such a burden, or why the shrine has to be so heavy. Why did the statue inside need to be life-size. I assumed I already knew the answer: This is how it has always been done.
The shrine approaches, and the sidewalks erupt in a flurry of Signs of the Cross. Medallions are kissed, knees are bent, and the sky is repeatedly stared and pointed at. As the shrine passes and villagers pin money to it, a more pressing question arises.
“Why is his right arm so long?”
San Andreas Cortu y Engrudado de Costaria y La Mancha has a resume longer than either his name or his right arm. He is described in legend and song as a shepherd, a fisherman, a prince, a king, a poet, a philosopher, an animal husbandman and a cheesemonger. He is, of course, best remembered through questionable sources as the warrior who turned the tide of the Muslim conquest of Spain and kick-started its reclamation for Christendom. The Reconquista. For his efforts, and thanks to some jazzy miracles, he was sainted in 1493. His shadow runs the length of the Iberian Peninsula and looms largest in the north. He’s like a blend of King Arthur, Davy Crockett and Saint Paul with a frothy dollop of guardian angel for good measure. People here are as likely to read their children a bed-time story of his adventures as they are to invoke his name in a desperate search for car keys. His story- with parts emphasized, tweaked or entirely omitted depending on where you hear it- is the legendary cornerstone of Spanish culture. His story is also the source of my two soups.
As the story tends to go, Andreas was the eldest son of the king of a long-defunct country called Golouches in the extreme north of Spain. He was born in 695 CE, and over fifty cities, towns and villages claim to be the place. His father may have instead been a cavalry commander or an Olgocil- a sort of enforcer in the proto-feudal system who was tasked with chopping off the ears of tax-dodgers. The elder Cortu had more names than can fit into this article so I’ll henceforth refer to him as Andreas’ Dad. When the Moors arrived, Andreas’ Dad met them in battle, but fell while valiantly fighting an immeasurable horde. The family, including a very young Andreas, retreated into the Picos de Fe where they evade capture, conversion, slavery, and whatever else the invaders had in mind.
Young Andreas becomes a shepherd, spending his days singing poems and napping. In a dream he is visited by angels who show him the cave where he will make Caprecarnales. So they say in Inxenuo. In Aborredo and elsewhere on the coast, they say the angels instructed Andreas to go to the sea to retrieve his father’s sword. Whatever directions the angels offered the young shepherd, they informed him he was chosen by God to drive back the Muslim horde. The angels teach the young man in his sleep. How to fight. How to fish. How to separate curds from whey. In one version of the tale, a scouting party of Moors comes upon the cave. Andreas has seen them coming and hides inside. A spider quickly builds a web across the mouth of the cave. Deathly afraid of spiders, Andreas starts shrieking wildly. The scouts, hearing the ungodly screams and smelling the bold perfume of a blue cheese cave retreat in fear, assuming the cave is haunted by some terrible mountain spirit.
Andreas makes his way north to get his father’s sword and assume his father’s crown. Or to retrieve the refugees and bring them back to the mountains. The tales all agree that he brings his cheese with him in a sack along with a goat bladder full of wine vinegar and three eggs. Riding his faithful lamb, Bequeño, the savior of Spain slowly maneuvers down the mountain passes to the ocean. When he reaches Aborredo, he is mocked for riding a lamb. He walks to the beach and touches the ocean with his vinegar bladder. The sea recedes from him and reveals his father’s sword, Salteao, in the surf. The villagers fall to their knees and strange crustaceans called glass crabs poked their heads out of the mud to see God’s chosen warrior.
“Hie aque- al quortero si hi combertido an unt leon.”
Behold- the lamb has become a lion.
The people cheer. Andreas proceeds to slaughter and cook Bequeño. At this point in the story, a character named Josue appears and anachronistically offers Andreas some potatoes. Josue is chosen as first Lieutenant and the two men start planning the Reconquista drawing in the sand and eating Lamb and potato soup. However, so many men volunteer to join his army, Andreas must gather up all of the glass crabs and cook them to feed his troops. A hearty tomato both- if we are to accept potatoes in 8th century Spain, why not? - is fortified with fish, herbs, and the sweet and oddly fleshy glass crab antennae. Mounting a flock of sheep, the now-satisfied men ride off into the Picos to reclaim the country for Christendom.
In the mountain villages like Inxeuno some discrepancies arise. The sword was given to Andreas in the mountains and the miracle of the sea receding before him occurs when he touches the ocean with Salteao, not with the vinegar bladder. The miracle is meant to demonstrate his divine mission, not to impress crabs. Once the army is raised, they march on foot, with the exception of our lamb-mounted hero. When the hungry army reaches Andreas’ cheese cave, he makes a soup of Caprecarnales, potatoes and Bequeño. Full of stinky cheese, the warriors start the Reconquista. Early on the fighting is limited to guerilla raids. Eventually, Andreas- now riding his second lamb, Seconto- and his band of Alegreños draw the attention of the Umayyad Caliphate and an army is sent to the Picos to wipe them out. Andreas is instructed by the angels to meet the approaching army in Xaxu Gorge. So begins La Batalla de la Larga Santo Brazo. The Battle of the Long Holy Arm.
The fighting began slowly. The Moors almost lost before it got started. They were laughing so hard at the sight of a general riding a lamb they could barely swing a sword or launch a volley. The Muslims recover and nearly win the day. Andreas holds Salteao aloft and begs God to help him in his hour of desperate need. The Holy Spirit reaches down from the clouds and stretches out Andreas’ arm so that he may smite the horde which he does in the name of Jesus Christ. Having been touched by the hand of God, the arm remains unnaturally long; this helps in future battles. It also becomes his calling card and according to some, helps him pick the finest apples for making cider.
In some stories, Andreas is crowned King of Costaria and establishes a court at Gauli. In others he remains a warrior-prince, fighting until his death. All of the traditions agree he created a crescent-shaped territory of Christian Spain that ran from Galicia to Catalonia that lasted until its partitioning between Leon and Navarre in the Tenth Century. His son, Peitro, rules after his death. There isn’t a shred of agreement in these tales as to where, when, how, or if he died. It is told that he was betrayed by his lieutenant, Josue, precipitating his only loss in battle. Some say he died valiantly, like his father. Others say he was dragged to safety by his son. In the mountains they say he rests in a cave, wrapped in cabbage leaves, awaiting his crown so he can restore the kingdom. On the coast they say he sails against the wind to an island where he sleeps until God sends him back to fight again.
In the years since, he is beatified and canonized by the Catholic Church; the miracles attributed to him ranging from the mundane (rain) to the outrageous (the moon falling onto a mosque) though most involve arms in one way or another. He is the Patron Saint of Spain, of poets and warriors, of shepherds and fishermen. And soup. I doubt many 21st century Spaniards believe he is truly coming back, but his intervention is the stuff of modern prayers and his influence is at the core of many spiritual and political beliefs.