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Andalusian Days(II): Blood, Fat, and Brains in a Traditional White Village

SPAIN | Wednesday, 15 June 2016 | Views [1107]

The white-washed villages of Andalucia, known as the pueblos blancos, can be glimpsed all over the coastline, some upon steep hills, some overlooking the sea. By the rocky peaks of the Sierra Tejeda range that lies between Granada and Malaga, with steep, dramatic cliff-faces on one side and the Mediterranean sea shimmering between two distant slopes on another, nestles one such village, named Canillas de Aceituno.

Canillas’ main square is a tiny slanted quadrangle with two cafes, the city hall, a pharmacy, a bank, and benches populated by grandpas of postcard aesthetic. A middle-aged man in a green polo and glasses waves to us clumsily. He introduces himself as Vincente Campos, forgetting to mention that he is the mayor. He seems relieved to learn that I can understand Spanish.

The old men stare with vague curiosity as we pass by. When I say “Buenos dias”, their faces shift slightly, as if awakened, and then comes a wave of nods and hoarse replies. Today, they prefer the benches down in the main square, where cameras and foreigners can be espied, to the beautiful ceramic benches installed on the overlook at the village’s highest point. It is here that the visibly proud mayor first brings us. The miniature Andalucian garden yields panoramic views over mountains and valleys of such dark, rich green that they seem draped over with moss colored velvet. Isolated white villas sit over layered terraces of olive and almond trees and shrubby vegetation of cactus, eucalyptus, and wild laurel. In the distance, a hazy sea rises skyward.

Mayor Vincente, as is soon apparent, knows everyone in the town. Every car that crawls through the narrow streets slows when passing by him, and he gives the hood an affectionate tap after exchanging rapid-fire greetings and handshakes with the drivers. “You actually know all two thousand residents here?”, I ask, and he smiles and nods. “Yes. Well, almost.” It would be very odd if a stranger who is not a tourist surfaces. At one point through our walk, a woman waves to him conspiratorially for a word, and I overhear her asking with concern who a dirty white van parked in that square belongs to. In a place like this, the apparition of an unknown car is a mystery to be solved.

The visit from our trio--foursome if you count Angelica, Julian’s drone that became somewhat of giant pet fly during the trip--does not cause the type of stir you would imagine, because the whole village seems to know who we are and our mission to sample Canillas’ culinary specialty--the chivo lechal, or suckling goat. The most authentic restaurant that oven-roasts chivo lechal--there are only three in the whole town--is La Sociedad, a tavernesque inn that used to be a gathering place for the town’s richest residents in the 1940s. The chivo is awaiting us there, already skinned, cleaned, and quartered in a metal pan. The preparation is extremely simple--with the guidance of a sous-chef, I pour a hefty dose of olive oil over the meat, then sprinkle on salt, pepper, chopped garlic and parsley, and a squeeze of lemon. That is all. The heavy pan is then deposited into a strange, enormous wood fire oven, where a central disk can be spinned around with a handle outside the oven as the chivo slow roasts with burning olive wood. As that process takes over two hours, we head back out with the mayor to wander around the village.

“Canillas is also famous for morcilla, from this place right here,” the mayor says as we pass by a tiny butcher’s shop where a short grandma is scrutinizing rows of sausages. He does not expect that I stop dead in our walk, and, voice quivering, ask: “Did you just say morcilla?” He did. I fear that he thinks I am merely dramatic in doling out niceties, and describe the gory details of my enamoration for that, deep, rich, overwhelming taste, the pungent afterthought of blood, the salt, the hint of spice… “Well!” he laughs, “Let’s have you try some here, then. The one here is made with nothing but onions, blood, and fat.” (No lady can wish for a more delicate combination to advertise their dainty taste, I tell you.)

“Good morning, good day!” the mayor cries out to the woman behind the counter.

“Mayor,” she replies, eyeing the camera with surprise, obviously not expecting that the butcher shop would be featured in the visit.

“Where’s malacara? We’re here to try something.”

“Malacara!” she yells. “He’s in the back. Try? What do you want to try?”

“For her, some blood sausage. Tell him to warm it up.”

“Do you hear me?” she yells again. “The mayor! He wants morcilla, warmed up! Come out here!”

Malacara finally emerges, wiping his hands on a bloody apron. His nickname, which roughly translates into “bad face”, may have been earned by his slightly crossed eyes. There is a picture of a baby on the wall, a tiny newborn holding an enormous link of raw sausages that he is attempting to stuff into his mouth.

Malacara slices up a cold, pasty morcilla and a sizzling one oozing hot red fat. I enter an altered state of consciousness while chewing on the soft onion and salty, dark flesh of the sausage. Perhaps moved by the sight of such sheer ecstasy, Malacara packs up four entire bags full of links of morcilla, freshly cured, fiery red chorizo, and tubs of blood sausage lard. One for each of the three visitors, and another for the mayor. We thank him profusely and lengthily as I, forgetting my manners, eat another six or seven slices of blood sausage on the plate Malacara set on the counter for tasting.

Croqueta with morcilla (blood sausage) from the local butcher's at La Sociedad

The mayor herds us around a renovated old lavatory where town women came to wash clothes (“the original Facebook/gossip mill”, comments Trini), onto hidden overlooks, then through narrow staircases snaking past whitewashed walls. Elected on the ticket of the Partido Popular, he has been working hard to redress the EU 3 million debt accumulated by the past mayoral administration, and has been investing in projects such as playgrounds, football fields, and revamped miradors. “I ran for mayor because my friends and I--we did not agree with how things were being done at the village. So we put together a campaign and I won, because this is a very small town.” We walk past billowing sheets drying against a vast vista of green valleys. Out of nowhere, he says: “the future of this town--it’s tourism. There’s no other way.” He explains that after a popular Danish singer and his partner bought a house in a town and composed many songs in Canillas, more and more Danes have been purchasing second homes in the quaint village, and some villas are rented out for rural vacations. But economic livelihood would require more of an influx, and for now many homes in the town center sit empty after their elderly residents passed away. These homes are easy to detect, as they are the only ones without lush baskets of flowers exploding from balconies and windowsills.

A nearly empty bus carries a handful of villagers back from Malaga, where residents go to attend formal business. The trip is an hour each way. Canillas is remote, but not so remote; its history parallels that of Spain. Fifty years ago the town was on the republican side of the Spanish Civil War, and occupied by Italian fascists and nationalist troops. Dozens of villagers lost lives fighting or executed.  Republican soldiers hid in the mountains, operating as guerilla maquis. Then there are the ancient, foundational facts, such as that village was first settled by Arabs during the reign of the Moorish empire. The church here used to be a mosque. Now, it houses a treasured statue of the village’s patron saint, virgen Maria de la cabeza. On the wall of stores and restaurants in the village, there are framed pictures of the very same statue.

When we first learned that the mayor of Canillas would personally greet and receive us, Trini told us the plot of the 1953 Spanish classic “Welcome, Mr. Marshall”. “It’s just too funny,” she said. “It’s a movie about a small village that learns that a group of important American officials, abstractly believed to include a certain Mr. Marshall, is going to pay their town a visit. So, under the hands-on supervision of the mayor, they prepare for weeks, scrub the whole place clean, hang folkloric decorations, set up this great reception with flowers, civilized children, banners. Everyone dreams of what they will ask from Mr. Marshall. The big day comes; all the village gathers out on the square waiting for Mr. Marshall, proud, puffed, dressed up head to toe in Andalusian attire. Then, finally, there comes this huge motorcade--everyone claps, claps, claps, but the cars never stop. In the end, Mr. Marshall’s motorcade drives straight through.”

At one of the two little bars overlooking the central square, the mayor orders local moscatel--sweet, fortified wine del terreno--and some tapitas of chorizo from Malacara’s (“not tapas, baby tapas”, he promises). He cannot drink because he is on antibiotics, but invites us all for another round at La Sociedad as we await the chivo lechal to make its grand entrance. Here there are other surprises: croquettes with delicious morcilla (guess where from) mixed into the bechamel, their crust expertly thin and the interior oozy and savory, and delightful “sushi canillero”, or raw anchovies cured on the spot in vinegar and olive oil and sprinkled with large chunks of garlic and parsley.

 Hot chorizo slider and Malagueño wine (strong!) at a cafe on the main plaza of Canillas de Aceituno

 Boquerones al vinagre (vinegar-cured anchovies) at La Sociedad

The red wine flows, and with great fanfare the now unrecognizable chivo is rolled out on a cart and dissected into red-hot, tender, golden crusted chunks. The goat meat is, without question, incomparably soft and milky, and pairs exquisitely with pockets of roasted garlic and sea salt.

 The famous oven-roasted suckling goat at La Sociedad

Fried kidneys and other innards are served along the goat at La Sociedad

A woman walks across the small plaza carrying a hefty Virgin Mary figurine about half her height, in anticipation of Corpus Christi celebrations the next day, and an old man criss-crosses the other way with twelve packs of beer, in anticipation the Champion’s League final tonight.

Owner Manuel Aguilera comes out to the terrace to check on our progress, and remarks that I have snagged myself a sirloin. As a reward, the symmetrically parted goat skull is presented to me, and I scoop the creature’s brains out from contractual pressure. The brains taste creamy, though slightly unsettling.  A life-size cardboard cutout of Manuel greets guests in La Sociedad’s foyer and his face adorns every menu, so I am very proud that the big boss witnesses my brain-ingesting bravery (after all the blood and fat, why stop). When we order two whiskey tarts for dessert, Manuel looks up judgingly. “Two whiskey tarts?” he says. “No. One whiskey tart. Then I give you something.” The something turns out to be lemon sorbet in white chocolate soup. No one complains.

Tags: andalucia, cafe, food, meat, spain, traditional, travel, village

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