Seasonal Food In Spain: Feasting On All Creation

Seasonal Food In Spain: Feasting On All Creation

One of the pleasures of eating is knowing when to eat, as I recalled often when in Spain. By this I do not mean the time of day as such, although I doubt I could eat a lasagna for breakfast. Instead I refer to those occasions when certain foods have traditionally been available. Today, thanks to innovations such as refrigeration and transportation infrastructure, we can enjoy foods all year-round that were once considered rare treats for our ancestors. Yet there seems to me to be a greater good, beyond that of healthier ingredients or supporting local businesses, in enjoying what we eat at the time and place in which we are meant to eat it.

There is a beautiful scene in the BBC mini-series “Cranford” in which Miss Smith presents her hostesses, the spinster Jenkyns sisters, with a crate of Spanish oranges as a thank-you gift. While familiar with the fruit, its comparative rarity in early Victorian England made it such a prized commodity that, for small-town residents like the Jenkyns, hot-climate produce was viewed almost as a luxury item, reserved for the Christmas stocking or special occasions. In the film, the dour Deborah Jenkyns commands the ladies to retire to their respective rooms, in order to consume their oranges in restrained silence. The camera subsequently shows us Deborah’s younger sister, Mathilda, sucking out the juice from the fruit with childish glee. However it is Miss Deborah, a tower of almost Calvinist propriety, who ends up savoring the first slice of her orange with the kind of sensual pleasure that only a gourmand can truly recognize and appreciate.

The specialness of a food or a dish is meant to be part of the reason one consumes it, no matter how good it may taste when eaten outside of its usual context. Canelones, the rolled pasta tubes stuffed with meat and baked in a béchamel sauce, are available in Catalonia any time of year. The fancier canelones de festa major, on the other hand, were traditionally served on December 26th, St. Stephen’s Feast Day (a public holiday in Barcelona), using the leftover meat from the Christmas soup the day before, along with special ingredients such as a fine brandy or shavings of black truffles. Eventually the custom of making these slightly more special canelones spread to other feast days on the Church calendar, such as the Feast of St. Joseph. On my last night in Barcelona then, dining at the venerable 180-year-old Set Portes restaurant, I ordered canelones de festa major as one of the courses, rather than the regular canelones that were also on the menu, because it was the vigil of the Feast of Corpus Christi, a feast day which Barcelona still celebrates with great pomp and many ancient customs.

On two occasions I went outside the rules a bit by having a xató – a Catalan salad typical of the beach town of Sitges, made with escarole, tuna, anchovies, and a sauce that is roughly a variant of romesco, among other things – even though technically the season for this dish had ended the month before I arrived. The salad is cool, crisp, briny, savory, and sweet, resulting in a veritable explosion of flavors. Despite my being slightly out of season, that at the Mare Nostrum restaurant in Sitges was probably among the best I have ever eaten, while the second time I ate the salad it was fine, but nowhere near comparable.

When I arrived in Madrid, other seasonal and off-season choices awaited me. It was the beginning of cherry season, and on a scorching hot day I thoroughly enjoyed an extraordinary chilled gazpacho at the Madrid country club a few miles outside the city, where cherries were used as the base for the soup instead of the tomatoes most of my readers are probably familiar with from the Andalusian-style gazpacho. The sweet and sour soup glowed like a rich, dark ruby, albeit only for the few short moments that it glittered in my dish before I consumed all of it with gusto.  

Although the season for white asparagus had ended a few weeks before, I nevertheless still managed to savor the last of some gigantic white asparagus spears having the diameter of a bratwurst at the Cerveceria Santa Ana, a famous old brewery just across the square from one of Madrid’s most prestigious theatres. On the other hand, I had also arrived a little too late for artichoke season. Few people love an artichoke more than the Castilians; there is even a rather grand 18th century fountain in Madrid’s Retiro Park dedicated to it. It did not surprise me then, that the fried artichoke I ordered as a starter for lunch one day at a rather UHB restaurant in the north end of the city was okay, but nothing special.  

All in all my food experiences were such that, the seasonal choices were always a hit, while the off-season choices were a mixed bag. This reinforces the often-repeated concept in travel writing that eating in a traditional, seasonal fashion lends greatly to the experience of travel. By sticking to what should be eaten when he finds himself where he is, the traveler can adapt to, and hopefully better understand, the rhythms of life in the place in which he finds himself.

By the same token, whether you are a frequent flier or an armchair tourist, the foods you choose even at home have a deeper meaning than the mere consumption of calories. Without giving much thought to it, we have created a society in which foods that were once viewed as special, have lost much or all of their significance. Certainly there is nothing inherently wrong about the fact that we can go to the supermarket and pick up fruits and vegetables out of season. Nor is there any real reason why we could not cook a Thanksgiving-style turkey in April, if we really wanted to.

Yet as these sorts of things are so often of a piece in our society, I do wonder whether making all kinds of foods and dishes available all year round is a reflection of the way in which we have come to avoid the seasonality of life, including our own. The natural world, in which we ourselves must be included, has an inescapable structure and pattern to it, from birth to growth, maturity to death. When something created is no longer considered to be something special, we risk not only becoming ungrateful for the bounty of Creation itself, but of imagining that we ourselves exist outside of it.

One hallmark of a true appreciation of the life we have been given can be found in those fleeting moments of pleasure that we all find in eating good food enjoyed in its proper season. By trying to live more in the place and time in which we find ourselves, we have a better chance of savoring a hint of the goodness of what Creation was originally intended to be, and what we believe it will be again one day. Until that day let us feast as best we may, but always in due season.

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Celebrating “The Feasts” with Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina

[I’m honored to be part of the blog tour for Donald Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina’s new book, “The Feasts”. Thanks to the generosity of Image Books, you can register for a chance to win a free copy for yourself! Check for details at the conclusion of the review, and be sure to visit the other blogs on the tour as well.]

In their new book The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics, Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, and well-known Catholic author Mike Aquilina examine not only the major and minor feasts of the Church, but the history and theological significance of these significant days throughout the Church year.  Many Christians may never have stopped to think much about why we have these commemorations, when we pause to remember particular persons, events, or truths.  With great clarity, the authors explain the language of feast days, and how they draw us back to honoring and reflecting upon our relationship with God.  Feasts are an opportunity, above all, for expressing our gratitude.

In the early chapters of “The Feasts”, the authors take the time to provide a concise, helpful background on how and why these occasions came to be.  Jesus Himself, after all, celebrated feasts such as Passover and Yom Kippur, which are still marked today by the Jewish people.  In turn the early Christian community, as it began to emerge into a full-fledged faith, adopted its own annual religious events.  Within the first five hundred years after the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, there were already hundreds of feasts, some celebrated locally such as in the memorial of a particular saint, and others commemorated throughout the Universal Church.

Probably everyone’s favorite Christian holiday, even for many non-Christians, is the Solemnity of Christmas, which celebrates the Incarnation of Christ.  Today that meaning is often lost in the glitz and glitter of commercialism, when the point of why people give each other gifts at Christmas often seems to be lost.  Indeed, as the authors point out later in the book, the Puritans in this country attempted unsuccessfully to wipe Christmas celebrations from the calendar.

Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina do not deny the secular aspects of the holiday as currently celebrated in many parts of the world, since civilization and Christianity are tied together. They acknowledge the hard fact that for many people, Christmas can be an excuse for excessive materialism.  Many, including some Christians, would rather just take Christ out of “Christ Mass” altogether.

Yet the authors then remind us of something which we heard at Mass just this past weekend, in the reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.  St. Paul notes that the Incarnation, the coming of God in human form which we celebrate at Christmas, was not a manifestation of an overpowering being.  Rather, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”  That gift of the Divine Self through birth is, of course, the “reason for the season”, as the expression goes.  His servitude is what we ourselves are called to follow, in imitation of Him.

Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina also remind us how very ancient the celebration of Christmas is.  Unlike what you may have heard from some quarters, i.e. that Christmas is simply an appropriation of a pagan sun festival, the authors go far back into Church history.  They point out for example that as early as the 2nd century, St. Clement of Alexandria was already arguing that the Birth of Jesus should be celebrated on December 25th, based on his survey of what the Church communities he knew of were already doing locally.  This means such commemorations were taking place long before the legalization of Christianity, let along its establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

For me, the date of December 25th is less of a point of interest than understanding the historical time period of the Incarnation, something which the authors also explore in their chapter on Christmas.  Although God exists outside of time, He chose to enter into our timeline. The willingness to self-limit in such a way out of love for us is, in and of itself, something which should give us pause to consider, anytime we take the celebration of Christmas as being merely for children and merchants.

Christ was born into the world of the Roman Empire, the physical remnants of which are still with us, in ruins, archaeological sites, and museums throughout the world.  At the same time, many of the ideas and principles which laid the foundations of republics such as ours here in the United States, as well as concepts in science, engineering, literature, and so on that were the building blocks of Western civilization, were being taught, debated, and written about.  To look at a Roman column from the 1st century, and reflect on the fact that it stood at the same time Jesus was being born in the little town of Bethlehem, is to become aware of God’s Presence in our own history, not just as some sort of unintelligible entity or divine watchmaker existing independently of it.

Thus Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina refer to Christmas as being the other magnetic pole to the Christian year, with Easter being the other.  Salvation history was not something vaguely understood, but rather marked by a most singular event: God humbling Himself into becoming Man.  Without the Resurrection at Easter, there is no hope for us, but if there is no Incarnation at Christmas, then there will be no Easter.  In coming into the world, we understand Christ not a concept, but as a Person, and one who promised to remain with us, particularly in the Eucharist.  Because of this, even when the Christmas season ends, “in a sense it never ends,” as the authors rightly make clear. For “at every Mass we experience the Word made flesh, dwelling among us.”

As human beings, we mark the passage of the hours from day to night, or the year from summer to winter, because we understand the world in this way.  “The Feasts” allows us to step back and see the broad spectrum of the days set aside by the Church, and the how and why we have these special occasions.  They remind us, when we are so often distracted by the things of this world, of the world beyond this one, the one to come, and of Him who is waiting to embrace us.

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For a chance to win a free copy of “The Feasts”, register with your name and email address by following this link. Only one entry per reader, please. Entries must be submitted by 11:59 pm on Thursday, September 18th. The winner will be announced on Friday, September 19th.

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That Touch of Autumn

Did you feel it this morning, that touch of Autumn?

Those of us in the Nation’s Capital woke up to temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s – that’s in the 12-16 degree range, for my non-American readers.  With low humidity and a crispness in the air, it was the first real sign that Fall is on the way.  Yes, it will be hot and humid later, and yes, it will be hot and humid all weekend for those of us who did not have the possibility of getting out of town this weekend for the Labor Day holiday.  However, this morning was quite the preview of coming attractions, since for me Autumn is the absolute best time of year to be in Washington.

It’s rather appropriate that this first hit of Autumn to come fell today, when the Church remembers the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.  You’ll remember from the Bible how St. John was executed when Salome, step-daughter of King Herod, asked for the prophet’s head as a reward for her dancing.  Like Salome, this is the time of year when the Earth, in this part of the world, begins to drop her veils, one by one, until by Winter she is completely bare.

Now for those of you who are “Team Summer”, and who like this scrivener live in an area with distinct seasons, this is the worst of all possible worlds, I know.  You enjoy being sweaty, dirty, and sunburnt.  You enjoy being attacked by insects, or being stuck in transit/traffic for hours when the air conditioning doesn’t work.  You enjoy the chaffing of sandals or flip-flops tearing up the back of your heels, or constantly adjusting those shorts that bunch up when you sit down.  In other words, you like to suffer.

For the rest of us, deliverance is at hand.

It’s soon time for clothing where anyone can both look good and feel comfortable, not just the genetic anomalies.  Drinks can be lingered over and savored, rather than rushed down before the ice melts.  The food will be flavorful and filling and bountiful, not limited by the phrase, “It’s so hot I’m not really hungry.”

There will be celebrations to prepare, requiring far more attention than the three Summer holidays of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, which generally involve, at best, a trip to the grocery store for some burgers and buns, and not much else.  Yet as Autumn gets underway, Halloween leads to Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving leads to Advent, and Advent leads to Christmas. Many of us even get Columbus Day and Veteran’s Day thrown in for good measure, just to have some extra time off or a change of pace.

Now be assured, I’m not forgetting the importance or the significance of any of these holidays, before someone starts to complain.  Rather the simple truth is, Autumn is a time for celebration. We gather in the products of the land, and we enjoy the hard work that went into growing them, and we have very fun ways of going about doing so which do not involve the charade of pretending that we can still live out in the open air like our ancient ancestors did, so long as we have enough propane for the grill and citronella for the tiki torches.

No, give me the cold honesty of Autumn over the pretend joys of Summer any day.  The Fall reveals character. I’m looking forward to seeing the colors of the geology and chemistry of the planet, now hidden under a mask of chlorophyll.  As growing things go dormant, each leaf reveals a uniqueness belied by the uniform green, no two the same.  We see things as they are, not in uniformity but in a huge range of colors and shades of colors, everything from scarlet red to mustard yellow to deep purple.

And similarly, when we can all get out of the blazing sun and actually sit down and see each other, without the need for sunglasses or umbrellas or the like, the chill causing us to draw a little bit closer together for warmth, I believe we’ll all be the better for it.

Detail of "Salome Dancing Before Herod" by Gustave Moreau (1876) Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Detail of “Salome Dancing Before Herod” by Gustave Moreau (1876)
Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles