Travelling in Spain, never be surprised by any of the flavours of separatism, however odd. As you move west along the meseta, you’ll start seeing slogans calling for a separate León. A dialect that few speak or care about lives on in political graffitti.
Whether they want separation from Spain or just Castile is an individual or mood thing. (No-one seems to want out of the EU yet, but when snouts start bumping the hard bottom of that capacious Euro-trough…)
The funniest slogan occurs much further along, in the Bierzo region. There the sentiment is anti-León. The slogan’s message: if León gets its separation from Castile, the Bierzo want out of León. Of course, by the time you get to the Bierzo, there is Galician graffitti objecting to the use of Spanish. And so it goes on. One gets the hang.
I’m always interested in wild food. These carobs, with sweet, smokey tar around their seeds, could be a good emergency resort.
But it was a cold and drizzly morning, and only a mound of pastries with cafe con leche would satisfy. So it was over the well known bridge of Puente Villarente…
…where I found an especially fine cafe, thronged for the weekend.
A word on Spanish bar-life.
That sums it up. Spanish snacking and drinking and chat all happen together in countless bars across the country. They are not places for gorging or swilling. A coffee or ice-cream is sold in the same manner and context as strong alcohol. Bars are for everyone, and everyone has a bar, or more than one bar. By everyone, I mean that Spanish bars are not for men, or women, or the young, or the old. They are for the humanity of Spain. The snacking scene, which is probably strongest in Basque centres like San Sebastian, is a rich branch of world cuisine – and that’s quite apart from normal meals!
The bar, not Velasquez, is Spain’s greatest cultural legacy: an institution that would improve the rest of us so quickly, could we but absorb it, or at least its spirit.
With the new anti-tobacco legislation, this culture has come under threat, but will likely survive. Though it suits me, as a lifelong abstainer, to be free of smoke, I’m aware that tobacco has supported a commerce which truly deserves its description as a culture. Many bewildered Spaniards now point to the northern countries where anti-tobacco legislation originated, and to the northern tradición vikingo of swilling, violence and puritanical licensing laws. And Spaniards can only shake their heads.
The new laws were brought into force in the heart of the winter, something all too typical of the now hated Zapatero government. With people unable to step outside to smoke, cafe life wilted in many parts, but all were affected in some degree. I’ve loathed smoking all my life, yet I can only wish the Great Spanish Bar well in these trials.
And while I’m opinionating…
One now gets asked, after travelling anywhere these days: “How was the coffee?”
I can only say that the coffee in Spain, like everywhere, is mostly poor because it’s mostly over-extracted. It is not as bad as coffee in France, but the French, just as they are the masters of presenting coffee, are the global masters of wrecking coffee. They pay little attention to grind, and no attention to tamping, so that French coffee achieves a level of over-extraction and foulness unique in Europe.
Even in Italy these days, you are better off asking for a ristretto, instead of just caffé or espresso. Now that modern pressure machines are everywhere, adequate coffee is at the fingertips of everyone; and yet, in spite of intense training and barista courses, nearly everyone who makes a coffee continues to extract long after the grounds have yielded all their delicious and healthful liquor. Over-extraction is almost universal, and, if I want a perfect shot, I’m more likely to get it in a non-ethnic inner-Sydney cafe where strict attention is always paid to the basics. It’s not a matter of cost or resources. You just cannot persuade people that there is no benefit or economy in continuing to extract.
Anyone who doubts should try the following. Get a stove-top caffetiera – most people have a cheap aluminium one lying around – and proceed to make coffee in the usual way. When less than half the liquor has come through, pour it off. Taste. It will be very dark and strong. If it’s too strong for you, add some fresh hot water. It will be delicious.
Now taste the lighter coloured liquor which has continued to pump through the caffetiera. You will want to spit it. And that’s the pestilential, alkaloidal muck we all drink, in the belief that it’s making the coffee longer or stronger.
If you have a press-pot, try a slightly coarser grind and pour water at 80C or even less over the coffee, obliquely not directly, and without agitation. Let a crust form for a few minutes then press down very gently. There’ll be the inevitable rancidity from the uncleanable mesh of the head, but otherwise the result should be delicious and should convince.
End this over-extraction!
I would be in León by the end of the day, but weather was limiting enjoyment. At a certain point I was joined by a young Italian called Daniele, and together we walked the approach to the city.
Daniele was a specialist tradesman, an athletic type from near Bergamo, and often competed with an athletic father in strenuous hikes and cycling events. In spite of this physicality, he was full of ideas and curiosity. At 21, he didn’t think the Camino should be reserved for those of advanced age; nor was he intending to spend his youth consolidating finances.
The voluble young bergamasco was ideal company in the miserable weather. When I mentioned my conversation in Castrojeriz with the neighbour of Reinhold Messner, Daniele was ready with a climbing hero from his own neighbourhood, far better than Messner. Messner, in fact, wouldn’t go anywhere without backup from Daniele’s neighbour. As for the folk of Alto Adige, Messner’s region…Sono tedeschi! They’re Germans!
Hopeless as the cause may seem, there exists a kind of European unity, but it’s not headquartered in Brussels or Strasbourg. Its offices are spread out along thin lines across the different lands, following the direction of the Milky Way.
And, quite suddenly that afternoon, I found myself gaping at one of those offices.
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