Monday, December 12, 2011

Dinosaur toes and crispy piglets

You may have learned in elementary school that dinosaurs no longer roam the earth. That they have been extinct for millions of years. But I have proof to the contrary because I ate dinosaur toes in Salamanca this year.

Okay. You’re right. Maybe they’re not actually dinosaur toes. But how else can you describe the appearance of percebes, with their knotted leathery elephantesque skin and distinct pre-Cambrian toenails? Percebes were on my “must-try” list and I found them at Casa Paca in Salamanca our second night in town. These curious little barnacles are quite the delicacy in Spain. Apparently it’s somewhat of an ordeal to harvest them. The season must be right and the tide must be just so and you must recruit the bravest of gentlemen who are willing to rappel down the side of treacherous ocean cliffs to pluck these ancient creatures from the rocky, watery depths.

This tiny pile of the expensive little buggers cost us 44 euros... that’s like $60 US. Ouch. But it was worth it! The texture and taste reminded me of a razor clam.

Here's me eating the percebes and talking about the perils involved with harvesting them.

At Casa Paca I also knocked out another food on my “must-try” list! Angulas!

I know it doesn’t look like much but tucked inside this filet of hake is one Spain’s most sought-after delicacies: teensy tiny baby eels.

This article goes into much more depth about angulas than I ever could but long story short, newborn eels embark on a three year, four thousand mile journey from the Americas to Spain, where they must be captured on a moonless night in a short timeframe during the winter months; because they can breathe out of water they must be killed by plunging them into water that has been deoxygenated with an infusion of tobacoo. Perhaps you’re not surprised that angulas are one of the most expensive delicacies on earth.

The rest of our meal at Casa Paca was less memorable but equally expensive (!). Chuletillas de cabrito a la brasa volcanico were tiny goat chops grilled over volcanic wood. They came with fried potatoes and a few fried pimientos de Padron. Lindsay’s lomo de merluza en salsa verde was a fresh take on hake swimming in an herbaceous green sauce. 

Next morning we were up bright and early to embark on a road trip in Sierra del Francia. The act of renting the car was perhaps the biggest adventure of the day but once we were seatbelted with our trusty GPS in working order we were on our way to explore the far reaches of Castilla y Leon.
We stopped for lunch in Ciudad Rodrigo, a walled medieval town not far from the Portuguese border. Our vow to be thrifty after the wallet-busting meal of the night before let us to a budget-friendly option on the main square, where we had patatas al roquefort (shredded potatoes in a Roquefort cheese sauce); ensalada rusa (diced potatoes, red peppers and onions in a thick mayonnaise sauce); pulpo a la vinagreta (marinated octupus); tortilla; and pimiento relleno (a piquillo pepper stuffed with ground beef and baked in a cheesy sauce). Total price for lunch for all three of us? Around 10 euros.

This is the heart of Spain’s embutido (pork and sausage) country. It’s known as producing some of the best jamon and chorizo and it seems that every other door opens into a shop festooned with dozens of hams swinging from the ceilings. 

We picked up some sausage souvenirs that I successfully smuggled back into the States: farinato iberico from Ibericos Felipe Hernandez, a sausage that’s unique to this region, and some chorizo made with jamon iberico de bellota, the most highly-regarded Spanish ham that’s made with the meat of free-range pigs who graze on acorns throughout their lives. They love their meat around these parts.

The rest of the day was spent navigating extremely narrow mountain roads in a land that until recently was entirely inaccessible to all but the most determined travelers. The villages seem to be stuck in time: La Alberca, with one of the most picturesque Plaza Mayors anywhere...

San Martin del Castanar, a medieval town perched on the mountainside with narrow streets and window boxes overflowing with lush flowers... 

And Mogarraz, a long, narrow and seemingly deserted town whose most interesting inhabitant was a filthy, wallowing pig.

Because we were soon to be joined by a vegetarian in one of the most staunchly non-vegetarian parts of the world, once back in Salamanca we were determined to squeeze in one last porcine extravaganza at the aptly named Meson el Jamon. 

Now I understand this may seem barbaric to all my vegetarian friends but the toston, or cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig), is an honored local tradition. We had frantically been seeking out a toston around Salamanca, to no avail. Sensing defeat the night before our last day in town we asked the gracious folks at the front desk of our residence, Hotel el Toboso, if they had any suggestions.

A single toston takes three days advance notice to prepare! said our hotelier’s restaurateur friend. But we need it tomorrow before we leave town! we cried. Do these girls know what they are asking?! he countered, exasperated. (At least I’m assuming that’s how the conversation went down since I was upstairs snuggled cozily in my bed enjoying a pre-bedtime siesta. We were in Spain, after all.)

Thus at 1:00pm the next day we walked into Meson el Jamon, three girls on a mission to eat a meal that usually feeds six, and sat down to a crispy-skinned suckling pig that none of us is soon to forget.

And then, at 5:00pm, the vegetarian arrived.

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