This year, my mother has decided to break the family custom for Christmas and send an actual, delivered by UPS present, in a large carton which arrived on the doorstep Friday morning. We don’t know quite why she decided to do this, since the usual present for the last decade or two has been a check discretely tucked into a Christmas card. Maybe it’s because it will be the first Christmas without Dad. Possibly Dad was the one who thought just a plain unadorned check in a Christmas or birthday card was the most welcomed gift by adult children, and didn’t want to futz about with shopping or mail order catalogues – anyway, Mom sent us an awesomely lavish gift basket from this place, La Tienda – the foods of Spain, and we went through the basket and the catalogue enclosed with happy squeals of recognition.
We came home from Spain twenty years ago last October – after living in the city of Zaragoza, while I was assigned to the European Broadcasting Service detachment at the air base there. Which wasn’t an American air base, as we reminded people with tactful delicacy; it was a Spanish air base, and we merely rented a small, pitiful portion of it, a few discreet brick buildings and a scattering of ancient Quonset huts, going about our simple and purely transparent business, humbly supporting those various American and European fighter squadrons coming down from the clouds and fog of Northern Europe and practicing their gunnery skills at a local military range set up just to accommodate that kind of trade. Really, there was no earthly reason for anyone to hassle us … not like it had been in Greece. Still, we religiously abstained from wearing uniforms off-base. The local terrorists were mostly interested in blowing up the Guadia Civil; which I thought regretfully was hard luck for the Guads, but made things easier than they had been for American military stationed in Greece…
Anyway, I was there for six years, living in a kind of garden suburb development of duplex apartments which had once been a base housing development, out to the north of the city proper, just off the Logrono highway. We shopped at the little grocery store in what was called an urbanization – basically Spanish for development – and at the hypermercado just up the road called Al Campo, the Spanish equivalent of Target. We used to say that if it wasn’t at the BX or the Commissary, and you couldn’t find it at Al Campo, then very likely you didn’t need it anyway. The long and short of it is – there were edible treats that I loved in Spain, and have almost forgotten about, which were the everyday and casual dispensed groceries that we saw while we lived there and haven’t seen since – and Mom’s gift basket gave us a reminder. There is a box of turron, among the delicacies: a slab of candy which used to be everywhere about this time of year: roughly the dimensions of a paperback book. My own favorite turron was made from honey and egg-yolks and ground almonds, a richer and eggier version of marzipan … there is a box of marzipan among the treats, though. I love marzipan, which I have since discovered makes me very much in a minority American in my candy tastes. There are even some dried figs, dipped in dark chocolate; that was a specialty in Aragon – dried fruit in dark chocolate. But there are not any of those delicate, crumbly butter cookies that I used to buy at the local bakery or the little grocery store; topped with a little sweet wash of egg-white and a few pine nuts. I asked our Spanish secretary once if she knew the recipe for them, and she looked at me blankly and answered, “Eggs… butter … sugar … and flour. And the pine nuts on the top.”
There is chorizo – three different kinds, actually; Spanish chorizo, which is more like a cured salami, rather than the Mexican chorizo which we are familiar with in Texas. (Mexican chorizo is more like a highly spiced breakfast sausage.) I never much cared for the cheaper chorizos, which were so darkly and artificially colored that they looked almost magenta, and oozed bright red grease when heated … but my daughter fell upon the chorizo selection with joyful recognition. There wasn’t any jamon Serrano – that we might have to order from the catalogue if we wanted it: that is the Spanish equivalent of Parma ham. It was a whole leg, dried and cured, and served in tissue-paper thin slices and shreds in all kinds of dishes; I remember with particular relish, a dish of baby artichokes cooked with jamon and garlic at a restaurant in Santiago de Compostela – about the tastiest artichokes I have ever eaten. In the section of Al Campo which stocked jamon Serrano there was a huge array of them hanging from a rack. They smelt like a gymnasium of rancid gym socks – but a thin shaving of jamon draped over a wedge of cantaloupe melon was the food of the gods. Every restaurant, bar, or coffee shop, usually had a whole jamon on hand; there were even special racks on the market to facilitate keeping the jamon where a sliver or two could be shaved off, as needed, with a piece of tinfoil put over the cut surface. In a very divey steak and chop-house in old Zaragoza, which once had formerly been the garage of an apartment building, there was a whole herd of jamon legs hanging from the rafters overhead, each with a little cup suspended from the end, for the melting grease to drip into, rather than onto the patrons.
Down in the bottom of the basket there were four of the shallow round terra cotta dishes called cazuelas that were traditionally used in Spanish cooking; they come in a sizes from the single serving dishes to casserole sized: I came home with a good number of them – they were inexpensive, and available everywhere in Spain which sold kitchenware; even the little grocery store in the San Lamberto urbanization sold them. I even brought home a paella pan; a small one, suitable for making four servings. In Zaragoza there was a paella restaurant which did nothing else but paella, and had paella pans big enough to serve twenty. Of course – there is a jug of very fine olive oil, and another of sherry vinegar from Jerez which will be cherished. When we shipped home from Spain, I had packed six two-liter sealed jugs of Spanish olive oil in my household goods, which lasted us nearly a year and a half. (Now we can get perfectly decent olive oil in the grocery store.) I don’t know that we shall ever be able to order anything more from La Tienda – but we will certainly enjoy the taste of things that we had nearly forgotten.