A Series on Food and Culture Set in Spain
I planned to write my first post about a Magüestu. It’s been two months since I’ve moved to Spain, and the Magüestu, an autumn harvest festival organized around the ripening of chestnuts, was going to be my personal grand welcome, a celebration of the coziness of a new home as the weather gets colder and the days got shorter.
If this story was about a Magüestu, I would write first about the local food culture in Asturias, a small region on the northern coast of Spain that, for reasons mysterious to everyone who lives here, gets very little attention on an international scale. As the only region in Spain that was never conquered by the Moors, it has retained a strong Celtic heritage, and thus distinguishes itself from the rest of the country in terms of culture and gastronomy. The cuisine consists mostly of beans, potatoes, aged cheese, sausage, and cider–little in common with what is commonly recognized as “Spanish” food. And it’s easy to forget, as one is running over grassy rolling hills, listening to the gentle cacophony of bells on grazing dairy cows, that you are on the Iberian Peninsula, a land generally recognized for sunny beaches, sandstone, and sangria.
I was invited to the Magüestu by Susanna, a local organic farmer who sells bags of spinach in the grocery store next to my flat. The plan was to meet a group of other farmers at her farm, then drive into the mountains to collect the chestnuts that had coated the forest floor with the last few weeks of windy storms. While we were walking, we would have talked about the trees, which were brought to Spain by the Roman Empire and now cover more than 150,000 hectares in Spain. We would have talked about the longevity of the tradition, and the ways it’s changed (and stayed the same) as the mining industry took over the region. I would enjoy the respite into the forest and meditate on the complexity of moving from a small mountain town in the Western U.S. to a compact European city. Later, with our baskets full, we would return to her farm, light a fire, roast the chestnuts, and drink sweet cider fresh pressed from the apples also ripe at this time of year. The Magüestu is exactly the kind of festival I admire, a tradition in tune with wild edible foods and a ceremonious awareness of the seasons and the changes they bring to our lives.
In January in India, they celebrate the first rice with Pongal. March in Argentina hails the arrival of wine grapes, and with them Vendimia, a national holiday. Iwa ji in West Africa connects Igbo communities with the new yam in August. In the United States, we celebrate abundance and survival with Thanksgiving, although I would be interested to know how many of us associate the holiday with harvest. What do cranberries and canned pumpkin have to do with the fruits of my homeland? What about the piñon nuts, the beans, the wild onions native to the arid landscape I’m familiar with?
Still, even those committed to small gardens can understand the elation that comes with discovering that plants you’ve waited on all year are finally ripe. In my Catholic family, we don’t so much celebrate the arrival of the first fruits of the season so much as idolize the fruits themselves, the way one prays to a dark statue of Christ in a chapel. We place the first stunted strawberries from our backyard on the counter in my mother’s house and skirt around them for days until they darken and desiccate. No one dares to be the first to disappear such a miracle. Yes, we sing praises about the first heirloom tomatoes when the summer farmer’s market starts, and we watch with bated breath when our neighbor’s first zucchini is snipped from its vine; but the jubilation, the riotousness paired with ceremony, the party is something for which I have no personal comparison.
But this piece isn’t about the harvest festival for a simple reason: I didn’t go. I didn’t go because I had a cold, and giving a cold to a group of farmers is about the worst thing you can do to them. It was only a matter of time before the infection caught up to me. I teach English at two different high schools in the city and share a classroom with about 400 students on a biweekly basis, so that proximity to so many humans mastering hygiene habits alone should have led to illness weeks ago.
Still, a part of me denies the virus and blames the cold on the fact that it rained for 27 of the 30 days in November. (By the third week of the month, it had already become the rainiest on record.) Days on end of every kind of rain imaginable: orbayu, a mist-like drizzle specific to the north; walls of rain crashing on the boardwalk like waves; sideways rain; briefly sunny rain; cloudy days that you know will eventually bring rain; dark days that turn into hail.
Although I know, logically, that one cannot catch a cold simply from being cold, I felt as though the dampness outside had lodged itself in my chest and wouldn’t leave. And when I called my supervisor to tell her I wouldn’t be coming into school, she told me not to worry, that this year is excessive, that it’s been years since it’s rained like this and everyone is feeling the effects. She told me to get in bed, pour myself a cup of something warm, and come back when I felt better.
In the months leading up to this one, there has been plenty of talk about the rain. Asturians won’t hesitate to remind a foreigner that this is not the Spain you’ve seen in the movies, that in order to have the grassy rolling hills and grazing cows and thick forests, you have to pay for them with water. Still, the talk this year was about how the past few winters have been eerily pleasant. “I’m telling you,” my supervisor has repeated for weeks while gazing out the window at skies the color of a black eye, “last year it didn’t rain at all. Last year, the winter was beautiful.”
In September, just before the rains started, the local newspaper published an article stating that summer in Asturias is already 20 days longer than it was 40 years ago and predicting a 30 percent decrease in rains over the next 30 years. A different article, published by the Observatorio de la Sostenibilidad, lays out the evidence that it is actually raining more, much more, in Asturias than it was in the 1980s, but less, much less, in Galicia, the next region over. The local narrative, among my co-teachers and local friends, is that years ago it rained a lot in Northern Spain. Lately, it’s been raining less and less. This year seems to be an exception, but we are just a handful of weeks into the rainy season, and the rest is yet to be seen.
If there is a conclusion to be drawn from all the data, it’s that, like the rest of the planet, temperatures are rising and rainfall is becoming even less predictable. It is a widely accepted fact that for every one degree Celsius increase in temperature, the water cycle increases in intensity by about 7 percent. Everywhere, the storms will get stronger and less predictable. In my own home town, we have seen, in the same year, the most snow dropped in a single day and also the driest rainy season in history.
And so what does this do to the farmers? A farmer’s ability to plant is predicated on generations worth of knowledge about the timing of the rains. A full year’s budget can be washed away in seeds during one strong unseasonable storm. Entire fields of budding crops can be laid dry if the rains come too late, or worse, not at all. And that doesn’t even account for the diseases and pests that move into a place when the temperatures become inviting. Farmers are every year at more of a loss about what to plant. And when. And where. And how.
Yet, when I asked Susanna about the water supply and the rain, she shrugged. “We don’t worry too much about the rains here,” she said. As a native Arizonan, I shook my head at the nonchalance. How strange to live in a place where the community doesn’t have a tightrope wobbling beneath it, separating the years when it’s rained enough and those when it hasn’t.
Of course, the abundance of water isn’t to say growing food in Asturias is easy. Its mountainous terrain, heavy land fragmentation, and domination by extractive mining industries means that large-scale agriculture in the region has mostly been dedicated to animal husbandry, and specifically dairy production. Yet Asturians are no stranger to the backyard garden, and since I’ve moved here, I’ve learned that just because one doesn’t see endless stretches of farms, that doesn’t mean food isn’t growing, being collected, being shared, tucked into the corners of small pueblos.
So what I want to know is, who is growing their own food? And how? What challenges do they face? And how do they face them? One of the most exciting things about moving to a new place is learning a new cuisine, new food traditions. It’s trying not only new dishes but new plants entirely, ones you may not encounter if your homeland isn’t adept at producing them. Last week, I resigned myself to sampling my first chestnut ever under the incandescent lights of the teachers lounge at school. So maybe I missed the last festival, but I’ll join in celebrating the harvests that happen all year. Next week, I hear there’s a cider pressing in a barn in the next town over.
Inset photos of Asturias by Paulina Jenney. Header photo of basket near chestnut tree by Inigo Sarralde Fotografia, courtesy Shutterstock.