Our travels took us from Bilbao inland into Burgos Way of St.James. We can’t help but feel in awe when we saw huge amount of land dedicated to the growing of wheat extending as far as the eye could see. Castile-Leon with its vast expanse of land is greeted by bitterly cold winters and blazing hot summers. With her lands being conquered by the Jews and the Arabs and reconquered by the Christians in the 11th century, brought about an integrated cuisine featuring elements of all three cuisines. The Castilian landscape is dominated by sheep hence lamb is a preferred choice of meat here cooked using simple methods and good ingredients.
Burgos is the capital of the unified kingdom of Castile-Leon and it still preserves important vestiges of its medieval splendor. It was a major stop for pilgrims using the Way of St.James on their way to Santiago de Compostela and a centre of trade between the Bay of Biscay and the south. It has many historic landmarks, of particular importance; the Cathedral of Burgos, a masterpiece of Spanish Gothic architecture (declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984), Las Huelgas Reales Monastery and Miraflores Charterhouse.
We met a friend, David, who hosted us to lunch in one of the restaurants in Plaza del Rey San Fernando. We were greeted by the splendour of the gothic themed Cathedral of Burgos, an outstanding and elegant piece of architecture, and it is the only one in Spain which, for its cathedral building alone, has received the UNESCO World Heritage designation. We were told that the cathedral took a whopping 400 years to be completed. It was an expensive project to undertake and the nearby villagers although poor and had nothing to eat were still forced to build the cathedral, hence the project was stalled many times and over extensive periods too. Finally in 1567, it was completed and it represents a comprehensive example of the evolution of Gothic style, with the entire history of Gothic art exhibited in its superb architecture and unique collection of art, including paintings, choir stalls, reredos, tombs, and stained-glass windows. Although predominantly Gothic, the cathedral also displayed other artistic styles after being inspired by the Italian Renaissance due to the length of its construction. Beneath it lies the remains of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, known as “El Cid Campeador”the famous Castillian son, and his wife, Doña Jimena.
We had a wonderful lunch and being a gracious host, David wanted us to try different foods of Spain. With enthusiasm, he explained the Castillian cuisine and how different it was from Basque. Needless to say, we over ordered again!
The finest is called jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn). This ham is from free-range pigs that roam oak forests called dehesas along the border between Spain and Portugal, and eat only acorns during this last period. It is also known as jamón ibérico de Montanera. The exercise and diet have a significant impact on the flavour of the meat and the ham is cured for 36 months.
The next grade is called jamón ibérico de recebo. This ham is from pigs that are pastured and fed a combination of acorns and grain. This is followed by Jamón ibérico cebo de campo. This ham is from pigs that are free range but fed on a diet of grains only. The last type is called jamón ibérico de cebo, or simply, jamón ibérico. This ham is from pigs reared in pens that are fed only grains. The ham is cured for 24 months.
David explained that the highly prized bellota variety, must be of the black Iberian pig variety or cross-bred pigs as long as they are at least 75% Ibérico. They would feed on acorns or the bellota, which fall from oak and cork trees in the dehesas from early October to early March. These pigs need to run around all day in the woods, for their muscles to develop and for the ham to taste the way it does. The acorns are high in fat, a large percentage of which is unsaturated oleic fatty acid, and eating them is what makes the pigs’ fat so soft and creamy, on the verge of melting at room temperature. Acorns also contribute to the ham’s nutty flavour and aroma, as essential to the product as the meat itself. Of all commercially raised Iberico pigs, only 5% are both pure breed and acorn-fed. They need to reach a body weight of 160kg before they can be slaughtered.
From start to finish, the ham-making process is simple: grant good pigs the freedom to be good pigs, let them feast on the land, then cure their flesh with little more than salt and air. Having said this, the process of curing and aging can be an arduous but important one. The meat becomes dryer, and cools off as the second winter commences. The special aspect of Ibérico is that it can go through this cycle two or three times. The result is a build up of complex, volatile molecules in the ham that transform it from a piece of pork into an orchestra of flavors. With the Bellota hams, the most miraculous transformation is of the fats. Through this period of heating and cooling, salting and drying, the fats are broken down. Because of the antioxidants in the acorns and the unique curing process, the saturated fats are changed into healthy mono-unsaturated fats high in oleic acid similar to that of olive oil. Jamon Iberico should never be sliced by machine but instead always by hand to paper thin slices.
This was a great paella! Thus far, we have eaten the seafood version and now a chicken and vegetable version and it had inspired me to make my own version but it cannot be exactly labelled as paella as I cooked it in a baking tray ! LOL! But it was just as good. (Link to recipe to follow)
Camino de Santiago (Way of the St.James)
While we were having our lunch, we saw many sunburnt men and women with walking sticks. David told us they were pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago also known as Way of St. James or Route of Santiago de Compostela. Burgos receives many of these visitors in a year as it sits on the principal crossroad of northern Spain along this special route with many starting points across Europe particularly France through the Pyrenees and into Spain to Santiago de Compostela.
The Way of St. James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the Middle Ages, together with Rome and Jerusalem. There are dozens of pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally, as with most pilgrimages, the Way of Saint James began at one’s home and ended at the pilgrimage site. During the Middle Ages, the route was highly travelled and this was also the reason how trade flourished. However, the Black Death, the Protestant Reformation and political unrest in 16th century Europe led to its decline. By the 1980s, only a few pilgrims per year arrived in Santiago. Later, the route attracted a growing number of modern-day pilgrims from around the globe. The route is also named one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
Most travel by foot, some by bicycle, and a few travel as some of their medieval counterparts did, on horseback or by donkey. Many consider the experience a spiritual adventure to remove themselves from the bustle of modern life. It serves as a retreat for many modern “pilgrims”. The way of identifying the pilgrims was that everyone had this scallop shell hanging on their backpacks and commonly seen along the trails. Wearing a shell denotes that one is a traveler on the Camino de Santiago. Most pilgrims receive a shell at the beginning of their journey and either attach it to them by sewing it onto their clothes or wearing it around their neck or by simply keeping it in their backpack. The shell is seen on posts and signs along the Camino in order to guide pilgrims along the way.
Today, many hikers walk the route for other reasons, a great way to explore hiking trails and biking for sports and leisure. We were told that there is a special stamp card created and as one passes by the important checkpoint, you will get a stamp. For this pilgrimmage, one can take as long as you like, and there is no sequence that you need to follow. There are plenty of rest places in churches and hostels that used to house the pilgrims for a night with food and water for a small fee. We would definitely come back to embark on this spiritual trail in the future. Besides spiritual cleansing, I think this is one of the best ways to see a country, walking and cycling at one’s own pace.
Burgos is a filled with pretty streetscapes that extend beyond the landmark cathedral. We spent the day exploring the historic quarter and her sombre grey stone architecture and statues.
We travelled to Zaragoza entering Aragon country the next day.