Story and photos by Richard Frisbee
A Spanish Lesson at the Dinner Table
I’ve traveled to many countries and to many regions within those countries, but no matter what the country or region, I never feel more at home than when I’m in Spain. It’s something about the sunlight and the people and the food. I can be on a river, in a field, or on a city street and feel just so . . . comfortable. Everything may be new – the sights, sounds and smells – but they evoke a sense of the familiar, as if – somehow – home is just around the corner, instead of 4000 miles away.
It all came home to me one evening in Galcia, Spain, in a family-style local restaurant with communal tables. The Spanish fellow sitting opposite me poured me a drink and started speaking in English so I’d be better able to understand him. (My Spanish is not so good.) He wanted to show off his region’s seafood, so through several courses he kindly explained the dishes to me and made sure I got a taste of everything. But for his helpful intersession and gentle insistence I might not have tasted them all.
When the razor clams (navajas in Spanish) came out I was amazed. The shells actually looked like long skinny straight razors with a tube of clam’s flesh sticking out. I’d never seen anything like them before. Simply prepared, steamed just as you would mussels, and served with olive oil and lemons, they were the most delicious of mollusks. He showed me how to eat them, cautioning me about the sharp shells, and took great delight in my enjoyment of them. We really hit it off.
Another course was octopus, called “pulpo” in Spanish. The adult pulpo were being boiled in the corner of the dining room near the kitchen in huge copper pots. It was fun to watch because the cook dipped them into the steaming caldrons and lifted them out again several times before leaving them to cook. My new friend told me it was meant to tenderize them. When they were done, one was hauled out and its hanging reddish tentacles were snipped with scissors into bite-size pieces that fell into a waiting dish. They were served drizzled with a smoked paprika-infused olive oil and a shake of sea salt to become my new favorite seafood!
During the “sobremesa”, the Spanish custom of lingering at the table after a meal, talking and enjoying each other’s company over a local grappa-like drink called “orujo” which he poured in my coffee, I thanked him for his kindness. Then I told him I really liked the Spanish people, and their food and wine. He laughed. “That’s because we’re your people. You’re Irish, right? Your Celtic ancestors settled here centuries ago. Look at the young woman cooking the octopus. I immediately saw what he meant. With red hair and freckles, she could have been my niece. Then he said, “You like us because you feel at home! You’ve found your ‘querencia.’”
Querencia (from the verb "querer," which means "to desire") is a Spanish word that describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one's strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home.
In his famous treatise on bullfighting, “Death in the Afternoon,” Hemingway described it as “a place the bull naturally wants to go to in the ring, a preferred locality... It is a place which develops in the course of the fight where the bull makes his home. It does not usually show at once, but develops in his brain as the fight goes on. In this place he feels that he has his back against the wall and in his querencia he is inestimably more dangerous and almost impossible to kill.
Author Kirkpatrick Sale, in his book about Christopher Columbus’ explorations, “1492 The Conquest of Paradise,” expresses it less as a place of strength to continue a fight and more as a place of peace and contentment. He said querencia is “a deep quiet sense of inner well-being that comes from knowing a particular place of the earth, its diurnal and seasonal patterns, its fruits and scents, its history, and its part in your history and your family’s. It is that place where, whenever you turn to it, your soul releases an inner sigh of recognition and relaxation.”
In essence, querencia is one of those great Spanish terms that can embrace both seemingly disparate meanings to become much more than the literal translation of “love of home.”
So, where is your querencia? Have you found it yet? I know I have. Every time I visit Spain, especially when I sit down to eat, it is there.
© February 2017 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.