Story and photos by Richard Friesbie
Teresa among the cooking pots
It seemed almost a sacrilege to attend a dinner titled “Teresa among the cooking pots” given her vows of poverty and abstinence and the austere cloistered life St. Teresa of Avila led, but there I was walking through the lovely gardens of Avila’s magnificent old Piedras Albas Palace, now converted into a hotel called the Parador de Ávila, http://www.parador.es/en/paradores/parador-de-avila with the Director, Jose Menguiano Corbacho, on my way to the dining room for a fancy meal celebrating her life.
When I paused to admire the garden, especially a gnarled old mulberry tree framed by the trellised roses, Jose said “there is a story of young Teresa and her brother coming here to pick the ‘black berries’ from this tree.” Since we were celebrating the 500th anniversary of her birth, that was an old tree indeed, probably planted when the original palace was built in the 16th century. It is amazing to think that if mulberries were in season we could have shared fruit from the same tree as the woman we honored this evening.
That is the beauty of traveling in Spain. You can find Roman foundations supporting medieval walls everywhere, as I did here in Avila, with its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for the best preserved 16th century structures and fortifications. There is a timeless quality to the ancient stone buildings of Avila that our 250 year old country cannot deliver. And that is why I travel.
No formal garden is complete without sculpture. This one had two. One, a modern boar, is reminiscent of the ancient Celtic icons scattered around Avila that could be boars or bulls, no one knows which, or why they were made. The second sculpture is one of the originals, worn by time to obscure its features, its meaning lost in antiquity. I rubbed my hand along its back and thought of my Celtic ancestors settling here centuries before St. Teresa was born, or the mulberry tree was planted. Avila is steeped in history and good food. Having seen the former, I was about to partake of the latter. Jose reminded me that dinner was waiting.
Santa Teresa was one of the first female saints of the Roman Catholic Church and one of the most famous religious, historical and literary figures in the history of Spain. A quote attributed to her, “God is also to be found among the cooking pots“, makes a great toast, and for me as a chef, it elevates the defacto Patron Saint of Spain to the Patron Saint of Gastronomy. With that, my companions and I raised our glasses to her, a Don Suero Crianza 2010 that paired well with what we were about to consume.
The Castilla y Leon region had potatoes early, as this region once held the capital of the country and the King and Queen resided here. I even saw ancient sequoia trees planted from seeds Christopher Columbus brought back from one of his voyages, so these potatoes, originally from Haiti, are not a surprise. It is a popular belief that St. Teresa encouraged growing potatoes in the gardens of many convents she founded. She referred to them in her correspondence, as she did all of the elements of our meal.
Our course of appetizers included the local specialty “paprika potatoes” – coarsely mashed potatoes mixed with paprika and served as if sprouting a bacon crown of thorns. The crisp crunches of pork contrasted with the silky red-hued potatoes creating a very satisfying and hearty dish. Equally as colorful and as hearty was the aubergine casserole, its purplish soft chunks bound by the threads of a local cheese into a pleasant and flavorful consistency. Pickled sardines completed the rustic fare that could have been found in any early convent meal, although that was probably all they would eat while we had just whet our appetites.
Spain is famous for its salt cod. Spanish fishermen were catching and preserving cod on the shores of the New World long before Columbus “discovered” it. The next course presented a small cube of this traditional fish swimming in white beans and vegetables from the local convent’s garden. The salt brought all the fresh flavors together into a very hearty and satisfying dish.
So far, the austere nature of cloistered living was perfectly reflected in the food we were served. The next course, beef, was a total digression from all I learned of convent life. The Discalced Carmelites practiced abstinence, beef was only served to the sick – or so I thought. I was reminded by the server that beef was also eaten on journeys, because travel was arduous and one had to keep up one’s strength. Since Santa Teresa travelled extensively creating and attending to her “palomarcicos” or small convents, the “beefsteak for the traveler” was an authentic addition to the meal – especially since we were all travelers!
In the meat department, Spain is most famous for its acorn-eating black-footed pigs, the source of chorizo and Jamon Iberico. That is a shame because its black cattle, Iberian-Avilena, are equally as tasty. Savory rare, butter-soft steak slices from this local breed were served with roasted rosemary sweet potatoes and “St John of the Cross” asparagus. The story goes that St John found a bunch of wild asparagus on a stone while journeying. He ate them to satisfy his hunger and left a few coins in their place as payment. So this entire course was authentic!
Dessert continued in this vein with “Carmelitas”, or convent-style custard, served with sponge cake and lemon verbena ice cream. The ice cream was a stretch, but doable even back then for very special occasions, and the lemon verbena was also from the convent garden, tying the trifecta of tempting sweets together.
During the “sobremesa”, the Spanish custom of lingering at the table after a meal, we all agreed that this was a very well thought-out and executed dinner. The Paradore’s chef did himself proud, and my companions and I certainly did it justice! It was a reminder that simple food can be prepared elegantly, and traditions can be honored while flavors are combined and elevated. Bravo!
You, too, can relive this bit of history and taste the wonderful food when in Avila this season. The price of this family-style meal (wine included) is 29 Euros (about $32 as I write this) but only if everyone in the party (minimum of two) chooses it. I recommend you all choose it. God is indeed among the cooking pots!
IF YOU GO
The good news is Europe is a bargain now with a strong dollar (1 euro = $1.11) and relatively inexpensive accommodations and food in the Castilla y Leon region. Paradores, http://www.parador.es/en Spain’s national hotel chain grandly situated in beautifully restored palaces, castles and monasteries, and other quality hotels are 40-90 euros a night per person ($45-$100). Eating can be economical, too, as seen by the cost of the meal above. The traditional Spanish “menu del dia” (3 course lunch) at around 10 euros each in most restaurants, with evening tapas 1-2 euros each, or free with your drink.
The Route of St. Teresa in the Castilla y Leon region of Spain begins an hour west of Madrid in Avila where she was born. It is a several day self-guided tour of the region incorporating the historic sites associated with the life and death of Teresa of Avila. 2015 is the 500th centenary of her birth. More than a thousand activities are planned, but a big one is the 20th edition of The Ages of Man Exposition which celebrates her life and work with an exhibit titled: Teresa of Avila, a Master of Prayer. http://www.spainisculture.com/en/eventos/avila/exposicion-teresa-jesus-maestra-oracion-edades-hombre.html
For more information about traveling to Spain this summer see
For Saint Teresa Castilla y Leon tour info see:
Paprika Potatoes (my deconstruction of the potatoes we were served)
1-2 large potatoes per person (depending on appetite)
1 slice thick cut bacon per person
For every 2 cups of mashed potatoes (approximately 1 pound uncooked potatoes) add:
2 cloves garlic chopped
½ TBS smoked paprika
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp cumin
Pepper to taste
To cook: Peal, cube and boil potatoes as you usually do; then drain, reserving cooking liquid. While potatoes are cooking, sauté garlic in olive oil to release flavors, but do not brown. Fry bacon until crisp, drain on paper towel.
To assemble: Mash potatoes coarsely, mix in garlic and olive oil, adding enough reserved cooking liquid to achieve desired consistency. Stir in paprika, cumin, taste to adjust seasoning with salt & pepper and transfer to warm bowl. Break bacon in half and stick into mashed potatoes like a pin cushion. Serve.
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