The Spanish province of Palencia is an unwelcoming place during Spring. Dense fog and snow drifts cover the roads; some major highways are closed. The roads that run through the province are little more than featureless, endless stretches of asphalt flanked by wheat fields, forests. Punctuated by tiny hamlets with double-figure populations that flash by in a rev of a car engine. It’s a rural outpost, made up of small villages nestled in amongst mountains passes and plateaus. It’s altogether mysterious and isolated; a place that exists beyond the sweaty grasp of mass tourism.
The Village of Guardo sits at the foot of the peaks of Europe mountain range, at the Northen most point of Palencia. It used to be a mining town; nowadays it’s another working-class community trying to make ends meet in a time of economic uncertainty. An abandoned viaduct welcomes motorists into the village, the construction company tasked with building it downed tools and left when the financial 2008 crisis hit, and in these parts, it hit hard. Various houses and commercial buildings lay half constructed and left forsaken; you could be forgiven for thinking that a natural disaster had hit and severely damaged the local infrastructure. The entrance into the village is a winding perilous road downhill that twists into pine forest bends and across commercial freight train tracks. The village is a jumble of different style buildings, some of them whitewash turn of the century adobe shacks, and others are ugly brown brick tenement buildings, hastily erected in the 1970s for migrating families looking for coal mining jobs. It´s not the most picturesque village Spain, but under the crude architecture, the town is a living breathing pillar of deep rural Spanish society.
Guardo is a place where religion, hunting, and farming are still a deeply rooted way of life. Church congregation attendances are high. On Sunday’s people put on their best outfits and go out to partake in tapas and drink locally produced wines and vermouths. Sunday is the day gunshots fill the surrounding mountains as lunch drunk hunters with high caliber rifles roam the forests filled with bloodlust, looking to fill chest freezers full of duck and hare.
The people of Guardo have a proud sense of community that is reflected in their local Fiestas which they celebrate all year round regardless of the weather. The carnival season takes place in bitter depths of February, and people attend these events dressed as Disney characters and Spanish Knights of past and party into the small hours of the morning.
They are unafraid to intensely live life to the fullest; they do not fit the mold of city-refined coffee franchise dwellers with hyper anxiety disorders and food intolerances. It might be a cliché to say that the rugged topography of the region of deep Spain mirrors that of the character of the people of the area, but there is an inherent truth to it. Life is tough for unskilled workers to make a decent wage, corrupt politicians and unscrupulous employers are ten a penny, no job is safe, and even civil servants are subjected to pay freezes and unpaid wages, but they are profoundly proud and undeniably hardworking people, and due to their provincial isolation; quite rough around the edges
The food in Guardo is of the utmost importance, it’s the one passion that sits close to every Spaniard’s heart, and most food is in the local village taverns is harvested from and butchered in the surrounding hills. Forward-thinking artisanal food producers believe and invest in the almighty zero kilometer policy, using zero preservatives, and zero additives, it’s locally sourced from low impact primary ingredients; forest floor plucked mushrooms, hand plundered raw honey and freshly butchered and cured pig meats. It is by design, true culinary conservationism. When served in the local taverns the tapas are often married up with a typically bold and ruddy selection of red wines. Some of them are, pungent and smooth and fruity and others nothing more than rocket fuel for tavern fighters that will leave you with a tainted red set of teeth and a wanton need to stomp people in bar fights.
The weekly village pop-up market is the main social event in which village life orbits around. The market almost entirely occupies the center of the village, forcing the locals to double park; cars are always stacked up on the side of the road like complex Tetris puzzles. The routine is that when somebody wants to leave, they lean on the car claxon until somebody else moves their vehicle and gives them enough room to drive out. It’s like a DIY valet system with all the stress and anxiety of putting up an Ikea flat pack in the middle of an earthquake. Despite the fundamental lack of logic, it seems to work regardless of the fights it causes.
The village market is at full capacity, it’s a close quarter affair, comprising of steel structures and tarps set up in rows, reminiscent of a Middle Eastern Medina. It all takes place within a block of tenement building streets that cover the old Miner’s quarters. Everybody knows each other, and they all stop to chat in groups creating human bottlenecks in the lanes. The market is cut into sections like districts of a city. The clothes and kitchenware section is run almost exclusively by local Gypsy families who advertise their wares verbally in their own singsong lispy Spanish that can be hard to understand to the untrained ear. They regularly break into song, a throaty flamenco style which starts low and ends in a high crescendo, like birds communicating, one will begin to sing, and few stalls down the street another will join in. They entice clientele with sweet complements which roll off their tongue with lubricated ease. “Hey handsome you look wonderful today. These shoes on sale are one of a kind real leather; designer, but don´t ask me where I got them from.” It´s a cool sales technique, and they advertise their wares as if they discovered them in a magical Aladdin´s cave. The idea that they may have fallen off the back of a truck or have been liberated in the early hours of the morning from a poorly guarded warehouse only appeals more to the consumer because it guarantees that the goods are not poor reproductions made in China.
The kitchenware section is set in a runoff alleyway; they sell shallow Paella dishes, barbecue grills, and portable gas cookers; designed primarily for cooking rice dishes and meat stews in the open air. The vendors are mainly made up of South American families, Peruvian and Colombians; they are quiet and observant, their heads poke out of Michelin man jackets as they shiver in the bitter cold. They tour villages like this every market day, living out of vans with the windows blacked out by Bob Marley bandanas. They are unreadable, always offhandedly polite. They may speak the same language as the Spanish, but they are vastly different culturally.
The local food producers provide an end to the market, in the corner of the village square, this is where it becomes difficult to maneuver. It’s mid-morning the Spanish are hungry, they´ve had a glass of wine or a bottle of local beer, and they are restless and hungry to get their hands on some prize zero kilometer produce. It’s a first come first served system, and the crowds are surging as the prime cuts of meat and select vegetables are making an appearance in the stalls. The food vendors that occupy this corner of the market bring in their wares from the surrounding areas; they are mainly Spanish and stern- burly and formidable types with one eye looking out for thieves the other on the other on the clientele. They grunt out prices and tidbits of information on how to get the best out of the produce on offer and they also bellow out recipe ideas like boxing referees. The food vendors advertise their produce by growling in raspy low bass tone, when all shouting in unison, they sound like a baritone orchestra. “Get your artichokes and get your carrots here, the most beautiful carrots you will set eyes on.” The carrots are not your usual supermarket standard dimensions and uniform color, but they are organic, and unlike insipid supermarket vegetables, they are bursting with flavor, purely because the farmer had plucked them from the ground in his allotment somewhere in surrounding mountains.
The butcher´s stall sits in the middle of the market. It is the only place where people don’t stop to chat. There is a ticket queuing system to attempt to instill order into the chaos, but instead, it’s utter pandemonium. The butcher’s special of the day is Milk-fed lamb at 15 Euros a Kilo; it’s locally produced and Origin-protected from a farm, not ten kilometers away from the village. The butcher yells out the prices of each item in between serving customers, wrapping the meat in paper and slamming it down on the counter and bellowing for the next customer to present themselves to be served. Legs of ham and chorizo sausage dangle above his head swinging back and forth like Newton’s cradle of meat. Garlic is an essential part of the winter diet here, and several vendors have set up stalls selling them for a Euro a string, the sweet smelling and swollen bulbs scent the air with a bitter and potent perfume.
There is an entire laneway dedicated to gourmet seafood preserves in cans, Octopus in a garlic sauce, clams in brine, sardines and cod fillets. Jose Andres the TV chef that brought Haute Spanish cuisine to America has a whole line of gourmet canned seafood to his name, with Sea Urchin Caviar, Mussels in Escabeche, and Baby Squid in ink, handmade in factories along the Galician coast.
Stalls selling homemade local wines are prominent; mainly produced in underground cellars. Artisan wine collectives from the surrounding village buy grapes and using traditional methods, they place them in a press and squeeze out the liquid and ferment it in underground wine caverns after that follows a period of fermentation where the process of inhaling carbon dioxide can be fatal, bodegas are sealed off during these times. During the process accidents sometimes happen and it’s not uncommon to hear of smalltime winemakers occasionally succumbing to asphyxiation.
Just to the South of the province of Palencia is the Ribera Del Duero wine valley. It ’s a bold and robust wine, an intense red that marries well with Spanish Winter and Spring dishes. The wine areas around these parts have acutely hot summers and bone-chilling winters. It’s a wine that travels well around the globe, and it always brings me a sense of comfort when I see it. Sometimes in the grim, stark and joyless light of a London convenience store, a bottle of Ribera Del Duero will catch my eye on a liquor shelf, a little reminder that there is wonderment in the North of Spain.
Once the market begins to wind down, I take my shopping back to my car, thankfully the Tetris puzzle of parked cars has solved itself, and I am able to drive out of the village with ease. The shopping trip has been worth it, spending little over 20 Euros I have some variety of different local produce to indulge in, wild boar chorizo, preserved seafood, and locally produced wines to keep me in artisanal – zero kilometer produce for a while. Then I drive back to the highway to face the fog, the snow drifts, and the endless landscapes as far as the eye can see.
BIO: After studying at the London School of Journalism, Anthony Bain has spent the last 18 years living in Barcelona and sharing his writing about the city for such publications as The Barcelona Metropolitan Magazine. His first travel book “Wanderings Along the Camino” is available on Amazon.