Down on the Iberian peninsula, life is tough – but not for all. Maybe one of Spain’s biggest problems is its decentralisation (autonomias) – which emphasises huge disparities in regional wealth, culture and even language. The Catalans now say they want out – that would be 7.5 million of them (the same population as Bulgaria), while the 2.1 million Basques seem to have quietened down a bit, perhaps because they always dominate Spain’s economic table, however woeful that may be.
Meanwhile in the vast plains of Castile (Spain’s largest region, yet with barely 2.5 million people), life is toughening up – as I discovered nosing around Leon, one of its great historical cities. At least Leon has stylish Spanish canines at its tapas bars. I snapped this chap last weekend in the Barrio Humedo where heaving humanity squeezed inside and outside the network of tapas bars, lapping up autumnal sunshine post Saturday marketing – along with a few beers and sparse food. Just 5 minutes walk from Leon’s cathedral, one of Europe’s Gothic masterpieces, the tapas barrio ends at the elegant, arcaded Plaza Mayor. Here I dived into the weekly market, a seductive spectacle of rickety food-stalls, pink-cheeked country women and crates piled high with naturally glossy, technicolour produce. But punters seemed scarce, and weren’t exactly buying in truckloads.
Unlike Donostia / San Sebastian, I’m not impressed by Leon’s tapas bars, altogether too meaty for my taste. They’re mad about their morcilla (black pudding) prepared like a soupy porridge with onion, garlic, pine-nuts and paprika. Thanks but no thanks. And they’re altogether obsessive about their embutidos (cured meats) – which you knock your head against entering a bar or sidling up to a market van. Chorizos of all kind and cecina (cured beef) take the front row while to the side is another local speciality, potro leones, aka cured horsemeat – loads of it. Olé! There was quite a crowd round the van selling that speciality.
What is excellent is Leon’s sirloin steak, almost as good as the succulent Tudanca beef of Cantabria, just over the mountains to the north. Below you can see a Cantabrian quadriped contemplating the Lago Enol high up in the Picos de Europa – though this one would be raised more for milk than meat – contributing to that punchy Cabrales blue cheese. This Asturian special is such an intensely sharp, penicillined blue that it should really only be used for sauces. Instead, for blue cheese heaven, try Valdeon, a Leonese sibling that is altogether more palatable and looks the part wrapped in a sycamore leaf. No photo though – and I digress.
Back at Leon’s market I loved the huge, scarlet red peppers from the Bierzo region, curly and sculptural, although still plentiful just before the market packed up. Not a sell-out. To help the economy, I snapped up several huge heads of fragrant ajo morado (purple garlic), now at their seasonal crunchy best – and my secret delight when roasted.
As I left the square, loaded with a haul of cheese, garlic, olives, almonds and dried Alpujarran figs to smuggle back to London, I spotted a surprisingly chirpy sign outside a cafe: for 1 euro you could get a coffee, a bottle of mineral water or a glass of beer – aka “anti-recession prices” (for the Spanish, as for the French, the word for recession is ‘crisis’).
A deal indeed, though hard to make a living out of – prompting me to think that with more doses of such positivity Spain should eventually drag itself out of the morass. But then came graffiti spelling out Llion solu. Presumably these two words in local dialect pointed to a desired future – of “Leon alone”. Inward-looking, small-minded and harking back to the old days, this meant a return to pre-1301, before the unification of Castile and Leon! Medieval or what? When will man – Spaniard, Castilian, Basque or Catalan – ever learn?
Out in the countryside though, who would ever dream there was a crisis?