Another weekend, another visit to the pueblo. Like a good Spanish girl I now have my very own village to spend weekends and holidays in ‘con mi gente’ (with my folks). This time I took the coach up there with a friend after work on Friday, meeting, frazzled, at Avenida America station. As we settled into our fuzzy coach seats I noticed my handbag, normally clutched under my arm as tightly as a drill-instructor´s baton, had been slashed in transit on the metro,a gaping razor-blade cut all the way down the seam,so that it was almost spilling its guts. And here the old maxim is proved, girls: you get what you pay for in life. It was a quality handbag, soft leather with satin lining, and though the slasher had cut through both layers cleanly it appears his/her hand had been unable to slip inside due to the complication of the expensive lining. So after all they left empty-handed. After cursing the potential thief and the mutilation of a good handbag I began to relax as we pulled out of Madrid. Soon the sky was opening up, the slopes of the sierra falling back and the cares and stresses of the city falling away like sloughing off old, dead skin. I had been singled out from the pack; I had been stalked and hunted. But this prey had managed to escape.
Not so lucky if you happen to be prey in the countryside however. On the second morning as we ambled up to the bar we were met by a jaunty Angel Jr.
´What, you guys only just had breakfast? I’ve been up since 6! I went hunting with some friends of Dad’s.’ Please don’t show us what you caught, please don’t show us what you caught….
‘I shot 2 deer. Wanna see?’
‘Er, no thanks, I think we’ll just have a coffee.’
And we might have got away with not having to actually see the spoils had it not been for one of dad’s friends striding through the bar as we sipped our coffee and slapping Angel Jr on the back while telling us proudly,
‘He’s a good little hunter, this one, look what he caught this morning.’ As we glanced round to answer him we saw that behind us, without us noticing, Angel Jr had deposited a huge, grizzly chunk of deer on the metal table where we had eaten our dinner the night before. It was literally a chunk of haunch, something hacked off as if with a machete. Fur bristled along one side of it. Blood and gore oozed from the other side, across the metal table-top. My friend (a vegetarian) and I must have both pulled a ‘cara de circunstancia’ at this point. (A ‘Circumstance face’- one of those faces that says ‘Look, I really don’t know how to appropriately arrange my features right now. I know you were expecting something else, but this is all I can manage I’m afraid: a mortified grimace overlaid with the hint of a sickly smile. It’s the best I can do at such short notice. Sorry.’)
According to Pili it was a young deer, as was the other one Angel Jr had shot that morning. She went on to express her sympathy for it, telling me ‘Me da un poco pena, sabes?’ (I feel a bit sorry for it, you know?) She painted a pretty grim picture of hunting restrictions and permits out here in the back of beyond, hunters legally permitted to pick off older male deer basically shooting whatever takes their fancy. After all, who’s going to control who kills what out here? And it’s not as if they always eat the meat, either.
‘Oh no, sometimes they can’t be bothered to carry the carcass back- a deer’s quite heavy. So some of the time they just cut the head off as a trophy and leave the body out there.’ Food for the vultures, presumably. She then described how upset she’d been a while ago when the hunters brought back the ‘trophy’ of a very young deer’s head. Except they’d been unable to decapitate it cleanly for some reason, so instead of just cutting its head off they’d had to cut round its snout and under the eyes. Apparently it had retained its terrified expression.
‘And it was looking up at me with these big brown, pathetic eyes… poor little thing….’ So let me get this straight. Not only did they kill Bambi, they then had to go and cut it’s face off. Anyone would be traumatised under the circumstances. Even Pili, and she’s 100% Spanish.
Although I’m beginning to wonder. Perhaps she had some distant ancestor with British blood, as I have never met such a total Soft Lass around animals as Pili. Currently they have one rescue dog from Madrid (I ended up rescuing its sister, but that is another story). Now they have another rescue dog – an enormous hound of a mastiff which Angel calls ‘mi cachorrita’ (My Little Puppy) but is approximately twice his size. This second dog was snatched from the jaws of death, about to meet a watery end in a bucket with the rest of the litter. And these are by far not the only animals Angel and Pili have rescued in the years I have known them. They used to have a terrapin in the bathroom years ago which they fed jamon york (boiled ham) and which grew too big for its flippers, maybe as a direct result, so they released it into the wild. There are other dramatic rescue stories involving an oversized frog, and a small type of owl, and once, with the help of local authorities, after reporting the abuse, a mistreated donkey. I’m pretty sure the latter didn’t end up going home with them, whereas the others all did. Probably only because they didn’t have room.
But my favourite rescue story which perfectly illustrates Pili’s Spanish pragmatism combined with ‘British’ daft compassion is the story of The Snail. Recently they were offering a local speciality on the menu- snails. Pili had filled a cooking pot with cold water and deposited the live snails inside it to heat up slowly while she carried on cooking. Apparently this is the correct way to cook them, as at first they strain to escape. Then when it gets too hot it’s too late for them to retract back into their shells, so they are cooked half in and half out. Anyway, Pili turned round as the snails cooked to find one brave and tenacious individual hauling itself over the lip of the pan. Bearing in mind the hardships it had already suffered and the sheer improbability of it making it this far alive, she decided to spare its life and nicknamed it Sobreviviente (Survivor). Maybe she’d recently seen The Pianist, who knows? It had survived the Snail Genocide and was granted a pardon. From then on for the next 3 weeks it lived in the kitchen in a shoe box, fed on prime lettuce. A heart-warming story, most of us would agree. But, life being a bastard, and absurd to boot, Survivor only Survived 3 weeks, to meet an equally ghastly fate in a mean, Final Destination twist of fate. It may have escaped the frying pan but the Hounds of Hell were hot on its heels nevertheless. (Heels?…. slimey stump?….) One day one of the dogs bounded into the kitchen and Pili turned round at the sound of crunching to find Survivor gone and the dog wagging its tail and licking its lips.
So Pili is sentimental enough to rescue a snail, but pragmatic enough to slow-boil a panful of them live without batting an eyelid. And it doesn’t stop there. My friend was curious enough to ask what one of the items on the menu was- ‘pajaritos fritos.’ Now, translated straight, this means fried little birds. But surely it can’t actually mean?…. ‘It’s fried baby birds.’ she told us. ‘Quail chicks, but when they’re still really small.’ Somehow this shouldn’t have surprised either of us, yet it did. There is, after all, a great culinary tradition here of gobbling up baby animals- the younger the better. There is cochinillo (suckling pig), cabrito (baby goat), and corderito (little lamb). There are even chopitos (baby squid) which are battered and fried whole, and I must admit, totally delicious if you can handle the weeny tentacles, which I can. Oh, and there are also gulas (baby eel.) So no qualms about ripping tiny creatures from their mothers’ tit and slinging them into the cooking pot. And frying things whole and eating them with the head on and everything- that’s also pretty normal, and in some cases not as horrific as it sounds. Boquerones (whitebait) are eaten battered whole, as are the baby squid. But baby quails? Baby birds? Are you for real? Beak and all? Tiny little curled up feet and stumpy unformed wings? I just couldn’t get the image of their scrawny little necks out of my head, those wobbly necks and open beaks, bulging eyes and oversized bald heads. You’ve already killed Bambi. You can’t go and garrotte Tweety Pie and serve him up with chips as well.
‘Baby birds? Fried whole?’
‘Oh yes,’ says Pili, ‘They’re really crispy and delicious. I do feel a bit sorry for them, though, poor little things….’