I was sitting in a large overstuffed chair with my mother, local friends, and Maria, the older lady of the home we were in. She was hosting us with delicious homemade pastries of almond cookies (perrunillas) and these amazingly delicious doughnut-like treats called prestinos. They were drenched in honey – my favorite! Steaming hot cafe con leche (coffee with milk) was served all around the table, even though it was already after five in the afternoon. I had the fleeting thought that I probably was not going to fall asleep quickly that night, but as always it would be worth the experience. We were gathered around a table that underneath had an old fashioned brazier, or in Spanish un brasero. It is the way that they heat their homes and stay warm in these colder winter months. I have become accustomed to seeing these in all the homes I’ve been in throughout this region of Extremadura. Usually they are electric or fueled by propane gas. However this was the first one I had ever seen that was so old-fashioned; it is what they call un brasero de picon which uses live hot charcoals from the wood of Encina trees (known in Europe as the Holly Oak). You read right…these are used under a regular table in a house with a heavy fabric tablecloth over it! Sound like a fire hazard to you? It did to me too at first, but that’s the beauty of traveling…we get to learn about different customs and ways of life and it certainly has worked this long for them. Nowadays, it is more commonly used among the older generations.
This pueblo, Valle de Matamoros, certainly gets cold weather, which we were starting to feel as we walked around earlier. It is even known to snow in the winters, since it is one of the villages in this area that is at a higher altitude. Spread out along a hillside, the little houses are built close together, so much so that the aged stone streets are more like narrow alleyways that most vehicles would not fit through. From the main highway entrance higher up, they descend steeply and wind their way with sharp turns in between the white-washed walls. It really is amazing how the villages are built in this way. One drives by wondering if you’re going to scrape a house wall and since many doorways are left open in the daytime, you see the inside of little homes built side by side in these rows of buildings that slope down the steep terrain. The height and shape of the buildings vary so much, the tallest being only three floors anyways. Their staggered layout seems sporadic, yet in an endearing and cozy way that makes you feel like everyone living there wants to live close to each other. When you think about it, to live in a place like this, you certainly have to desire being close to your neighbors. With this in mind, it is no wonder that the closeness of family and friends is so important and how it originates with these small communities.
Maria is this village’s primary guisadora who prepares and provides the specialized and cured meats from the cerdos (pigs). As we drove in, we saw her walking up one of the steep narrow streets and our friends Antonio and Sandra who were guiding us this afternoon, stopped to talk with her. They are friends with her entire family and join them for la matanza, the butchering of the pigs that is an honored living tradition in the communities here. Even though we had come to their village spontaneously and with no notice, she insisted that we make our way to her home to have coffee and pastries. Then we continued further down and around sharp turns crammed in between houses, until we reached the small plaza further down. We parked there and were greeted by Maria’s son-in-law, Jose who is good friends with Antonio. His cute little boy, also name Jose, was with him and took off running, while us adults leisurely began to walk through the town.
The small street we took seemed like a path, it was not that wide at all. Along it ran an old rock wall, the type of which I’ve become used to seeing around here. The view beyond was beautiful in the colors of the dimming sunlight as night was approaching. Small cats ran free here and there and chickens, donkeys, even goats and turkeys, were some of the “neighbors” living on the other side of the wall. Beyond that the land continued to slope away into open countryside, green and lush with olive trees scattered throughout among other vegetation and foliage. In the far distance, was a vista of small ranges of hills that were terraced in deepening shades of dark green touched with grey-blue hues.
This path was taking us along the bottom edge of the village and once we had walked around to the other side and were making our way up hill and into the center, we were arriving at the home of Maria. It did not take long at all to circle this lower-half of the village. Jose took us into a small house that had a kitchen full of hanging meats. It was where they cure and then hang and store all the meats in the tradition of this region. There is the front leg of the pig (la paleta), the back leg (el jamon) and the varieties of sausage links, which range from chorizo, la morcilla, and el salchichon. It was pretty interesting standing there under a ceiling full of hanging meats everywhere. And the ceiling was not that high either. We munched on castanas (chestnuts) that came from a large sack in the corner. Funny to think of how the pigs that ended up as these hanging meats, had been fed similar nuts called bellotas, or acorns. Now here we were, eating nuts as well. Hhhmmm…no wonder the people in this area see all living things as simply connected and they hold high respect for these animals. They raise them in the wild and feed them well, making sure that they roam in large fields which causes them to exercise as they go to one end of the land where their food is and then traverse to the opposite end for where the water is. And this is a pig’s life in Spain when they are raised in the traditional way, natural way. The result? A healthier, natural meat and, in my opinion, very tasty and delicious.
Coming out of the house of meats, we merely crossed the tiny street to where Maria was waiting for us in her front door. She welcomed us into the front living area and I admired how she has many lush green plants growing along one wall. They were hung up and around a doorway that led into another room. We greeted her with a kiss on each cheek and also met her little granddaughter, Claudia. As we sat around the table first mentioned in this story, she came bustling out with the previously promised pastries and then proceeded to pour us the cafe con leche. Her daughter Maria Jose is married to Jose and she had just arrived and was able to join us.
And here is where the story began, because it was in this moment when I sat back and realized that these are the experiences that I travel for. Here I was, a complete stranger to these people, and already they had welcomed us into their very home and were serving us with their own food and drink. Maria sat to my left and while her grandson clambered up onto the back of her chair to stare at me, she also looked intently at me as well. Her eyes were dark-brown and so intent yet soft with warmth. So much kindness is what I saw there and felt from her while sitting in her home with her and enjoying her family. We talked of the country and economy, how the hard the times are with the lack of work and fewer jobs to be found. As most conversations are in Spanish, we were animated and speaking rapidly and excitedly, at times becoming quite passionate and loud as we discussed our lives and the state of the country. We also talked about other things, like traveling and how beautiful Lisbon is, but how ultimately, we all love this little village.
When the time came to leave, we gave each other more kisses and hugs and made plans to see each other again this weekend. My mother and I are going to visit Maria and her village again to experience la matanza they are having this Saturday! As I mentioned before, this is a very old traditional event. It tends to take place twice a year and is where everyone in the village comes together to butcher the pigs that they have been raising. They spend the day together eating tons of homemade food and utilizing all of the pig for making meats and sausages for the coming year. I am assuming it is not exactly for the weak of stomach, but I am up for the challenge and will be sure to write about the experience for you here. This way you can read about it and decide for yourself if you ever want to witness it one day in person, should the opportunity ever arise for you.
Valle de Matamoros…experiencing this small rural village was special and authentic because of meeting it’s residents. They embody the essence of the culture of Spain that continues to welcome people with open arms and kind hospitality. No matter what may be going on in the country, in the economy and the world, cultures are found based in the families and in their homes, and perhaps in their precious beautiful pueblos.