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Mist, Syrens, and Cod
by Jose A. Zorrilla
February is the winter's heart. I have a vivid remembrance of those unending gloomy afternoons in Indautxu, trying not to outlive the season or the month but just the day, pretending that there would be no morrow, no future after that gray, rainy present. Long, straight corridors, dull colours all around, a pervading smell of moisture and stale air, most specially in the chapel, where we would spend a minimum of one hour a day.
The winter brought not only smells or sights but sounds too. I could recognize,even now, the particular drumming of the rain drops in the living room windows, and the rattling of the Northwest gusts on the dining room wooden glass frames. Rain had a singing quality in some of the rooms, the dripping drops fell from the pipes in an idiomatic manner. I got used to it, to its beat. Many Sandokan adventures, many Verne's fantastic voyagers took place atuned to its rhythm.
But above all I remember the syrens. Those who have not lived in a port cant know it. Syrens are as part of the landscape as clouds or hills. They are invisible signs of sea life, of distant lands and continents, a reminder of things to come, a shriek of deliverance. All sea city dwellers share that unspoken complicity, the greeting of the waves.
Many times, in inhospitable places, in hotels of bed and breakfast, in chambers only inhabited once, in towns where I knew nobody and nobody knew me, the faded shade of a ship's sigh running on the fog would lift my spirits. I was on familiar grounds, I shared the sea and the tides with those folks, perhaps that very same seagulls had flown in Bilbao, perhaps some of the ship's containers were heading right now for El Abra, or some of her sailors had got drunk by the mouth river, or even now, as the ship was making for some unknown destination, the meal on the dining room had come from the drugstore Ahedo, a favourite place for ship cooks the world over.
In February the syrens became strangely near, brought home by the wet in the mist. I learned it when I got my A levels. Physics finally explained the mystery of sound transmission to a kid that was clumsily becoming a little man. Other mysteries swelled, of nearer and more urgent appeal. But they would only be discovered much later and at considerable waste.
Yet, if February is the winter's heart, it is its equator as well. The ppl of the North have proverbs on February, the idea behind being that by that month days get longer, so long in fact that even an idiot can tell. For the Catholic Church, and for the others denominations as well, Christmas has the divine and magic quality of the solstice. The shortest day is the holiest journey. But February and its fortunes could not go unnoticed. And from the pages of legend and martyrdom, the Church drew Saint Agatha, patroness of the ligth and...the throat's ailings.
When I was a kid my aunt would bring me dutifully to the Church every February 4th and holding a lit candle in our hands we would walk in a procession around the aisle while singing forgotten devotions. At the end of the ceremony the priest blessed our offerings which were supposed to acquire healing qualities. My aunt would buy candies from Santiaguito, a well known confectionery, candies of dark colour, and of vague milky consistence. Toffee were they called. Later on, when the inevitable colds or sore throats occurred they were administered profusely, in the hope of mitigating the illness evil. Not to much effect, I am forced to admit, since my other aunt died of throat cancer.
Be it as it may, the procession had deep cultural roots. Candelaria is a very important feast in some parts of the Spanish speaking world, even today, and as far as basques are concerned, we have always celebrated it in a very peculiar way. Singing, that is. Small choirs of men (at least in my days) would take to the streets, and carrying lit lanterns, old fashion candle lanterns, would sing a song in praise of Saint Agatha, marking the two beat melody with small round wood sticks. After the song they would request the passer's will. A kind of Boxing Day on Feb 4th. It was a musical evening allright and some of the choirs sang really well, specially the soloists, amateur guys with astonishingly beautiful timbers. Never could match them. Just one of the lot.
Here are the words as I remember them from my faded memories of otxote days.
"Aitzal du daigun Agate deuna/ bijar daba deun Agate. Etxe o netan zori o jon utza/ betiko euko aldabe."
And the soloist would continue: "Deun Agate na ba tze ko gatoz/ aurten bei gasko berberak/ igazlez artuge gixu bertazabal/ du zuben zazelak."
I dont want to put my foot on it but all this come and go of soloist and choir could have something to do with the religious character of the day. Antiphonal is called that style in gregorian Chant. OK, you can skip that if you wish. No pretence at musicology.
So, lets imagine that our singers have fresh cash in their pockets and decide to end the evening in a restaurant. Where else?
Notin fancy, the good ole home made booth will do.
And they order a big, big, big pan of cod biscayenne.
Some chorizo to begin with.
And a basque cake to end that light snack.
CHORIZO IN SHERRY.
To make chorizo go patrician is a rather difficult endeavour. No question the salami is tough stuff, garlic and paprika giving to it its specific taste. Yet there are ways to make it more urbane. Try this one.
Fry the chorizo in a spoonful of oil or bacon (remember *not* smoked *not* salted) and at the very end add a shot of sherry or whisky. Flames will follow, some smoke, and an excellent and red sauce will form. Perfect for bread ducking.
You may not be in favour of turning your house into a frying spot or you may be afraid not to be able to control flames or smoke. Well, there is an alternative. Boiling.
Get the chorizo and boil it in broth. Make the broth with a cube of something and some sherry.
Of course the chorizo has to admit such a treatment. As you know there is chorizo and chorizo. Some, of the dry kind, cannot be boiled or fried.
There is no way to get around this. Cod is a difficult proposal. Not because it does not get fluffy, like souffle. Nor because it is almost impossible to cook it up to the precise point, roasted white duck meat, for instance. But for the simple reason that it is salted and the exact point of salt is impossible to gauge until you have it cooked. Basque moms fought this, thanks to a steady supply of cod. They always bought it from the same place and of the same quality. This is becoming increasingly difficult since cod is fading away and you lay hands on what you get, period. An additional factor is prize. Back it my days it used to be cheap. Therefore there was a reason to keep buying it. Not any more. Here in Canada it is almost as expensive as lobster. It does not make much sense. Yet, if there is an ethnic basque food this is cod. So we will go for one of the best known and most revered of basque recipes. Cod biscayenne.
One pound of salted cod. Four bell peppers Twelve of fourteen sun dried red peppers (sweet) One dozen (basque measure) medium carrots Two big onions Fish broth
First thing is to leave the cod soaking in water for at least twenty four hours either changing the water often or leaving the tap open.
The basic thing is of course the sauce.
Make a red sauce following this procedure.
Leave the noras to soak in warm water at least overnight. Scrub the pulp from the inside of the nora and keep it.
Boil the carrots and mash them in a food processor.
Chop the onions and fry them medium heat till transparent.
Mix the three ingredients above. That s the red thingammy.
I know, it might be difficult to find sweet noras in the US or Canada. Well, just anywhere. Go for tomato instead. It is against the rules, I admit it, but what the heck, this is America, folks, next Christmas in Donosti.
As to the bell peppers, throw them in the oven, 450, let them roast, peel them and use them for decoration.
Now, once the red stuff is ready, add some fish broth to it or water (water is the home made stock) and boil the cod slowly.
Leave it to rest overnight and next day before you eat it try it and adjust the salt level if necessary. It is a good idea not to put any salt till the very last moment since cod oozes salt and therefore makes the broth saltier and saltier as time goes by.
The dessert could be some form of custard. Easy. Before you start to scream (bad memories from school, I guess) let me tell you that there are custards and custards. The basque custard, my dears, is something apart.
Get like a two quarters (two water glasses) of milk and boil some cinnamon and vanilla on it. Some sugar too. Your taste be your guide. Leave in the frig to cool.
Once it is cool put it on low heat and pour inside the yalk of eight to ten eggs and keep moving with a wooden spatula or something similar till it acquires a certain degree of consistency. No less than thirty minutes in any case. Back to the frig to spend the night waiting.
All similarity with previous custards will be purely coincidental.
And our otxotarras will come back home blessing Saint Agatha and the passers-by generosity.
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Jose A. Zorrilla