Friday, December 21, 2007

A Perilous Affair: A Very Personal History of the Pomegranate

 id=This afternoon I stopped by El Corte Inglés and asked for a pomegranate at the fruit counter. It was the first time that I ever asked for one - a granada - in Spanish, and just articulating it made me smile. There is something a little more than magical about the pomegranate - but then again, I'm biased.

Tomorrow Se
ñor Gato and I are off on our Christmas holidays and I won't be able to blog until the New Year. So my Christmas offering then is a story that I wrote several years ago shortly after the Christmas holidays which was published by All Rights Reserved. Because I haven't yet packed and have no time to be creative - and I've had 3 too many glasses of rioja - I'll reproduce it here in its entirety. Yes it's long. And very self indulgent. But please, no need to thank me.

Happy Holidays!


Now that the bedlam of the holidays is but an awful memory, I can indulge myself by taking the time to honour and admire my annual yuletide pomegranate in silent and reverent awe. This year’s offering, a deviation from the traditional crimson pomegranate, is a small but robust yellow-ochre fruit speckled and freckled and slightly puckered by the Andalusian sun; it is a thing of wondrous beauty. But before I pop the slippery seeds into my mouth, suck on the pulp and feel each pip explode on my tongue, I am compelled to ruminate upon the fruit’s role in my life, the evolution or germination of our relationship. In the spirit of personal reflection which this season demands, I put aside my knife and stave off the sweetness that tempts me. In any case, this brief retrospection is far preferable to vows of dieting, exercising and calling my mother more often; in truth, I have gotten off easily.

Over the years, my experiences with the fruit have been diverse, but my earliest memories of the pomegranate were shaped by Greek mythology; as it turns out, not the most auspicious of beginnings. Horrified yet entranced, I read and reread the tale of Persephone and her abduction by Hades into hell where she reigned, unwillingly, as Queen of the Underworld. Her consumption of a handful of pomegranate seeds in a fit of hunger (perhaps a veiled allusion to the world’s first eating disorder) sealed her fate below ground; the number of months she was confined in the netherworld corresponded with the number of seeds she ate. The myth also served to explain the passing of the seasons: her captivity initiated winter while her return to the world of the living heralded the advent of spring. This tale of kidnapping, sexual assault, temptation, and marital strife undeservedly molded my earliest feelings about pomegranates. I stayed shy of them for many years; clearly, they were dangerous.

Little did I know that the “Punic apple” (as the Romans called it, hinting at a Carthaginian ancestry) was believed to be among the first fruits cultivated by humankind, probably in northern Iran or Turkey some six thousand years ago. A versatile fruit, the ancient Romans tanned its rind – a precursor of “pleather”, while its juice and seeds were rendered into ink and dye. A downright sexy fruit, it was utilized as a cosmetic (Cleopatra is rumoured to have used its seeds to render her ruby lips even rubier), the Greeks considered it a potent aphrodisiac and the ancient Egyptians and Hebrews (notably in the Song of Songs) used it allegorically in their love poetry. Its healing properties are well-documented across the ancient world: the buds, seeds, juice and rind of the pomegranate were boiled, pounded, mashed or brewed to treat, among other ailments, jaundice, inflamed eyes, dysentery, tapeworms, indigestion, diarrhea, bronchitis, and even nose bleeds. Today, scientists are considering it as a treatment for skin cancer.

For the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians, the pomegranate tree was the quintessential “Tree of Life” and scholars have reasonably argued that this sinfully suggestive fruit was Eve’s offering to Adam in the Garden of Eden, not the Granny Smith. Because of its swollen pods (granata means ‘full of seeds’), it was considered a symbol of fertility, eternal life and healing, not only in the ancient world, but well into Renaissance times, and its image came to permeate the iconography of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Buddhists consider the pomegranate one of three blessed fruits. Its dual appearance, a desiccated dead-like exterior and moist fecund interior of blood-red seeds, emphasizes the fruit’s ying and yan temperament. It is a union of opposites: life and death, male and female, seed and womb – it is no wonder that my relationship with the fruit was never one-dimensional. In medieval representations, pomegranate seeds bled from the horns of unicorns, who in turn symbolized Christ, and the fruit was often included in portraits of the holy family – think Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pomegranate. But the pomegranate was not the prerogative of weighty religious propagandists: its dual nature is attested by its inclusion in the works of more “populist” writers and artists, the likes of Aesop, Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Rossetti, William Morris, Cezanne and Matisse.

Because of their protective hide-like skin, the fruit made excellent travelers; both pomegranates and their popularity spread swiftly along ancient caravan routes while the Conquistadors would bring them (along with smallpox and measles) to the New World. In China, pomegranates were thrown under the nuptial bed of newlyweds to vouchsafe a fruitful union, while Berber women in Morocco would prophecy the number of their offspring by dropping the fruit and counting the number of ejected seeds. Already possessing a crown (as the blossom end of the orb is known) it is understandable then that the pomegranate attained royal status after it was introduced into Spain by the Moors. Pomegranates would eventually grace the coat of arms of Catherine of Aragon, Henry the Eight’s Spanish wife. The city of Granada, the fruit’s namesake, boasts a regal avenue of pomegranate trees which the invaders planted and throughout the city, pomegranate finials top much of what can be topped with a finial.

La granada, le grenade, de granaatappel, der Granatapfel, il melograno – in any language the word rolls on the tongue as sweetly as a pomegranate seed. But the fruit’s dualism can be reflected in words as well as in imagery. The semi-precious stone “garnet” is a cognate of the Latin punica granatum because of its resemblance to the pomegranate seed. On a more sinister note, the French would lend its name (le grenade) to the eponymous explosive because it mirrored the fruit’s shape and was likewise filled with “seeds”, albeit a more lethal nature. This only confirms my childhood instincts that pomegranates are dangerous creatures.

Now, did I know any of this? – hardly. I was eight.

The pomegranate and I mutually kept our distance for the next few years until a rather questionable cocktail intervened and reintroduced the fruit into my life. When I was about eleven years old, I was deemed sufficiently adept in the kitchen to be honoured with the task of mixing a particular cocktail which my mother had recently ‘discovered’ – the Pink Lady. The Pink Lady has fallen out of favour from today’s compendia of cocktails and I am inclined to understand why – how can something so rosy and frothy and virginal compete with the likes of a Snake in the Pants or a Screaming Orgasm? But I digress. Although I still struggled with long division, I could, with skill and aplomb, shake gin (2 parts), lemon juice (1 part), heavy cream (1 part), grenadine (1 part) and ice in her Tupperware gravy maker, strain it into a cocktail glass and garnish it with a maraschino cherry. During these potable tutorials, my father explained to me that grenadine syrup was originally made from pomegranates although, sadly, most syrups now contain little or no fruit at all. O mores, o tempores! – why are the foamy pink cocktails always the ones to suffer most?

I reluctantly left childhood. I weighed the pros and cons of being a little less self-centred and became more aware of the physical world around me. This was especially so at Christmas when I came to realize that it wasn’t all about me – my parents received gifts as well. I began to notice the presence of a lumpy scarlet pomegranate in my mother’s Christmas stocking, a holiday offering from a very hip and urbane Santa Claus. The presence of fruit in Christmas stockings has lost its impact for most of us, but for my parents, who were born between the wars, the inclusion of oranges and other tropical fruits was an extravagance that we simply cannot appreciate. The pomegranate – no longer completely maligned in my mind – finally made an appearance in our household. No longer the stuff of legends or processed sugary syrups, but finally the real thing, an honest-to-goodness pomegranate: a swelling, dented, dappled globe with the leather weather-beaten face of an octogenarian. Neither pretty nor ugly, it was interesting-looking. Learning the secrets of the pomegranate requires effort but like everything else in life, the seeker who is pure of heart is ultimately rewarded. My father showed me how to open this seed-laden orb, how to score the sides of the fruit with a small paring knife, how not to cut too deeply into the “honeycombs”, how to remove the cone-shaped crown and pluck out the seeds which you eat. Over the years, my collective labours with a paring knife have caused more damage to my hands than to the fruit. I wonder now if, unconsciously, I was seeking to emulate the split and bloody flesh of the fruit with my self-inflicted gashes and slashes. Fortunately, my carving skills have improved (marginally) with age. It is an interesting theory and more appealing than admitting that either I am a spasmodic with cutlery or that pomegranates are capable of committing acts of vengeance upon those who cut them.

By the time I was an adult, we had established a truce, and I was more at ease with this enigmatic fruit (each pomegranate has exactly 840 seeds– why is fruit required to be so precise?). Pomegranates began to appear in my life outside of the holiday season and so I acknowledged their presence as permanent. When I was a graduate student working on an excavation in Upper Egypt, our dig house had invited over for cocktails colleagues from Chicago House – the residence and research centre for Egyptologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. For many of us, this was akin to inviting well-to-do relatives over for Christmas dinner; they boasted gracious air-conditioned living quarters, reception rooms and a well-stocked library. We didn’t have flush toilets. Although crates of beer were sourced from a speakeasy in Luxor, it was decided that we should offer an alternative – perhaps cocktails or aperitifs. The local hard liquor was unanimously deemed awful and pricey, and the only alternative was the indigenous (and equally awful and pricey) wine. I suggested a faux-sangria. Fruits were harvested from the souk and, atop the dighouse roof, we concocted a heady brew of a non-vintage Omar Khayyam (red) and the juices of pomegranates (the seeds squished by hand), tangerines, grapes, blood oranges, and grapefruit. Later that evening, under a bejeweled canopy of stars, our sangria was greedily quaffed as if it were the nectar of the gods. Pshaw – it was nectar.

Although the pomegranate and I got off on rather shaky ground, it has taken root, insinuated itself into my life for weal or woe; at the risk of anthropomorphizing a piece of fruit, it has gotten under my skin like a persistent but perhaps flawed suitor, its dual nature making it less than perfect in my eyes. They are no longer interesting-looking but objects of undeniable beauty. Recently, I have been harbouring a fantasy about pomegranates, perhaps representing the climax of our life-long affair; the tables have finally turned and now I pursue it. I want to embrace the fruit completely, to grow my own pomegranate tree so that, each morning, I can open my sun-bleached azure shutters (this is a fantasy), lean outside my geranium-trimmed window and pluck a fruit for breakfast. Surely this is every Canadian’s secret desire? In this reverie, my pomegranate tree is planted on the near side of my olive grove but close to the orange, lemon and almond trees. In order to realize this delusion, I have purchased from the Internet seeds for a Dwarf pomegranate tree. This takes some level of commitment, no? Sadly, it ends there; I am a poor lover. I have read the accompanying instructions and remain too dense to understand phrases like “breaking the dormancy of the seeds” – why does gardening sounds so violent? – or the term “gibberelic”, which I do not believe is really a word anyway.

It is now the dead of winter so I must excavate deep into my yellow pomegranate to find life. Ying and yan. I know that I will not grow a pomegranate tree this year; I am still too intimidated by the process and even if I am successful, our northerly climes guarantee that it will be nothing but a sun-starved house plant. A dwarf of a Dwarf. But I will take solace where I can find it: I have wandered the halls of hell with Persephone in my imagination, drunk the juice of the pomegranate in the quickening shadows of an Egyptian temple, found shade under its branches in Morocco, gaped at its image on medieval tapestries in Paris and delighted in its whimsical form on pottery in Granada. I know that next year there will be another pomegranate at Christmas, as does my mother; long after my father’s death, pomegranates still appear in her stockings. In the meantime, I have my own granada, perhaps plucked near the royal city of pomegranates, to savour. Did Eve offer Adam a pomegranate? I hope so. Was he wrong in taking it? Hell no.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Culture Culinary Shock 101

 id="Egg nog?"

"Egg Nog,"
I repeated. "Egg nog."

"Egg nog?"

When I had finished repeating egg nog for the 6th time, I mused a bit ... "There are two types of egg nog: good nog and bad nog. Well, just like the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead, when egg nog is good, it is very very good and when it is bad it is horrid."

Now if I had recorded this class and were to replay the tape before a college of pedagogical pundits, they would have had no difficulty or hesitation in identifying my piss-poor attempt at defining egg nog as the precise moment when I had lost the class.

Which was too bad because as far as classes go, this was an assemblage of rather brainy and hip individuals, and I had - rather erroneously - laboured under the assumption that it would take more than egg nog to ruffle their feathers.

Just moments before we were engrossed with José 's all-too graphic recounting of the one and only time he attended a pig-killing while visiting family in Galicia, in Spain's windswept northwest. This is an impeccably attired city-dweller who is not only blessed with an incredibly dry sense of humour but from whose pores oozes a razor-sharp sardonic wit. A meteorological marvel - wet or dry - Jose's a funny guy but not the type to revel in pig sticking. And he didn't. But he finished his anecdote by adding that after the pig was no more, everyone enjoyed a nice feed of blood pancakes.

"Blood pancakes?" I asked.

"More like crepes."

"Blood crêpes?" I asked.

"They're a speciality of the area."

"And they're red?" I asked.


"Are they sweet or savoury?" I asked.

"The ones I had were sweet."

"I'll bear that in mind next time I'm in Galicia and I see crêpes on the menu."

"They're really delicious."

"Sounds gross ... I'm sure they are, but being a vegetarian and all."

Fast forward to egg nog.

"... and when it is bad it is horrid."

"Yes, but what is it?" asked José - he whose feathers were least ruffled.

"It's a drink that we traditionally have at Christmas and New Year's although my father often made it for us as children throughout the year."

"Yes, but what's in it?" asked José.

"There are regional differences, but the staples are eggs, milk, cream, and sometimes sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. Spiked versions usually see the welcomed addition of rum, brandy or whisky. When I make it, I use Kentucky bourbon."

"Are the eggs cooked?" asked José.

"In more contemporary recipes, eggs are partially cooked or heated through because of health concerns. This is bush league stuff. These are the same people who wash their hands after they handle chicken and routinely wipe down their countertops. As an Egg Nog Purist, I would never consider using anything but raw eggs."

"And do you actually drink it?" asked José.

"It's really delicious."

"It sounds gross."

"Gross? No, not at all ... hope you choke on a blood crêpe José."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Snail Mail

 id=I was raised in a household which harboured an unconcealed disdain and utter contempt for our country's postal system for the simple reason that it sucks. Or perhaps sucked; I've been out of touch with Canada Post for the past 2 1/2 years so perhaps they've finally - if not improved upon their service - at least learned what service is. This is a postal service which once delivered a letter with the postal code T0K 0E0 (an admittedly negligible town in the foothills of Alberta) to Tokyo before it was rediverted to Canada. I suspect I have Japan Post to thank for realizing that T0K 0E0 is not one of the 47 prefectures of Japan - so it behoves me to send them a heartfelt ありがとう.

In start contrast to Canada Post, Spain's Correos must send out their mail on the heels of Mercury rather than on the slime trails of snails. Letters from Madrid to an admittedly negligible town on the shores of the Mediterranean take about 24 hours. Letters I have sent to Canada and the U.S. have taken 2 to 3 days. It is quite humbling/refreshing/astounding to be on the receiving end of such service until I remember that there's no reason for mail delivery to take any longer. The only parcel to mar this almost perfect record was the month it took for one parcel from Canada to arrive - but given the fact that the sender neglected to include the apartment number in the address, they can be forgiven.

And displaying a wealth of confidence in the stellar service offered by the Correos, our friends and family from back home have inundated us with Christmas cards this year. We are stepping over bags of mail and sliding down the mountains of still unopened mail accumulating in our living room. Yes, we have received four (four!) cards this season. This represents a dramatic 100% increase from last year's faring in which two stragglers arrived in Morocco some time in mid-February - one of which was 14 months late.

But for the past few days, I've been frantically checking my mailbox - by Madrid standards, The Card should have arrived by now. Yes, last week King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia sent out their annual Christmas card with a not terribly imaginative photo of the royal family (see right). At least not terribly imaginative compared to 2005, when their yu id=letide offering was photoshopped to include members of the family not actually present. Now, not to put too fine a point on it, my card has yet to arrive and I'm peeved. I'm trying not to take this too personally but I do feel somewhat slighted. I don't wish to cast aspersions toward the Palacio Real and, in my heart of hearts, I know that I can't blame the Correos, so what gives?

In the meantime, I'll just have to remain patient - a quality which is sorely lacking from my genetic makeup. And hope that the card wasn't sent to Tokyo. No, that was Canada Post wasn't it? Perhaps King J-C just neglected to include my apartment number. Perhaps it'll arrive in January. Perhaps pigs fly. Oh right, this is Spain - they do!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"We Three Kings Pigs of Orient Are ..."

 id="It will be cold and there will be many little pigs."

Such was the augury pronounced by our personal sibyl Rosa (or Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrosa), our Spanish tutor. All because we offered a "we're going to Segovia for the long weekend!" in faultless faulty Spanish as we parted last Wednesday afternoon. It was not the response we had expected. "Pshaw," we said (not really). "The forecast is 16° with sun and a few cloudy periods," (that we did say). And as our weather report said nothing about little pigs and we really had no opinions or expectations about them, we chose to ignore her so-called prophetic ramblings. But then didn't Apollo place a curse on the sibyl Cassandra that no one would believe her? (He did). Those gullible Trojans didn't heed a word she said; we were in good company.

So off to Segovia we go in search of its famed Roman aqueduct, Templar castle, Romanesque churches and Alcázar which we were unable to find because of the impenetrable fog that enveloped the city. An impenetrable fog that was broken up intermittently by rain. Punctuated by bone-chilling damp and cold. This didn't come as a total surprise. A) We had Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrosa's prediction. And b) On the train ride in, we watched in horror as the outside temperature - which blips before passengers on a pixel screen - dipped progressively lower as we left Madrid: 16°, 15°, 14° ... all the way to 4, and the sky - which blips before passengers as the sky - darkened progressively.

Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrosa 1: Los Gatitos:0

Then there were the little pigs. I've mentioned elsewhere that Spain's totem may be the bull (which it is), but the animal which truly wears the crown in the barnyard is the pig. The pig is King in Spain. True, there are no giant silhouettes of pigs lining the country's highways, exhorting travellers to have a snort of brandy while en route, but nonetheless, the pig rules. And since every king requires a royal residence, our pig claims Segovia.

P id=igs can be found all over Segovia. And by all over, I mean everywhere. And by pigs, I mean baby pigs. Pigs that are plucked from their little piggy homes when they're exactly 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days old (=114 days). It would seem that pig farmers in Castilla-León are not only very much into numerology but are keen counters - at least up to 114. Maybe even 115. But 115 has no place in the world of baby pigs. The little piggies must also be unblemished by Biblical standards; their colouring must be "white, creamy or waxen, clean and homogeneous, without strange spots of blood or other discolourations." Flawed little piggies presumably don't go to market (and go wee wee wee all the way home).

Every restaurant offers a host of little piggy dishes but the pièce de rés id=istance is the local speciality: cochinillo asado, or roast suckling piglet, slow-cooked in wood-fired ovens and basted with lard until crispy. Windows of restaurants are festooned with either images, replicas or actual roasted piggies cut open along the stomach and spreadeagled in a pigs-can-fly posture or rows of dead little piggies all white, creamy or waxen, clean and homogeneous, without strange spots of blood or other discolourations.

Segovia is a holocaust of pigs. Even in my most carnivorous days - and in truth pork was my meat of choice - I couldn't have imagined a table set with a 3 month, 3 week, and 3 day-old little piggy. This is veal for pork eaters.

But amid all this porcine carnage, there was a bright spot. And it wasn't the weather. At the visitor information centre - which our guidebook indicated was beside the aqueduct we never saw because of the fog - we were somewhat taken aback with the city's belén. Instead of the ubiquitous plaster Holy Families, the visitor centre offered a cochinillo nativity scene, enlisting the stuffed pink piggies sold to tourists for their Sagrada Familia. Either the stuffed pink piggies weren't selling very well or Segovians have a very wry sense of humour for, there before us, was:

*the Virgin Mary (
stuffed pink piggy in a blue robe)
*Joseph (
stuffed pink piggy with a staff)
*baby Jesus (
stuffed pink piggy wearing a diaper).
*a group of shepherds (
stuffed pink piggies with little sheep)
*an angel (
stuffed pink piggy with halo) suspended from the ceiling, and
*the Three Kings (
stuffed pink piggies with crowns) arriving from the East.

 id=In a culture that places far greater celebratory weight on the Visitation of the Three Kings (los Reyes Magos) than on Christmas Day - after all, baby Jesus (stuffed pink piggy wearing a diaper) didn't get any gifts until the Magi appeared on the scene - I was tickled (pink) that the city was able to deconstruct the over-the-topness of the country's belénes, the sanctity of the Christmas season, the metamorphosis of the Three Kings into the Three Little Pigs, and its own iconic gastronomic piggy in one fell swoop. Although I think my grandmothers may have both rolled over in their graves.

Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrosa 2: Los Gatitos:0

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Ferdinand the Bull Redux

 id=I saw my first bullfight this weekend; in fact, I watched several. I didn't actually attend a corrida - as if that mitigates my viewing of it - but rather watched a series of bulls and matadors bull-killers fight to the death on television. I admit that I had to change the channel when the picadores and the banderilleros were due to divest themselves of their weaponry into the back & neck of the bulls - as if that mitigates my viewing of it - but I did witness the estocada or coup de grâce of all 3 animals. So to be accurate, I saw parts of my first bullfight this weekend; in fact, I watched the parts of several.

Not surprisingly, t
he bull-killers all won. In the past 307 years, only 52 bull-killers have lost to their opponent, Now, I don't know this for a scientific fact - I do have a mathematical pea brain after all - but I suspect that many many more bulls have died. The odds are not exactly in their favour.

In truth, I hadn't intended to watch any of the fights but
Señor Gato Gringo and I were living the high life in a hotel room in Segovia with a real live television set (we still don't own one) and were channel surfing. I could say that our choice was either the bullring or the Castillian version of 'Star Search' (sans Ed McMahon but with an equally unctuous hostess) but that would be a patently obvious lie. We could have turned the television off altogether but somehow those three corridas became three train wrecks that we had to see to the bitter end. And consequently pay for with unsettled sleep and vivid nightmares.

It's been said that it's relatively easier to watch a corrida on television because you don't hear much of the ringside action - like the groaning of a dying animal for instance - and are somewhat distanced by the event by the chatter and banter of the colour commentators. Viewers are desensitized. Having said that, it wasn't easy. Not even relatively. Nor did slow-motion replays in any way deaden my sensibilities.

Of the three bulls, one was fortunate. And by fortunate, I mean relatively fortunate. It died quickly. The death blow, as it were, felled the 500 kilo bull in seconds. But usually the sword doesn't kill the bull and the bull-killer and his peones partners in crime have to circle the animal and play chicken with it using their capes. As the bull dekes and charges, the sword cuts up his insides. But this was a relatively clean kill.

most fortunate bull-killer was awarded both ears.

Of the three bulls, one was most unfortunate. The bull-killer's aim was not sure, and the tip of his sword barely pierced the animal's back and it (the sword) wobbled and then fell to the ground. At this point, the bull-killer should administer a descabello, i.e., the cutting of the bull's spinal cord to effect a quick and relatively painless death.
If the bull is still reluctant to die, a partner in crime is called in to do more damage to the spinal cord - this time with a dagger. Not so here: our brave bull-killer elected to drive the sword into the bull 2 more times but again, he could not find the 'sweet spot' between the shoulder blades that theoretically will allow for a relatively instantaneous death. As his partners in crime circled the bull, the bull-killer jabbed away at the animal's head. It took minutes to weaken the bull to death, a death by attrition.

most unfortunate bull-killer was whistled from the ring.

I don't know why I watched. More to the point, I don't know how I watched, but for some ineffable reason, I felt it was important. I am pleased to say that I still don't understand its appeal, more than ever I am repulsed by its barbarity and I am happy to remain a cultural infidel. Yes, I'm glad that I watched. And I will never do it again.

Segovia with its 2000 year old Roman aqueduct is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Until recently - ignorant little gatita that I am - I thought that the UNESCO Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval essentially meant that a city/monument would receive financial assistance in self-preservation while enjoying a through-the-roof boost in tourism. Apparently it can be applied to an event.

Recently Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa led a host of celebrities in a campaign to gain Unesco World Heritage status for bullfighting. Their belief was that a nod from UNESCO would protect 'the sport' from pesky peaceniks and do-gooders who want bullfighting banned, as well as injecting into it some much-needed revenue as attendance is down in Spain. Indeed, why not put the ritualized and public torture and execution of animals on par with the Alhambra palace in Granada or anything & everything that Gaudi lent a hand to?!! This is genius. And this is why Llosa is one of Latin America's leading novelists and essayists and I'm just a lowly unpaid blogger.

"To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outsta id=nding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria". These include, but are not limited to, the proposed site's ability to represent "a masterpiece of human creative genius". Hmmmm, one bull with filed-down horns vs. several men with lethally sharp steel weapons. That is creative!

Not too Remarkably, Llosa and his cronies failed in their bid: UNESCO denied their request. Go figure. Perhaps with 40 UNESCO designations already notched in Spain's bedpost, those peaceniks and do-gooders at the UN felt that 41 was overkill. Or perhaps the judges just preferred sitting quietly under a cork tree, smelling the flowers too. I'm sure that the Ferdinands of the world were pleased.

Addendum: if you're absolutely clueless what a corrida is all about, go here for an all too graphic viewing.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Spain's Kosher Sagrada Familia

 id=When I was a pupil in Mrs. Slezak's grade 2 class, I created a piece of artwork so sublime that it came as a bit of a shock when it was peremptorily assigned a spot on the cinder block classroom wall rather than in an art gallery in some world capital ... say Paris. That December, I produced the Mother of All Manger Scenes. My virgin was suitably chaste, the shepherds wore their sheep around their necks like fox stoles, the cattle were lowing and the one requisite donkey braying, and the three Magi - anachronistically on the scene some 2 weeks early - were depicted approaching the crib with incomprehensible gifts in equally anachronistic (Medieval) caskets.

And the pièce de résistance? - a giant crucifix mounted atop the very stable where the Christ child had just been born. When I finally brought my masterpiece home, my father turned an eyebrow up at the cross but I argued, as a good Catholics, the Holy Family would have had a cross somewhere in their home. End of story.

Like all/most/some good Catholics we had a model of the nativity scene (or a crèche as we called it) in our home. I never quite saw the purpose of maintaining a crèche since we spent most of the time hauling a slightly-oversized sleeping Siamese cat out of it. Besides extricating the cat from the stable, I would often hold races between the camels and the oxen and the odd Hot Wheels race car nicked from my brother Knarf's collection. Perhaps we were supposed to contemplate the Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful and/or Glorious Mysteries as we set the occupants of the manger back on their feet and hooves and pulled fluffy white sheep out of our cat's bottom.

So now it's December (the 3rd to be exact), and the streets of Madrid are aglow with Christmas lights and its plazas peopled by Beatific Virgins and Overlooked & Generally Ignored Josephs in nativity scenes called belén. So prodigious are these belén that websites and paper guides provide handy lists with times and dates of where they are and what they feature. So although you may be tempted to pop over to the Palacio Real and view the 18th century nativity figures there, you should be mindful of the fact that the belén at the Municipal Museum Plaza de la Villa not only occupies an area of 70 square metres but includes Herod's Palace and a Hebrew mill. How o how to choose?

With belén-season comes the ubiquitous Christmas markets where Spaniards can buy the necessary props and doo-dahs for their nativity scenes at home. These markets range from the über-traditional which primarily sell belén figures (tiny lambs and chickens go for €1.30 each) and paraphernalia (the aforementioned Hebrew mill for example) to the those markets which also flog rubber masks of Prime Minister Zapatero. Who says that religion and politics make strange bedfellows? But I do confess that at yesterday's Christmas market in the Plaza Mayor, Señor Gato Gringo and I were rather taken aback with the sheer abundance of stalls which sold swarthy kings from the Orient and luxuriously accoutred camels, winding rivers of Galilee and blacksmiths' shops - all cheek to jowl with vendors of luminous snot and whoopee cushions and bright pink clown hair. And the more enterprising sellers offered both.

But nowhere is it more true that - at least where Spain's belén is concerned - the devil is in the details. For alongside the caves and the buckets for the wells, there are rows upon rows of tiny ceramic wine and water jugs, all manner of fruits and vegetables, as well as prepared foods for the Holy Family - presumably the end-product of those goats and chickens and sheep and pigs you can buy for €1.30 and up. Pigs? Surely those aren't little clay quarters of cured ham hanging from little clay drying racks?

Yes, in a country where - in spite of the brouhaha they make about bulls - the Pig is King, pork has to be on the menú del día for the Holy Family. What self-respecting Sagrada Familia would - or could - forego a strapping haunch of jamón ibérico (the leg from the fabled acorn-eating black-footed pig) in favour of a couple of green onions and a falafel sandwich? I mean, really. Every tapas bar worth its salt has on its counter a gnawed-at sawed-at pig leg, its dainty hoof pointed towards heaven, screwed into a rather nefarious-looking but conveniently portable slicing contraption - a device descendant of the Spanish Inquisition - so why not the Holy Family?

Truly, the only thing missing is a giant crucifix. And maybe flan for dessert.