I have struggled to put my experience on the camino de santiago into words. it has somehow proved impossible to convey just how incredible it was – it seems that no one can quite understand how walking and talking and washing clothes and lukewarm to cold showers every day for weeks and weeks could somehow be an amazing experience. hell, when I distill it to the physical happenings of each day, even I question whether I’m viewing it in retrospect with rose-tinted shades. but the answer is always no, it is and probably always will be one of my most special memories.
when I first set out, I doubted I could do it. people told me that should I decide I had “had enough,” there was no shame in buying a ticket and returning to the states earlier. but through all the pain and all the moments where it seemed that another step would snap my legs or the weight of my backpack would split my shoulders, I kept walking. and walking. through forests of ferns taller than me, through days of cold rain that sapped the feeling out of my frozen fingers, through fields and fields of green-gold wheat, through mud so thick, it stuck to the soles of my shoes in misshapen lumps. every day, I could tangibly sense that I was getting stronger than I had ever felt before. I reveled in the feeling of walking, of knowing that there was a destination somewhere down the path and knowing that I would eventually reach it, that I eventually must reach it.
there was a certainty, a rhythm to the days: I would awaken before sunrise, pack my life into my bag, munch on a granola bar, then set out. I would walk, alone or alongside others, sometimes with laughter and conversation, other times in silence. I would breathe in the smells of the early morning, feel the heat slowly radiate across the empty landscape before me, warming my numb limbs and face. I would bask in the friendliness of the locals (one of whom handed out whiskey-flavored candies, took my hands, and told me “forte!”) and in the companionship with people who ended up becoming confidantes and close friends, or whose names I never learned, but whose faces became familiar as we followed the same path towards santiago de compostela.
when my friends and I arrived in león, we fell in love. the old city of león is built of warm brown sandstone, which looked especially welcoming in the brilliant afternoon sunlight. as we lounged beneath umbrellas at a café in the cobblestoned square, we knew that we would stay for another day. we watched amazing kid-prodigy dance groups, ate delicious food, and chatted over cervezas and gin and tonics (served in huge goblets) until we could barely keep our eyes open. the city thrummed with people celebrating summer and life and who-knows-what-else in endless festivities all weekend.
before I came to spain, I always arrived in new places with a prepared agenda, then immediately set out to see everything that there was to see. but in león, we spent an entire afternoon in an alleyway outside a bar, and it was perfect. inside, vendors had set up some kind of fair with food, drink, and exotic trinkets. outside, local bands played as street artists sculpted and hurled paint on large canvases like some kind of performance art. I had the best paella I have ever eaten: a slow burn of savory mushroom and chicken flavors imbued in pliantly chewy grains of rice, no fancy seafood in sight. it is the paella of the spanish meseta, where endless fields of wheat form a rippling sea under the merciless sunlight, where the water tastes slightly of clay. for me, it is the paella of my camino experience, a dish best served up in a large pan to a crowd (and accompanied by wine, of course), a dish that celebrates the transcendent beauty of the ordinary.
10 ripe plum tomatoes (~20oz of tomatoes) or 14oz can of peeled plum tomatoes
1/2 cup spanish extra-virgin olive oil
2 small spanish onions, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp pimentón (spanish sweet paprika)
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp spanish extra-virgin olive oil
4-6 buffalo wings, cut into small pieces
1/2 pound flavorful mushrooms (I used shiitake and maitake)
3 oz green beans, cut into 1-in pieces
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
2 tbsp chopped jamón serrano (I used proscuitto)
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup sofrito
1 quart chicken stock
1 generous pinch saffron threads
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp salt
1 1/2 cups spanish bomba or arborio rice
josé andrés. tapas: a taste of spain in america. new york: clarkson potter/publishers, 2005.
2 while onions simmer, cut tomatoes in half. using a grater over a mixing bowl, grate open faces of tomatoes until all the flesh is grated. discard skin.
3 add reserved tomato purée, pimenton, and bay leaf to onion mixture. cook for ~20 minutes over medium heat. the sofrito is ready when tomato has broken down and deepened in color, and the oil has separated from the sauce.
paella|1 heat olive oil in paella pan over high heat. add chicken and sauté until it is well-browned on all sides, ~8 minutes. remove and set aside.
2 add mushrooms to paella pan and sauté over medium heat until they are golden, ~3 minutes. add green beans and garlic and cook for another 3 minutes. return chicken to the pan, and add the ham.
3 return heat to high, pour in white wine, and cook until it is reduced by half, ~1 minute. add sofrito and cook for 3 minutes. pour in chicken stock and bring to a boil. crush saffron and add it to pan, along with bay leaf. season with salt. (you want it a little salty because when you add the rice, the flavor will balance out.)
4 add rice, taking care to spread it evenly around pan. cook for 5 minutes over high heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. (rice should be floating around the pan; if not, add 1/2 cup stock or water.)
5 reduce heat to low and cook at slow boil for 10 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed. (never put your finger or spoon in paella during this cooking, or the seal will break, liquid will escape, and the rice will cook unevenly!)
6 remove pan from heat, place lid on top, and let sit for 3 minutes. The stock should be absorbed by rice and there should be a nice shine on top of paella. serve immediately.