It was during my first week in Spain that I ascended an escalator in a big supermarket, turned a corner in to the meat section and was greeted by a rack of pig faces. It was quite a bizarre sight! It looked as though the left half a pig's head had been placed in a polystyrene tray and wrapped in cling-film. There were dozens of them, all looking the same way, which of course prompted a question in my ever curious mind. Where were the right hand sides of the pig's heads? Was there another shelf somewhere with dozens of pig faces looking the other way? I never found out. I consoled myself that at least they all had their eyes closed. Were they open, now that just would have been weird!
Even though I'm a meat eater, I was still troubled the first time I bought what I thought was an oven ready chicken in a small local supermarket. It looked like the ones in blighty, again sitting in a polystyrene tray wrapped in plastic. However when I unwrapped it I was in for a surprise. The head was still attached and dropped onto the counter with an unexpected thud! What I was supposed to do with it I don't know to this day. I think I actually closed my eyes when I cut it off with scissors and threw it in the bin. Yuk!
Spain is obviously a different country with a very different culture to the Britain I grew up in. The food they eat here and the relationship to food and to animals takes some degree of adjustment. The first house I bought was a country house, and the owner had a shed full of rabbits he bred for the table. I had him remove them before I took possession of the house as I didn't fancy myself having to kill and butcher rabbits. However a short time after I moved in, a neighbour invited me around for Sunday lunch. He introduced my wife and I to our meal, which was a live, white rabbit that was hopping around in his garden shed. You know what's coming next don't you? Yes he killed and skinned the rabbit before our eyes. Within the hour, bits of poor bunny, including his head were on a plate in front of me. I understood being served the head was quite an honour, but one I could have lived without if truth be told!
Heads are quite a thing here. One of the restaurants in Cehegin used to serve roasted goat's heads on a Monday night. They were brought out on a tray from the oven and placed on the bar. Each head was sawn in half, and as I recall served face down, so you could see the brain, tongue, sinuses etc. I'm going back a few years, but I think half a head and a few roast potatoes was pretty good value for one euro fifty.
My rabbit murdering neighbour invited me out a few weeks later to go snail hunting. Eager to integrate myself into Spanish society I was accepting all such invitations at the time as it seemed the right thing to do. The day came and I went with him and some family members on a walk in the 'campo' along a quiet road where I was assured lots of snails would be found. Now I'd seen bags of snails for sale in the market and they all had ornate spiral shells, which I'd assumed was the hallmark of some special edible species. How wrong I was. All sorts of varieties and sizes of snails were apparently fair game, some looking distinctly like the ones I'd had to put pellets down for in blighty to stop them chewing my Hostas. After a while, we had amassed several buckets full of sundry snails, which my neighbour took to the kitchen of his country house. I was hoping they would be well cooked or at least boiled for long enough to kill any remnants of 'snailness' but alas no. All he did was put them in bowls of vinegar and pop them in the fridge. The next day I was invited around for a snail feast. They were served in some kind of sauce which I had not been privy to the making of, but it tasted quite spicy, as though some cumin and chilli was involved. Much to my surprise they tasted quite good, though I don't think I'd go to the trouble of making them myself. Incidentally, this incident revealed the answer to question that had puzzled me since I first bought my house. The grounds were fenced in, and the fence mounted atop a small wall, two breeze blocks high. Dotted around the property, ceramic tiles were lent up against these walls. It turns out they were snail hotels, deliberately placed to provide a cool, moist, comfortable space for the snails to repair to so they could be easily harvested. I'd inadvertently purchased a snail farm!
Probably the most unsavoury thing I've known the Spanish to eat are wild birds. I've not seen this with my own eyes, but someone who does it showed me the equipment he used. I visited the country house of a friend of a friend one Sunday morning for a barbecue. Breakfast barbecues are not uncommon on a Sunday in Murcia when the weather is good which is often. On this occasion we were eating six week old goat (yes I know, animal lovers must be cringing by now, but when in Rome). So we were talking about barbecue and the bird topic came up. The guy went into his shed and brought out a large black net and a device that looked like a camouflaged military radio. It turns out it was a bird-caller. He turned it on and within a minute or two, birds started flocking into the olives trees around us. He explained how he would setup the net between the trees, play the bird sounds, and when enough birds had arrived, he would gather the net entrapping them. Then he would pick them out of the net, and, miming the action, described how he would spike them on a skewer, presumably while still alive, and cook them on the barbecue.
"Which birds" I asked, visibly wincing a little in anticipation of the inevitable answer.
"All types" he said. "Whatever is in the net."
As you can imagine, I was extremely glad not to be invited back to see that in action.
The same chap provided the meat for a birthday party I was invited to a few months later. He worked in sales and drove all over Spain for a living, so contrived to bring back two baby pigs from a trip to Segovia, which those in the know will tell you is the best place to go in Spain if you're into eating piglets. The pigs were placed on olive branches which were laid inside a bread oven. I can't remember the cooking time but I think it was a good few hours, and when the pigs came out of the oven, the meat was succulent and falling off the bone. As is traditional, they sliced the pigs up with dinner plates which were then ceremonially smashed, and everyone was served piglet slices on a paper plate, which seemed somewhat ironic. I must say though it was delicious.
The list of odd things I've seen in bars here goes on and on. Pancreas was something I tried but didn't care for. I was hoping it would taste like liver but no, it tastes, well, like pancreas. One bar surprised me by selling frogs legs as tapas. On the bar in a glass case in lots of steel trays were all the usual suspects. There was Russian salad, eggs stuffed with tuna, anchovies, tigres (stuffed mussel shells), then, unusually, a tray full of frogs legs. The tapas was free with a beer so I had to try them. They tasted a little like chicken. I was surprised to see them in Spain. This was in a transport cafe on an industrial estate, so it is possible they were there to delight visiting French lorry drivers. I pondered for a while as to what happens to the rest of the frog when it loses its legs. Perhaps there were choruses of ribbiting frogs pushing themselves around in wheelchairs somewhere.
Possibly the weirdest thing I've seen someone eating was after a bullfight one day. When a bull is killed, the animal is taken out and butchered. The meat, known as lidia is quite prized, as a bull bred for fighting is in pasture for five years to gain the necessary weight for the ring. I've never eaten any myself but it must be along the lines of Wagyu beef. Anyway, I happened to be in a bar near a bullring one day after a bullfight and witnessed a chap chewing a raw bull's testicle! I know it's rude to stare but it was hard not to look!
Probably my favourite curious culinary delight is Mondongo. There was a gastronomical society that met once a month in Murcia, mainly patronised by elderly folk who revisited their youth by dining on some of the meals they ate during the Franco period. As a foreigner it was quite an honour to be invited to join the club and I went to many meals over a number of years. We were even featured on regional television, such was the interest in what we were eating. You may know, the Franco years were characterised by extreme hardship, so good meat was expensive and hard to find. Mondongo was an ingenious use of two cheaper more readily available cuts of meat, sheep's stomach and cow's knees! It doesn't immediately sound very appetising, but trust me it was delicious. The dish is rice based and cooked in a large paella pan (I know I know, you don't have to say 'pan' because paella means pan). The tripe, bones and a little stock is added and, as it cooks, something magical happens. The cow's knees have very little meat on them, but the gelatinous fat in the bones melts and gets soaked up by the tripe and the rice. When it is served, the trick is to get a palm full of oregano, then rub your hands together to grind the leaves over the rice, and then the flavour of the herb gets drawn in by the fat. I really couldn't believe how something so simple and potentially unpalatable could taste so good. I don't have much contact with Murcia anymore these days, but if there was one reason to go back it would be to relive the Mondongo experience!