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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Els Nostres Menjars

As if I’m not already up to my eyelids (Párpados) in one language, I just got a couple of beautiful books in Valenciano shoved in front of me. Els Nostres Menjares (our cuisine), by Martí Domínguez is one of the most definitive books on the cooking of this region of Spain. I have touched briefly on the subject of Valenciano, the language spoken here in the state of Valencia, and I’m sure this will be a recurring theme as I learn more about the dialect. It is impossible to ignore because most public signs are posted in Valenciano. I am still not able to differentiate between Valenciano and Catalán. One thing at a time, or at least no more than two things at a time.

I have also mentioned that everyone here speaks Spanish as well as Valenciano. Spanish is taught in schools along with the local dialect. Spaniards are rather proud of the fact that their inhabitants speak languages other than Spanish. In fact, Spanish here is almost always referred to as Castellano, or Castilian, to differentiate it from Catalán, Valenciano, Gallegos, and Euskadi (the Basque language).

Allow me to translate from the Valenciano introduction to the cookbook of Martí Domínguez. “Cooking is one of the most important physiological functions of man, without nourishment, life cannot continue, and the way in which he does it gives testimony to the individual and to the collective society. It is an important ethnographic standard of each individual community.”

I would say that language is an equally important sociological function of man and as I learn more about Valenciano I will better understand this region. This cookbook is a great anthropological study of the region, not only for the recipes, but also for the full-page color photographs that chronicle the bounty of Valencian food and the traditional cookware used to prepare it.

I brought home a new paella pan that I picked up at one of the stalls outside of the central market. I had used the same kind of pan at my other apartment. The pans are inexpensive and well constructed. They are made of non-stick steel and seem to be made to last forever. I was told that these pans are “modern,” not exactly a bad word but not completely trustworthy either. Traditional Valencianos prefer to use cast iron paellas which tend to burn the rice on the bottom giving the dish a distinctive flavor.

Another common item in Valencian cooking is the use of earthenware ceramic dishes for baking. These are also on sale at every market and Chinese variety store. In Els Nostres Menjares, just about every dish is displayed in either a cast iron paellera or an earthenware dish. How the food is cooked is as important as the dishes being served and the language used to describe it.

But to call cooking and language merely functions of life does them an injustice; there are more like art forms. Cooking is a sort of combined art and to the people of Valencia, as with almost all Spaniards, the pig is the summa artis, the highest art of flavors. If the Eskimos have 2,000 words for “snow,” then Spaniards have at least that many ways to make a pig fit for consumption. The most creative way of dealing with pork, which combines an endless combination of spices, along with a mixture of the noblest and most modest sections of the animal, is found in sausage, or el embutido.

When I asked my barber, Carlos, why you don’t see a lot of hams hanging in cafes like you do in other parts of Spain, he said it was because they were too smart. He considered the Spanish hams to be an extravagance, and that it was more frugal to stick with only those parts of the animal that can be eaten. Leave the hooves and bones at the butcher shop. It’s not that jamon ibérico cannot be found here, but you see a lot more sausages, such as morcillas (blood sausage), loganiza, and chorizo. Needless to say, there isn’t much going to waste when it comes to a Spanish pig.

When I got to the library this morning the place was almost completely full. I needed a table next to a power outlet and I finally found a place at a table surrounded on three sides by cookbooks. This was quite a coincidence seeing that I had begun this essay earlier today at home. One of the treasures that I came across was A Cooking Lover’s Dictionary by Alain Ducasse translated into Spanish from the French Dictionnaire amoureux de la cuisine. I don’t know if this is available in English but it is a great read and a fine way to spend a good part of an afternoon, especially when you are planning a big meal in the evening featuring a host of Mediterranean staples.

I just noticed that there is even a little sign above this area of the library that says in Valenciano, El Racó de la Cuina. I didn’t even have to use my new Valenciano-Castilian dictionary to tell me that means “The Kitchen Corner,” although in these languages the word for kitchen is also the word for the art of preparing food.

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