On the Edge of a Locapocalypse

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September 6, 2012 at 1:48 pm

This isn’t a tale of local eating in the strictest sense, as it doesn’t relate to eating local Midwestern foods.

Rather, this is about the two weeks I spent eating and drinking in Spain. Why am I talking about Spain on a Chicago-based, eat-local website? Because my eating experience in Spain was intensely local in a way that we don’t see here even at farm-to-table restaurants. In Spain, I ate jamón, jamón and more jamón. I’m not complaining, really, as I never did tire of eating robust, acorn-fed jamón ibérico de bellota that is still scarce here in the U.S., even if I ate it at least once a day. And I never did tire of being offered only Riojan wines to drink in Haro, the capital of, well, Rioja. When in Rioja, drinking what the Riojans drink is an easy pill for a locavore like me to swallow (no pun intended).

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One of many plates of jamon consumed

But the Ribera del Duero in the Castile y León region of Spain presented the biggest challenge to my locavore sensibilities. The wine region of Ribera del Duero is a rugged area about one hour north of Madrid with rough, dry, sloping hayfields, sleepy towns (some of which seem downright vacant), and almost nothing else. They say that there are two eating triangles in the Ribera – one that stretches from the towns of Segovia, Arevalo and Penaranda de Bracamonte that specializes in cochinillo (suckling pig). The other triangle spans from Segovia, Soria and Burgos, and specializes in lechazo (baby lamb). The region’s specialty involves roasting either the lamb or the pig (almost never both) in hot wood-fired ovens, after the whole animal has been drizzled heavily with fruity local olive oil to crisp their skin, and then finished with a healthy (or not-so-healthy) dose of coarse sea salt. I was touring the lechazo triangle, so the asadors (as these restaurants are called) specialized in baby lamb – unweaned lambs that are about 20-25 days old (or about 15 pounds) at slaughter. As I drove around the countryside, I saw herds of lambs and shepherds tending to them, so this meat was definitely local.

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Lechazo at Asador Nazareno

My visit to Roa, an otherwise inconsequential town in Ribera del Duero about four kilometers from the winery Perez Pascuas, was notable for my meal at Asador Nazareno. It was a paradigm of Spanish eating, not just for taking place in midday, but for the adherence to simple, traditional local ingredients. The lechazo had crispy skin like chicharrones, and the light-colored meat was sweet and tender. It came with the choice of hearty red Ribera del Duero wines — a full book’s worth of choices.

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Ribera-focused wine list at Asador Nazareno

It was fortunate that I enjoyed this dish, as this was the only entree the restaurant prepared. If you didn’t eat lamb, then you could make do with, you guessed it, jamón. My home base in the Ribera was Peñafiel, a medieval castle town where the dining scene (if you could call it that), was primarily composed of asadores. As we were in the lechazo triangle, the only food they served was . . . lamb. Are you sick of lamb? Okay, the area does produce a local dried bean that appears as an accompaniment to lamb dishes with a light vinaigrette, pimentos, and red onion. (I had a particularly delicious version at Molina de Palacios in Peñafiel.) Or, you can make do with lamb chops (it’s a different cut, right?). Or you can visit one or two non-asador restaurants with a carta (menu) and they may have roasted solomillo made from their special breed of local cows called Morucha or Ávila. Want vegetables? Maybe someone has an errant yardbird around. Would you like a bottle of Bordeaux to go with this? No, it’s Ribera wine or sip water. That’s pretty much it.

So, is there such a thing as being too local?

For the short time I was there, I hardly noticed the difference. I only would have sipped Ribera wine, and eaten lechazo anyway. But, I started thinking, what if stayed there a month? What do the locals eat? They don’t really eat lamb every day, do they?

I feared that I had unwittingly entered the void that locavore skeptics warn of – the locapocalypse – the place where, if you really achieve a local, seasonally-derived food system, you’d be eating exclusively turnips in the winter, and in the meantime, boring your palate (and yourself) to death.

After pondering it well-after my trip wrapped up, I concluded that, as limited as the Ribera diet seemed to me, it was their diet – their uniquely Spanish way of eating that is meat-heavy, vegetable-light, wine-focused, and most of all, simple. Even though, to me, the lack of varied preparations made their food seem repetitive, this is the way the Riberans liked to eat.

I imagine that if we Upper Midwesterners were limited to a strictly local diet (as are many of us by choice during the summer bounty months), then we would eat differently than the Spanish – and probably more varied – as that reflects our attitude towards food. “Variety is the spice of life” seems to be an American mantra applied most to eating. We’ve adopted other cultures’ foods as if they were native to our lands. Whereas the Spanish preparations seemed to be grounded in centuries of tradition – lots of sea salt, olive oil and smoked paprika, for instance — I think an American locavore diet would span the continents with curries, sauces and braises in addition to wood-fired roasts. That the Spanish, for instance, like their lamb a certain way, is not likely to be the way we approach cooking lamb all the time.

So, having been on the brink, I don’t think there’s such a thing as the locapocalypse. Our diets are not necessarily dictated by what there is to eat, but by what we do with it. If Americans want to reach into a varied arsenal of preparations to keep things interesting, the Spanish will strictly adhere to tradition. There’s room for both philosophies, and neither one spells doom for our gustatory lifestyles. Or for eating local.

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One Comment

  1. Rob Gardner says:

    Great post and I really want some lamb now.

    How much of what you’re saying is just a result of restaurant food vs. total cuisine. For instance, when I was in Morocco, you might think all they ate was kofta kebabs.

    I do know that most people expect to cook seasonally from a much smaller range of fruits and vegetables. We tend to work from an inventory of what ever can be grown here not what’s always grown here.

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