André's Travel Log
El Rocio 2006
These notes follow my experience at a festival of El Rocio that occurs once a year in a town called Almonte near the border of Portugal on the Atlantic Ocean. Nearly a million people from all over Spain and Andalucia make the long journey to gather in this small town, on the marshlands of the Guadalquivir River delta (south of Almonte), where the statue of the "Madonna of the Dew" has been worshipped since 1280.
I was very fortunate to have been invited to attend this Catholic pilgrimage. It was definitely an experience that enlightened me on the tradition and spirit of Sherry country.
Day 1 (or what I like to call “you ain’t in Barcelona no more”)
I arrived after waiting an hour on the road to Almonte. Along the way there are literally hundreds of caravans (yes, the wooden kind, not RVs) of people arriving on side roads loaded down with partying supplies…it’s like the Wild West mixed with the Louisiana Bayou.
Everything looks like the old Western movies. Men and women on horseback, covered wagons everywhere being pulled by tractors. The streets are sand and it whips and swirls and blows all over you.
First thing I noticed: The dress is crucial. Most men and women are in traditional Seville attire. The women are dressed to the gills in colorful floor length dresses and the men are dressed in pants with a very high waist and suspenders. There is music everywhere. I arrive at the house—which in itself is quite a privileged situation. Most of the people staying for El Rocio are camping outside, sleeping in their covered wagons or sharing a room with ten people. But we have our own rooms in a house on the main drag where the virgin will pass on Monday.
Second thing: The food. It started on Thursday when I arrived. My host Toni Sarrion is one of the top winemakers in the country so one would assume that the food would be good…but not this amazing!
Our chef is Paco Escobar Gonzalez from Sanlucar. He is, as he calls himself, a recuperator of old recipes from this village where Manzanilla originates. He nocks on doors in Sanlucar gathering old recipes from the matriarchs of the households. (You can imagine how charming he must be to get the secrets out of them.)
The ham is, of course, exceptional, as is the embutido (sausage made of the loin of the pig.) The hams are of Iberico pigs from the village of Gijuelo. There are vats of huge cracked olives and Altramuces (those bean-like things my wife Cindy loves). And we drink Sherry, lots of it. The favorite drink is Rebujito: Sherry and Sprite. (Yes, not a local lemon soda, just real Sprite.) It’s incredibly refreshing, especially when they add mint!
Before dinner we go see the Virgin. The church is open and full of sand. The Virgin sits in the altar behind an iron gate that will be assaulted by the local towns people on Monday when they carry the virgin out over those very gates. The whole scene is very Baroque and over the top.
Dinner is at one in the morning and I feel right at home. The feast tonight consists of little fried fishes typical of where the chef is from: Sanlucar de Barrameda. We drink one of Toni’s wines made from an indigenous grape called Bobal from his village in Requena, Valencia.
Oh, I forgot to mention that Toni insists I look the part. (Check out the picture)
I buy myself the trousers, the suspenders and the boots. Yes, the boots. I saw them for the first time in Constantina, a small village outside Seville. These are tall riding boots and feel like a leather glove. I’m in heaven. I’m lent a medallion with the image of the Virgin Rocio to wear around my neck. Later I will be given my own which we bring to the church to have it sanctified. A young boy rubs it in the shawl of the Virgin. I am officially a Rociero.
The night continues until four in the morning. There is dancing and singing. Asun, one of the housemates sings Sevillanas for us with her gorgeous voice.
Day 2 (what is that noise?)
We are apparently fortunate because we have a Tamburette (basically a guy who comes to the house at 9:30 and beats on a drum.) Sleep is not an option.
Breakfast: Churros, paté of Jabugo and café con leche. Carriages come and pick us up we ride a round looking at everybody in the streets and we stop to look at an olive tree that is purported to be one thousand years old. Oh yea, we’ve come prepared with food and drink: Ham, cheese and Sherry.
Then back to the house to get ready for lunch. But before lunch we have amazing Cigales from Huelva, shrimp and fried baby shrimp. Then comes another treat. Marajo- Pescado Adobe (cornmeal encrusted shark). The batter is amazing mix of vinegar and spices with a wonderful crunchy texture. Did I mention this was before lunch?
Lunch. Salmorejo. This is truly one the treasures of Spanish gastronomy. A type of thick gazpacho with garnishes like chopped eggs and chopped ham (from the part next to the bone that can’t be sliced.) Wow, it’s amazing! Main course is a fish in a sauce with lots of saffron and it’s delicious.
The Nap. So sleep is an option-- it’s just rationed differently. 3 hours of glorious sleep.
Then, a pass through town, a stroll along the Paseo Maremo. There is a boardwalk that goes along side the marsh, which defines the town. I later take a walk to see how the other folks live and what they do. It basically looks like a state fair with junk food, cheap trinkets and plenty of livestock (cows, donkeys). Some use cows to pull the Sin Pecados (the carriages that carry the virgins of each of the Hermandades/townships) and the cows are tied to trees on the streets.
More little fried stuffs including a Torta de Camaron (shrimp), more ham and cheese and then, more Manzanilla . Barquillas (pastry containers or little boats) filled w/ cream cheese; anchovies and more salmorejo are also part of the tapas.
Dinner is a ceviche and then Pastel de Berenjena (a lasagna of vegetables and cheese). Very different and very good, Paco the chef says that this is another old recipe that he discovered.
We have a group who sets up and sings. They look like they are straight out of a painting by Velasquez. We dance Sevillanas all night long or at least I attempt something like that. Luckily, there are no witnesses this side of the Atlantic!
Day 3 (Okay, I get it, it’s a food thing….)
Breakfast: Fried egg with ham and sautéed onions-delicious.
Lunch: Berza- Bean soup/stew with pieces of lard and chorizo and Morcilla.
Then a nap and back to visiting the town. More Sevillanas
Dinner was very cool tonight. We had a great Fideo (bouilabaise type dish) and then this very authentic recipe called Capon relleno con trufa (capon stuffed with a paté of the same and truffles) with a reduction of onions in Pedro Ximenez sauce. Seemed like a dish that dates back centuries. Dessert tends to be Macedonia (fruit salad). Melon in a syrup of mandarin and oranges. Thank God.
Day 4 (the tension is building and the tone changes…)
The tamborilero guy again comes at 9:30 which wouldn’t be so bad if isn’t for the fireworks they start lighting at 8:30 that start the morning.then Sunday mass.
I barely have breakfast.just café con leche to get the day started.
All the “Sin Pecados”(the images of the Virgin Rocio) are taken out of the Hermandades and brought to the Mass. It’s a long mass in the scorching sun. After mass the “Sin Pecados” are brought back to the respective houses. This last procession (literally a swarm of people) goes right in front of our house. Dust and spirituality intermingle; it’s a powerful event.
Then we prepare for Lunch. More apps and Toni gets to work this time taking over for Paco. Toni makes two amazing Paellas: One is just vegetables (principally broad beans and the other has the beans and chicken added. They come out green and taste amazing. It has nothing to do with our notion of Paellas. It is just two of the many rice dishes that originate out of Valencia.
There is no more music at the house and no sevillanas as we wearily await the removal of the virgin from the church by the townspeople. This event is said to take place sometime around three in the morning. Specific people from the town jump the gate and hoist the Virgin above the gate and through the throng that has been awaiting her removal. She is then to be paraded the next morning around to the different Hermandades to return their greeting.
Day 5 (...or is it still day 4?)
We are awakened by hysteria at 7:30 that morning as the Virgin makes her way in front of the house. The streets are chocked with the Rocieros and people pass their kids above the crowds to have them touch the Virgin as she passes.
I leave that morning having witnessed an amazing human happening. I am filled with strange emotions partially due to lack of sleep, gorging on food and the whole spiritual nature of the festival. As I leave with the other caravans I realize I am a Rociero.
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