Max Irving • London, England
A colleague in the dusty Spanish town where I was staying had told me about Juanita’s home-made food shop. “I often go there when my wife is away,” he said. Although I feel like I am from a generation of men who expect to cook whether or not there is a woman in the house, I nevertheless found myself one day walking through the narrow streets and through the door of the store, into the warm, welcoming broth of smells that made me hungry.
I reasoned that it actually wasn’t sloth that drove me to shop at Juanita’s, rather it was a commendable instinct for culinary discovery. This was a great way to try all those regional delicacies that I heard about, but which were invariably followed by “but it’s so much better when it’s home-made.” I could try foods and then recreate them independently, I told myself. And then came the soup.
I should have known from the start that something was amiss. “The soup is especially good today,” said Juanita, in a tone that was even more bombastic than her normal “Mama knows what you should eat” patter. “Shall I fix you a large container to take home?” she asked.
I tried, feebly, to ask about ingredients, and got a torrent of words in response. I heard morcilla (blood sausage) and figured I could pick it out if it didn’t look so good. I also heard lomo, the sublime pork tenderloin that appeared on plates around these parts all the time. And there was one more word I didn’t know: tocino.
I got home and was impatiently counting down the seconds for the microwave to finish heating it up. Delicious aromas were oozing out the steam vent. The first couple of mouthfuls were as divine as I had expected. Plump, slightly waxy chickpeas and sun-scorched chunks of red pepper were all set off by shreds of rich pork loin and coins of spiced, tongue-tingling chorizo.
The third spoonful led to a strange feeling. My tooth got stuck on something that was meaty, but didn’t have the bite that I expected. It didn’t crumble, either, and I became curious to see what it was. I prodded around the bowl to find another example, only to discover a clump of bristles. It turned out tocino was lard which had just been thrown into the pot along with all the other pig scraps. This batch hadn’t been rendered, crisped or even peeled back from the outer skin.
I tried to get my head round eating boiled pig-skin. I really did. But my pale British stomach just couldn’t get that far. The more I looked at the soup, the less I felt I could eat, until the point came where I just had to get rid of it all. Even after pouring it away, the sink smelled tantalisingly good, and as I ate a makeshift sandwich for dinner, I could hear the pig laughing inside my head at its victory over me.