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   Lady in Spain
   by Julia Reed

  Last year, I packed a bag of books and a bag of clothes and took off for Spain. I had never just taken off before, not as a student, not in my early 20's like most of my friends, not ever (unless you count my freshman year in college, when, under the influence of lust and other stimulants, I disappeared a few times to Maine). I went, ostensibly, to learn Spanish -- my Presbyterian upbringing wouldn't allow me to classify such an extended trip as pure escape, so I came up with an actual reason to go. Also, since two-thirds of the Western Hemisphere speaks the language, I figured it wouldn't be a bad thing to do. (In school, I'd chosen sophistication over practicality and studied the French I barely remember.)

  So I found an apartment off the Plaza Mayor in Madrid and paid a big pile of euros to a language school run, improbably, by an Irish vegetarian named Declan. He was appalled at my love of bullfights and the huge Spanish rib steaks (chuletones) sprinkled with coarse salt from Alkalde (not to mention the strip steaks brought sizzling to the table at Casa Paco or the very happening Lucio, around the corner). Declan tried hard, but I never learned proper Spanish. I was too busy eating and drinking and making dozens of trips to the Prado and going to the bullfights every night during the feria. I learned to distinguish gambas from cigalas from carabineros (three of the heavenly sea creatures available a la plancha, simply cooked on a griddle, at the glorious La Trainera); I communed, a lot, with Angel, the aptly named maitre d'hotel at El Lando, my favorite restaurant in all of Madrid.

  I did learn some Spanish, but it was a very specific kind. Pañuelo, for example, means ''handkerchief,'' as in the white (blanco) one thrown out by the president of the bullfight to signal its start, or the very rare orange (naranja) one held up to save the life of an especially brave bull. Bellotas are the acorns fed to the hogs that make the most tender -- and most expensive -- pork roasts and hams. If you want a couple of olives in your martini, you must ask for aceitunas rather than olivos, which are usually olive trees. (The expression tomar el olivo means ''to take the olive tree'' -- to jump or climb it very quickly. This is also used to describe what happens when a bull goes after a banderillero and he swings himself just as quickly over the fence and out of the ring.) And if you want a drink during the bullfights, you must yell ''cerveza, por favor'' or ''whisky con hielo,'' because beer and Scotch on the rocks are the only alcohol sold in the stands. I may not have earned a certificate from Declan's school, but I picked up loads of knowledge I consider far more useful.

  My guides in a great many of my endeavors were Jenny Pugh and Juan Luis Hernández Mirón. Jenny grew up in the Arkansas delta, just across the river from where I was born. She met Juan Luis, a professor, more than 20 years ago, during a college year abroad in Madrid, married him 2 years later and has been in Madrid ever since. Juan Luis spent 11 years working on the definitive Spanish-Ancient Greek dictionary; he has had season tickets to the Madrid bullfights for 24 years. He is the kind of guy who, on no notice, can somehow procure the only five tickets to a bullfight to be had during Seville's crowded feria, even on the day that the wildly popular José Tomás is fighting -- and he will also know the best place (Barbiana) to eat lunch beforehand. Jenny is as fun-loving as Juan Luis, and at least as valuable to have around since she speaks fluent Spanish, French and Italian. (Juan Luis doesn't exactly speak English.)

  One of our first treks together was to Plasencia, Juan Luis's hometown in the Extremadura region. Though he has visited Jenny's and my hometowns many times (I'm pretty sure he is the only Spaniard who has made return trips to both Portland, Ark., and Greenville, Miss.), I had never seen his. Also, he had been trying to explain to me the difference between pure Spanish paprika and that of Hungary or South American countries (the tasteless stuff sold by American spice companies is not even worth mentioning), so he was adamant that I visit his uncle's pimentón factory in Aldeanueva del Camino, a town in La Vera, the northern part of Extremadura. Pimenton de la Vera, with its unique smoky-sweet taste, is regarded as the finest paprika in Spain.

  On the drive west from Madrid, we passed literally hundreds of storks (las cigüeñas), nesting, in what appeared to be impossible feats of balance and engineering (these nests are enormous), on the points of church steeples and bell towers, on the apexes and outer corners of roofs, at the tops of construction cranes. (The storks have ruined so many rooftops that the government placed specially designed elevated steel structures on the roofs they seemed most fond of, but the storks simply built their nests underneath them.) We looked up at the house on a hill where Franco and the father of Juan Carlos had their secret meetings to discuss the general's plan for the boy to become king upon his death, as well as his education in the meantime. And in Plasencia, we walked through the cobbled streets where Juan Luis grew up and to the bar where he is still warmly embraced -- but where, alas, they were out of the pork-and-paprika tapa he remembered so fondly.

  The next day, though, we saw plenty of paprika at Pimentón St. Domingo, founded in 1908 and owned by Mariano Miron, a former schoolteacher and mayor of the town. The outside of the building is painted the same paprika red and deep sky blue as the chic paprika can -- I took a big one home to adorn my kitchen. Inside, not a thing appeared to have been changed since the day the first peppers were ground. The grinding takes place in an enormous Rube Goldberg contraption that extends over two floors and features a complicated set of pipes going in and out of windows, connecting bins and grinders and a giant sieve that looks like a pinball machine. It was all a bit too much for me to take in, but basically, the peppers are first dumped into a machine that takes off the stem (el pezón, ''the nipple''), and they are then, seeds and all, funneled into another machine in which they are crushed between two ancient-looking stone wheels. By the time it's all over, each batch goes through a fine grinder at least six times and finally through the sieve, where it runs down into big burlap bags, which are collected on wood carts and rolled away.

  The grinding takes place from October to January or February, and even though I didn't visit until May, a fine red dust still covered everything. The hand-woven straw bags used to tote the peppers are the same ones that the blood-stained dust of the bullring is swept into during breaks in the action. At long tables, the paprika is scooped into tins and marked dulce, agridulce or picante. The dulce, or sweet, the most widely used, is made with a round pepper called la bola. Both agridulce and picante are made from a longer, thinner red pepper with a bit more bite, but picante is given heat by adding cayenne.

  When we left, Uncle Mariano plied us with tins of all three, and the taste was a revelation. Until then, I had sprinkled paprika on top of stuffed eggs and bowls of potato salad to make them look pretty -- there was no point in using it to flavor anything because the flavor was a little like red sawdust. But this tasted like actual sweet and sweet-hot peppers that have been dried using smoke. In Spain, paprika is used to flavor everything from chorizo (the sausage that takes a lot) to garlic soup (which takes a pinch).

  It is also used in a variety of marinades for lamb or pork, like the recipe that follows, or in the simpler tapa that Juan Luis hoped to order in his old haunt in Plasencia. Back in Madrid, he made it for us. First, he sliced three onions and two tenderloins of pork very thin. Next, he heated about two tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet, added the onions and sweated them, covered, for about five minutes before adding half a teaspoon picante paprika and cooking them for two or three minutes more. Finally, he layered the pork slices on top, poured about half a cup of dry sherry over them and turned up the heat. In five minutes, he turned the slices and cooked them until they were a golden brown. Then he served the pork, without the onion, sprinkled with salt and lemon, along with slices of baguette. I've done it myself since -- you can now buy Spanish paprika in the United States -- and I followed it by making a classic pisto (as opposed to the French pistou) taught to me by a waiter at Casa Paco, where it is not to be missed.

  • Recipe: Pork Loin Marinated in Paprika and Herbs
  • Recipe: Pisto

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