By Erin Lawrence
Christmas traditions are usually developed at home and are formed by our parents. We learn and adopt them as our own as we grow, age and start families of our own. So it’s eye-opening to learn about how Christmas is marked in different places. Think of how terrified you were when you learned about the beastly horned Krampas who presides over Christmas in parts of Europe. Or how puzzled you were when your German pal enlightened you about hiding the Christmas pickle, and no that’s not a euphemism.
Spain might have all other countries beat with the great tradition of caga tió. Literally translated as the “poopy log,” caga tió is a piece of log (actual wooden log) that gets dressed up with a hat, a cape and some stick arms and usually a goofy grin. Not unlike the North American Elf on a Shelf evolution, caga tió is a respected holiday ally. Spanish children leave caga tió offerings like oranges and bread and hope that, come Christmas, he will poop out turrón, a traditional nougaty sweet for them.
In fairness, not all Spanish holiday traditions involve poop, er, nougat, but Spain does have many wonderful holiday customs, and many of them also revolve around food. I was fortunate enough to enjoy some of them as a university exchange student when I spent the year there.
The aforementioned turrón is a traditional treat made of nuts, honey, eggs and sugar that dates back to the Moors of the Spanish Middle Ages. Eaten all year, it gains special importance during the holidays when it’s given as a gift or used to cap a decadent meal. Much like fudge on this side of the Atlantic, it comes in all kinds of flavour combinations and styles.
Speaking of special meals, a major tradition across Spain is to celebrate the holidays with a huge seafood feast. Spain is largely surrounded by the sea, so it’s no wonder fish, shellfish and more are given special prominence.
Serve your own seafood feast by picking up fresh seafood at Calgary’s North Sea Fish Market, and make sure to have plenty of Spanish cava, the national sparkling wine. Look for some of the best cavas at places like Market Wines (they just opened a second location at University Heights in addition to their quonset at the Calgary Farmer’s Market) where the owners have traveled to Spain, sampled dozens of cavas, and brought back the best.
Why not start the Christmas festivities like the Spaniards do with a glass of that cava and a plate of fresh cut jamón serrano in the small-bites-style of tapas?
This amazing dry-cured Spanish ham could be likened to prosciutto, but only if you’d like to anger every Castellano in earshot. Jamón serrano comes from a specific pig, the Landrace breed, and it produces a fine, tender ham that’s always served sliced so thin you could practically read a book through it.
Spaniards in the service industry train to slice it to perfection. Master carvers are known to offer 45-day courses in the art of the slice but if you’ve been carving for any less than a year, you’re a rank amateur. Well-to-do Spaniards will buy a whole leg of jamón serrano and hire professional carvers for lavish holiday parties. While having fresh serrano ham carved from a bone-in leg before your eyes is a feast for the senses, in Calgary you can find a serrano ham (and Spanish chorizo, another tapas staple) at places like the Italian Centre Shop.
What’s a holiday feast without the sweet stuff? Spaniards typically love to nibble at marzipan, a spongy, sugary almond paste that’s been a Christmas treat since the 1500s – far longer than your auntie has been making her red and green layered holiday Jell-O salad. Word on the calle is that nuns of the Middle Ages were without flour during a famine, so they stirred up sugar and ground almonds, and a centuries old tradition was born. Marzipan can be eaten as-is, dipped in chocolate, rolled into baked breads and perhaps most famously, formed into shapes and painted with food dye to resemble tiny fruits or figures. Marzipan nativity? In Spain, it’s been done.
The Spanish love their sweets, so other favourites like flan, a delicate, eggy caramel custard, or mantecados, a fiercely crumbly, buttery cookie similar to shortbread are also wildly popular. Much like many of our holiday recipes here in North America, each home cook and family has their own versions of these holiday treats, but recipes for each can be found easily online, and both are quite simple to prepare. Less easy is my own family Christmas finale tradition: it’s always Christmas pudding, a delightfully treacly steamed pseudo-cake whose key ingredients are breadcrumbs, dried fruits and suet, a hard beef fat. The pudding is best ‘cured’ for six weeks up to one year. Year old beef fat pudding? Caga Tió doesn’t look so weird now, does he?
Erin shares a recipe for Homemade Marzipan from DaringGourmet.com.
WHERE TO FIND Latino and Spanish foods in Calgary:
128 50th Ave S.E.
2405 Edmonton Trail N.E
Latin Food Specialties
Avenida Food Hall
12445 Lake Fraser