From Bullring To Table: The Matador, The Cook And Me

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"Dead End - A Head" ISO sign by L. John Harris

Even an unrepentant meat eater like myself takes pause before the gory spectacle of tauromachia, the so-called art of bullfighting. Not that I’ve attended an actual Spanish corrida de toros, but I’ve recently seen Francesco Rosi’s painfully graphic 1965 film, “The Moment of Truth.” The “truth” of Spain’s traditional blood sport doesn’t get any more in your face than in Rosi’s classic tale of an aspiring young matador filmed on location at a huge bullring in Barcelona with a 300mm zoom lens used for soccer matches.

Animal rights advocates must have thrilled to the news in 2010 that bullfighting was being outlawed in Catalonia. From their perspective, a slaughterhouse bullet to an unsuspecting bovine brain is far more palatable than a matador’s sword “artistically” delivered between the shoulder blades to the heart of a charging one-ton toro.

After seeing Rosi’s film, I wished I could ask a bull: Would he prefer a painless but oblivious exit to one with suffering and style, or as bullfighting aficionados might say, con arte (with art)? As for me, I’d want to go con arte.

Bottom line, in either scenario the bull will be killed, butchered, cooked and eaten. Frankly, I’ve never considered bullfighting from a gastronomic perspective. I can now see, however, that the matador’s art form represents, in some sense at least, the first stage of an ancient life cycle ritual that ends, one way or another, at the dinner table.

A Spanish butcher in Berkeley

For all I knew, before Anzonini del Puerto arrived on the Berkeley scene in the late 1970s, the bloodied hulks dragged from bullrings were buried with cultural, if not military, honors. Anzonini, a legendary flamenco performer, butcher and cook from Andalusia (one of his nicknames was “butcher of bulls”) disabused me of my naïve disconnect.

As a young man, Anzonini, born Manuel Bermúdez Junquera in 1917, worked at his family’s carnicería (butcher shop) in Puerto de Santa María, near Jerez in southern Spain. Among his tasks was to help cart bulls from the ring and prepare the meat for sale. The family shop was located near the town’s majestic Plaza de Toros. Legend has it that Anzonini could break down an entire bull and be back at the bullring in time to see the next fight.

When Anzonini arrived in Berkeley to visit a group of young flamenco students who had seen him sing and dance in southern Spain, they were ecstatic. These would-be performers worshipped Anzonini not only for his magnetic arte on stage, but also for his gifts in the kitchen. All of which were on full display the night I met Anzonini at a small fiesta held in his honor.

The evening was special for everyone involved: Anzonini’s fans and those, like myself, who were witnessing and tasting his special talents for the first time. As for Anzonini that night, well, he fell in love. The object of his coup de coeur (I know no Spanish language equivalent) was my fellow Cheese Board co-worker and founder of the now legendary Swallow Café at the University of California Berkeley Art Museum, the late Patricia Darrow.

Anzonini’s favorite matador

Moving into Darrow’s small Gourmet Ghetto bungalow, Anzonini was soon presiding over local fiestas; performing, cooking and sharing stories about Spain with his adoring minions. I became one of Anzonini’s minions, and he bestowed upon me my flamenco name: Juan Ajo.

One story, recorded in Darrow’s unfinished manuscript about Anzonini and his food,  expressed his deep connection to the Spanish corrida, not merely its beefy spoils. His favorite matador was Curro Romero who was, according to Anzonini, usually terrible, unintentionally comedic and often cowardly. But on some occasions Curro surpassed himself and his fellow toreros with technical and stylistic genius.

Darrow quotes one of Anzonini’s quips about Curro’s unique presence in the ring:

Running away [from the bull] Curro has more arte than all the rest … That’s how I dance; twenty times badly and one time with arte.

Anzonini obviously saw himself in Curro, at least in terms of performance. But in the kitchen there was never any doubt about Anzonini’s brilliance, and the dishes we tasted over the years were invariably delicioso.

Cocina con arte

Anzonini’s tasty contributions to Berkeley’s gastronomic gestalt in the late 1970s and early ’80s are seldom referenced today. That his sausages, especially his chorizo, inspired important California chefs such as sausage king Bruce Aidells (see the scene in Les Blank’s 1980 film “Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers” where they make chorizo together), and were a popular item for sale at Chef Victoria Wise’s legendary Gourmet Ghetto charcuterie, Pig-by-the-Tail, is passed over in most published accounts of Berkeley’s revolutionary food scene.

Nevertheless, Anzonini and his cooking live on in the memories and stomachs of those who shared those exciting years with him in Berkeley. The aroma coming off his beefy Puchero, a classic Spanish soup simmering on my stove as I write this, is a ticket back to those delicious days when Anzonini del Puerto, butcher of bulls, served his inimitable cocina con arte.

Anzonini’s Puchero

Serves 10 to 12

One of Anzonini’s most celebrated dishes is a delicately seasoned soup/stew prepared with a variety of fatty meats; in this version, oxtails, short ribs and shank. He kept containers of the broth frozen in the refrigerator and would bring it to friends when they were sick. The dish can be served separately as a Sopa de Picadillo with chopped egg, ham and mint followed by a meat course accompanied by small potatoes cooked in the broth.

Ingredients

Anzonini's Puchero served as two courses: a soup, then meat and potatoes. Credit: L. John Harris

Anzonini’s Puchero served as two courses: a soup, then meat and potatoes. Credit: L. John Harris

For the broth:

6 to 8 quarts cold water

6 to 8 pounds beef (oxtails, short ribs, shank)

¾ pound salt pork

2 large tomatoes, quartered

2 large onions, quartered

1 large green bell pepper, sliced

2 to 4 bay leaves

8 to 10 black peppercorns

Salt to taste

Also:

2 dozen small boiling potatoes

3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

1 cup diced ham, preferably Spanish

Fresh mint leaves

Bread brushed with olive oil and toasted

lemon slices (optional)

Directions

1. The day before serving, bring all ingredients for the broth to a boil and skim off impurities. Continue cooking at a slow boil for 2 to 3 hours, until meat falls off the bones. Refrigerate overnight.

2. The next day, remove the fat layer that has solidified on top of the broth. Then heat the meat and broth and correct for salt. Remove the meats from the broth and discard the loose bones. Keep meat warm.

3. Boil potatoes in the broth until soft. Keep warm.

4. To serve, place a few teaspoons of chopped egg and diced ham in shallow soup bowls. Pour in the hot broth. Garnish with a mint leaf and serve with toasted bread. (Anzonini would fry the bread in olive oil.)

5. For the meat course, place meat back in remaining broth to heat through — a few minutes in simmering broth should do. Then serve the meat on plates with the potatoes. Hot broth can be placed on the table in gravy boats.

Note: Anzonini also served this broth in glasses with a slice of lemon and a mint leaf.

Top graphic: Gastro-graphical ISO street sign #4. Credit: L. John Harris

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Comments

Martha Rose Shulman
on: 8/16/13
Picasso would have agreed with you 100 percent about con arte. And he would have appreciated Anzonini's Puchero.
L. John Harris
on: 8/17/13
Thanks Martha and right you are. Picasso was, in fact, one of the greatest "matadors" who ever lived. Like the matador I mention in the article, Curro Romero, Picasso was often a physical coward (he avoided wars like the plague). But his intellectual and aesthetic bravery were unequaled and he could look symbolic death in the eye without blinking. I try (and often fail) to apply Picasso's art wisdom to my food writing and illustrations: among them, put everything you love into your work (he mean't of course, all the objects in his life--the napkin, the mask, the guitar, the hair brush...); erase even the things you like (he was not afraid to self edit ); and finally, the work is not about searching but about finding. These are severe and difficult principles. But they are essential no matter what art form you engage in.
Rick Wise
on: 8/17/13
Fabulous recounting. Love the last words, "the work is not about searching but about finding... essential no matter what art form you engage in." As an artist I search, but if I don't find, there is nothing for anyone else.
L. John Harris
on: 8/17/13
Some say that cooking can't be a real art ( a fine art), because it relies on recipes (formulas) and is therefore "only" a craft, not an art. But the talented cooks I know (like your wife) do not merely follow formulas to create their dishes. They work like any other artist-- with paints or musical notes or words on a page. They may end up with recipes for others to follow, but that does not lessen the creative process they struggle with like any other artist in any medium. Culinary art may not be Beethoven or Picasso or Joyce, but its art nonetheless. Me thinks.
Maggie Klein
on: 8/19/13
I particularly love your photo. Beautiful. Beautiful. The simplicity of the recipe too is lovely. Few ingredients––no garlic, no pimentón––then the added mint and lemon for sparkle. I remember another recipe of Anzonini's with cups of olive oil. Also a wonderful, satisfying dish.
L. John Harris
on: 8/20/13
Yes, I noted the "lack" of garlic in the puchero recipe, and back in the 70s and 80s when I presided over a "garlic revolution," one did not tolerate any deviation from the core principle that too much garlic is not an option. So everything had garlic in it, from scrambled eggs to vanilla ice cream. Now, of course, one appreciates garlic within certain boundaries and Anzonini's recipe reminded me that beefy flavors can shine bright with other aromatic tints--like mint, as you point out, and a fair amount of bay leaf as his recipe calls for. Of course there is a bottom note of onion in the recipe and one needs the base notes to make the trebles sing. But garlic is a base note that often dominates the entire symphony, like an out-of-control tuba, and one can almost understand the old-fashioned American motto (with its edge of Victorian phobia) of a "hint of garlic."

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