I was invited to be a judge at the International Culinary School’s Tapas Competition in Valladolid, Spain last month. I didn’t think it could get much better than sampling tapas from 13 nations around the world in the heart of the Castile and Léon region of the country. But it did. After our first day of judging, our crew of chefs and other assorted culinary-obsessed people piled into a bus and set out in the frigid night for dinner in the most unexpected place.
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After a long, bumpy drive over unlit roads through countryside that included a castle backlit by moonlight, we stopped in what felt like the middle of nowhere and were told that we were there. “Where?” I thought as I looked around in the inky night, trying to decipher recognizable objects in the shifting shadows. The wind swirled around our tightly huddled group of about 20 mystified people who were wondering, as I was, what was in store for us. And then the creak of a door opening sliced through our trepidation, and a shaft of bright light beckoned us inside.
We descended down a long staircase buffeted by thick, whitewashed limestone walls. With each step, a spicy aroma and the sizzling only fat frying on hot metal can make grew more intense. At the base of the stairs we discovered our host, Paco, grinning at us through his silver beard as he tended to the pork and rice dish he was cooking for the evening’s feast.
Food and history on the menu at Spanish cave dinner
While Paco busied himself with dinner, Angel Moreton, one of the directors of the culinary school hosting the competition, gave us a tour of the 17th-century cave. Furniture just right for lounging, wool blankets, colorful paintings and warm terra cotta tiles created an inviting atmosphere belying one of the cave’s past roles as a wartime shelter. At times throughout the centuries, the cave has also been used for storage; at other times it was abandoned altogether. When it served as an actual wine cellar, its thick, porous walls provided a welcome respite of coolness during sweltering Spanish summers and an oasis of warmth in unforgiving winters.
Miraculously hungry even after indulging in so many tapas earlier in the day, we found our way to two long tables awaiting the traditional Castilian meal to come. Paco reserved a few minutes between tending to the many dishes he had grilling, sautéeing and roasting in his multi-room kitchen to demonstrate what I soon discovered was the rather challenging technique of drinking wine from a perón. I learned that a perón is a vessel suited for not only distilling wine but also drenching an inevitably white shirt in it. I realized that it’s also ideal for eliciting laughter from all those ill-fated attempts to actually land the thin stream of wine into a mouth gaping like a goldfish tossed out of its bowl.
After everyone brave enough to attempt drinking from the perón had their shot, dinner was served. My favorite course emerged between the salad and rice dishes in the form of a blood sausage called morcilla, a mixture of onions, rice and spices thickened with blood before being stuffed into casings. Its rich, heady flavor was the perfect counterpoint to the levity that ensued once Paco began a sing-along, complete with song books, of traditional Spanish love songs surreally peppered between classics like “Hey Jude” and “Twist and Shout.”
A glorious way to expel evil spirits
Paco concluded the evening with a ritual designed to expel evil spirits that involved a bottle of moonshine poured into a terra cotta bowl before being set alight in a blackened room. Sugar was slowly added to caramelize the alcohol, which Paco lifted with a ladle in a dramatic blue, flaming ribbon before pouring it back in the bowl. As the flame intensified, Angel read a spell to cast away the spirits; once the fire had subsided, a glass of the mystical brew was poured for each of us.
Warm from both the moonshine and Paco’s hospitality, I ascended the stairs renewed. I wasn’t sure whether Paco’s elixir had managed to expel any evil spirits that night, but I was certain it had expelled any doubt I had that descending two stories into a cave in the middle of a cold Spanish night was a good decision.
Top photo: Morcilla, or Spanish blood sausage, served during the dinner. Credit: Jody Eddy