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Timing is important in a good cocido every ingredient must be added to the pot at the right moment, according to its relative cooking time. Once boiled, the meats and vegetables are strained and served on separate platters, with a fillip of olive oil. The rich, soul-satisfying broth is my favorite, as all the goodness of the farm ends up here. Cocido is one of those seemingly simple dishes with infinite variety depending on the cook. Aunt Olivia's version features a pig's face, and I always get the snout. In my opinion, Gloria's chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage) are among the best in Spain. Her hand-fed pigs are by default organic and free range. There is no other kind of food in Vilar. Except for being fresher than fresh, Vilar's cuisine has no room for urban notions of healthy eating. It's all pork, fat and sodium.
Señora Carmen has avoided veggies for nearly a century, but clearly she's none the worse for it. She had a tomato once, at a wedding 50 years ago, and didn't like it. When I told her about sushi, she exclaimed, "We're poor, but at least we cook our fish!" Longevity must be in the drinking water. It trickles ice-cold straight out of the ground from a spring. A communal glass stands on the low stone wall, which serves as the local bar. Alberto once beat his cousin Rosamari Filgueiras in a water-drinking contest, 12 glasses to 11 before they nearly puked. At first, I hesitated to drink untreated water emerging from weeds beside a cow path, but I'm over it. Alberto still loves to guzzle the best mineral water in the world, bottled at the source.
I smile at the culture shock of my first Vilar visit, when i first tasted a newly laid egg and milk still warm from the cow. Señora Carmen gave her sick chickens aspirin and fiery moonshine called aguardiente. She had no bathroom, so we used to go to Rosamari's house for showers and a flush toilet. The village paths were quagmires of mud and cow dung. I learned to ignore the clouds of flies settling like locusts on the table. My ear picked up some musical tones of Gallego, as Señora Carmen does not speak Castilian Spanish. I loved the crooked yellow doors hanging on frames bent into crazy angles by the centuries. The rain in Spain, by the way, falls mainly in Galicia, which is as green and misty as Scotland. Festas start at midnight to the sound of Celtic bagpipes called gaita, and the human population is low enough to leave plenty of room for ghosts and the supernatural. A driver, stuck behind women buying fish off a peddler's van, shrugs and says, "Here we live without hurry."
Vilar seems timeless, but even in the past 10 years, I've seen a rush of change. There is a bathroom at Señora Carmen's now, but her chickens and the cow poop are gone. Fifty years ago, there were at least a hundred cows in Vilar. Five years ago there were five, and now there is just one cow left in the entire town, Rosamari's black and white Kuka. Because meeting European Union dairy regulations is so expensive, Rosamari no longer sells milk, raising food only for her family's consumption. She is unaware that beef from old Galician milk cows, which has a fine marbling similar to Kobe Wagyu beef, is highly prized in top asador grill restaurants. As the milk herds disappear, Spanish gourmets are lamenting the growing scarcity of their best sirloin.
Agricultural efficiency here has long been hamstrung by the ancient practice of dividing up land among all the heirs, creating a crazy quilt of handkerchief-sized plots. Now that the heirs have left and everyone is drawing old-age pensions, subsistence farming is even less tenable. Gloria might not keep pigs this year since she'd like to visit her sister and is busy with Señora Carmen. She may buy pork to make chorizos or buy them ready made a terrifying thought. I try to bribe her to make chorizos just for me. It's obvious that only outsiders, the privileged gastronomic victims of modernization, feel a sense of loss. In Gloria's mind, all she is giving up is a lot of work. Keeping traditions alive is much quainter when someone else is doing the heavy lifting.
Every house in Vilar has a bread oven, but they are only for storage. Everyone buys gorgeous breads baked in a wood-fired oven from the Pan de Cerdedo bakery truck. Ever since the road was paved, white vans loaded with odd combinations of toilet paper, breast-shaped cheeses called tetilla, fresh seafood and shampoo arrive every day, a main street of convenience stores on wheels. I notice an ever-increasing percentage of purchased food items on the table now. People who have worked hard in the fields all their lives love being able to buy anything they need. Then I spot Ermandina Gamayo Gamayo passing with her goats, carrying two enormous switches she cut with her moon-shaped machete. Store-bought brooms have yet to catch on.
I find a photo of Alberto and a swarm of village kids clambering onto a donkey, possibly moments before the infamous kick. Just before my first visit, a baby was born to parents who had given up on having children. Eduardo is now 12 and the only child in Vilar. Since he has no playmates, he plays Nintendo and helps tend sheep.
When I first came to Vilar, there were so many ruined, abandoned houses that the animals all had homes of their own. Now that the animals have also abandoned the houses, Vilar has only two possible futures. It could become either a ghost town or a country retreat for city folks. The house where Alberto's father Elpidio was born now belongs to his niece, Blanca Canabal. Blanca lives with her husband Jose in Vigo. Their family comes on holiday, but instead of potatoes and kale, they've planted kiwi. Her younger son Javier plays the gaita and works with Jose in his IT business. He has learned to live in both worlds.