Monday, October 17, 2005

For Science

For the past three weeks, my weekends here have fit into a set pattern: on Saturday, I go on a day trip to a nearby town, and on Sunday, I ride my bicycle to somewhere beyond the M-30 highway that rings Madrid (I’ll discuss this at length in a later post.)

Towns around here all seem to have a specialty dessert item for which they’re known: marzipan in Toledo, candied almonds in Alcalá de Henares (where I went this Saturday), and yemas de Santa Teresa in Avila, where I went last Saturday.

Avila is a picturesque little city in Castilla-La Mancha an hour and a half northwest of Madrid. It was the birthplace of Santa Teresa de Jesus. Not being a hagiographile, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what kind of bloody martyrdom she suffered (if any.) I can, however, tell you that Avila has a great, full set of 900-year-old city walls and, apparently, Torquemada is buried somewhere there.

Avila is known for its yemas de Santa Teresa. A yema is an egg yolk, and yemas de Santa Teresa are candied egg yolks. They’re not candies in the shape of egg yolks. They’re just yolks, somehow suspended in sugar. They’re custard without any sort of mixing, dairy, or added flavorings. I don’t know how they’re made, but I imagine that the yemas are just cooked in a simple syrup with really low heat. They look like slightly deflated egg yolks with a shell of sugar, much like an egg-yolk gumdrop would look, if such a thing were to exist.

I bought a dozen yolks at what seems to have been the main touristy shop in Avila (it’s right on the square across from the cathedral, and was doing brisk business in yemas and membrillo [quince paste.]) The restaurant where we had eaten lunch (I had boquerones, which I will also discuss at length later) actually sold the yemas in two-packs, although at the time I’d been looking for individual ones (just to taste), but at the end, the lunch spot was a bit of a hike and I was feeling lazy, and it was close to the end of the day, and so a dozen yemas it was.

For you, dear Reader, I made this purchase, as I was not about to leave Avila without tasting its culinary pride and joy and subsequently write a blog entry about it. At the end of the day, yemas are just egg yolks that happen to be candied. Between the five of us who were there, we ate three of the egg yolks; this left nine yolks, and none of us had any intention of consuming them. Needless to say, I took them in to the Fulbright office on Monday morning, where eager Spaniards devoured them within minutes.

To get an idea of how a yema de Santa Teresa tastes, imagine the flavor of a soft-boiled egg yolk. Now imagine that somehow you’ve ingested a tablespoon or two of sugar along with it. That’s exactly what it tastes like. None of the alchemy that turns, say, mounds of sugar and egg whites into merengue, or flour, eggs, and sugar into cake is there.

The fact that these are what an entire city is known for, culinarily, leads me to make some deductions as to the historical-agricultural circumstances that led to the development of such an, ahem, specialty. For those of you unfamiliar with the Castilian-La Manchan landscape, it’s a windblown, rolling, dry kind of place. Not much grows there; it looks something like the eastern edges of the Bay Area at the end of summer, after all the grasses have gotten good and dry and golden (and are a fire hazard.) It’s not exactly the kind of landscape that produces, oh, watermelons and oranges.

In my mind, at some point historically (whether under Franco or in the seventeenth century, or both), this was a town where there was nothing to eat but eggs. A conversation about lunch may have gone something like the 17th-century Spanish language version of this:

Kid: So, what are we having for lunch today?
Mother: The same thing we have every day. Eggs.
Kid: And for dessert?
Mother: Eggs.

Also: Today, once again, I ate at La Finca de Susana (Happy birthday to me! Now I’m thirty.) I had the exact same thing as last time: everything was still delicious, but they lose some points. First, there were eight of us. The Finca, apparently, only seats parties of up to seven, and if there are eight people, rather than joining smaller square tables, they seat you at a round table intended for six. Also, while presentation on the desserts, especially, left nothing to be desired, the sauce that the caramelized duck (two of us had ordered it) was served in had messily sloshed around on the plate, and the mound of couscous, as a consequence, wasn’t a neatly-defined dome. It still tasted good, though. Finally, they lost points on the fact that Jason’s first dish (he was the only one who order both an appetizer and a main) didn’t come out until after everyone else had been served their mains. The Finca still gets really high marks, but I suppose they’re better at handling smaller groups (which is strange, since, as a restaurant, it must have at least forty tables.) Next time I go back, I’m ordering something different for my main course, but I imagine I’ll still order the heavenly postre de Timbáon for dessert.


Blogger Josie said...

Happy 30th Birthday!

6:45 AM  
Anonymous katy said...

Yes, I second that. Happy (late) 30th birthday, AV!

FYI: St. Teresa of Avila was a sickly 16th century Carmelite nun who actually lived to a fairly ripe old age. She had lots of ecstatic experiences and felt unworthy and guilty all the time. (My home parish was St. Teresa's.)

10:32 AM  
Blogger anyblock said...

Happy Birthday! I'm glad I got to skype with you. And thank you for purchasing, tasting and reviewing the yemas as well as other foods. As I've said before (only minutes ago), it's always extra fun to read about food.

5:31 PM  

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