The Curious Peasant

at Peasant Publishing

Lost skills in cookery, craft, and culture.

Black pudding from Leon, Spain

I love black pudding, or blood pudding to give it it's non PC name, and the variety available never ceases to amaze me. It is the peasant food par excellence made with the philosophy that nothing of an animal should be wasted, not even it's blood.

Some communities have an antipathy or moral objection to eating something made out of blood but others prefer to waste nothing, realising the immense nutritional value of what might otherwise be thrown away.

After slaughtering a pig the blood is collected and quickly stirred so that it doesn't coagulate. Later mixed with some sort of thickener, flavoured with herbs and spices and stuffed into casings tied at each end, it is gently boiled and allowed to cool. It can be eaten hot or cold and every community has their own variety. I have eaten black pudding in Scotland, large diameter circles that are quite fatty and thickened with oat meal. Irish black puddings, slender sausages thick with barley and becoming quite crisp when fried. In my opinion, the best black pudding in England comes from Derbyshire. Quite substantial rings of a soft mix, gently speckled with back fat. Delicious fried for breakfast with a runny egg or, even more so, combined with perfectly fried scallops; a marriage made in heaven.

The French boudin noir is usually softer than its English counterpart. The variety of added flavourings is also larger. Mixed with apple, combined with onions, or even a slightly hot version with chillies in, it is more normally eaten as part of a main course, served with Puy lentils for instance.

In Spain morcilla also comes in numerous varieties. One I bought from a butcher in Navarre was so strongly flavoured (it may even have been off) that we fed it to the crayfish in the local river. They went mad for it and we could see them advancing with raised claws before gobbling it up. In Burgos recently, a town famed for it's connection with El Cid, and of course for its morcilla, we ate rounds of a dry pudding, lightly flavoured with paprika. Very delicious. But in Leon, not that far from Burgos we were in for a bit of a shock.

As a 'one-off' experience we were staying the Parador de Leon. The hotel is in an astonishing building, once a monastery, and is attached to the Church of San Marco. The interior cloister of the hotel is glorious. A 16th century stone haven of peace and tranquility. We were looking forward to our dinner in the hotel dining room and were delighted to see morcilla on the menu. I like to think I am quite an adventurous eater - I will always try the think on the menu that I haven't tried before and I love offal but, in this instance, the old adage that one eats with ones eyes first certainly holds true.

My morcilla arrived as a large semi-liquid puddle of black sitting in a complicated bird's nest of micro chips. Not put off, despite the resemblance to something my very unwell dog might have produced, I tucked in. It wasn't very nice. Very rich, tepid, strongly flavoured with paprika and with a texture like sloppy porridge. Even I could only manage half of it!

Morcilla

Now in more normal accommodation, a tiny converted cow shed on the side of a deserted valley at 500m in the Asturian hills, we have just had morcilla for breakfast. A slender sausage with huge lumps of fat and heavily seasoned with paprika. Not terribly nice eaten in the English style but I can imagine the depth of flavour it would add to the classic Asturian Fabada.

Vendéen Marshes

Just south of the Loire are the Vendéen Marshes or the Marais Poitevin. A huge region, some 110,000 hectares, of both wet and dry marsh dotted with dykes, canals and drains. I had wanted to explore the region for years and have at last managed a brief visit. Based in a chambres d'hôtes in a 12th-century priory we had the perfect opportunity to explore.

The wet marsh or le Marais mouillé, is still farmed in very traditional methods. Small fields, either for hay or grazed by white cattle, are surrounded by drainage dykes lined with poplars and pollarded willows. Flat bottomed punts, batai's, are still used to travel the dykes as there are limited roads. There are also hundreds of batai's available for tourists to hire either with or without a guide. The dry marsh, or le Marais desséche, is more intensively farmed. Some of the houses are on the far side of the dyke to the road; this pretty house had it's letter box on the road side so the dyke had to be crossed by boat to collect the mail.

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The dykes in the wet marsh are alive with the sound of amorous frogs, sometimes so loud they drown out the bird song! How can such a tiny creature make such a huge noise?

Birds are plentiful with rarities present in pleasing numbers. On one walk we saw white storks, purple herons, golden orioles, green woodpeckers, goldfinches and black redstarts - A very colourful selection!
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Of course being marshland it is wet here, and the wet has to come from somewhere. We have seen some pretty spectacular deluges but they are mostly short-lived and the strong sunshine rapidly dries out the ground - you can see the steam rising from the sodden fields which leads to great humidity.

Our first evening was a treat - a local restaurant gave us a fantastic meal of 'Marshwiggle' food. Snails followed by frogs legs and eels. Truly local food!

We were also lucky enough to see a couple of Poitevin asses. These two hairy donkeys were somewhat lugubrious but oh so charming with their dreadlocks and floppy bottom lips!

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