Today, Fermín and I went off on an excursion to a village about an hour outside of Logroño, to the highest pueblo in La Rioja, Santa Marina. On our way we started out with some dark clouds over top and as we headed up the mountain and crossed over into a totally different landscape filled with pine trees we started to see snow as well. The further we climbed the deeper the snow got on either side of the car and even further up, the road was glazed over with fresh fallen flakes. A bit apprehensive, we kept climbing, thinking maybe we should stop and walk the rest of the way, but in the end, we made it all the way up to the top. At the entrance to the town we found it marked off with colored tape and thought to ourselves, “Maybe this town in closed for the day?”. But low and behold, we marched across the threshold of that colored tape and there we were greeted by the first of the eight inhabitants of the town.
An older man with a conductor’s hat started up a conversation with us and Fermín explained to him that about 5 or 6 years ago he had come across this town and met some of the people that had lived here there whole lives, brothers, ages 70 and 78. From then on…we were in, just like part of the family. This man showed us down the road (5 or 10 steps) to the brothers’ house and we were welcomed in with open arms. Jose and Mari, both single and still proud to be, were born and raised in Santa Marina and still lived there almost 80 years later in the same house where they had grown up.
In Santa Marina live 6 men, all single, and all very content with their lives in the tip top of the Riojan mountains. Hmmmm? Happy without women…could it be? Well…they later confessed that there is one man and his wife who live there part time, and whenever they are in Santa Marina, the whole town dines at her house. That’s what I thought! Haha! So as we entered into Jose and Mari’s house we found them sitting in their living room/kitchen very close to the fire. (I may have forgot to mention that as we walked to their house we were practically blown over by the wind as we slipped and sloshed down the road on large patches of ice.) So we were very excited when they invited us to sit down next to them and warm up.
After a few minutes of conversation, we were interrupted by someone at the door. “Who else could be visiting this little village today?”, I thought. No one else, but the traveling nurse. What? Yes, there is a nurse that visits all of these small villages with all of these people who don’t want to go down to the city to go to doctor visits. This lucky lady gets to visits them every 1st Wednesday of the month to check up on how all 8 of them are doing. While we were sitting there, chatting over a morning ‘rosquilla’, (special treat eaten during the beginning of February to celebrate San Blas), one by one, without saying anything, rolled up their sleeves and she took their pulse and blood pressure. The whole town must have known she was there, because they all visited while she was there to take their vitals. Supposedly everything was good because not much was said of their health, as we continued to joke about the fact that their telephone line had been cut. If only doctor visits could be so easy…
I noticed a covered metal pot sitting on the floor right in front of the fire and started to wonder what could be in there… A few moments later, Jose opened the pot to stir it and I saw that it looked something like milk. They explained that they are pretty famous around these parts for making cheese and began to explain the daily process that they go through to make it. First, they get up nice and early and go out to milk their goats and sheep. They mix the milk together and then put in front of the fire and add a couple drops of ‘cuajo’ (a curdling agent) to begin the cheese making process. After some heating and stirring, he took the ‘queso fresco’ (fresh cheese) and drained out the water that was left in the pot. He then molded it into a small basket to let it drain a bit more. After, the cheese must hang from the ceiling in a bag to dry out for 15 days until it is ready. Looked delicious…but we weren’t willing to stay 15 days in that weather to try it out.
Speaking of hanging from the ceiling, I also noticed there were about 50 chorizos hanging from the ceiling. As we discussed them, it seemed that they were made of goat meat instead of the pig that is normally used when making chorizos. Before we knew it, they were taking one of the chorizos down and taking out some kind of contraption to grill it over our open fire. Five minutes later we had a table in front of us, bread on the table, and a porrón full of wine. While some of us preferred our wine in small glasses, the true ‘villagers’ drank straight out of the porrón, which of course I had to take a stab at as well. Luckily they first provided me with an apron before my attempt, because if not, I would have left with a very stained white jacket! Let’s just say, this skill is not my forte. As the Chorizo was finished grilling, it was cut up into pieces and we dug in.
There we were, more than half of the town of Santa Marina, myself, Fermín, and the traveling nurse all sharing a delicious morning snack. Oh, the places we find ourselves!!