One morning in July 2011 I walked into Pamplona with my husband. ‘Hobbled’ would be more like it as five days on the Camino de Santiago had given me a blister-to-be-proud-of on my left heel. Deafening brass bands on every street corner banished our mountain tranquillity immediately. The Fiesta de San Fermin was in full swing. White clothing with red neckerchiefs were worn by everyone from newborns to smiling ninety year olds. Local Rioja was everywhere… along with drinking it, dousing each other is part of the ritual. Pamplona had not been on our agenda, but, unbeknownst to us, it was on our Way. We could have walked around the city walls and carried on, but I invoked the blister. It was time to party!
He had booked a week’s holidays with no particular plan. A friend suggested the Camino and it all fell into place. Fiona and Caoimhe lent us their backpacks and expertise. Betty Tuite of the Irish Society of the Friends of St.James gave us our passports, more advice and encouragement. With days to go, we booked a Ryanair flight to Biarritz, almost missed it ( …the complacency of those who live near Dublin airport….) but didn’t and as we completed the long sprint to the boarding area, we felt that luck was on our side.
Everything that they say about the Camino is true. Highs, lows, sleeping in dormitories, meeting nice people. In Rifugio Orisson they have a tradition of inviting all of the eighteen guests to stand up after the evening meal and introduce themselves to each other. It’s a long walk. Some will do a week, some will spend seven or eight weeks. All will fall into each other’s company along the way. By the time we finished, even the most reluctant guest had said a few words. It felt like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in English, Dutch, German, French, Spanish and Norwegian. The road ahead looked a lot less daunting.
On the afternoon of day 2, my husband commented on a strange smell on my breath.
‘What’s it like’ I asked him
‘Nail polish remover’ he said
Ah…ketones! Having never had anorexia, diabetes nor, despite my Catholic girlhood, become an ascetic, ketosis was a stranger to me. It’s what happens when your body has burnt its available supplies of blood glucose, its reserves of glycogen in muscle and the liver, and turns to stored body fat as a source of energy. When the body is in ketosis, experiences are heightened. To me the sky was more blue, forests were more green. Buzzards and kites hovering on thermals were bigger, the sound of rivers whose banks we hiked was a lot more musical. I was pleased to be burning some of my more than adequate reserves of adipose tissue, and drank lots of water to flush out the ketones -you could get fond of that hallucinatory state of mind.
Our route that day covered 15 kilometers with an ascent of 700 metres to Col de Lepoeder at 1,450 metres and a descent of 450 metres to the monastery at Roncesvalles where we stayed that night. And where I had my best meal of the year in 2011….because I was ravenously hungry.
‘Is maith an t-anlann an t-ocras’ is the Irish expression for ‘ Hunger is the best sauce’. Having paid €9 each for dinner, 200 pilgrims queued outside the refectory waiting for the earlier sitting to finish. They filed out, we filed in and took our seats randomly.
Bang- tall carafes of local Rioja were placed on the table.
Bang- a large dish of spaghetti with chorizo was the first course.
Bang- a grilled fish with tomato ragout and some salad for each diner. Within minutes, there only remained a fish head, tail and backbone on every plate.
Bang- a pot of yogurt each and we were done.
The food tasted SOOOOO good. It wasn’t about refinement of the palate, it was about satisfying a deeply carnal need….to replace the energy used that day and bank some for the next. We all ate in silence, and once plates were cleared, a loud hum of conversation rose to the rafters of the ancient monastery. Most adjourned for a few more glasses of Rioja. Need I say that we slept like babies?
Next morning we tramped through the rain and paused for a coffee in Burgete. Locals gathered around the TV screen in the café. We joined the rubber-necking throng watching the running of the bulls in Pamplona; it was my first glimpse of the Encierro. Having heard friends from Navarre talk about this and explain the centuries old traditions, going back to the cult of Mithras in Roman times, we felt we’d have to go.
Our luck continued. We got a room in Pamplona and had two more days of heavenly hiking to get there. Our hotel receptionist was able to get tickets for the bullfight that night. As I sat watching the picadores and matadores perform their skilled rituals, I recalled an evening in April 2011 when yearling bulls surrounded me in a field in Tipperary while out walking and kept me prisoner against a tree for a few hours. O Yearling Bull 0246 I will never forget you. Leader of the pack, who reared up at me when I thought to make a run for it.
Only for a kind neighbour who heard my cries for help, I would have joined the annual statistics. The experience gave me a sharper understanding of the lives of farmers, their work, risks and skills, and their relationship with their animals. The bullfight was amazing. Having attended the slaughter of cattle by a butcher friend in my teenage years, I was not shocked. There’s nobility in both man and beast. Only one can prevail.
Next morning we peered through the ramparts to see the bulls run through the streets.
Men of all ages ran along with them, including a fellow Camino traveller from Clontarf who had planned to run with his dad, uncle and cousin. My heart went out to his Mum at home! He didn’t make the news headlines that evening.
We returned from Pamplona to Biarritz at the end of the week with a distinct sense of having unfinished business on the Camino. When we return there will be less of an impulse decision about it. Having had a taste, the Way beckons.
Torta de Santiago
Here’s a recipe for Torta de Santiago or Santiago Cake, as we call it.
I’ve been baking this cake for years before I even heard of the Camino de Santiago. I tore it out of a newspaper and have long since lost the original. It soon became a family favourite as it goes with every fruit, every compote. Since it has no flour it’s gluten free. Almonds and eggs contribute protein, and supply the fat content as there’s no butter. If you source organic eggs and fresh almonds, it’s about as nutritious a cake as you could bake at home. It’s delicious and deeply satisfying to boot. All along the route of the Camino, versions of this cake are for sale for lunchtime picnics. When you taste it, you’ll be amazed that it qualifies as pilgrim food!
- 3 large organic eggs
- 150g golden caster sugar ( divide into 130g and 20g)
- 160g ground almonds
- Zest and juice of half an orange or lemon
- ¼- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- Icing sugar to dust
When working with egg whites all your tools must be in a state of pristine cleanliness. If in doubt , wash them all in hot soapy water before beginning. The tiniest drop of oil or grease will prevent the egg whites from incorporating air.
A larger cake is made by doubling the quantities above and using a cake tin of 26 cm diameter – twice the return for the same amount of work.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4
- Note; 170°C is better if using a fan oven
- Butter a 21cm round, loose-bottomed, cake tin then cut a piece of baking parchment to fit the tin and put that in.
- Separate the eggs; whites in one big mixing bowl, yolks in another.
- Using an electric beater, beat the yolks, gradually adding 130g of the sugar until pale and creamy.
- Fold in the ground almonds, zest, juice, cinnamon to make a stiff paste.
- Now wash and dry the beater. Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks, then gradually beat in 20g sugar, teaspoon by teaspoon. Keep whisking until the mixture is glossy and the peaks are stiff when you remove the whisk.
- Stir one third of the whisked whites into the almond mixture to loosen it slightly, then, using a metal spoon, carefully fold in the remaining mixture, in two batches. Be gentle, or you’ll lose all the air you’ve whisked in.
Transfer mixture to tin and bake in the preheated oven for 35 mins. When a skewer comes out clean, it’s ready.
Leave it to cool a little, then turn it out on a cooling rack, remove the parchment and flip onto a plate.
Sieve some icing sugar on it and serve warm or cold. Delicious served with fruit compote or fresh fruit and whipped cream.
Even as I post this photo taken in Dublin yesterday, I find it bizarre!
A photo of the two of us lying back on the Spanish mountain heather, having our lunch in the sunshine, watching kites surfing the thermals, with the perfume of wild flowers in the air would be more authentic, but none was taken. Anyway, this is how all our lives go….we have life-changing experiences, and then tell the story to friends over a cuppa or a pint. Or not.
One thing is sure, the Camino de Santiago calls and I’ll return.