words and photos by Elyn Aviva
He was a good-looking guy, even though he had blood on his hands and his jacket was spattered with red stains. His eyes were intense, his smile tight, his long fingers graceful as he sharpened his knife, the thin blade scraping rhythmically against the long steel rod.
The carnicería was packed with customers, patiently impatient, enjoying Julio’s ongoing spiel, willing to wait (for wait we would) while he cut each piece of meat to order. There were five butcher shops (not counting two supermarkets) in Sahagún, the small town in northern Spain where we were living, but this was the best. I had it on good authority.
“He’s an artist,” my late friend Paca had explained. “He can slice a piece of meat so thin you can see Barcelona through it.” No small task, given that Barcelona is 500 miles to the east.
Inside the entrance to the small shop was a red ticket machine. Take a number and you will know where you stand. Or so I thought at first. But I was quickly disabused. The flashing number on the bright-lit sign above Julio’s head never changed.
“Who’s last in line?” I asked, my limited Spanish having expanded to cover such necessities. A man leaning on a cane pointed to the elderly, burgundy-haired woman beside him; she nodded. I knew my place and sat down to wait. And wait. An hour would be fast, I realized, for it was just before the holidays, and everyone was stocking up to feed the hoards of friends and relatives returning home.
Homemade chorizo sausage, marinated pork loin, pork tongues, skinned rabbits, quarters of young and slightly older lamb, whole chickens, duck pâte, smoked pork chops, soup bones, bacon, tiny quails packed close together, pig ears, beef steaks, stew meat, chunks of beef to slice into fillets—and more—were tightly packed inside the glass-fronted case that separated Julio from his customers. Another case was crammed with rounds of cheeses and heaps of packaged pork products, its flat top covered with jars of leeks and asparagus and tuna, and bottles of local fruit conserves. On the wall behind, assorted Iberian hams hung from ropes tied around their shanks.
Time passed. Voices rose. Julio was in animated conversation with the elderly burgundy-haired señora. He waved his glistening knife for emphasis, then disappeared into the walk-in freezer and soon returned, hauling a haunch of beef. He dumped it on a wooden table worn down in the center from years of use.
Frowning intently, he carefully slipped his knife into the flesh, separating meat from bone. He tossed a hunk onto the scale, then slid it onto butcher’s wrap, folding and twisting the paper into a tidy package. It joined others in a plastic bag. With a flourish, he summed up the woman’s purchases on the scale, a machine that functioned both to weigh and keep a running tally.
“Who’s next?” He asked. People began to murmur and look around.
I raised my hand and stepped up to the glass display case. The crowd parted, but not much, since the ladies were curious what I would buy.
“What do you want today? Beef steak? Lamb?” He pointed at a slab of bones and meat. “This is delicious. Exquisite. Don’t miss it.”
I nodded, trusting that Julio wouldn’t steer me wrong. His knew his meat—and his customers. He really knew his meat. Once I had asked him if the lamb was organic. Offended, he replied, “It’s better than that—it’s natural!” and went on to explain that that particular lamb had grazed in the fields 30 miles to the north of our small town. He knew its owners, what it had been fed—I think he knew its pedigree, but I wasn’t interested. I want to eat it, not trace its family tree. The beef came from another nearby farm, where it had ranged in open pastures until Julio had chosen it to take to the slaughter house. He really knew his meat.
“Ground beef,” I requested.
“A pound or two.”
He nodded, looked thoughtful for a moment, then chose a chunk of beef. “Beef only or do you want to add some pork?”
“Whatever you think best.”
The woman next to me said, “It’s better with some pork. More flavor.”
“She’s right,” said Julio.
“You know what’s best,” I replied, watching him place the pieces in the grinder.
I pointed at a quarter of young lamb, complete with ribs and leg. He nodded in approval. “To roast?”
“I’d like to, but I don’t know how.”
His face lit up and he began to explain, relishing the details. A woman disagreed with his instructions, insisting that a little olive oil was necessary. An argument ensued and members of the crowd joined in. Julio grinned and cut a slab of pork fat to drape on top of the meat, then added a few handfuls of his homemade mix of parsley, salt, and garlic.
“You’ll see,” he said, bringing his bloody fingers to his lips as if to kiss them. “It will be the most delicious lamb you’ve ever tasted.”
I thought a moment, wondering if I needed anything else.
“Leave some for us!” another elderly, burgundy-haired woman said with a smile. (Burgundy is the dye color of choice for older women in this part of Spain.)
I smiled back, paid a miniscule amount for so much meat, gathered up my plastic bags, and started out the door. I heard a rhythmic sound and glanced back. Julio was sharpening his knife again.
Elyn Aviva is a writer, fiber artist, and transformational traveler. Currently living in Sahagún (León), Spain, she is fascinated by pilgrimage and sacred sites. Her PhD in anthropology was on the modern Camino de Santiago in Spain. Aviva is co-author of Powerful Places on the Caminos de Santiago, Powerful Places in Scotland, and other books on pilgrimage and journey. To learn more, go to www.pilgrimsprocess.com and www.fiberalchemy.com