It had been a particularly gelid few days leading up to Christmas in the small, mountainous pueblo where I would spend the Christmas Holidays of 1995. When Christmas Eve came around the temperature further dipped to a frozen -5 Celsius.
Digging out from the slight dusting of snow that had coated the Northern Spanish landscape would prove to be effortless in comparison to the misery that we were unfortunately pummeled with each winter season in my native home of Canada.
I insisted upon having a Christmas tree and my exchange sister and I, had made a shopping trip into the city of Pamplona to see if we could find a tree, some lights and decorations. The only thing was that, the Spanish don’t share the same vision of our North American version of Christmas – specifically our notions of having a Christmas tree, and what constitutes Christmas cuisine, as I would later find out...
My exchange sister and I, had got it into our heads that after buying assorted lights and peculiar tree ornamentations, that we would take matters into our very own hands.
The solution to our coniferous conundrum was that we would set out upon a mission up the local mountain to gather our very own tree. We hiked up the closest mountain which she would later refer to it as a “hill”, with an axe to chop down the best tree we could find.
However, the only tree we could find and that we were able to effectively chop down, appeared as though it had been the actual Christmas tree used in the television special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. I was extremely disappointed and the look on her face was also telling – she wasn’t impressed with this newfound ritual that I had mistakenly plopped into the midst of her Spanish Christmas traditions. Nevertheless, we went ahead and errected our woefully, odd looking tree in the family room - complete with the tacky ornamentations, and we strung the Christmas tree lights around the prickly defunct branches.
When I plugged the lights into the shoddy and archaic electrical socket, I was electrocuted, not once, but twice, and my fingertips became immediately numb and considerably painful. I hadn't been wearing any shoes at the time, so I had also felt the electrical current circuit throughout my body and exit through the bottom of my feet also making them painfully numb.
On Christmas Eve we sat basking in the light of the tree and admiring the decorations. I didn’t dare let on that the previous calamity had sufficiently frightened me with regards to ever using tree lights again, so I kept a safe distance from the Christmas tree: I was afraid it would shoot a lightning bolt out at me and strike me dead as a penance for disrespecting Spanish Christmas Traditions.
That evening we gathered in the family’s home to have a traditionally Northern Spanish Christmas meal. A lovely aroma flew out from the kitchen and enveloped my senses. I couldn’t wait to dig in and begin eating the fantastic meal my exchange mother had so carefully planned and prepared. Little did I know, the shock my North American taste buds were in for.
When we finally sat down around ten o’clock that evening to commence with the festive feast, my hands and feet were still painfully numb, but I was very excited to experience a typical Basque-Northern Spanish Christmas Eve meal.
I was so pleased that my exchange mother had spent the entire day stewing the mystery concoction that had simmered on the gas lighted stove all day long – she didn’t let me in on what had been bubbling in that pot because she had wanted to keep it a surprise (I look back now and I should’ve known that was an electrifying recipe for disaster). My exchange mother enthusiastically brought out an enormous, slightly steaming pot with a lid on it. She meticulously placed a soup ladle beside the fragrant pot.
When she lifted the lid off the pot, the heavenly aroma of onions, garlic and tomato saturated the dining room and I thought I was in love (at least with the galvanizing scent of culinary Amor).
When I questioned her as to what this haute Christmas cuisine was called, she simply replied, “Calamares en su tinta”, I had understood the Calamari part, but I was confused by the “...en su tinta” so I asked if I could peer into the pot to take and have a look at this beautiful aromatic masterpiece – and that’s when I got the third shock of those two nights...
When I looked into the pot all I saw was pitch-black. She stirred the contents while looking at me and said, “See! There’s the squid!”, I watched as various pallid mini-sea monsters and rings bobbed furiously in an ocean of ebony broth. Shocked, I had finally understood what “Calamares en su tinta” exactly was... It was, Squid in its own ink sauce.
Horrified that anyone would eat this onyx colored brew or that something could smell this alluring was highly deceptive to my seventeen year old senses! I had been duped! Reluctantly after seeing my face she offered to remove the squid from the ink sauce and make me a small sandwich with the typical crusty Spanish baguette.
I thought about it for a minute, it was a tempting offer but I decided that if it’s good enough for the Spanish people it’s good enough for me to give it a nibble, at the very least.
With trepidation, I carefully spooned a squid ring soaked in ink sauce out of my bowl and placed it in my mouth while I purposely avoided all of the many tiny cephalopods that had floated towards my spoon.
The squid had an odd, salty-elastic band taste; and unfortunately the combination of both the squid and broth together led to the sensation of having actually eaten a chewy pen quill, soaked in ink - minus the feathery part.
I managed to eat about half of the bowl and went to bed that Christmas Eve very hungry, but at least I was starting to get the feeling back in my hands and feet - even if my gastronomical senses were still recovering from haute Christmas cuisine shock.