Posted by: Jonathan | March 7, 2008

Fabada: A Mortal and Corporeal Sin, But Definitely Worth It

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
– William Blake

Have you ever thought, as you sit red-faced, breathing shallowly, “just… one… more… bite”? Have you ever then taken that extra bite and thought to yourself — in your blood-starved brain — “maybe, after all, I could manage another one”? And, finally, upon swallowing said final mouthful and feeling a previously unknown thickness on your tongue, have you ever thought, “perhaps I’ve overdone it”? It is at this point, as your mouth slowly stops salivating, your breath becomes labored and characterized by sharp exhalations and sighs intended to revitalize your flaccid organs, and your belly feels so tight and distended that if it weren’t for the shocking quantity of food you’ve just ingested (and several other flabby bodily areas), you might resemble a starved Ethiopian child, that you begin to understand why gluttony was included among the seven deadly sins.

Jug of House Wine and Fabada @ Casa Portal (Madrid)

Such was my state of mind as I sat, gravely concerned that I might actually suffocate myself internally as my stomach pressed up hard on diaphragm and lungs, at Casa Portal restaurant in Madrid, after a meal that would make a man’s recommended weekly caloric intake appear somehow unlikely to provide sufficient nourishment. The culprit you ask? Well, apart from my own greed, gluttony and propensity to exceed normal physical boundaries, the culprit was fabada. Fabada Asturiana to be precise. The famed bean and pork stew of the Asturian mountains (Picos de Europa) in northern Spain.

As earlier posts have described, I passed a vacation several years ago traveling in northern Spain and found it to be a formative experience. The food, the landscape, the culture and the climate had a profound impact on me and have kept me returning to Spain as regularly as possible given the intervening years in which I’ve gotten married and moved to the United States. Enjoying fresh seafood, doused in garlic, parsley and olive oil, and washed down with non-carbonated local cider in the beautiful, secluded harbor town of Luarca is one particularly evocative memory. And so it was that when we were in Madrid recently I wanted to recollect these memories, so we spent most of a morning walking across the city in search of an Asturian restaurant that had been recommended to us.

Our meal began with a selection of Asturian appetizers, including a tunafish and tomato empanadilla, a whole steamed morcilla, and a large cooking chorizo simmered in cider, accompanied by chewy bread and a liter of Asturian cider. My wife was then presented with what can only be described as a pond-sized bowl of fish bisque, that we shared but could not finish. Thankfully, a pause of fifteen minutes offered some digestive respite to our already extended guts and allowed our moistening brows to cool. However, when the final assault came, it was one that an hour-long intermission would not have adequately prepared us for.

Sidra Asturiana (Cider) at Casa Portal

My fabada arrived in a bowl of similar proportions to my wife’s soup course, and in it, along with the delicious softened, yet still toothsome, large white beans, came half of ANOTHER cooking chorizo, half of ANOTHER morcilla, and an entire pork chop. Maternal warnings of eyes-bigger-than-belly swam in my head as I plowed in, loosening my thickly greased palate at regular intervals with an excellent Crianza from Navarre. The beans were, well, like butter, and the various pork products, each delicious and flavorful in their own way, but the star of the dish, and indeed the entire meal, was morcilla.

This blood sausage, sometimes made with rice, sometimes with grains, which we Brits would class as black pudding, is common throughout Spain and, I’m sure, is widely derided by most tourists — even those with gourmet aspirations — for being disgusting. As I began to labor through the final mouthfuls, it crossed my mind just what levels of dietary deprivation had forced the inventors of morcilla to collect an animal’s blood and congeal it with fat, salt and grains, and fashion it into a sausage for preservation and sustinence later on. In the same way, I often try to imagine the back-breaking work of so many grape-pickers during the annual vendanges as I take my first sip of a newly-opened wine, in order to better appreciate the effort and craftsmanship that goes into the things I enjoy most. However, in this instance, my reverie for Spanish food culture was interrupted (and would not return for a while) by a lack of blood to my brain, as it flooded south to my upper intestine to begin absorbing the porky appetizers of the previous half hour.

An uncomfortable period followed (I know not how long), during which my wife was kind Fabada at Casa Portalenough to gently pat my limp hand and fan my flushed and fevered cheeks with a napkin, before I was able to even contemplate the short walk to the bathroom — the pressure having eased above was now pressuring a full bladder below. Even upon staggering back to the table and slumping ungraciously into my seat, I was unable to consider taking a glass of refreshing water so full was I. Apparently, until this point, I had been unable to articulate my suffering, but chose this moment to confess that not only might I have overdone it, but that I might also be experiencing a previously unheard of “pork overdose” that could turn out to be prejudicial to health. My wife replied pithily that at least I was advancing medical science by my gluttony.

Eventually, my bloatedness subsided enough for me to leave the restaurant and lurch slowly around the shopping district near the Goya metro stop, ashamed everytime my sagging and pallid features were reflected in a store window. And, lest, you think, gentle reader, that you might be prepared to risk a similarly harrowing experience in the daring pursuit of local specialties, you should know that as a result of my over-indulgence at lunch, I was unable to eat anything for the rest of the day and so missed an entire evenings’ worth of tapas.

If these were the immediate penalties of gluttony, the medium term ones have been even worse. I try in vain to shake off my fabada-induced weight gain each midday at the gym and, so far, I see no change in my girth. Yet, in spite of all this (self-inflicted) suffering, I still feel that it might well have been worth it. One only learns one’s limits by testing them, no?

Unsurprisingly, we have not yet had the courage to make our own version of fabada since returning to the States, though we intend to do so before winter is out. In the meantime, our good friend Nuria at Spanish Recipes Pic by Pic recently posted an authentic fabada Asturiana recipe on her site, which we will be putting through its paces just as soon as we can face it.

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