This is a tale of a village and a spoon, which to me perfectly reflects the spirit of the season.
The village in question, Cehegín, appears in the photo above. I had often admired this perched vista from the highway that connects the city of Murcia with the rugged northwest corner of the region. But until recently, I had never stopped to explore.
And here’s where the spoon comes in. Much to my delight, the day I picked to visit Cehegín, there also happened to be a culinary event, the Puente del Puchero, or Bridge of Stews.
The idea was similar to that of the itinerant Tapas Routes I wrote about several weeks ago. But this time, instead of small plates, participating bars and restaurants were serving mini portions of traditional soups and stews, all dishes meant to be eaten with a spoon, hence the tagline (which I adore), ¡¡Viva la Cuchara!!, Long live the Spoon!
This praise for a simple, comforting and nourishing way to eat seems a perfect slogan for for the times. I chanted these words in my mind (and sometimes out loud) throughout the day, imagining all the bottomless pots of stew gurgling on stove tops throughout the village. This made the quiet streets feel more welcoming and took the chill out of the wind.
A bit of history
I love this part of the region of Murcia, both for the striking landscape and for the evocative human history. Cave drawings thought to be over 4,000 years old have been found in the area, as well as traces of Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, and, of course, Catholic conquerors. All of these peoples had their reasons for staking a claim on this land, like its geographical advantages (protected caves and extensive lookout possibilities) as well as its strategic importance in terms of religion and politics (often one in the same).
As far as I can gather, none of these people had it easy. Throughout this long history, not only were there marauders and rivals to contend with, but also indiscriminant diseases like the Plague. Nonetheless, the will to survive has left a rich legacy in Cehegín, whose old center was declared Historic-Artistic Site by the Spanish Ministry of Culture in 1982.
Today, tourism is key to the survival of local monuments and traditions, not only in Cehegín, but also in much of rural Spain, which, for me, was extra reason (as if I needed it) to grab a spoon and dig in.
Without further ado, here is our day on the Trail of Stews in Cehegín:
Our first stop was the no-frills Bar Fernando, which was quiet minus a few regulars who’d stopped by for an aperitivo. We were the only out-of-towners there, but this didn’t seem to make a difference to anyone, and we took a place at the bar without any obvious turned heads. In fact, it took several minutes for the owner to take our order, as he was busy chatting politics with the man next to us who had dropped by alone for a beer and a snack of several fat anchovies drizzled with olive oil. We eventually got to order our puchero, and were served alubias con perdíz, a vibrant stew of white beans, partridge and a good dose of pimentón. The little ceramic bowls made for the occasion were perfect for warming cold fingers.
Our second stop, La Bodeguica (“the little bodega” –ica/-ico is a common diminutive in Murcia, often used instead of the –ita/-ito predominant in the rest of Spain), was more modern in decor than Bar Fernando and also had a younger crowd. An array of creative canapés – mini slices of baguette topped with different meats, cheeses and spreads – displayed on the bar caught our attention, but we decided to stick with the spoon route and were served Murcia’s traditional olla de cerdo, a pork-laden stew which literally (and understandably) translates as “pig pot.” In spite of the small dish, the portion (as you can see), packed with meat, garbanzos and bits of celery, was far from skimpy. I followed Manolo’s lead and stirred the morcilla in with the rest, which gave each spoonful a warm hint of cinnamon and clove.
We decided we had room for one more stew, so made or way to the Bar-Terraza Cine Alfaro, a little place on the Plaza of the same name in the historic center. We grabbed two stools at the bar, which gave us a direct view into the kitchen and of the walls plastered with photos of the Real Madrid soccer team over the years. Here, they were serving cocido con pelotas, a meatball stew. As evident in the photo, they did not skimp on the goods here either, and loaded our bowls with tender meatballs, chicken, garbanzos, carrot, turnip, potato, and yes, a bit of broth, too. By now, the chill I had felt before my first spoonful of the day was a distant memory.
In between bowls of stew, we visited historic Cehegín, where restoration is a work in progress. Several crumbling corners serve as a reminder that this part of Spain was largely isolated and poor in the grand scheme of history.
Yet thankfully, there are many signs of a growing determination to preserve the town’s architectural heritage, like the lovingly restored 17th century Council Chambers and 18th century Fajardo Palace, which house the Archaeological Museum of Cehegín, pictured below. Here you can see remnants and objects left behind by the different peoples who have called this land home.
These buildings and the display below from the 19th century are evidence of more prosperous times in Cehegín, when certain tables were set with china and silver according to the dictates of royal etiquette. Apparently, all these knives, forks and spoons were for one diner.
The craftsmanship was admirable, yet I found myself asking, who needs all those utensils when all you really need is one big spoon?
Happy Holidays to everyone! Eat lots of soup, and savor tradition, wherever you are!
- When: This was the second annual Puente del Puchero, and hopefully there will be many more to come. The event takes place around the 8th of December, a national holiday, which, when it falls on a weekday, typically turns into a long weekend, as folks “make a bridge (puente)” to Saturday and Sunday.
- Where: This event is a joint effort between several villages in Northwest Murcia, so you could easily spend a whole weekend trying different stews. This year, the following villages participated: Cehegín, Moratalla, Mula and Pliego.
- How: Pick up an event map/guide at a local tourist office or at any of the participating bars, which tells you who’s serving what. This year, the price was 2.50 € for a serving of stew and a drink, which is quite a bargain considering the amount of hearty ingredients that get packed into those little bowls.