Foxglove and Oreos on the Camino

The Road has no beginning, and the Road has no end. The towns they run together and they run apart again. Right now is the only moment, and Time is the time to go and make yourself a pilgrim on the Road to Santiago. ¡Buen Camiño! –David M. Gitlitz & Linda Kay Davidson, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago

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starburst scallop shell marks “the way”

For more than 1000 years, the Camino de Santiago [the Way of St. James] has been a pilgrimage route from the foothills of the Pyrennes, in southwestern France and northwestern Spain, to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on the Iberian Peninsula. In ancient times it was undertaken for spiritual cleansing or “losing time in Hell”.

Why is this pilgrimage so historically significant? Here’s the story.

James was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee and the 4th disciple recruited by Jesus. He was assigned to the Iberian Peninsula to spread “the word of God”. He made it as far as Galicia in northwestern Spain. Upon returning to the Holy Land he was tortured. Adding insult to injury, he was beheaded. Became a martyr. His body was secreted out of Jerusalem on a boat. Across the Mediterranean Sea, through the Straits of Gibraltar, along the Iberian coast, back to the shores of Galicia. His tomb became enshrined in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

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So began the third most important Christian pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, after Rome and Jerusalem. During the Renaissance and years of religious reformation [16th century] the Camino’s importance waned. It fell even more out of favor during the Age of Enlightenment [18th century]. Yet pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela never stopped completely. Nowadays the Camino is rocking in popularity. 262,459 certificates, or Compostelas, were awarded in 2015. Pilgrims traveled by foot, bicycle, or horseback. Some in wheelchairs.

In ancient times as well as today, travelers often carry their provisions in a backpack, camp out, or sleep in hostels, retreating from normal life for days, weeks, or months. Usually their journey ends at the cathedral in Santiago.

There is also another “way” to experience the Camino, which is what I did.

In May 2014, I was with a group of women who started the journey where most people end–in the courtyard of the cathedral. We walked from there to the actual “ends of the earth” [Finisterre] on the Atlantic Ocean. We carried only a daypack with water and rain gear. Our worldly goods were transported to the next charming “casa rurales” [bed and breakfast] along the route. After hiking all day we enjoyed a hot bath or shower, delicious Galician cuisine and wine, followed by restful sleep–in a bed.

The Camiño de Fisterra-Muxía is the road less travelled these days, particularly in the off-season. On the fourth day we arrived at the lighthouse on Cape Finisterre overlooking the ocean. On the fifth day we walked up the coastline to Muxía where we received the Compostellana [Certificate of Accomplishment]. You must walk at least 100 km to receive the certificate. We walked 117.

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route from santiago to muxía

 

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compostela record

 

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stamps acquired along the way

 

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lighthouse at the cape

Our group came together through the joint venture of two American women, Sally and Sienna, who met in Spain while Sally was producing a documentary entitled, “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago”.  In 2013 they began organizing small group trips for people to experience the Camino as a one week venture.

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sally on the trail

The topography of Galicia is extremely hilly. It is also very rainy which keeps the landscape lush and green. And, in May, there were fields upon fields of pink foxglove. Future heart medication [digitalis] growing wild.

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Digitalis purpurea, common foxglove

“Oreos” were spoken of frequently. In Spain they are tiny barns of granite or shale stone built on mushroom-like pedestals. Functioning as storage granaries in rural areas, they are mounted off the ground to deter rodents. Later, when I learned the Galician word was actually “hórreos”, I understood what they had in common with the name of a cookie. Absolutely nothing. But “oreos” is what I remember.

Forewarned about the hilly terrain, I brought hiking sticks, which gave me a long rhythmic stride. So I was often by myself, up ahead, looking for trail markers [the yellow scallop shell or the painted yellow line] and discovering new terrain. After the first day, I realized that hiking alone was going to be my experience on the Camino.

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yellow marks the way across water too

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romanesque bridge and aqueduct

Everyone goes on a journey for some reason. It’s often initiated during a moment of transition, a need to “walk through” personal issues, let go of the old, let in the new, or to simply break up routines. It might bubble up as a search for healing or forgiveness or a time to give thanks or to mark a special occasion. Perhaps the motivation is to meet new people, hear their stories, see new places, rediscover something forgotten or discover something new. Journeys can be the catalyst for creative inspiration, finding harmony in nature, exercise, penance, meditation, or delving into the spiritual.

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My own journeys are usually discovery seeking ones. They widen my perspective, feed curiosity, and replenish me with the adventure. Those quiet hours in the hills, forests, villages, foxglove fields and countryside of Galicia brought real contentment. I was part of the changes in weather–the pouring rain, looming storm clouds and intermittent sun. I was one with the topography–the out of breath up-hills, the knee jarring down-hills and the blessed stretches of flat terrain in between. Often I was lost in thought about the history and natural beauty of this part of the world. It is impossible not to feel connected to others who walked the same trail over past millenniums.

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Day 3, last 5k of steep downhill, long negotiation of massive boulders ahead

Evening meals were social bonding time. We were treated to delicious regional cuisine including famous Galician wines. Arroz con calamares [rice with squid], zamburiñas [scallops in shells], and a giant fried prehistoric style fish that looked ominous but melted in the mouth.

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dining ambience

 

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happy pilgrims

A uniquely Galician tradition, the queimada ceremony, was performed for our group. Queimada is made from a special Spanish liqueur distilled from grapes, flavored with spices, herbs, sugar, lemon peel and coffee beans. The ingredients are put together into a clay pot, set on fire and allowed to burn slowly. The concoction is stirred frequently by lifting a ladle of flaming liquid and pouring it back into the pot. When the flame burns blue, it is ready to serve in ceramic cups.

There is a recitation chanted as the queimada burns–to purify the drink and to share it with the souls of family and friends not present to enjoy it. Special powers are conferred on the queimada and to those drinking it. We didn’t experience anything supernatural, but there was a lot of infectious laughter and animated conversation after a long hiking day. Sound sleep followed.

Upon reaching the cliff at the end of the world on Cape Finisterre, we saw blackened remains of burned clothes and shoes on the rocks. It’s a tradition for those who venture all the way to give up their worldly goods. None of us were moved to burn anything. Instead we picked up a stone to throw into the sea, giving it the name of something to let go of.

I couldn’t bring myself to throw my stone away. I kept touching it in my pocket and wondering about the hesitation. My friend Margaret suggested that I wasn’t ready to let go. There was something I needed to do with that energy. She was right. Three weeks later, in June 2014, I published my first story on this website. Later, I noticed white markings on the stone that reminded me of a face. I keep it on the bedside table for good luck.

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everybody needs a rock

All pilgrimages have a fixed end point. But they begin wherever you start walking.

The going is more memorable than the getting there.”

When you are ready, just put on your boots, and go…

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galician coastline, iberian peninsula, spain
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margaret, laurel, nina, sally, carole

 

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nina, sally, carole, wendy, teresa, laurel

Some of the photos in this story are courtesy of Nina Cooper or Teresa Goodwin.

Other stories featuring Sally Bentley: French-splaining American Thanksgiving, Sex in a Pan, Leaving Paris and Hemingway

Libby’s Lessons in Lauzerte

Libby is my renaissance friend. She lives in a small medieval village on top of a hill in the French countryside. Founded in the 12th century, Lauzerte was designated as one of 100 “Most Beautiful Villages in France” in 1990.

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central square, Lauzerte
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opening onto town square

Although Libby is talented in painting, writing, decorating, and starting successful businesses, she inspires me most with what comes out of her kitchen. I learn something memorable about food every time I see her. She and her husband left the hectic world of U.S. finance to retire early and bought a farm in rural France.

Libby paints sheep
Libby paints sheep

Before long, they opened a “Luxury Boot Camp” called Camp Biche in a ten-bedroom stone mansion, half a block from the central square in Lauzerte. It’s a place where you go to exercise [a lot], receive daily massages and eat three well-proportioned meals a day, including dessert and wine. The result is to lose weight and inches and discover hidden muscles. “Camp” is the kind of place to jump-start the way to a fitter, leaner, healthier you. But it’s not for the faint of heart.

Around Easter in April 2009, I went to see what boot camp and luxury had in common. Advertising had put them on the map, but I was the solo guest for two weeks. At 6:30AM the day began with a glass of hot lemon water and 30 minutes of abdominal exercises followed by an hour of yoga. Then came breakfast, which was always a bowl of Libby’s homemade granola with sheep’s yogurt and freshly cut up fruit, coffee or tea. After eating, it was out the door to hike the rocky, hilly, pilgrimage trails of southern France for the next three to four hours. Lunch was served at 1:00PM, in three courses, with a brief rest afterwards. Back to the exercise room at 3:00PM for one hour of weight training and aerobics followed by an hour of Pilates mat work.

countryside around Lauzerte

At 5:00PM came the blessed massage and a post-exercise swoon. A soaking bath with aromatic soaps and oils, a shower, and dressing for dinner almost completed the day. The first week, I made my way downstairs to the dining room holding onto both the wall and the ancient wooden banister, negotiating one step at a time. Pausing halfway down to admire candles on the landing gave ache-y muscles a tiny rest.

Dinner was always a fine reward. The table was set with antique linens and good china. A candlelit chandelier and wood burning fire created warmth and ambience. Locally produced wine accompanied the three-course dinner. No bread was ever served. Each meal was based on nourishing food in reasonable portions without the contents of a basket of bread to nosh on between courses. Instead, “carbs” were consumed in small glasses of wine, which was fine by me.

Somehow, I kept my part of the conversation going until I could excuse myself and navigate up the stairs for the night. Over the course of fourteen lunches and dinners the three of us covered a lot of conversational territory. Libby and I became friends.

After I was a guest, Libby read The China Study by Campbell & Campbell. The menus changed overnight as she embraced all vegan cuisine. She took charge of the kitchen, planning and preparing all meals. The food was still amazing and few guests complained. Online reviews raved about the meals and the hard-earned body changes typical after a weeklong stay.

In early March of this year, I took the train from Paris to help Libby with a big spring cleaning before the guest season began. Eating was informal and mostly unscheduled. We prepared a couple of delicious veggie soups, but a food epiphany was born in the middle of a sandwich. The bread spread Libby called “Cashew Ricotta” was anything but a nutty cheese. Vegan it is and ricotta only in name. It’s inherent creaminess and spread-ability came from very soft tofu blended with raw cashews, fresh lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, salt, and basil.

The first taste was transformative. Giving up sea-salted butter on my toast for the week? Not a problem. Liberally spread, Cashew Ricotta on the morning baguette fueled energy for vacuuming cobwebs, dead bugs, and dust bunnies, wiping out cupboards and shelves, hauling firewood, and carting many wheelbarrow loads to the garbage and recycling bins. I sneaked restorative breaks by dipping into the container of “sandwich spread” with carrots, cucumbers, bread and occasionally a finger when nothing else was available. An obsession was born.

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cashew ricotta and sandwich ingredients

With a few ingredients and a food processor, Cashew Ricotta can be made in a flash. It’s a wonderful alternative to hummus since it is also vegetable protein. As well as on sandwiches and toast, it can be used as a dip for crudités, breadsticks, crackers, a topping on baked or boiled potatoes, even hardboiled eggs. It’s probably pretty incredible with French fries but I haven’t tried that, yet. Good-bye forever store-bought mayo! This spread could easily be mass marketed, but the best way to enjoy it is to make your own, à la Libby.

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ingredients
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tofu, cashews, lemon, garlic, olive oil, salt, basil

CASHEW RICOTTA– Sandwich Spread

  • ½ cup RAW cashews [4oz.]
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves [can be roasted too]
  • 1 lb. very soft tofu, drained [the softest and creamiest you can find]
  • 1 ½ t. dried basil [can use fresh basil in larger amount]
  • 1 ½ t. salt

In food processor blend cashews, basil, lemon juice, garlic. Then add tofu, oil and salt. If using fresh basil, cut into smaller pieces with scissors and add with the second batch of ingredients. Use as much as you want until you like the color.

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processing
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served with crudités

After twelve successful years of operation, Camp Biche was put on the real estate market in 2019. All of us who went there once, or multiple times, will remember our “luxury boot camp” experience with fondness. Good luck Libby and Craig on next ventures!