We were making eye contact, this sheep and I, both of us unblinking and in a state of surprise. Its lips were curled back in a grimace to reveal a row of gleaming teeth and a stiff tongue, to which I responded with a forced smile and a nearly inaudible whimper. I had no idea where to begin. Resting on a pillow of roasted potatoes, this steaming sheep’s head was to be my dinner.
I was at a long table in a snug, warmly lit restaurant in a 40-person pueblo in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. A native of Florida, I was joining 10 local gentlemen, most of whom were farmers in their 60s. They were short but strapping with hands like oars from a lifetime of working the land around the village. They were a markedly proud but gentle group, mannerly in their ironed shirts and tidy hair.
The men spend their days farming grains and cereals, working olive and almond tree orchards and caring for their vineyards and farm animals. And they were eating like they’d worked up an appetite, leaning their expansive backs over their plates, swiping the porcelein clean with wedges of bread. Glasses of red wine were diminutive wrapped in their fingers and they drained them quickly and easily. They were sucking bones, licking their fingers and asking for more.
I tried to muster the same level of enthusiasm with which they were eating. I balled up the paper napkin I was holding in my lap and then smoothed it out again as I attempted to casually peer down the length of the table to get some idea of how to do this. Like so many other moments I was having trying to acclimate to a new life in this tiny Spanish village, I was out of my comfort zone. But if I could swallow my pride multiple times a day as I stood cluelessly and wordlessly in front of someone whose language I didn’t understand, I could certainly find it within myself to swallow a sheep’s eyeball.
So I got started, cheeks first. Cheek meat is tender and flavorful and familiar in texture. And, as it turns out, it was one of the few parts of the head I was able to eat using a fork and a knife. If I was going to take advantage of the other smaller scraps of meat hiding within the nooks and crannies of the skull, I’d have to use my fingers. Which, in the spirit of giving this my best effort, I did.
Before long, my lips and chin glistened with grease, savory juices were running down my wrists and my paper napkin had long been rendered useless.
Next up was either the eye or the brain, neither of which I was excited about trying but I knew I had to. The brain was spongy and smelled vaguely of sulphur. I eased the discomfort of this foreign taste and texture by smearing it across some bread.
The eye was my final hurdle. I scooped it out of its socket and the next few moments passed in a blur: I popped it into my mouth, chewed as quickly as possible and swallowed a bite that was probably not quite ready to go down the hatch. There. I’d done it. Now I could say that I’d tried sheep eye.
In this corner of the world, like so many others, it is the expectation that you will clear your plate. It is a community in which growing food–whether in a garden or in a pen–is how the people spend their days, make a modest living and survive. So a meal isn’t an indulgent moment to carelessly nibble on the parts that interest you and leave the rest behind. Nor is it an expendable commodity from who-knows-where wrapped in plastic and defrosted.
A plate of food in a place like this is personal. It’s the day-in and day-out of their family and friends. It’s their own calloused hands and sore back. It’s the flavorsome finale of months of tending to and cultivating and working that extra hour after the sun’s gone down. It’s the time over the stovetop, rosy-cheeked and thoughtful, hoping that the end result will inspire requests for second helpings and maybe even thirds. It is pride, love and sustenance all in one serving.
So I ate that sheep head until there was nothing left but teeth and bones, not only because it was the respectful thing to do, but because it is in the trying that we are able to truly experience a culture. It is within these moments of reaching outside of our comfort zones that we begin to more deeply understand life. And it is the only way to discover the culinary prize jewels of every community.
Like croquetas, for example. Croquetas are savory fritters popular all across Spain and–like meatloaf here in America–can be made using the “clean-out-your-fridge” recipe. They’re often cooked up using that piece of chicken that needs to get eaten before it goes bad, the mushrooms that are close to getting slimy and breadcrumbs from the four-day-old loaf. Often times an old housewife will take the chicken or ham leftover from making a stock–or “caldo” in Spain–and pick the bones clean to use the meat in her croquetas.
They’re a versatile comfort food and, for an American, they provide familiar flavors and textures amidst an array of new and sometimes challenging ones. They’re completely authentic to Spain, but they feel kind of like home when the endless effort of trying new things starts to wear you down. When a sheep’s eyeball just isn’t doing the job.
Spanish Chicken and Ham Croquettes (Croquetas de Pollo y Jamón)
Croquetas are the kind of comfort food that grandma makes best but that you will also find in almost every Spanish tapas bar. Best served just-fried, these bite-sized, savory cylinders are crispy on the outside and warm and creamy on the inside.
Makes about 50 croquetas
extra virgin olive oil
1 lb of chicken breast, cooked
6 oz of cured Spanish ham, such as Serrano
2 cloves of garlic
1 tsp of grated nutmeg
1 large white onion, grated
4 Tbsp of butter
3 cups of milk
1 cup of all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup of fine breadcrumbs
In a food processor, mix chicken, ham and garlic until crumbled.
Coat pan with extra virgin olive oil and add butter. Heat on medium until most of the butter is melted and is just starting to bubble, then add onions.
Cook the onions until they are golden and beginning to become translucent, about 10 minutes. Then add milk.
Stirring occasionally, let the mixture heat until it is simmering and just beginning to solidify on the bottom of the pan, then begin to whisk in the flour little by little. The hotter the milk mixture is when you add the flour, the fewer bumps you will have, but be careful not to scald the milk.
When the mixture has become a roux, add the chicken, ham and garlic. Heat and stir, adding nutmeg, until it is the consistency of oatmeal. Leave to cool overnight.
The next day, heat oil in a pan until about 350 degrees.
Dust your hands with flour and shape the cooled mixture into a small cylinder or ball, about half the size of an egg. Roll in flour, dredge in eggs, then coat with breadcrumbs, using spoons or your hands.
Place croqueta in oil and fry until golden brown, about three minutes per side.
Remove from oil and let rest on paper towel before serving warm.
This article was featured in Remedy Quarterly, Issue 20: Try.