San Antonio: The patron saint of…potatoes?

“So how long has Secastilla celebrated San Antonio like this? With the big bonfire and potatoes?” I asked as clusters of people warmed themselves around an exceptionally large, crackling bonfire of twisted old almond trees.

“Forever,” they said. Over and over again, that’s the response I got. Abuelo, for one, has lived all of his 80 years in this pueblo and doesn’t remember it being any different. A huge bonfire that burns—or at least smolders—in the plaza for a solid 24 hours. Sausages, porrones and–perhaps the highlight of the fiesta–potatoes cooked in the fire’s ashes and later smashed up with olive oil, garlic and anchovies. I never got clear on where these traditions come from, but gathering outside on a crisp winter’s night to watch the flames snap and pop is inherently enlivening. A hell of a way to defeat the doldrums that often come with the season.

San Antonio de Abad (Saint Anthony the Abbot) was a Christian monk from Egypt whose Catholic feast day is celebrated on January 17th. Among other things, he is lauded for being the first ascetic to go into nature as a way of renewing his faith. Which is how he became associated with animals and ultimately became the patron saint of domestic animals.

Throughout much of Spain, this is the one day a year when animals of all variety are invited to attend church and receive a blessing. But not in Secastilla. As is the case in many rural areas, no matter what part of the world you’re in, animals here are just that and nothing more: animals. They live outside without exception and aren’t pets or friends or considered part of the family. So there is no whimsical service dedicated to animals in Secastilla. But there’s fire and food and, as always, plenty of wine and community. A small but hearty nucleus of cheer burning in the dark cold of night.

An air of excitement caught wind Friday afternoon as the four town keepers—bricklayers, repairmen, construction workers, fixers of all—laid a mound of dirt in the main plaza. It would provide the foundation for the bonfire, which was prepared Saturday afternoon with entire almond trees, dark brown and ropey. No one could pass the activity without stopping to contribute; the place was swarming with boyish excitement. The pile of wood to be lit later that evening was over six feet at its highest point.

In a moment that was accidentally ceremonial, Secastilla’s mayor lit the fire as villagers began wandering up the lane to see if things were getting started. The number of people swelled in tandem with the flames, and we made the short trip to the bar once or twice to warm up and have a beer. The party officially started at about 9, when the fire was robust and when the women of the village bustled around preparing chorizo, longaniza and tortas to be grilled over the coals. There may have been plates, but they weren’t used. Sausages got piled on top of rounds cut from long loaves of bread and we ate in a swarm, passing, sharing and warming our bellies.

The handful of children who live in the village scampered around the plaza in a game of tag and then discovered a slug in one of the trees destined for the fire. Saving him before he burned in a fiery death became a matter of great importance. The night wore on and the young ones got to stay up far past their normal bedtimes, a childhood treat of the highest order. Trays of pastries were passed and so were the porrones. The grand fire burned low and we all hooted and hollered as another great log got thrown on top with the help of a digger machine.

Slowly, the crowd dwindled but the fire burned through the night, leaving a smoldering pile of ash and several hearty trunks Sunday morning. Folks trickled in. There didn’t appear to be an official start time or an official organizer, but the appointed cocinero (coh-thee-neh-roh), or cook, arrived at about one o’clcok to get to work on the potatoes.

DSC_8068Potatoes grown by Abuelo de Casa LabazuyDSC_8082About 100 potatoes were thrown into the smoldering ashesDSC_8083
DSC_8099And thoroughly coveredDSC_8136
DSC_8162Then we gathered in the bar while the potatoes cooked. This was about half the group that ultimately filled this little room, and they were certainly the most organized with their seats around the table. The rest of us crowded in around them.DSC_8221This is typical of scenes like this: two guys working, the others standing around watching.
DSC_8225After an hour or so, the potatoes are tested for done-ness and then dug out of the ashes. DSC00029We moved from the bonfire to the City Hall and gather around long tables. Here’s my plate of potatoes smashed with anchovies, garlic, olive oil and salt. DSC00032No party in Secastilla is complete without a little pancetta. DSC00045More pastries for dessert. DSC00054And a vat of gin and tonic, Secastilla’s favorite way to cap off a meal.

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