Excursions in the Region


This is a tale of a village and a spoon, which to me perfectly reflects the spirit of the season.

Cehegín

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.

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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:

Alubias con perdiz

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.

Olla de cerdo

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.

Cocido con pelotas

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.

Tired façade

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.

Archaeological Museum of CehegínArchaeological Museum of Cehegín 2

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.

Aristocratic dining

The craftsmanship was admirable, yet I found myself asking, who needs all those utensils when all you really need is one big spoon?

Alubias con perdiz 2

Happy Holidays to everyone! Eat lots of soup, and savor tradition, wherever you are!

The Basics:

  • 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.

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Sunday, November 7th had been marked in my calendar since June, when I found out about the monthly artisanal market in Bullas, a wine-producing village in northwestern Murcia. Demonstrations featuring local know-how had been scheduled for each month of the year, and in November, goats would be the protagonists. Market-goers would get to see hand milking and the traditional process for making fresh goat cheese – I was sold!

Nonetheless, I didn’t start mentioning the plan to friends until several weeks ago. As a guiri, or foreigner, I can display the zealousness of a convert when it comes to all things local, which my friends from here appreciate, but which I nonetheless try to keep in check. To my relief, my friends were game (I knew they would be), and the date was made.

In the meantime, I learned a bit more about the market, El Zacatín, which takes place  in Bullas’s historic center. The name, a word with Arabic roots (meaning a plaza where clothes are sold), evokes the region’s Moorish past. Launched in the early 1990s, El Zacatín was the first of four village markets showcasing local products in the rural northwest corner of Murcia, a circuit branded as the Ruta Artesanal. These markets, which fall on consecutive Sundays, are part of a concerted effort to preserve and promote local traditions, threatened in part by decades of industrialization of food production in the region. The artisanal market as such is a relatively new phenomenon here, and the movement is gaining steam.

Given the months of anticipation, I was thrilled when market day in November finally rolled around. My friends and I arrived mid-morning, and organizers were just beginning to set up the goat demonstration. Fortunately, there were plenty of things to see, I mean eat, while we waited. It was a good thing we arrived hungry.

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I wanted to try everything, like the sweets – the donut-shaped rollos, flavored with orange, anise or wine, and the pastelillos de cabello de angél, cloud-like rounds stuffed with “angel hair,” candied spaghetti squash.

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My friend Inma bought a slice of torta de chicharrones, pictured above, for all of us to share. This lard-rich pastry found in various parts of Spain induces swoons for my friends here, but has admittedly been an acquired taste for me. Yet at first bite, this torta had me convinced – here I found a harmonious balance between the savory-leaning crispy chicharrón topping and the sweet cinnamon and sugar.

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Honey and homemade preserves were the specialties at this stand, and arrope y calabazate, chunks of fruits and squashes like melon, sweet potato, pumpkin and quince preserved in a rich fig syrup. I got to taste the pan de higos, a deliciously dense, energy-packed cake made with dried figs and almonds.

Bullas Mercadillo 010 On the savory side, several stands offered local cured meats. I sampled spicy chorizo and sausages flavored with sweet local pimentón, both made from meat of the chato murciano, an indigenous breed of pig that was nearly extinct by the end of the 1970s, all but replaced by leaner and faster-growing breeds.

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Artisanal cured meats such as these are the cornerstone of a regional project underway to restore the chato murciano to its former glory.

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At the stand selling encurtidos, pickled products, I tried alcaparones, the fruit of the caper plant; tallos, caper plant stems; and bitter green olives cured with fennel.

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And let’s not forget the wine, Bullas’s most important product. Bullas has its own Denominación de Orígen, chaacterized by full-bodied reds starring Monastrell (Mourvèdre in French) as the dominant grape. Several Bullas wineries offer tastings at the market. I picked up a bottle of Chaveo, 100% Monastrell, and another of Madroñal, a Monastrell-Syrah blend.

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As I filled up on samples, I kept an eye on the goat pen and demonstration area. Finally, it was showtime.

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You can see the swollen udders of these Murciano-Granadina goats – these gals are ready to be milked. This local breed is a milk-producing machine, generating around 1,000 pounds in a 280-day lactation cycle. Murcia’s goats merit their own blog post in the future.

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Following are some images from the milking process…

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And the cheese making process, which was actually done with pasteurized milk…

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Here the cheese maker slices through the thickening milk, curdled with vinegar and lemon juice. The magic has begun.

Bullas Mercadillo 033She proudly displays the final product, queso fresco, which has been shaped in a mold that imitates the marks left by the woven grass bands once used to form the cheese.

We of course grazed on some cheeses, too — the mild fresh cheese, of course, and other varieties made from the milk of the Murciano-Granadina goat, such as tangy, red wine-soaked Queso al vino, known in the States as Drunken Goat.

And the best part is, we got to take a bottle of the fresh goat milk home, which Inma boiled and strained and made into one of the most deliciously creamy rice puddings I’ve ever had. All in the name of tradition, of course.

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One of the things I love about living in Murcia is the sense of discovery I feel while exploring the region. When I arrived here nearly two years ago, I knew close to nothing about all the region had to offer, which felt, and still feels, like an exciting opportunity.

One Eureka! moment came when I heard there were thermal baths just a half hour from the city. It took me over a year to get there – you can’t do everything at once, after all – but I can now say with certainty I recommend the trip.

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Manolo and I chose the historic Balneario de Archena, one of several spa resorts in the area, and were not disappointed. Tucked away in the valley of the Rio Segura and surrounded by arid mountains, the Balneario de Archena feels like a modern-day oasis.

This spa is all about the water, which flows from the earth at a temperature of around 130 ºF and is rich in minerals, such as sulfur, calcium and magnesium. For centuries, doctors in Spain have recommended the thermal waters of Archena, not only for relief from specific  ailments like muscle and joint pain, but also for general well-being.

The ambiance on this weekday in late September was low-key and free of glitz. Most of the other clients were Spanish, minus a few stray Brits and yours truly, and the average age must have been around  70.

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The mineral-packed waters felt almost creamy against my skin as I slipped into the principal thermal pool, where the average temperature is a constant 95-97 ºF. My muscles relaxed instantly, and I felt myself being pulled by a distinct current, as if I were floating along a lazy river. Turns out I was in a generated current loop, which took me through a winding indoor-outdoor circuit. I then tested out the many waterfalls, spouts and jets around the pool, enjoying massages of varying intensity. It was like an adult playground, where I could choose my own adventure, alternating between relaxation and stimulation.

My next stop was the balneotherapy zone, the Balnea Termalium, a restorative circuit of saunas, steam rooms, therapeutic pools, and even an igloo. Relaxation and stimulation were the themes here, as well, and two pre-determined circuits had been posted to help one achieve the desired effect.

Manolo and I wanted to try everything, so we opted to do our own circuit. We sweated it out in the Russian, Aztec and Estonian saunas, which varied in temperature and relative dryness. The estufa de Archena, a  steam room with a strong dose of sulfur, provided humid contrast. And a few minutes in the icy igloo were nothing short of invigorating. We exerted a bit of effort in the lap pool, which helped us more deeply relax in the saline flotation pool. And the lemon essence rising off the aromatherapy pool was gently awakening. I felt pampered, and convinced — I had a new highlight to add to my growing Murcia itinerary.

Practical Tips:

  • As a day trip: The Balneario de Archena is an easy day trip from Murcia. We went on a Friday so we could take advantage of the 29 € per person weekday special, “Escapeterapia.”  This included use of the two indoor-outdoor thermal pools as well as the balneotherapy zone, lunch in the Espacio Termalium restaurant and a free swimming cap (required). (The lunch was good, a basic plato combinado with meat, a vegetable and potatoes, but not the highlight of the day.)
  • To stay overnight: There are three hotels at the resort, including the restored nineteenth century Hotel Termas, pictured below, and two more modern accommodations.

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  • Promotions: If you are planning a trip to the Balneario de Archena, check here for special offers and promotions.

A bit of history:

Iberian peoples are thought to have used the waters at Archena as early as the fifth century B.C. But it was the Romans who left more of a trace – excavations have uncovered remains of Roman thermal baths on the site of today’s spa.

In the eighteenth century, these lands belonged to the Order of St. John, and the healing waters and their patron, Our Lady of Remedies, were sources of devotion. The existing chapel, La Ermita de Nuestra Señora de la Salud, pictured below, dates from 1878, once the land had passed into private hands.At this time, the Balneario de Archena was a popular summer destination for wealthy families from all over Spain.

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The Casino, once an exclusive club and now a café and bar, dates from the same era.

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Some old postcards from the nineteenth century:

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Archena

Archena 2

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SOURCE of postcards: Memoria Gráfica de Murcia