High Up in El Acebo, We Are Served a Human Heart

Afternoon in El Acebo

In the end, I did not perform much of a ritual myself at the Cruz de Ferro. It takes time to create a meaningful space, or a meaningful moment in time, and I hadn’t invested that time in the Cruz de Ferro. I spent a few minutes mindfully intending to let go of some of the hurt I’d felt in my marriage and, especially, during the divorce, and the guilt and sadness I felt about my own many mistakes, and the hurt they had caused, especially before and during my marriage. And that was all. I did not want to suck from the mountain all the oxygen that my mother needed to breathe.

At first the terrain leading away from the Cruz de Ferra was easy – a slight downhill slope

El Acebo

on compacted white sand bounded by milled lumber. To our left ran a road whose many patches bespoke a great deal of freezing in the winter. Before long, though, we entered an all-downhill, punishing, rocky single-track trail, some of it straight down. Well before we reached El Acebo, Mom was convinced we’d already gone well beyond 16 kilometers.

But no, tiny El Acebo was a 16.7 kilometer hike. It had been hidden for some time, so when we saw it, earlier than expected, some compensation for the more common false summit, we were happily surprised. It sits high up on a small mountain above the valley below, so small, so isolated, that for the first time on the trip my Vodafone USB got no reception.

The village was a typical Camino village: a single road bounded by a few houses, and a handful of albergues and hotels with restaurants attached. We chose the Meson. Mom was ready to eat.

Carrie ordered the Botilla del Bierzo, which on the menu was translated as “pork with paprika”. According to the menu, it was a specialty of the Bierzo area. I ordered the same.

The very nice waitress set down our plates. On it was boiled cabbage, chickpeas, chorizo, and a beating, pulsating, human heart.

At least that’s exactly what it looked like: a heart covered in paprika. Tentatively I set my

The pulsating human heart in El Acebo

knife upon it and began to saw at it. Grudgingly it parted in two, yielding unrecognizable chunks of white (bone marrow?), shards of pig bone, and something that was like, but not quite, meat.

I turned to Mom, the expert, and said, quietly, so that Carrie would not hear, “Could this be organ meat?”

She peered at it. “I have no idea,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Try it.”

Ha ha. I haven’t fallen for that since my age was counted in the single digits. My German aunt Elfriede, post-mortem benefactress of Mom’s trip here, had once submerged something utterly revolting in some opaque white soup – it may have been tripe – but my boy-sonar had found it effortlessly, and I had refused to touch even the bowl.

“See what it is,” I said to Carrie. “You’ll probably really love it,” I added.

She shook her head. “I’m not touching it.”


Eventually I caught the waitress’ attention. “Perdon,” I said, politely, holding up a single, graceful finger. “Una pregunta.” A question. “What the hell is this?”

Actually, I said, “Que es eso?” What is this?

She pointed to the casing of the heart-thing. “Thees is the tripe,” she said, “and thees” – now pointing at the stuff in the middle, “is from here.” She put her hand on her back. “It is the goats.”

“The goats?”

“Jes,” she said. Her own face a question mark, she watched my face to see if I was satisfied.

I smiled enormously. My smile was like those stars that could easily swallow the sun a million times. “Thank you so much,” I said. She went away.

“What did she say it was?” Carrie said. I turned back to the table, still smiling.

“Stomach lining and guts,” I said. Carrie’s mouth bulged as if she would puke. Neither one of us touched our human hearts again. Mom tried a tiny bit of mine and made a face. “All the meat I’ve eaten here tastes very strongly of the animal. It’s too strong. Very pig-like.”

The web says:

The “botillo” is a meat product made in the Leonese county of El Bierzo, with different parts from the butchering of the pig (above all ribs and tail), chopped up and marinated in salt, paprika, garlic and other natural spices. It is packed in natural skins and, before being eaten, it must go through the smoking and part-curing processes. Its exterior appearance is defined by the shape of the skin, although it normally takes on a globe shape, reddish grey in colour and weighing between approximately 500g and 1,600g per piece. When cut, it shows deep red tones, a firm consistency and an intense aroma. It is eaten cooked and accompanied by vegetables, above all cabbage, potatoes, chickpeas and chorizo pepper. It is a simple, hearty dish with no great secrets in the preparation, but it is one of the stars of El Bierzo’s cuisine.

The waitress was very apologetic when she realized we’d been surprised. I told her it wasn’t her fault, it was the menu (“pork with paprika” it had said, benignly). When I saw her a little later, on break outside the restaurant, she winked at me. Who winks anymore?

In the afternoon, Carrie lost one of her money purses. Luckily she had taken Mom’s advice not to put all her money in the same place, so she lost only about 15 Euros. But she was still upset. At dinner, I asked Mom if she still wanted wine, as she’d mentioned earlier, to celebrate the Day of the Cruz.

“Yes!” Carrie said, a little too enthusiastically. You want wine? we both asked her. “I need it,” she said.

At dinner, the waitress moved to stand right next to me, brushing my side, while I looked at the wine list, and went so far as to lean on my shoulder as I explained that their being out of my preferred desert was nothing short of a disaster. When she had gone, Mom and Carrie started laughing. “What?” I said. “We think she likes you,” Mom said.

Women in the United States never leaned on me or winked at me, so I left what for Spain was an unusually large tip. “She can have that,” I said, “instead of me.” Carrie made a face.

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