Photo by Maggie Schmitt
This weekend I was in Candelario, a village at the windblown foot of the Sierra de Béjar in Salamanca. Candelario enjoys certain renown for its beautiful location and its extraordinary degree of historic preservation: narrow cobbled streets lined with a peculiar style of 18th century construcion, handsome and impeccably maintained.
But what makes Candelario extraordinary, nay, perhaps worthy of pilgrimage, is its proud claim to be the birthplace of chorizo, that object of unstinting devotion in Spanish gastronomy. Granted, people have been making cured sausages with pig guts since time immemorial. But for chorizo to be chorizo, it had to wait for pimentón to arrive from the Americas, for it to be refined--along with other products from the New World--by early agricultural researchers at the monastery of Yuste, and for it to be planted throughout the balmy valley of La Vera.
Happy geographical accident placed Candelario right between the pimentón plantations of La Vera, the acorn-rich lowlands of Extremadura (essential for raising prime pigs), and the cool mountain air of Guijuelo (ideal for dry curing). All the pieces came together. We can imagine some anonymous resident of Candelario chopping meat and fat, and in a fit of inspiration adding garlic and pimentón and a little white wine, and so stuffing the first chorizo.
From there, it was all business. We know that by the middle of the 18th century the chorizos of Candelario were renowned in Madrid and even in Valencia as chorizo peddlers plied their product around the peninsula. The tiny village of Candelario was transformed, its population tripled, and its characteristic architectural style introduced: the first floor for butchering and processing the meat, the second for the family's residence, the third--with windows open to the mountain air--for curing the sausages. By the mid-1800s scarcely a family in Candelario was not producing chorizo, and over a hundred small-scale chorizo factories were registered in the tiny village. A powerful chorizo-makers' guild dictated prices and earned recognition from the royal court.
Photo by Maggie Schmitt
Meanwhile, the taste for chorizo spread the length and breadth of the peninsula, becoming one of those few elements which truly unites all the diverse regions of Spanish territory and all the social classes within those regions: a national addiction. Every region has its particular type of chorizo, eaten in slices or sandwiches, cooked into bean stews and soups, scrambled with eggs, simmered in cider, baked into buns, grilled over coals. It traveled to the Americas and there evolved into the very different Mexican, Columbian and Brazilian varieties. But the wild success of its prodigal child did not guarantee Candelario's prosperity. With industrialization, the center of production moved to the provincial capital, Salamanca, and cottage industry was replaced by large-scale operations. By the 1920s much of Candelario was abandoned and depopulated.
Now, through conservation efforts and growing nature tourism in the area, the town appears to be doing pretty well. There is a chorizo festival every year, and innumerable small shops sell the local product as well as the area's famous white beans and other local fare. Of all the family-run chorizo factories of yore, just one continues to stuff and cure sausages in the old style. But a certain gastronomic genius clings to the place--everything we ate was fantastic.
Thanks to Antonio of the newly-founded Candelario Slow Food Convivium.
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