“ Jabugo Cocido - annual event in Huelva province, Andalucia, Spain. „
Did I describe the Sierra de Aracena in my recent review* as quiet, peaceful, even sleepy? Well, as a rule it is, but perhaps Thurber was right when he said that there is no exception to the rule that every rule has its exception. After two days of wandering in the mountains and hearing little but the rustle of breeze in trees, the splashing of streams and the lowing of livestock, it was something of a rude awakening on the third day to do so accompanied by the thumping beat of 1980s disco music.
Although the source of the sound could not be seen as my wife and I set out on the footpath from Galaroza, we had a fair idea where it was coming from. Having read about the Cocido ('Stew-up') at Jabugo - by luck, that very morning - we had rearranged the route for the day's walk with a view to dropping by, sampling the fare on offer and observing the festivities. But we hadn't quite expected it to be audible through the intervening hills from distance of two or three miles. At least the beacon of sound left us in little doubt as to the direction in which we should be headed.
We were in even less doubt when we reached the outskirts of Jabugo. All the roads leading to the town's football ground, where the event was taking place, were closed to traffic for the occasion, but groups of pedestrians were making their way purposefully in the right direction - just as they might for a football match in fact, though I rather suspect that attendance at the Cocido was a lot higher than for any local football match. 6,000 portions of stew were being cooked, and all were expected to be eaten during the course of the day, although the total population of Jabugo numbers fewer than 2,500. Clearly, hungry participants were being attracted from neighbouring towns and outlying villages.
Six thousand is a lot of portions, and cooking them requires a lot of ingredients. The stew was prepared to a traditional recipe, with the meat content being entirely pork of one kind or another. This was hardly a surprise, given that Jabugo is the centre of ham production in the area, with the characteristic Black Iberian pigs being reared on every other farm or small-holding you pass. Not that any of the best Jabugo ham was going into the stew, of course; it is far too precious for that, both financially and gastronomically. It is eaten, or rather savoured, in wafer-thin slices, with nothing but bread and reverence. By contrast, much of the meat content for the stew reads more like what might be left after all the prime cuts had already been taken: 125 kilos of salted backbone, 125 of matured pork fat, 125 kilos of salted pork ribs and 300 kilos of head and neck, plus 50 kilos of bacon, and 220 kilos of various kinds of sausage, including a chorizo and a morcilla each measuring 30 metres long - presumably they are sliced into segments before being added to the stew. This list is taken from an article in a magazine produced by the regional tourist office, mainly in Spanish, with only an English synopsis. In the Spanish version, an additional item reads: "1 cochino de 20 arrobas". The arroba is an ancient measure equating to eleven kilos, so this would mean "one pig of 220 kilos" - presumably on top of all the rest. As with the chorizo and morcilla, one rather hopes they don't put the pig in whole.
This may sound like a huge amount of meat, but if you do the sums you'll find that, depending on the extra pig, it adds up to either 157 or 194 grams a portion, approximately five-and-a-half or seven ounces. A fair whack either way, but robust rural appetites are going to demand a little more sustenance than that, and the other ingredients of the recipe duly provide it, 500 kilos of chickpeas, 190 kilos of potatoes, and 125 kilos of pumpkin being, apparently, the main ones. Add some stock and seasoning and it's all set to go. In fact, it needs to be all set to go some time in advance, since it takes several days to prepare. The cooking takes place in an enormous stainless steel cauldron, heated by a wood fire from below, with steel step-ladders on either side to enable the chefs to stir, taste, adjust the seasoning and generally supervise the concoction's progress. By the time we arrived the fire had died down to ashes, but the scent of wood smoke still hung in the air, mingling with many others.
We were unsure at what time the stew was scheduled to be ready - the advance publicity we had seen had omitted this rather pertinent detail - and turned up quite late even for a Spanish lunch-time, at about 3.00 in the afternoon. By then the event had clearly been in full swing for some hours, as I suppose we could have guessed from the raucous music that had helped guide us to the venue. Not that there was any shortage of the stew itself. The entry tickets (6 euros for adults; 3 euros for children) entitle attendees to a portion of stew, a hunk of bread and three drinks each, and the portions were ample. We had to queue for only a few moments before making our selection from a set of sizzling trays of the various meats and a big vat of the stewed vegetables. This mode of presentation we found slightly puzzling, since we had envisaged a stew as being cooked all mixed together, but maybe this in not quite how it is done in Andalucía; unfortunately my Spanish was not up to asking for clarification from the servers. In any case, we rather liked it being arranged this way, since it meant we could avoid the fattiest pieces. Even without them, we received plentiful helpings of meat and sausage in the base of the polystyrene bowls provided, which were then topped off with the chickpea and mixed veg mush.
Despite the crowds, it wasn't difficult to find a place to sit at one of the long trestle tables under the marquee-like awnings. Rather more difficult was clearing space for our food among the debris of empty bowls, disposable cutlery, polythene bags, paper napkins and crumpled cardboard cups. It has to be admitted that the Cocido is not the most refined or elegant of eating occasions. Similarly, I cannot pretend that Jabugo football ground is a venue of any notable elegance either. Although at one end only a high chicken-wire barrier separates the pitch from the splendid scenery of the Sierra, it was at that same end that the disco stage had been installed, from which the deafening music blared incessantly. To conduct any kind of conversation one had to be at the opposite end, in the shadow of an ugly brick-and-breezeblock building, perhaps unfinished, or perhaps one of the industrial units in which hams are stored to cure and dry. The ground beneath our feet was gritty and almost bare of grass; I would hate to play football on such a surface.
The stew proved to be both filling and tasty, and was pleasantly washed down with one of the three beers included in the price of the meal. The selection of drinks available under the terms of this deal was limited, however: beer, either regular or low alcohol, or Pepsi; no wine, rather surprisingly, nor even mosto, the semi-fermented grape juice much favoured in the region. A wider range of beverages could be bought, though, at stalls dotted around the field. A wider range of foods too, both to eat there or simply to buy, the latter including some superior produce: the famous hams, artisanal cheeses from the Sierra (the goat is particularly good), honeys and similar specialities. Most of these food stalls were offering free samples, which certainly enhanced the enjoyment to be had from circulating to inspect their wares. Other stalls were hosting prize draws or tombolas, and drumming up a fair amount of custom. Meanwhile, at one end of the ground dozens of the young (and some of the no-longer-quite-so-young), danced to the throbbing music, while at the other the younger-still bounced on inflated rubber 'castle' and slide. This is very much a family occasion, with every age-group represented and catered for.
In all, the atmosphere combined those of fairground, playground, feast, fine food fair, open-air disco and village fete. I suppose the last of these would be the nearest equivalent to be found in Britain, but I have most certainly never been to a British village fete where people were enjoying themselves in such numbers, nor with such boisterous exuberance. The stew, in a sense, is merely an excuse for a knees-up and get-together, but, of course, it is an excuse that gives the event a focus and character that might otherwise be lacking. And it certainly helps with the publicity. The magazine from which I quoted the recipe above makes much of the Jabugo Cocido appearing in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest stew. At the risk of appearing sceptical, I checked the Guinness Book's website, and found that the largest meat stew now seems to be attributed to Badajoz, in nearby Extremadura, which cooks one using over 1000 kilos of lamb. Evidently, culinary rivalries are fiercely contested in this part of Spain, and Jabugo must look to its laurels, though it faces an uphill struggle since Badajoz is a provincial capital with over fifty times Jabugo's population. Appetites really would need to be gargantuan to compete. Maybe the village will have to content itself with claiming the largest stew based on pork products.
One would like to imagine that the Cocido was an ancient tradition dating back to mediaeval, even prehistoric, times, but in point of fact it seems to be a modern innovation. A cynic might be tempted to suspect it of being devised as a gimmick to attract tourists, but the vast majority of the attendees we saw were unquestionably Spanish, mostly in groups of family or friends and seemingly local. The only foreign voices we heard were our own. Moreover, people were definitely having a good time. With so little entertainment to be found in this poor, remote region, probably any such occasion is to be welcomed, and many villages hereabouts hold similar festivities* celebrating their particular produce. I would recommend attendance to anyone visiting the area at the appropriate time; apart from any other consideration, where else are you likely to find a bowl of tasty stew, bread and a litre of beer for just 6 euros? As a stranger, it was fun to try to enter into the spirit of the thing, though I fear I shall never be an aficionado of 1980s disco music in any language, least of all as a reverberating accompaniment to a hike through otherwise tranquil mountain scenery.
© Also published, with photos, under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2012
* For a general review of the Sierra de Aracena, including mention of several other local food festivals, see: