Half a head is NOT better than no head at all

It’s almost two o’clock, the beginning of the Spanish lunch break, and I stop off at Valencia’s Mercado Central to pick up something tempting. The gorgeous early nineteenth-century monument to gastronomy is said to be the oldest covered food market in Europe, although as it’s the market authorities who say so, (as those who run Barcelona’s La Boqueria also say about their own market), who am I to argue?

Even if I’m not buying, I always nip in for a look when I’m in this neck of the woods, the Barrio del Carmen, the Medieval centre of the city. Until a few years ago it was stocked with basically local meat and vegetables brought in from the huerto, the market gardens that enclose three sides of the city, and fish fresh from the Mediterranean that shimmers along the fourth. These days, though, the market has gone seriously up-market, and scattered amongst the stalls are chi-chi delis that bring the gastronomic world to the Valencianos doorstep. (Although de we really need a stall selling eighteen different types of salt?)

Fortunately, despite the world acclaim for Ferran Adrià and his now demised restaurant, el Bulli, the Spanish people in general aren’t especially experimental in their tastes, and there are still plenty of products available that would have been found in la cocina de la abuela, grannie’s kitchen. Pigs heads with their tongue lolling sideways sit on countertops; percebes, a barnacle that looks like the tiny cut-off stump of an elephant’s leg, much prized and expensive, (although having tried it a couple of times I can’t work out why), nestle on mounds of crushed ice; plastic washing up basins full of fresh snails, a stall that sells nothing but garafon, tabella, roget and ferraura, the beans needed to make a true paella Velenciana, (the iconic Spanish dish originated in the Valencian huerto), and the fish stalls with their net bags of clotxinos, tiny succulent local mussels.

I decide I can’t be bothered to cook, so I take a seat at Palomo, one of the open-fronted diners along the facade of the market that have been the main-stay of working class lunches in the barrio since Noah was a lad. Pots of bubbling garbanzos, pans of rich brown lentejas, long narrow trays of oven-baked aubergines and stuffed green peppers. I order a plate of fideua, similar to paella but using fine pasta instead of rice,and a glass of white wine that justifies the old Spanish saying, los mejores blancos son tintos, the best whites are reds.

What isn’t on the ‘point and pick’ menu today is cabeza de cordero, half a sheep’s head roasted in the oven with potatoes and onion. For some obscure reason, that’s only available on Sundays and the many public holidays that bring the country to a grinding halt too many times a year.

It’s a common site to see raw sheep’s head with their demonic pop-eyed look sitting at the back of butchers fridges, though I’d always assumed they were for making stock, in much the way I’d use a chicken carcass. I’d never tried the cooked version until earlier this year, when a friend suggested I give it a go after we’d been lamenting the price of food in what was once a country where you almost never thought of eating at home.

That was the reason for my first visit to Palomo, about the only place in the city that still serves the dish. Alongside a battered oven tray of pigs feet, (tried them once – never, ever again), was a similar tray with one remaining half sheep’s head tucked forlornly in the corner. “You’re lucky”, I was told. “It’s the last one.” which made me think that being unlucky isn’t always a bad thing.

As well as the last half-head, I got the last seat at the counter, and ordered a beer to fortify me. The dish was placed in front of me and I stared down at it. It couldn’t stare back because the eye had popped during cooking, but the skin had peeled back from the teeth to reveal a hideously evil grin. I flipped it over, not wanting to share its morbid joke and to avoid the skeletal glare of the empty eye socket.

We hear of people asking photographers to make sure they get their ‘best side’; that was the sheep’s ‘best side’. The teeth on the inside were also bared, so not only didn’t I escape the demonic grin, but I was presented with half a well-browned roast brain, which ranks along with pig’s trotter as my favourite dish to scrape off a plate into a waste disposal unit. I flipped it back.

To be fair, the cheek meat was delicious, but sheep have very small cheeks, barely enough to fill a finger-loaf sandwich.

I thoroughly enjoyed the potatoes, though.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, Derek Workman – Journalist , and Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi. 

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