One of the favorite Christmas dishes in Japan is “Christmas Chicken,” roast or fried chicken, right. It is so popular that most convenience stores, family restaurants, and fast food stores take orders, the earliest ones from October. While in Spain, the hero of the Christmas dinner table is definitely lamb. Along with seafood, above all crustaceans like shrimps and crabs served as side dishes, lamb and piglet fetch exceptionally high prices in the Christmas season. I know a dutiful Japanese woman who was assigned the role of roasting the lamb year after year under the direction and supervision of her mother-in-law when she returned with her husband to his family home for the Christmas gathering of immediate family members and relatives.
An especially popular lamb dish is cordero lechal, suckling lamb. They use lambs between 25 and 30 days old weighing 5.5 kg to 6 kg, lambs that are still suckling their mothers and have not started to eat feed, and the preferred way of cooking them, especially on festive days such as Christmas, is to roast them in the oven. In the Castile region, the home of this style of cooking, there are long-established specialty restaurants where they produce this dish by putting a thoroughly washed and dried lamb on a large oval earthenware roasting dish, and adding only salt and water, no spices, oil, wine, or the like at all, so as to accentuate the pure deliciousness of the lamb itself. I guess they use that method because they are so absolutely confident about the quality of the lamb.
Speaking of suckling lamb, it’s a specialty dish of the Castile region, where there are many towns that use it as a selling point, one of the most notable ones being Lerma, in the Province of Burgos. Among the restaurants serving this specialty one that I particularly like and used to visit often. It’s a small, plain eating house in a side street, with only oven-roasted suckling lamb on the menu, the salad just plain lettuce. They serve a full bodied red wine that goes with meat dishes, but the recommended wine is the house rosé, a light and refreshing wine, gracious, not overbearing, a wine that better accentuates the flavor of the lamb.
The restaurant’s owner says, “We only serve suckling lamb born and reared within earshot of the bells of Burgos Cathedral.” Burgos city, where the provincial palace is found, is about 40 km north of Lerma and is famous for its World Heritage listed cathedral. By the way, you might remember that Burgos is the province where, back in the “Spanish flu” pandemic of 100 years ago, the people were so unrestrained that the provincial governor grew impatient and issued an extraordinary official bulletin urging thorough ventilation and avoidance of the “3 Cs” (Closed spaces, Crowded places, Close-contact settings). “Spanish Flu”, posted on June 9, 2020 (https://kc-i.jp/activity/kwn/yamada_s/20200609/).
Photo 1 shows the restaurant’s roast suckling lamb. The minimum order is a quarter of a lamb, which serves two. The salad that comes with the meal, like it or not, is cut lettuce, which is very plain and uninteresting. Photo 2 was taken inside the restaurant, which, although decorated for Christmas is still plain, and at bottom left you can just see my face. It’s a specialty restaurant that competes on taste alone, where they have placed just a small bite or two of the dish on stylishly designed crockery and brushed it with sauce, the absolute opposite of the attractive camera-ready presentations people love these days.
Photo 3 shows Burgos Cathedral. I guess few people still remember El Cid, the Hollywood blockbuster from the good old days. Most people might not even know the names Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, who played the leading roles. “El cid” means “gentleman,” “knight,” or “master” in Arabic, a name given him by his Muslim enemies out of respect. His real name was Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, a local member of the nobility and a military commander. Buried at Burgos Cathedral are the remains of this man who successfully fought in the war to wrestle Spanish sovereignty back from the Muslim conquerors in the 11th century.
Photo 4 shows a statue of El Cid, boldly going into battle, on the terrace at the Hispanic Center in New York. It’s the work of Anna Hyatt Huntington, wife of Archer Milton Huntington who founded the Center.
The sound of bells rings out from the Cathedral’s bell tower to mark prayer times, festivals, and so on, an accompaniment to the daily lives of the local residents, and perhaps a comfort to the sheep. To the local people, the Cathedral, El Cid, as well as suckling lamb, are a source of pride in their hometown, yet, having written this far, I just realized something: how could it be that you end up eating the servant of Almighty God, the lamb sent to earth to atone for man's sins, Jesus Christ, on the day of his birth? According to the Old Testament, pure, innocent lambs used to be offered up to God to ask for atonement. In other words, as a sacrifice, perhaps? Photo 5 is “Agnus Dei” (“Lamb of God”) painted by Zurbarán, in the collection of the Prado Museum.
In my last article about the Canary Islands, I wrote that the volcanic eruption was still ongoing as of December 14, but little activity was recorded for 10 days afterward, so it was announced on December 25, Christmas Day, that the authorities were able to determine that the last volcanic activity was on December 13. What a wonderful present, don’t you think?