The Pork!

Image of San Jacobo MealAndalucia loves pork. Bocadillos (small sandwiches made with a roll-size baguette) usually contain cheese and some form of pork. Jamon (smoked bacon) and chuletas (pork chops) are common. A popular greasy-spoon meal is San Jacobo – two slices of ham on either side of a slice of cheese, fried. Pork is so much a part of the Andulcian experience that it’s a little surprising to learn that there is actually a specific historical reason for it.

The Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD. Spain as a country didn’t exist then; the peninsula was just a collection of Christian kingdoms living in feudal equilibrium, occasionally breaking the harmony to wage war on each other. The story goes that one of these kings was looking through his spyglass across the Strait of Gibraltar to Africa and saw a beautiful princess bathing (she must have been in what is now Morocco). He fell in love immediately and kidnapped the princess, referred to in the story as La Cava. He was horribly cruel to her, and she described his treatment of her in letters home. Her father swore vengeance, and recruited another Moorish king to help. In return for his help, La Cava’s father promised to help the other king conquer the whole Iberian Peninsula. The story is something of a fairy tale, and there is no agreed-upon explanation the Moorish invasion, other than because it was there and because they could.

Legs of jamon hanging in La CuevaThe Reconquista (re-conquest of Spain by Catholic Kings) began almost as soon as the Moors arrived. It took the Catholic Kings, now united in their opposition against the Moors, nearly 800 years to take back the peninsula. Having formed their national identity largely as “Not Moorish,” the now-Spaniards were willing to take dramatic steps to differentiate themselves from the old Moorish and Muslim traditions. Hanging large pig legs to cure in the public parts of restaurants was one way to alienate Muslims, as they can’t eat pork. Other, more northern parts of Spain are not so notorious for the pork-based diet; in Aragon, for example, beef is much more common. But in Andalucia, the last region that the Catholic Kings conquered, pork is still the most widely served meat. And restaurants and bars still have whole pig legs hanging from the ceiling, like the delicious La Cueva in Granada.

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