Spend any amount of time in Andalucía, and you'll notice one thing above all else: Andalusians treat their food with total respect, and take pride in the time they take to tease the best out of ingredients grown in their own backyard.
Spend any amount of time there, especially where the locals hang out, and you realise food is involved in everything that goes down. Families and friends seemingly spend untold hours eating, drinking, sharing adobo, jamon iberico, espinacha con garbanzos. The food is, for wont of a better phrase, los cojones del perro.
At no time do they take more joy in this than Christmas, and Navidad is when the three cornerstones of life down south come together—the food, the religion, and the family.
Everybody knows that when you turn 16, the purpose of presents changes from being things you play with to life necessities. This is also precisely when Christmas lunch becomes the focal point of the day.
Andalucía is no different, other than in that the main meal and celebration generally takes place late on the evening of the 24th (Noche buena). This is common in Roman Catholic countries, and dates back to Roman celebrations of the rebirth of the sun God, Sol Invictus, after he kicks the meteorological bucket at winter solstice.
Dinner on Noche buena is a family-orientated affair, and follows Miso de Gallo (rooster's mass). Miso de Gallo is the equivalent of our midnight mass, though it's not always at midnight, which has confused lesser souls than you and me. Regardless, it will be in the evening, and you won't be sitting down to eat any earlier than 10. And yes, that might seem late, but's that way things roll here. Get used to it. Have another cana.
Dish-wise, on Noche buena, you'll be be looking at the best of Andalusian. I spoke to Victor Silvestre, of the Taller Andaluz de Cocina (Andalusian Food Workshop). The man has lived in Sevilla for 25 years, and is truly a chef that knows everything worth knowing about food from the region. He's originally from Madrid, so he says his earliest Christmas food memories are "lamb, suckling pig, roasted potatoes, vegetables, and a big ham leg which we all took turns to carve," (which sounds great, TBH). However, down in the south, his recollections are of "consomé al Jerez, huevos rellenos, gambas blancas, jamón ibérico. And, of course, carrilladas. "
These are deeply indigenous dishes propped up by ingredients woven into the fabric of Andalusian life: the consomé using sherry from Jerez; gambas from the sea that cradles the south of the region; the jamon from the black pigs reared in Huelva.
Carilladas (literally, cheeks) we will come to later, but speak to anyone Andalusian or anyone that has eaten in decent Andalusian restaurants, and the name will be gallop off the tongue like a toro in a bullring.
Numbers of practising Spanish Catholics aren't exactly soaring: a 2010 study found only 15 percent of practising Catholics regularly attend mass. The country's youth, its religious future, are fleeing pretty abysmal unemployment levels (35 percent in Andalucía), for wealthy Latin American countries, or Britain, or Germany.
Despite this, Catholicism still slices through Andalucía. It is a far more readily accepted part of local and national identity, and traditions are observed without the snideness you'd get if you took me and a bunch of my mates to church.
Foremost is Semana Santa (Holy Week), which is one of the plant's great street spectacles.
In Sevilla, it shuts virtually the entire city down whilst procession after procession make their way through the streets, as hooded penitents flanked by marching bands and floats bearing the Holy Mother and her Boy slowly make their way to the Catedral.
At Christmas, there is obviously Buena noche, but then Navidad itself, in which you have La Cabalgata. La Cabalgata is a sprawling procession through the streets led by three kings, and sweets are given out to kids and big kids. I asked Victor whether anyone would really go. "Yes," he told me. "Especially families with children, but also groups of friends and young couples."
Before that, you have the Christmas markets that sell only nativity decorations, with not a dancing elf in sight. In Higuera de la Sierra, there's the Bele Viviente, a human nativity that kicks off on the first of December. On January 6, there is Epiphany or Los Reyes Magos de Oriente (the three wise men, basically). The night before, kids get presents (it is more of a gift-giving occasion that Christmas), and then there is obviously more feasting before another Cabalgata.
"Christmas in Andalucía is still religion-focused," reckons Victor, before adding, "but there is no question that the commercial side has increased enormously in the last decade."
Any guy I know that married an Andalusian girl talks about how close she is with her family. Some said this with a moan: "She's got to go and see her fucking mother again."
However, in time most eventually came to view the knottiness of the Andalusian family as something to be admired and looked up to.
This seems especially vital to the place that Andalucía, Spain, or the UK, or the world is now. Nowhere has been hit harder than Andalucía, a region whose economic pillars are agriculture and tourism. Dry weather this year has withered olive trees, which forecasters reckon will push up olive oil prices 30 to 40 percent. This is big news when you consider the region produces something like 60 percent of the world's olive oil, and has roughly 165 million olive trees.
Similarly, when the housing market crashed in 2007, so did the wallets of all the developers building those nice new villas along the Costa Del Sol. The number of new houses in the region went from 133,185 in 2006 to just 45,222 in 2010, and home prices nationwide have fallen 40 percent since 2008.
The villas now stand as relics to a future that may still yet happen, but it's too late for the legions of Andalusians that moved back in with their families. Forty-nine percent of young adults across Spain live with their folks now, and there is no reason to suspect that number will fall anytime soon. But the families are still there, and so are their traditions.
Maybe we could all do from learning a bit from the Andalusians. Christmas works so well here, and it hasn't yet been dropkicked into commercial purgatory. Why? Noche buena and La Cabalgata don't get handed down by some Coke ad with a catchy jingle; they come from someone's abuelo y abuela, their tio or tia, mama or papa. It's the same for the food. This is a region that grows the stuff it fries its sausages in. It's at the mainline and the epicentre.
It's as part of them as the church they go to annually for Miso de Gallo. Surely that's good for the soul. And with food like they have, frankly, why wouldn't it be?