Spain’s Cantabrian Mountains stretch from the western limits of the towering Pyrenees to the borders of Galicia. They follow the sea as far as the pass of Leitariegos and afterward break off, trending southward toward Leon.
Savage and ruthless, the ancient tribe of Cantabri once found refuge among the Cantabrian’s magnificent peaks. There they defied the Romans, who wished to subdue the region and its wild mountaineers. Not until the bloody campaigns of Agrippa and Augustus (29-19 CE) did the Cantabri suffer defeat and become partially Romanized, their fierce history made the stuff of fireside tales.
Carlos de Haes, Los Picos de Europa, 1860
But despite the defeat of the Cantabri, a tenacious sense of independence burned in the hearts of the people of Cantabria. Described in nineteenth-century guidebooks as “reserved in speech and conversation,” the Cantabrians spoke in a “Mountain language” not recognized outside the region. They were said to be insensible to changes of heat or cold, and defended their homes not by sword or knife, but by an oaken shillalah, a walking stick fortified with lead. Expert oarsmen, they fished the Bay of Biscay’s treacherous waters by day and at night danced to the jangling sound of the tamboril and pito. They bred superb race horses and silkworms.
Cantabrian cuisine was spartan but nourishing. Inside their small cottages, the Cantabrians knew not the pleasures of beer and cooked their food in hog’s lard and olive oil, vast cisterns of which could be found in the kitchens of most homes. Their cheese was prized for its delicacy, and the sea provided them with swordfish, squid and hake. Cantabrians were especially fond of sweets and their cattle gave them the cream necessary for their beloved rice puddings and custards.
Here is a dish from a farming community inland from the city of Santander, the capital of Cantabria. Should you wish for more Spanish recipes, visit spain-recipes.com.
Pollo Campurriano (Santander Chicken)
4 small corn-fed chicken quarters
6 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoon flour
5 oz streaky tocino or raw ham, cubed
1 red pepper, seeded and chopped
1 green pepper, seeded and chopped
8 fat white spring onions or pickling onions
1 bay leaf
16 fl. oz chicken stock
1 spanish onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
7 fl. oz rice
9 fl. oz dry white wine
Heat 4 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan. Salt and pepper the chicken well, rubbing the flesh with 2 teaspoons of paprika, then dust with flour. Fry skin side down over medium-high heat, for 5 minutes on each side, until golden. When you turn the chicken, add the tocino or chopped ham, peppers and spring onion bulbs.
Move to a casserole in which the chicken will fit tightly in one layer. Pack the chicken in neatly and sprinkle with the remaining flour. Tuck the spring onion bulbs, ham and peppers into any spaces with the bay leafs. Add just enough stock to cover the ingredients — about 6-8 fl. oz. Put on the lid and simmer gently.
Add the onion to the oil remaining in the frying pan and fry until softened, adding a little more oil if needed. Add the chopped garlic cloves and the rice. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of paprika and stir gently. Pour in the wine and bring gently to the boil. Add 10 fl. oz of stock and cook gently for 15 minutes. The stock should just be absorbed. Small quantities of rice can dry out so watch for this and add another couple of spoonfuls of liquid from the chicken pot if necessary.
When the rice is done, cover with foil and leave to stand off the heat for 5 minutes. Turn off the chicken too. Serve the two dishes together. You can sprinkle a little chopped green onion top over the chicken to garnish.