A Day in the Life of La Cuina a Sils

Visiting the market, preparing escudella, and meeting the cooks of Sils, the gastronomical memory of Girona.

By Real Academia de Gastronomía

Silvia Artaza

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Sils
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Sils

The 9:58 a.m. train pulls in, having left the town of Girona 20 minutes earlier. We are in Sils, a town of just over 12 square miles and 6,000 inhabitants, located in the region of Selva in Girona province. It is a sunny day and we line up on the main street. A few yards away, Xicu is waiting for us with some of the group's members to prepare escudella, a typical Catalan soup.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Friendly, lively, and chatty, he takes us to the kitchen where Lucía and Anna are preparing the dishes. Proudly dressed in their embroidered aprons, they explain that escudella is a traditional Catalan dish, similar to the Spanish stew known as cocido.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Anna y Lucía, La Cuina a Sils
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In the Kitchen

A soup made from a variety of meats (chicken, beef, and pork), with bacon, cheek, ear, and backbone. It also contains chickpeas and haricot beans, white and black Catalan sausage, and dumplings made from breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley, eggs, salt, and pepper. Lucía explains that these are added to the soup at the end so they keep their shape.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

They also show us the selli, a rancid bacon used in the soup "to give it a special flavor." It comes from leaving the pork fat in salt after the slaughter, explains Anna, today's kitchen assistant. “Everyone has their own recipe, and today it's my turn to be the helper," she laughs, while the head chef tells me she doesn't like to cook escudella alone. “I like to be with others; cooking is meant for sharing.”

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Anna y Lucía, La Cuina a Sils
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They add the condiments, and tell me that Catalan cookery does not generally use a lot of spices. “I am a big fan of pepper," admits Lucía. “Salt, pepper, cinnamon, bay, and not much else,” adds Anna. It is sautéed with garlic, onion and a little tomato, but not too much, "or it will overwhelm the flavor and turn it a nasty color," explains the chef of the day.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Anna y Lucía, La Cuina a Sils
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Anna is a ball of energy. Now 56 years old, she has been involved in the project since she was 30. She devotes as much time as she can to it, but she also works as a cook in a restaurant in Girona. Lucía is older and has been in the group for 20 years, because, as she explains, "I'm not from the town, so first I had to become a resident."

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Rosa arrives laden down with bags. She will be in charge of the crema catalana, the Catalan version of crème brûlée. She admits that at home she prefers to make crème caramel, and she would rather have been part of the escudella team. In fact, she worked with Lucía to prepare the escudellas (stews) that were served to 200 people at the Ritz. She was the cook at the Sils school for 35 years, and has been a member of the group for 25 years. At the grand age of 82, she is a beacon of moderation.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Mercado
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In the market

Asun, Consuelo, and Carmen, the donut team, join us, and we leave Xicu in charge of the soup while we go to the market. These women are live wires, with a sparkle in their eyes. They may be from different generations, with different characters, but when they come together they complement each other perfectly. "Here I am with my gang," Consuelo jokes to a lady passing by.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Memories

We have returned to the kitchen, and we stop under a wall of photographs at the entrance, a reminder of times gone by. They search and point each other out, beaming with pride. They comment on the purple color of their sweaters and their embroidered aprons. “We have been to the Senate and the Congress, and skipped every line!" laugh Asun and Consuelo.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

“I used to be very shy, but I've changed a lot," confesses Asun. Xicu revealed that whenever the women were invited onto a television show, he wouldn't tell them until they were at the set, "because if they knew, they wouldn't sleep, and they'd get anxious." But then they would watch how one of the others plucked up the courage, and they would think, why can't I? “We just have to be ourselves, and do what we do at home, the way we do it at home." Xicu would try to ease their worries whenever they were feeling anxious. And they got through it.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Values

A sense of achievement is one of the most important gifts that La Cuina a Sils has given to its cooks. That, and freedom. “What we have experienced with the group is something we never would have experienced any other way,” they tell us. "So many things that money can't buy."

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Carmen, La Cuina a Sils
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Carmen, at 82 years old, solemnly admits that when her sister-in-law encouraged her to get involved, she didn't think she'd be up to it: "I thought I wouldn't be good enough." Twenty years later, she gets emotional remembering the day that her delicious food was appreciated outside the four walls of her home.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

En la cocina
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“Feeling wanted, not as women, cooks, or grandmothers, but as people. We have helped to advance traditional cookery, which is great, of course, but what we have lived through is even more meaningful: what we feel is the most important thing." (Xicu Anoro, promoter of La Cuina a Sils).

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Rosa confirms that Xicu is a "psychologist without the title, always keeping an eye on us.” If any of the women are going through a hard time, he signs them up for a trip to get them away from it all, he looks after them traveling on a plane for the first time, pairs them up in hotels, … She produces a note written by her daughter, in which she thanks Xicu for all he has done for her mother. “Getting out of the house is so important to them.”

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Remembering the Past

We find them leafing through a perfectly organized collection of newspaper cuttings. Many have been collated in their latest book, 25 Anys de Cuina i Prensa (25 Years of Cookery and the Press, 2018), in which their story is told through their appearances in interviews and news reports. The book is 264 pages long and still does not include everything.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

As they turn the pages, they can't help but get emotional, remembering those who are no longer with them. From the first 18, Carmen Barrios is still alive, but they have had to say goodbye to so many others. They have been through so much together … so it is particularly painful.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Poniendo la mesa
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Setting the Table

“The photographer wants a pretty plate to put the donuts on!" shouts Anna down the corridor from the kitchen to the dining room. We are on a photo shoot, making the most of the beautiful floor in the office, and the light filtering through the window. They are holding out on burning the top of the crema catalana until we get to dessert, because that's what the recipe says. However, we need the light, and we haven't even sat down yet … unconvinced, but with good will, they torch three of them for the photo.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The Delicious Escudella

The table is set, and the pots of escudella begin to arrive. We eat in two rounds: first the soup, and then the meats. And then we repeat. It is love, patience, and wisdom; spoon after spoon. It's a Ratatouille effect; eating the stew transports us to a comforting past, even though it's the first time we've ever tasted it. Why did people eat escudella every day? “Out of necessity,” they tell us. The woman had to stay at home, to take care of the children, the grandparents, do all the domestic chores, cook … she would put everything in the pot and it would cook itself. And the leftovers? Dinner.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Mercado
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Salsify

If there is one product that La Cuina a Sils has fought for, and is identified with, it would be salsify. Their greatest achievement is not their rescued recipes, nor their books, but rather this little-known root vegetable that they have taken wherever they have cooked. They claim that outside their region, the only version you can find comes from the Netherlands or South America, but "is not as tasty." They use it as a garnish for all kinds of dishes.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Local Beef

In the midst of the mad cow crisis, they released a book with exclusively beef recipes, in support of the local producers in their area. A bold move, which was repeated with the recipe collection that has occupied the most column inches: La cocina de los flavonoides (Cooking with Flavonoids). “How come these women have written a book about erectile dysfunction?" reporters laughed.

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The Future

There is concern from some about the future of La Cuina a Sils, and sadness that young people seem to have lost interest in cooking. Others are happy to celebrate what has been achieved, but willing to let it go: "We had this project, and they will have something different."

La Cuina a Sils (2020-02-14)Real Academia de Gastronomía

La Cuina a Sils
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Today there are 65, but there have been many more: over 150 women have left their mark as a part of La Cuina a Sils. “Like so many other anonymous cooks, they never believed that their day-to-day efforts would be recognized. They were brought up to think that cooking for their family was their duty, not an option” (Spanish daily newspaper La Vanguardia, 2001).

Credits: Story

Text: Silvia Artaza
Image: David de Luis

This exhibition is part of the Spanish gastronomy project, España: Cocina Abierta (Spain: Open Kitchen), coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and Spain's Royal Academy of Gastronomy (Real Academia de la Gastronomía). The section on culinary legacy was coordinated by María Llamas, director of the Alambique cookery store and school.

Acknowledgements

Lourdes Plana Bellido, president of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy and Carmen Simón, academic of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

www.realacademiadegastronomia.com
www.alambique.com

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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