Culinary Anthropologist

Burnt spirits

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Smqueimada0001.JPGWith all that Galician octopus and turnip tops inside you, you need a good digestif to finish the meal.  And Galicia has one of the best you can find – queimada – a sweet and firey conconction which you brew at the table in a special three-legged earthenware bowl, huddled like witches round a cauldron.  

Some local firewater, which is naturally grappa here (‘orujo‘) due to the strong wine-making tradition, is mixed with coffee beans, sugar and the zest of a lemon in one big spiral, then set alight and allowed to burn.  (If it’s very cold, you may need to warm the grappa first.)  

With the lights turned out, the voracious blue flames licking furiously round the bowl make a spectacular sight.  When they turn orange, you know it’s nearly done.  You’re supposed to wait until all the flames have gone before drinking it, but leaving some more alcohol in is more fun (we found).  

Smcremat0001.JPGThe Galician queimada we had was almost identical to the cremat (literally, ‘burnt’) we had in Catalunya, where the spirit was rum but all else the same.  Our hosts in both places declared it their traditional local brew.  But which came first?  They’re clearly related traditions.  And how did it end up at the western and easternmost tips of northern Spain?

Well apparently the Galician queimada ritual has long roots, going back to Celtic times, when people believed strongly in the fortifying and purifying power of fire.  The flames from the queimada bowl are supposed to banish evil spirits and witches and imbue the imbibers with great courage and strength. 

All I can say is that it sent us to bed with a warm glow on our faces and a nice fuzzy feeling in our heads, both times.

Read about other tastes of Spain

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