We're in the middle of Cuaresma, Ladies and Gentlemen. That's right, the seven weeks of Lent are upon us--well, upon the unlapsed Catholics among us anyway.
In case you're unclear, Lent is the 40 day period of abstinence and fasting between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. The modern rules of Lent require fasting on Ash Wednesday (Miercoles de Ceniza) and Good Friday (Viernes Santo) and abstinence from meat on all other Lenten Fridays--that traditionally includes eggs and milk, but not fish. Apparently, that's the reason Fillet of Fish sales spike in North America before Easter.
Why doesn't fish fall within the meat prohibition? Some say it's the shedding of animal blood during Lent that's really the issue and, in particular, the blood of warm blooded animals, which tends to arouse the passions; that's not so much of a problem with fish apparently, which are as cold blooded as they come. Others think that meat was prohibited during Lent because it was historically a sign of wealth and power and its removal from the diet was a true deprivation; again, not historically the case with fish.
Sardines, salt cod, herring and eel are typical of Cuaresma. So are stews of chickpeas and beans. The staples of fast food cuisine--bread (flour), water and oil--are also commonly used in Spanish Lenten cooking because they are viewed as "poco nutritivo" and therefore in keeping with the tradition of abstinence.
That brings us to the ushering in of Cuaresma on Ash Wednesday, which occurred in Barcelona with the Entierro de la Sardina (the Burial of the Sardine). I guess if you're going to bury something, a sardine is as good as anything else.
The burial, I must divulge, was not as much a burial as a cremation, which this year took place before a couple of hundred spectators in Parc Clot, where I dutifully took myself a few weeks ago.
As legend has it, the tradition of the burial of the sardine goes back to the 19th century when Carlos III allegedly ordered the burial of a shipload of spoiled sardines on the eve of Lent. The burial acted out today recalls this event and symbolizes the letting go of all vices in anticipation of the traditional religious period of spiritual cleansing.
In modern day Barcelona, the burial is accompanied by a parade celebrating the end of Carnaval and the beginning of Cuaresma. La Hijastra de Cuaresma (the stepdaughter of Lent, pictured above), an emaciated hag whose seven legs symbolize the seven weeks of Lent, carries with her seven sardines reminding spectators of the Lenten diet. In case that doesn't bring the message home, the seven stooges that accompany her menace innocent bystanders with raw sardines. (A related aspect of Spanish Lenten tradition, by the way, is the hanging of a cardboard Hijastra de Cuaresma in the kitchen and the cutting off of one of her seven legs on each Sunday of Lent to mark the passing of the time of deprivation.)
La Hijastra de Cuaresma and her seven companions vanquish the seven days of Carnaval and send the Carnaval king (King Carnestoltes) off to be buried along with the sardine following the reading of Carnestoltes' will by his weeping widow. This is all very dramatic and really gets the crowd going, as does the samba over to the sardine's funeral pyre.
The whole spectacle is finished off with a sardinada (a sardine grill up), for which eager Barcelonites line up for hours. This isn't as much an indicator of popularity as it is a side effect of the 2 hour tardy start of the sardine cremation; así es la vida en España, Cuaresma or no Cuaresma.