Santo Isadoro is a small, coastal Portuguese village rising above the ocean mists of the Atlantic. On sunny days, tourists flock to the neighboring city of Ericera, where they can enjoy the waves, go to surf school, and read billboards in English.
While two miles away, the residents of sleepy Santo Isadoro, go to church on Sundays, eat at the cafe, and gossip about each other, for here in Santo Isadoro, there really isn’t much else to talk about.
On the first day we arrived, there was absolutely nothing to eat. We finally resolved to go to Ericera for groceries and be eating like a portuguese villager. In the morning, while eating breakfast, we pondered over how anybody in this village got their food. There was no grocery store that we knew of in Santo Isadoro. Did everyone simply go to Ericera for their groceries, like we had? We ate our breakfast, hoping that sooner or later, we would find a way to get our food.
And then, we found it, the bakery and cafe must be providing a stable supply of available food, but all we saw there was a case of freshly baked bread. Since we had no bread, we asked the lady there if we could buy it, but she refused, trying to explain something that we couldn’t understand. Finally, she agreed to sell us a loaf of bread, but the woman at the counter did not look very pleased with us.
Early in the morning on the day after that, a loud bell clanged outside of the house we were staying at. Loud voices could be heard gathering outside. We went outside to see what all the commotion was about. The early morning sky was grey over the whitewashed, blue-trimmed buildings. The villagers were all crowded around a white van and a woman who was selling seafood. It seemed as if almost any kind of creature living in the fathoms was in the back of that van. Octopus, squid, barnacles.
We brought back fish, two whole fish, caught that morning. The fish was delicious, and we ate everything, including the tail, and meat, and head. We wondered when the van would come back.
The next day, we found the butcher shop next to the bakery. He had meat of all sorts on display, from cuts of beef and pork, to whole, plucked chickens, with head and feet, and the rest.
Behind the counter, the butcher had a slab of wood that could of have been a hundred years old, passed down from one butcher to another. It was so well worn, that every inch of it had fallen to the chopping of the butcher knife. The butcher kept it clean however, because he needed this chopping block.
Every week, farmers from all around the villages would bring in their slaughtered livestock for butchering. Then, the butcher, like most, would sell his butchered meat to the villagers of Santo Isadoro.
The day after that, at the cafe, we found, on the case of bread, a sign, it read, “Nao toque”, (do not touch, in Portuguese). Considering our encounter the day before, and that we were the only outsiders in the village, the sign was probably meant for us.
The bread, we then found out, was reserved for those who ordered it the day before. It was now becoming clear to us how to eat in Santo Isadoro. But still, we weren’t able to solve the mystery of produce. How did the villagers get their fruits and vegetables?
The next day, the seafood van came around again, horn blasting, surrounded by people, clambering to buy their seafood for the next few days.
That day, we purchased a leopard ray and barnacles. Caught fresh and brought up through the early morning fog, only that very day, the leopard ray was large and hefty, and, in the long and short of it, looked like a cross between a manta ray and a leopard. That night at dinnertime, we sat around at the table, slicing through the slippery skin, and splitting the delectable, tender meat. I got the middle of the leopard ray, and cut off a chunk. I chewed, and I swallowed. This was the butteriest meat I had had in my life, and it wasn’t even cooked with butter. The meat had a light, yellow-peach tint to its color. It was juicy, and the skin was soft. We tried the tail, and the brain as well, and when we were finished we instantly wished that we had purchased more from the seafood van. Alongside our plate of leopard ray meat, we had a bowl of barnacles in the middle of the table. Pulling them apart, you could get to the meat, which was soft, and so fresh that you could taste the salty, seawater.
On the day before we would leave, around the middle of the morning, villagers gathered around the small town square. Thick, coastal fog collected in the sky. A very large van pulled up, its doors were opened, revealing a display of fruits and vegetables from all over, everybody knew each other, and there were many “Obrigados” (thank you in Portuguese) and “Ola”s (hello) and many, many smiles. Today, was the day when the fruit and vegetable stores were dwindling, and the villagers had to buy more, otherwise, they didn’t have anymore for the week. As for things like milk, and other staples, that remains a mystery. Eggs? Everybody had chickens and ducks.
When we left, we resolved that it isn’t easy to eat in Santo Isadoro if you are a traveler; you have to live there, and know when you get your food. It isn’t like there’s a close grocery store, where you can buy everything you want. Because with real, fresh, organic, and local food, it isn’t shipped, and it isn’t stored. It’s there when it’s there, and if it isn’t you have to pitch in. It takes a village.
Lillian Black is a writer and political blogger, and helps on her family’s farm in Petaluma. She raises her own flock of chickens, and writes about them too. She loves cats and is being homeschooled.