Our sense of smell, perhaps more consistently than any other sense, can carry us to distant places in our past; a childhood birthday party, an exotic vacation, a filthy alley, a horrible fire. We can relive an emotional experience in a blink of an eye, or better yet, a sniff of the nose.
Rounding the corner of a stone wall, I am carried continents away by the aroma of a wood fire oven in the crisp mountain air. But when those smoky scents dance with the fragrance of baking bread, magic happens. It is as though the emotional state of safety and comfort has a smell, and it embraces me. And when that feeling is wafting through a mountain village, it is inescapable.
We had pulled into a small village tucked up against the mountains. Babia, a mountainous region in northern Spain, has long been remembered as the place of daydreamers. In another age, when the kingdoms of Spain had yet to be united beneath a sole monarch, the ruling leaders would often escape to this breathtaking land. They came to see the snow capped mountains, glacier lakes, lush valleys, and emerald waterfalls. It was the place of dreams. A paradise. Daydreams in real life. And so whenever a child was caught with their head in the clouds during class, the teacher would question, “¿Estás en Babia?” (Are you in Babia?). I can see why.
We pulled our three children out of the car and wandered down the quiet streets. We circled the church with stories that go as far back as the kings. We peeked through the palace gates where influential families once reigned and relaxed. We followed our noses to where the smell of fresh bread was baking.
The village of Riolago has a small bakery which provides bread and baked goods throughout the valley and cities around the region. The closet-sized sales room hides it true influence. Goods from this bakery have sat on tables in thousands of homes, and have filled the stomachs of families day after day. For more than half a century the wood fires have been burning, baking the barras de pan for friends and customers.
We followed the baker into his shop and asked to see what he was doing. Jorge laid down his bundle of firewood and invited us in. He had been working since 3:30 in the morning and was finishing up his tasks for the day, but he still wanted the kids to see what a bakery was like. He showed them how to feed the split wood into the fire and then slide hundreds of loaves into the massive oven. He showed how the simple dough was mixed and kneaded. Our kids tasted the masa made from flour, water, and salt, and listened to how everything worked in this warm workshop. But then he said, “Wait here, you will want to see the other goods.” A few seconds later he opened a door and pushed us inside. Marta was there cutting out the baked goods preparing them for the oven. Our daughters each got a turn cutting out the cookies and placing them on the baking sheet. As she worked, Marta talked about what she made, which were her favorites, and the flavors and styles of the cookies. Before she could finish, José Abel walked in. He has been running this bakery for years, having followed in his father’s footsteps. This year marked another mile stone, sixty years in operation.
I asked José about why he runs a bakery, what he thinks of his village, what the future holds. He shared with me the joys and struggles. The villages are small. During the winters there may only be twenty-five or thirty inhabitants. With fewer people there are fewer jobs. It is hard.
But he chooses to live there because village life is good. The views are incredible. The stone homes are sturdy and stable. The people are hearty. It was clear, he loves his home and he is seeking to serve his region with fresh bread.
We pushed our three kids outside, trying to keep them from breaking anything or putting everything in their mouths. The cookies that Marta slipped into their hands kept them satisfied until the next distraction, a herd of cats next door.
We meandered back through town, stopping to watch the river bubble and froth, chat with an elderly woman leaning out of her window, and listen to the workman cut and grind stone. There were also more cats. Village life is different. But it is good.
Back at home I sit in our apartment, surrounded by buses and buildings. There are the sounds of the neighbors upstairs and the car stereo blasting its music outside on the street. But when we toast the bread, and spread the butter and honey, I am miles away. There is a mountain village, wood smoke, and the smell of fresh bread. ¿Estás en Babia?
Yes. Yes I am.