If not for the shiny lobe of bull liver on the butcher’s stand in front of me, I could be in just about any indoor farmers market in the world. I’m surrounded by stall after stall of fresh fruits and vegetables – oranges, garlic, berries, lettuce – along with shops selling local cheeses, smoked meats and freshly baked breads. And then there’s this, the bull liver.
Nearby is a sign with a drawing of a beady-eyed cartoon bull. He’s dressed in white, wearing a red bandanna around his neck and pointing, almost accusingly, at passersby. “Carne de Toro de Lidia 2012,” it says. Meat of a 2012 fighting bull.
Welcome to Pamplona, Spain.
Before I visited the city in September, I was worried that I wouldn’t get quite enough of a bull fix, because the annual man-vs.-bull chaos known as the Running of the Bulls had taken place two months earlier, in July. How naive I was.
Pamplona, after all, is practically synonymous with bull. The town in Spain’s northern Navarra region became famous in 1926, when Ernest Hemingway outed its raucous bull-filled San Fermin festival in his novel “The Sun Also Rises.” Today, the bull theme is everywhere. There’s the Running of the Bulls Museum; the third-largest bullring in the world (behind Mexico and Madrid); pious statues dedicated to San Fermin and bulls; ubiquitous bull T-shirts (the best of which was “The Bull Father,” with a bull in a tux scowling at bull runners); preserved bull heads mounted on walls.
Pamplona wants to have its bull – and eat it, too.
Now, as it happens, bull meat is hardly uncommon around the world. I recently toured the Vienna Beef factory in Chicago and learned that Vienna Beef hot dogs are actually 75 percent bull meat. Bull is also in a lot of ground beef in the United States; it’s just not marketed as such. I’m not sure why. Bovine sexism?
In Pamplona, bull consumption makes perfect sense. Any culture that embraces actually running with bulls probably isn’t going to shy away from a nice bull fricassee. After all, that’s why bull running began in 1385. Back then, only the butchers – adorned in their all-white outfits, just as Running of the Bulls participants dress today – ran alongside the bulls to the bullring, staring down supper. Then and now, after a bull is fought and killed in the ring, the butchers set in, parceling and carting away the animal so that all Pamplona can, literally, have a piece of it.
I want a piece of it, too. But I don’t want to cook it myself. So I eat my way around Pamplona’s restaurants, looking expectantly at menus. The result? Nada. The reason? Seasonality. The restaurants I visit all have a farm-to-table way about them. This is Europe, after all, where eating fresh and local is a way of life rather than a trend. If the bulls aren’t fighting – and the only bullfighting in Pamplona takes place during the running of the bulls – then most restaurants aren’t serving. (Thankfully, there’s always the farmers market for bull steaks, bull chops and bull liver if you’ve got a hankering that won’t let up.)
What insiders say
Since I can’t find any bull to taste, I settle for speaking with bull meat insiders. For starters, I approach Julio Flames, chef and owner of La Nuez Restaurante. The native Venezuelan insists that the local traditional preparation of bull is best. “Chop the tail up in nice pieces, brown it off and cook it in a cast-iron pot with some onions, carrots, garlic, tomatoes, herbs, bay leaves, black pepper, one or two cloves. Most importantly, slow cooking!” he says.
The chef admits that it’s not just the flavor of bull that locals love. It’s the legend behind it. “I’m sure there are many stories,” he says, “but the most popular one, it has to do with his huevos (testicles). People say that is like a natural Viagra.”
A few blocks away is Michelin-starred Restaurante Rodero. As one of the best restaurants in Pamplona, it’s a popular place for bull during San Fermin. To prepare it, owner/chef Koldo Rodero says he puts the bull meat in the freezer – not to store it, but to tenderize it. With the low temperature, “the muscle turns into meat,” says Rodero.
Then, he, too, turns to talk of testes, telling me that times have changed when it comes to bull consumption. In the past, spectators used to eat the animal at its freshest – in the bullring. “In the horse patio of the Pamplona bullring, the butchers’ guild cooked, during the bullfights, the bulls’ testicles,” says Rodero. “This custom disappeared after the onset of mad cow disease.”
Bar Restaurante Baserri, near the path that bulls and runners follow during San Fermin, serves the meat during the annual festival with a molecular gastronomy flair: fried, with poached vegetables and wine foam. Owner Roberto Monreal says that the bull-eating tradition dates back to ancient times, before we had certain pharmaceuticals. “In ancient Greece, as well as in Egypt, bull meat was eaten because they believed it transmitted strength and the virility of the animal,” he says. “Thus, they ate it mostly for this second belief.”
Thinking about it, it makes sense that the bull would be served during the Running of the Bulls. When else do you have 2,000 to 4,000 people – mostly men – galloping through the streets in a death match against six giant beasts? That takes huevos, for sure. Maybe bull meat is just the go-go juice they need.
Me, I think I’m happier traveling to Pamplona in the off-season. Sure, it may mean that I’ll never try stewed bull tail, frozen-grilled bull chop or fried bull with wine foam.
But you know what? The Vienna Beef Factory and Cafe is just around the corner from my apartment. They make a mean bull sausage there. It just happens to go by the name Chicago-style hot dog.