Every week, my Spanish school in San Pedro La Laguna ran a number of activities to share the local culture and to give the students more chances to practise what they’ve learnt. This typically included a movie every Tuesday, a game of basketball every second Thursday and dinner on Friday evening to celebrate the week and to farewell students who are moving on.
Over my three weeks, we made potato tamales, tostadas and maize tamalitas (small tamales). On my first Friday, the students cut everything up and clean the leaves for wrapping under the watchful eyes of the teachers. I thought I knew how to cook tamales after cooking rice tamales with my hosts, but I was reprimanded for not properly cleaning the dirt out of the stem of the leaf. These look like banana leaves, but actually grow straight out of the ground like fern fronds.
The school is set in the grounds of the owners’ house, so we actually cook and eat as the family does. The ‘house’ runs down one side of the property, and while each bedroom has a door, the main areas only have three walls. We prepared the food in one of these, but the potatoes were taken to a tiny kitchen to be boiled while we clean the leaves. They were brought back for us to peel by hand as our teachers demonstrate, sliding the skin off. When we try, it’s more of a hot potato juggling act. By the time that was done, the potatoes were cool enough to mash by hand, in the way I remember making meatballs as a kid.
We then added the flavourings – chicken, chillies, raisins, olives and capsicum – wrap and place in a large pot. The teachers add water and place it over a fire. We then sit around and chat over a few beers, or Quetzalteca in my case, while the tamales steam away. The result didn’t look as nice as it did before being cooked, but it tasted better, especially with some chilli salsa poured over it.
After dinner, any departing students are then given a certificate recognising their level according to the Common European Framework for Languages, which goes from A1 to C2. I was awarded B2 on my departure, which is generous since I still have so much trouble with conjugations, but I know the forms. Now it’s up to me to put them into practice until I remember them easily. Two weeks in Cuba should be perfect for that.
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