It was the summer of 2008 and I was on a bus to Burgos, Spain. I’d taken many trips around Spain during my semester in Madrid, but this particular trip was special: I was going to visit my friend Natalia’s hometown. She’d wanted me to visit for months, and we’d finally found a weekend that worked for both of us. Natalia was one of my closest Spanish friends during my time abroad and she was thrilled to show me around, introduce me to her family and friends and teach me all about Burgos’ centuries of history.
The minute we got to Natalia’s family home, her mom insisted on feeding us. Sure, Burgos had a lot of historical sites and beautiful vistas. But first… Won’t you just have a slice of cake?
That cake was sweet, with a nutty finish. It was the kind of cake that inspires people to have a sweet tooth. Easy to eat, and easy to eat a lot in one sitting. Natalia called it “tarta queso,” or cheesecake, but it wasn’t quite like the cheesecake we have in the U.S. It had a golden, brûléed top and a custardy middle. Natalia’s mom explained that it was made with Queso de Burgos, a local fresh cheese. I made a mental note of that, and took another slice.
What a wonderful weekend in Burgos. We toured a local monastery, spent time with Natalia’s childhood friends, explored the ruins of Burgos’ 9th Century castle, ambled along the river. I happened to be there during the town’s annual festival, so we also got to see traditions that stretch back centuries. Natalia’s family treated me with the sweetest, greatest kind of hospitality you could imagine. When it came time to return to Madrid, I was sad to go. Natalia’s mom sent me off with the last slice of that scrumptious cake.
A couple months earlier, I’d had the chance to visit some dear friends in France. These were friends I’d made while studying in France and they told me I had to come visit since I was so much closer than usual. Of course I agreed, and I bought tickets to visit during the area’s annual Volleyball Tournament. The Tournament takes over a campground near Amboise, and participants set up tents all over the site. They play volleyball during the day and essentially host giant parties at night. In other words, it’s a fabulous time. I stayed in a tent with my friends, cheered them on as they played volleyball, participated in singalongs, and brushed off my French after months of thinking in Spanish. I also got to see my host family from my study abroad program. They swung by to grab me from the volleyball tournament and took me around town for nostalgia’s sake, then brought me to their house for a delicious meal. I can’t remember much about what we ate – but I do remember the cake my former host mom served at the end. It was moist, flavorful, punctuated by bits of fruit. It was the perfect dose of sweetness, balanced by a rich base. I’m sure I asked for another slice.
I’ve long thought about both those cakes. Back in 2008 I wasn’t as much of a baker, and I didn’t think to ask for the recipes. But those cakes have stayed in my thoughts over the years. You know when foods just stick out in your memory, and you really want another bite? Part of it is how delicious those foods were, but I know part of it is nostalgia, too. Those days in Burgos with Natalia were some of my best from the entire 6 months I spent in Spain – her enthusiasm in showing me around, her family’s hospitality, the fun of exploring her hometown. And seeing my friends and host family again in France just made me so incredibly happy – that same sense of hospitality, the genuine interest in making sure I enjoyed myself, the joy of being with people who are just so good, so deep down.
I recently asked Natalia for the cake recipe and finally tried my hand at it earlier this week. My version was certainly delicious, but I think Natalia’s mom’s cake was better. I couldn’t find Queso de Burgos here so I substituted in cream cheese, which lent the right texture, but not quite the same flavor. Perhaps I’ll need to try it again with a variety of queso fresco that has a closer taste profile to Queso de Burgos. Here’s a recipe I found on the web that looks really similar to the one Natalia sent me, if you’re interested.
As for the cake I had in France- I’ve yet to ask for that recipe, though I still could. But I did see this recipe for a Beaumes-de-Venise cake on a friend’s cooking blog a couple years ago, and decided it seemed similar to that cake I’d had back in France. So I made it last year, for my birthday potluck. Rejoice! I don’t know if it was exactly the same, but it definitely hit the right texture and the right balance of heartiness paired with sweet, plump fruit.
Even if I manage to perfect these recipes, eating them in SF will never be the same as eating them with the people who made them for me the first time. Hopefully someday I can return their hospitality, and I’ll start the visit by cutting them a nice, big slice of cake. Perhaps that’d be the perfect time to share the yellow cake my mom makes us for every birthday? Or maybe a thick slice of gooey butter cake?
Just for fun: here are some photos of my trips to Burgos and the Amboise Volleyball Tournament.