“Are you going to the fair?”
It was the question everyone asked as September turned to October. “Hay de todo!” grinned our friend Pláci, listing some of the things he planned to stock up on. A five-pack of hunting socks for 3 euros seemed to be his top priority. “And jamón?” I asked. “Claro,” he said, “but we already have plenty of jamón”.
Zafra’s feria is Spain's largest livestock fair, and rolled up with the traditional Fiesta de San Miguel, or Michaelmas, it overruns this handsome historic town in the first week of October. It has been held here since 1453, giving it the compelling slogan: “now in its 566th year”. More than a million people visit during the week-long event, and it’s so popular in our village, an hour or so to the south, that the local supermarket lays on a minibus service for the duration. For the return trip you have three options: 1am, 5am or 7.30am. We obviously had to go, but not knowing exactly how sustained our appetite for livestock was going to be, we took the car.
Inching into Zafra at midday, it looked like a mistake. “Take the train!” urged the carriageway billboards alternating with beer adverts. Armed and friendly traffic police were giving priority to the broad rivers of people flowing from the railway station to the fairground, the Recinto Ferial. I spotted a hand-painted sign next to a restaurant with a conveniently situated backyard: “Parking dia y noche: 20 euros.” Given the queues for the official car park and the long walk back, and the savings I was bound to make on hunting socks, that would do nicely.
In 1845, Richard Ford, the first great English writer on Spain, identified the appeal of the country fair, noting that families then were largely self sufficient, relying for food and clothes on “the productions of their own fields and flocks…a neighbouring “feria”, or fair, is the mart where they obtain the annual supply of whatever luxury they can indulge in.”
For all its traditional roots, the feria’s purpose-built complex has a modern air, with vast, arched pavilions and a futuristic meeting-point antenna. Something, I imagine, like the famous Hannover Messe trade fair, back in the 1980s. By the main entrance, Spain’s brewing giants were vying for attention. In expensively-designed pop-up bars, the beer was already flowing and t-shirted reps were handing out promotional straw hats. Mahou's neat red trilby seemed to be beating Cruzcampo's more traditional sombrero. We decided to start with the livestock and save the commercial opportunities, and the beer, for later.
The original purpose of the feria in the 15th century was for farmers to get together to improve Extremadura's breeding stock. And the region's famous breeds are still central, featuring in a daily programme of auctions and competitions. Huge straw-bedded enclosures house pen after pen of rosetted Retinto cattle, Merino sheep, Ibérico pigs and finely groomed horses with High Chaparral-style brands on their rumps. Just as fascinating were the horsey people striding about in readiness for dressage events in the arena. The riders were invariably straight backed, with white jodphurs and slick black hair; the handlers sported flat caps, athletic hollow cheeks and elaborate side burns.
The pig farmers were here too, but this year they weren't happy. The culprit was the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, who had visited the fair a day earlier. Somehow, in his remarks, he had managed to confuse Extremadura's celebrated jamón ibérico, lovingly produced from the pata negra pigs who roam its oak forests foraging acorns, and the run-of-the-mill, factory produced jamón serrano, a pale substitute. It was akin to addressing a Star Trek convention and bigging up Luke Skywalker. In solidarity, we lunched on ibérico jamón sandwiches, generously carved straight from the leg onto crusty bread.
It was time for shopping, and hard to know where to start. The fairground covers 25 hectares (60 acres), with whole neighbourhoods dedicated to the sale of every conceivable item associated with Spanish country life: horse tackle, hunting gear (including great value socks), hats and caps, leather boots and shoes, tools and agricultural implements, tractors, feed dispensers, bread ovens, paella dishes in sizes from dinner-for-two through to street party, and unbelievably, a not dissimilar range of swimming pools, yours to tow away.
Warehouse foodhalls offered aisles of prize-winning cheeses and hams; honey, olive oil and wine. And from nearby Portugal sticky pastries made from almonds, eggs and sugar; and blocks of stiff, white bacalao, or salt cod. We noticed that many fairgoers were holding small cardboard boxes with carrying handles and holes in the sides. They contained tiny live chickens, favoured by children, or slightly larger partridges, favoured by older men. Alarmingly, some stalls were doing a brisk trade in ping-pong ball-sized chicks dyed in day-glo colours.
Those we declined. After thousands of steps and much deliberation, this is what we bought: a pair of shoes, a pair of boots, a folding pocket knife, two pairs of leather work gloves and a gooey best-in-show goat's cheese. Total outlay: maybe 120 euros.
As evening fell and the illuminations came on, the crowds moved to another great swathe of the fairground, ambling along streets of brick-built casetas, or bars, which we were told open only during the feria. Most were operated by local associations and agricultural unions. We opted for dinner courtesy of the Zafra cycle-tourism club, where the sharing plates were far better than you'd expect from fairground fare: fried cuttlefish, garlic prawns, salty ibérico pork, dressed tomato salad. A fellow I recognised from our village, dining with his wife and daughter, nodded his approval.
A new constituency was arriving in numbers: teenagers. Each had a supermarket carrier bag containing their kit for the night ahead: a bottle of spirits, a couple of litres of mixer, a bag of ice and a plastic beaker. The Spanish call this practice botellones, or big bottles, and many adults disapprove. But at least while we were there we didn't see anything resembling bad behaviour.
Their destination was a broad avenue near the casetas, where pre-fab discotheques, fully equipped with gantries and lightshows, had been erected. As we walked along it, different musical styles—flamenco, reggaeton, Spanish punk—wailed and thumped from their open fronts.
We decided against an all-nighter. As we made our way back to the car park I spotted an unexplored commercial zone. "I bet there's a gem to be had somewhere in there", I said to my wife, who by now was keen to call it a night. She was persuaded, and at last I found it. A four-pronged rake, or horca, made from a single piece of natural, trained wood. Carrying it home confirmed its desirable status. Several revellers stopped me to ask: "where did you get that horca?"
Next year, it's got to be the minibus.
Feria Internacional Ganadera 2020 will take place from 1-6 October, www.figzafra.es
If you plan to stay the night, Zafra's beautiful parador hotel is set a renovated 15th century castle. Parador de Zafra, Plaza Corazón de María, 7 06300 Zafra Badajoz, parador.es, tel +34 924554540
Photos by Will England and Peter Barron
Update, July 2020: because of the coronavirus crisis, the 2020 Feria has been cancelled.