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Upon the hot and dry plains of Les Garrigues, two irrigation canals cut through an agricultural expanse, diverging first from the ample Segre River, which runs through the center of the city of Lleida, before subdividing again, their meandering channels reaching farther and farther into an otherwise parched plateau. These life-giving tributaries are collectively known as the Canal d’Urgell. Les Garrigues, a region of the Catalan province of Lleida, is a fertile green splotch on an otherwise arid landscape 150 kilometers inland from Barcelona. The irrigation of this region, first conceptualized by the Moors in the 13th century but carried out on a grand scale in the late 1700s, has enabled the cultivation and nurturing of farmland, where a crop of prized arbequina olives and fragrant almond trees now stretches toward the horizon.

The “fourth ditch” – or fourth diversion on an increasingly smaller waterway – is part of the 144-kilometer Canal d’Urgell and passes lazily through concrete banks in the tiny Les Garrigues town of Juneda. Eventually, this quiet flow rejoins the Segre River farther south, which, in turn, merges with the long and winding Ebro, finding its terminus at the lush Ebro Delta and the shimmering Mediterranean Sea.

Late May in Juneda is hot, and for two delicious days, the entire town of 2,000 people gathers at the banks (La Banqueta de Juneda) of this irrigation canal, sheltered from the sun by a leafy canopy spanning the waterway, to compete in an utterly unique and tasty stew-making contest known as the Concurs de Cassoles de Tros.

On the final weekend of May 2015, 90-plus teams of friends and families registered for what has evolved into quite a celebrated gastronomic happening. This town-wide cooking competition just marked its 37th year and now offers an entire weekend’s worth of events. While the latest celebration included a procession of antique cars, a 10-kilometer run and live music (and for the children, blow-up castles by the community swimming pool), the main event commences Sunday morning at 9 a.m., as the teams of stew-happy revelers gather their fresh ingredients and clay cassoles and head down to La Banqueta to kindle their cooking fires and start their chopping.

A cassola is a round clay dish used to cook in the oven or over an open fire, though the word can also describe the final edible product prepared in these ancient vessels. (Similarly, paella denotes an actual preparation as well as the pan in which it is prepared.) The star cassola in Les Garrigues is the cassola de tros. “Tros” is a Catalan word rarely used outside of the province of Lleida. Literally translating to “a piece,” un tros refers to a parcel of land used to cultivate fruit trees (in the case of Les Garrigues, almonds and olives).

The story goes that in the times before farmers could easily leave their fields at midday and head home for lunch, they had to bring to the tros everything that they would eat for the day. They would bring meat (sausages and pork ribs) and use whatever they could find or gather from neighboring farmers to complete a savory meal. Thus, the cassola de tros, a filling stew with a vegetable base, was born. In the realm of this Juneda classic, there are two main varieties: winter, laden with potatoes and spinach, and summer, featuring tomato, pepper, eggplant and zucchini. However, the local contest veterans tell us that these days, people combine the styles, using all the ingredients available to create something special.

Historically, when farmers would arrive in the fields, they would kindle the cooking fire early, using the dead branches of olive and almond trees, still the most traditional fuel choice when preparing a cassola de tros. The cooking process is a long one, starting with the browning of the pork ribs and plain sausages, then the cooking of the onions and garlic, followed by that of hearty vegetables, snails and potatoes. Finally, flavorful blood sausage is added, which breaks down, thickening and flavoring the stew right before serving. Keep an eye out for that single, spicy guindilla pepper, which is tossed into the stew near the start of the cooking process for a subtle, almost indiscernible kick. Cassola de tros connoisseurs swear by the fact that the stew is best when cooked in the morning and then allowed to cool a bit, allowing the flavors to develop before being brought back up to a simmer at lunchtime.

Judges for this year’s cassola-making competition included local chefs, food bloggers, city hall officials and cooking teachers. After tasting the myriad cassoles prepared by bright-eyed families and motley crews of beer-soused buddies, this panel of aficionados named their top three favorites. The number one spot (and a year’s worth of bragging rights) went to a team simply dubbed “Enigma” – perhaps a nod to the intangible quality that these authentic dishes possess when cooked long and slow over open fires on a lazy Sunday morning with your entire village present.

After the judging, groups gingerly transport their cassoles (often full to the brim and scalding hot) to long, shady communal tables on the opposite side of the irrigation canal to be enjoyed long into the afternoon with brimming baskets of bread and abundant wine. For those not cooking (locals and visitors alike), three of Juneda’s “Cassola Masters” dedicate themselves to coaxing every bit of flavor out of the most traditional of ingredients while concocting the “tasting” cassoles, to be sold as unctuous €3 portions (crusty bread included) to more than 200 hungry customers at lunchtime. Possibly more of a winter dish than a summer one, this “tasting” was extremely filling, but only whet our appetite for more. The tender pork ribs and rich blood sausage imparted layers of flavors to the perfectly cooked potatoes and the earthy mélange of snails, eggplant, spinach and tomato. We were surprised to meet a handful of young vegetarian cassola cooks, who had created satisfying versions by replacing meat sources with artichoke hearts and plump white beans.

The public tasting area includes its own communal tables, where the wine flows freely and foreigners (as well as other Catalans) journey from far and wide to savor this hearty stew of humble origins. As previously noted, Juneda is hot, even in May, so we made sure to bring along some bottled water and sun protection. In the close quarters along the village’s canal, thick crowds and even thicker smoke are inevitable. Our clothes smelled of burning almond wood trimmings for days afterwards, which made us smile, recalling delicious memories.

Travel note: Juneda is easy to reach by train from Barcelona (around two hours when leaving from Sants Station in the direction of Lleida). From the train station of Juneda, walk along Carrer de la Font, turn right on Carrer de Àngel Guimerà, then take the next left onto Carrer Fondo, which runs parallel to the canal. Walk on Carrer Fondo until you find a path down to the canal’s banks. Follow your nose. You can’t miss it.

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Sam Zucker

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