April 2010


Patron Saints.  So What!  In Scotland Saint Andrew’s Day passes most people by and at best it is celebrated as a ‘dinner, dance’ or has been hijacked by Scots politicians to enable them to go on junkets to the US in an attempt to sell tartan and scotch.   Hardly the stuff of mass participation and inclusion. 

Every year England on the other hand celebrates Saint George’s Day like a visit to your New York shrink.  “Why is it not a national holiday? “Why aren’t there more flags flying?”  “Are we ashamed to be English?” “What does it mean to be English in Europe?”and more…..I can only guess at the collective angst and psychosis.  Our Irish cousins meanwhile have transformed the holiday of their patron, Saint Patrick, into one of their finest exports and in doing so succeed in getting a significant percentage of the world’s population bladdered every March 17th.

Little did I know when I started going out with my now Catalan wife ten years ago that Catalunya and England share the same Saint; along with Greece, Georgia and Russia among others.   Since when did the Vatican start to franchise Saints?   But here the Catalan’s have been very shrewd.  A small state flanked by bigger neighbours.  Having lost its independence in a very violent civil war and having had its language and thus much of its identity stifled for the subsequent  40 years, has since democracy found a clever and pleasureable way in which to rejoice Sant Jordi and bolster both its culture and identity. 

Sant Jordi is celebrated as the day of the Rose and the Book.  Generally, but not exclusively, a man gives his partner a rose and a woman gives the man a book.  An equal exchange?  That is open to debate, although one that is of little or no relevance here.  The success of the collective celebration of the day, however, cannot be argued. 

As I got off the train from Cardedeu at Passeig de Gracia yesterday morning and stepped out onto the same said street I could hardly move.  Up and down the street as far as you could see the pavement was lined with stands selling books or roses.  Tables decked in the red and yellow stripped flag of Catalunya.  The enthusiasm of the people was palpable.  Books being bought for young and old.  Roses too.  It was a picture to see octogenarian gentlemen buying red roses for their loved ones.  Gypsies trying to flog roses, blaring out “Una rosa por tres euros!”

I suggest the great success is the simple fact that the Catalans have married the celebration of Sant Jordi with the joy of the written word and most importantly Catalan.  What better way to foster your aural tradition and language.  Days before the 23rd April publishers are marketing their wears on radio and TV and on the day you can seek out your Catalan writer of choice to buy your own personally signed copy. 

As for me.  Well, I have yet to get passed the stage of reading TEO…a collection of stories for early readers.    In these days of cynicism it gives one heart to witness the energy of a nation spent in a simple act of national pride which is both benign but yet binds its people together with a type of epoxy super glue.

La Rectoria.  Much as ever, more foundations, with the added excitment today of having witnessed the first internal down pipes installed for the euphemistically named ‘grey waters’.  Also, piping from our bathroom for the shower, loo and sink.  And the arches on the north facing side of the house are being opened up.  

Finally.  Today the Carril Bici (cycle path that runs in front of La Rectoria) was very busy, conveying a steady stream of cyclists up and down the route.  Bellies full in many cases with breakfasts of butifarras, pastries and coffee.

Two weeks have been a long time and I have missed putting these ramblings down on paper.  My inability to do so can be explained by way of a fun packed previous weekend with Old Friends from England, Will, Sara and family. Like millions of others like them they have experienced firsthand the unsurpassable power of good old Mother Nature.

Arriving from Diss on the Thursday before last, they were staying in an apartment near Banyoles, just north west of Girona.  Nicely appointed gaff…..large living/dining area with balcony overlooking L’Emporda and small but adequate postage stamp sized kitchen, plus two ample bedrooms and a very well  finished shower room/loo.

One glaring design fault was the glass entrance door to the apartment building, largely invisible at a casual glance open or closed and an accident waiting to happen.  Point noted for our project!  The other ‘design fault’ was the proprietor.  Cold towards kids and quickly cottoning on to the fact we were friends of paying guests, made the comment that he hadn’t taken too kindly to previous customers having friends around the place – people skills not great!  Little did he know we had sleeping bags etc. for our sleep over to catch the Barça-Madrid match that night.   A warmer welcome was to be had from the neighbouring Donkey and Cockrell providing us with a somewhat discordant dawn chorus at ‘donkey O’clock’.

So with our ‘tourist hats’ on we started out late on Saturday morning to sell La Garrotxa to Will and Sara.  And the gods were with us.  In bright sunshine and a cloudless sky, the best day of the spring so far, we drove to Santa Pau via Mieres.   Santa Pau does not have to be sold to anyone.  A gem in its own right.  Set on a rocky outcrop, flirting its not inconsiderable medieval charm from a distance.  Perfectly small, you can stroll around it in half an hour…..longer would be better.  Narrow stone covered streets and archways surrounding the as yet to be restored central ‘palace’.   The perimeter walls offer picture postcard views over verdant green fields to the surrounding volcanic oak covered hills.  Here you are in the heart of the ‘Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa’ (phew, time for an acronym!).

Suitably impressed and with time pressing we drove the remaining 10 minutes to El Hostal dels Ossos, an old favourite of ours.  Great for local food and superb for those of you with young families with its large play area for kids to let off steam.  This place is Catalan through and through.  The signature statement being made by the not inconsiderably sized dolls house structure made entirely of snail shells sitting conspicuously in the middle of the restaurant.

Sitting outside we guided our friends through the comprehensive Catalan menu.  Kids can have the seemingly banal but excellent ‘macarrons’ with meat and tomato sauce.  For starters we ordered for our guests, ‘Pa amb tomaquet’ –  toasted bread on to which you rub garlic, drizzle oil and then rub on a halved tomato, ‘Escalivada with anchovies’ and ‘Mongetas de Santa Pau with cansalada’ (white beans with pork belly) completed the starters.  For the main course we chose between, rabbit with aioli, mushroom omelette, beef and mushroom casserole and cabbage stuffed with potato.   Mel and mató  – honey and cottage cheese – was the modest but tasty pudding.

Suitably fuelled up we set off up the nearby extinct volcano of Santa Margarida.  A most enjoyable way to burn off the calories of a volcanic menu, such is the cuisine of the region labeled.  With its wee chapel nestling in the crater, this makes for a superb family walk.

And so back to Banyoles for the night……Barça 2, Real Madrid 0.    Long satisfied pause………

La RECTORIA?  Yes, yes, yes.  Keep your hair on!   We went there on Sunday morning and I think having seen it at first hand, Will and Sara appreciated the enormity of the task in hand.  Yet more underpinning of foundations and concrete being poured. 

The position of the house in relation to the cycle path 10 metres from the front door and running some 135km from the town of Ripoll in the foothills of the Pyrenees to Sant Feliu de Guixols on the Mediterranean coast cannot be understated.  Cyclists come and enjoy the ‘Ruta del Ferro’.  We will be open next summer.

We then went on to our neighbouring town Sant Feliu de Pallerols and Can la Matilda for an immensely impressive mixed paella for six..or more!  And then said what were intended to be our goodbyes to the H-S family.

With something of a massive twist of irony, volcanoes were to play an even larger part in the events of the week.  A somewhat considerably larger and more active one let forth its awesome power in Iceland. 

So what, we’re in Spain!

Thursday morning and a neighbour in Cardedeu informs me that Aberdeen and several other Scottish airports have been closed due to some volcano. Eeuhh!? 

Next thing I get a text from Will. 

“Back in Banyoles, flight to Stansted cancelled due to Volcano” etc. 

And so it is three days later they are still Stranded in Catalan Paradise.

We met up again this afternoon on the coast at Calella de Palafrugell.  Bright blue skies, a relatively quiet little beach set against an exquisite seafront of houses perched on rock and stone.  The H-S kids bravely went for a dip, Sly fell in.  All had great fun.

Will and Sara hope to make good their escape on Wednesday.  Mankind has again been humbled by the power of good old Mother Nature.  Don’t you love her?

As a footnote I dedicate the 1977 Punk classic ‘Stranded’ by The Saints to our dear friends and castaways.   The connection between that song and others, and one which is kind of fundamental to our being here will become apparent later in the year.

 ‘La Mona’

Today being Easter Monday we give our godson a ‘Mona’.  Traditionally this was a brioche tortell (crown), garnished with boiled eggs.  The Catalan custom like most has changed and adapted with the times and now elaborate chocolate constructions can be bought from pastisserias for elaborate prices.  Themed creations of Sponge Bob Square Pants, Superman, Hello Kitty or the stellar Barça football team are displayed filling kids with hysterical excitement.

Since we arrived here a few years ago we have taken the DIY approach.  Making a genoise sponge, filling and topping it with chocolate ganache and finally decorating it with all things chocolate.  This year there are a couple of rabbits on top, one with a passing resemblance of Ronaldinho.  Added to this it is finished with a ribbon of ‘blau grana’, the blue and maroon of Barça.  I ja està….a Barça cake.  That would be it for most Catalan families, but I still need my pudding.  So today, courtesy of the Cromleybank Delia S. I’ve made pear sponge pudding with toffee sauce.  The main course is ‘braised pork cheeks with star anise and ginger’ accompanied by garlic mash and Chinese cabbage.

And La Rectoria?  Well, I managed my first official site visit last Thursday.  Tere the architect was there waiting for us and I received a warm welcome from both her and Pere.  Vicens, al paleta and Pere sported very healthy tanned complexions.  Well, what else do you expect, working outside all day.  We were joined by Albert the apalledor (surveyor) and the themes of the day were covered.  The Foundations. The Well.  The wood beamed floor in the upper hall and whether to keep it.  The answer a resounding yes. 

Goretti and I have been instructed to look at the diagrams relating to the lighting and plug points etc. throughout the house as decisions will soon have to be made as to what holes are made where and for what.  Again, the dust has not fallen around our feet.  We have a good pile of ‘Casa y Campo’ magazines which we have collected with the purpose of gleaning ideas and inspiration for the finishes of the house.  Up lights, down lights, spotlights, lights embedded in the floor, Chinese lampshades, heat lamps and more.  Where are the beds going?  What about sofas, chairs, the dining table and more.  How many plugs points in the kitchen?  TV plug points.  More and more. 

Oh, kind of late this year but one of our neighbours here in Cardedeu presented us with some 12kg or thereabouts of Seville oranges.  This means but one thing….Marmalade time!  Friday last we made the first 3kg batch, the remainder being put in the freezer until time permits to make more.

Goretti has just presented me with a ‘drop scone’, fresh from the griddle pan with a smear of butter.  I can see you all drooling now.  The pork cheeks are ready and it will soon be time for lunch.

Finally, what happens to a ‘hort’ (vegetable patch) when it is not worked anymore?  On Carrer Cervantes behind us and 100 metres down the street is a large hort, about 1 acre in size.  It provides the main backcloth to the weekly market along which are arranged a half dozen or so fruit and vegetable stands each Monday.  Since we came here it has been worked by an elderly man, tending his curly endive, bledes (swiss chard) and cabbages in winter, beans and spinach in spring before planting potatoes and tomatoes for the summer.  Finally as the year comes to a close pumpkins covered part of the hort, providing Silvestre with his Halloween lantern.  I passed the hort last night as I came home.  Weeds littered the tilled soil, the cauliflowers were bolting, spinach leaves yellowing and cabbages limp.  I hope he returns to tend the hort soon.