June 2010

Before this week’s blurb, two brief apologises.  First, for not posting a blog last weekend; over hectic schedule with the family which was great.  Second, keep the blog focused.  Well, the occasional emotionally skewed rant a la football etc. should be excused.

Summer is here and it’s official.  In Catalunya it is trumpeted in by La Revetlla and Sant Joan on the 24 June.   La Revetlla takes place on the night of the 23rd.  Coca de Llardons is eaten, a flat catalan bread topped with lardons and pinenuts accompanied by a glass of cava.  Fireworks and bangers are set off and the evening has a real party atmosphere, more akin to New Year’s Eve.   All this used to be accompanied by bonfire – bonfires made of old furniture.  Sant Joan was what we British euphemistically call a spring clean.  A thorough top to bottom cleaning and clear out of the home.  It was time for renewal.  Old chairs, tables were tossed on the fire to be replaced by the new.   Now this symbolism has been lost, largely due to the wider risk of forest fires and the alternative provisions made for the disposal of household items.  Never mind, the sentiment is still there.

Sant Joan and the Catalan public holiday was on Thursday; the Spanish don’t move their public holidays to the nearest weekend, as a consequence people often take the Friday off work as well, which makes for a long weekend.  Me, I had no choice, no classes on the Friday.

So with car packed we left Cardedeu on Thursday afternoon and pitched our tent next to La Rectoria.  A makeshift kitchen was put together under the arches of the house and with a near to full moon that bathed the Vall d’Hostels in a silvery light we settled down for the night.  I was first awoken by the dawn chorus, a cacophony of bird song.  Then it was a couple of early bird ladies out for a morning walk.   And it was only just after 07.00 when I got up.  Cup of Earl Grey and armed with strimmer I set to work on the ‘feixa’, the raised ground to the west of the house.   My senses quickly focused on the smell rising from the carpet of cut vegetation, chamomile.  It was a lovely awakening to a beautifully sun soaked morning. 

The carril bici was soon conveying a steady stream of cyclists and walkers passed La Rectoria and if I had a euro for every one that passed during the day I guess I would have earned 100.  And so the feixa has been cleared of chamomile and more noxious weeds.    We will have to gen up on our botany.  The small patio adjacent to the church is sporting a colourful array of plants and flowering shrubs and trees and the family returned with wild flowers and grasses gathered on a summer walk to the Ermita de Santa Cecilia.  The start of another colourful season in La Garrotxa.

Before I begin my objective and balanced argument on international football and the place of Scottish team within that, first progress regarding La Rectoria.  Intermittent rain has prevented much progress on putting on the new roof of the dining area.  Meanwhile, work on replacing the stairway between our accommodation and the main floor is well underway and the concrete steps are all but in place.  The entire floor of the basement is to be finished in concrete and along with the stone walls and arches this space will provide a striking counterpoint to the traditional finishes of the floors and walls of the guest accommodation. Personally, I have long had an eye for ‘industrial minimalism’ in a domestic context – the use of concrete, stone, bear timber and stone.  We managed to get some of these elements into the extension we built at Ferry Road, Edinburgh and I loved it in friends ‘live-work’ warehouse space in Hackney, London. 

The basement of the La Rectoria has always been largely non-residential housing cattle, chickens, rabbits, probably a horse or two and perhaps even a donkey.  In the peripheral rooms of  the basement the detail of the stone arches will be retained, displaying one of the finest features of the house.  In what will be our living and dining areas the wooden beams will be hidden by a false ceiling, necessitated to hide steel and concrete reinforcing beams. Thus, the basement floor will appear as a steely grey sea of concrete, set below white arches (or false ceiling) and largely bear stone walls.  Cool, fresh and stripped bear.

And so to football.  As I write this, Engerland are being held to a 1-1 draw with the United States in the first round of matches in the World Cup final,  Green (the England keeper) having committed a goalkeeping howler of the magnitude of which many a Scottish goalkeeper has been crucified in the English press over the years.  I do enjoy watching a good game on the telly, and now find myself living in a part of the world where the local big club, Barcelona F.C.  are something of a living legend and where at times the game is played as an art form, a statement that cannot be contested.

But what of the Scottish game?  Well, what of it?  The best is behind it, some great victories won and countless opportunities of greatness squandered – Germany 1974, Argentina 1978 and Spain 1982.   I’ll spare you the detail.  I will lay part of the blame of Scotland’s international demise firstly on the ‘Old Firm’ and its persistent purchasing of  largely second rate European players (Henrik Larsson being probably the singular exception).  This action itself inhibited the development of good domestic talent.  If supporters of these clubs try to counter that argument well where are the Macari’s, Dalglish’s, Jordan’s of today?  I did state to a somewhat naïve and over exuberant chef colleague some years ago that I will never see another Scottish team competing in the world cup again in my life time and I see no reason to change that point of view now.

But, hang on I hear you say.  In 1974 Scotland narrowly failed to reach the quarter finals when only a total of 16 teams competed in the finals.  Now 32 teams are playing in the finals.  Surely  Scotland’s chances of qualifying have been enhanced?  No, no and no, my son.   The world has changed somewhat in the last 36 years.   Take a look at a globe and a whole raft on countries have been invented in the Post Soviet world…..half a dozen or so ending in ‘stan’ (nothing to do with Laurel and Hardy)  for starters, Yugoslavia has spawned five or six – two of which are in the current tournament (Slovenia and Serbia) and Czechoslovakia is yes The Czech Republic and Slovakia.  Even less politically correctly, since when was Israel part of Europe?  Answers on a postcard please.  So part two of my argument is that  Europe (and Asia) has probably ‘doubled’ in size in the last four decades with bunch of countries that would make likely candidates for a remake of the ‘Prisoner of Zenda’.

Secondly, among this years world cup finalists are America.  I would hazard a bet that they had not even heard of ‘saccer’ (as they pronounce it), back in ’74.  The next guilty parties are New Zealand and Australia…..corrblimey shiela I was always led to believe that they considered football a game played by fairies, preferring more manly past-times such as rugby, ozzy rules and sheep farming.

That only leaves the far east to be picked on  – Japan, North and South Korea all appear in this years finals, the last two would provide a match worth watching I bet…but playing football, give me break.  So there you have it, a well balanced argument for an Anti-Jock conspiracy.

Scotland can lay claim to being World Champions in Elephant Pol0 in 2004 and 2005.  So maybe we should just play to our strengths and submit an application for drinking to be considered as an international sport.   At least I will always carry the memory of Archie Gemmill’s celestial goal against Holland in the 1978 World Cup.  But in first place will be Aberdeen F.C.’s 2-1 victory over Real Madrid in the final of the 1983 Cup Winners Cup –  a little known Alex Ferguson, Willie Miller et al.  Suck on that on Sr. José Mourinho!

Who better to draw on today for a suitable metaphor than Noel Coward and his ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’.  For so it was today.  Better prepared for hot beating sun –  30°c in the shade – armed with strimmer, visor, wide brimmed peasant style fedora, factor 50 cream, bottles of iced water I set to like a mad thing cutting down knee high weeds, wild flowers and silvery velveteen cabbage type plants.  It was tough work and it would have been good to have done more but the sheer density of the grown and the occasional rasping grate of blade on stones prohibited more speed.   Able assistance was given by Goretti and her sister Judith raking up and removing the thick mat of material.  By about 2 O´clock and under  an unremitting sun it was time to ‘draw stumps’ and head for some shelter and shade for a well deserved lunch.

The roof has been removed this week, from what will be the dining room.   The tops of the exposed walls have been filled with a layer of  concrete.  This exercise will in due course be repeated right around the top perimeter of the external walls further strengthening them and thus the entire structure.  Many of the beams in this part of the house will have to be replaced as the exposed ends were rotten in the most part.  These will be replaced with new ones of Catalan ‘Roure’ (oak) instead of ‘Pi’ (pine) – less robust and tends to lose its shape etc.

For us the point of focus for the week has been what we call the service area – a small room in the basement which will be the ‘nerve centre’ for the majority of the services of the house – heating, electricity, water etc.  In short,  we are almost but not quite trying to get 2 or 3 quarts in the proverbial pint pot.  Yes, it all fits but my passion, namely ‘swing cats’ will not be performed here.  As this space provides direct access to the garden, it was hoped that it might afford the luxury of offering some room for garden related paraphernalia.  Now the answer is no, only welly boots and jackets.   The issue of the garden shed is beginning to crystallize.  By that I mean it is becoming more immediate.  The crystallization of the idea has never been that much of a problem for me and so far we have only been offered somewhat overdesigned solutions.    We need space for a lawn mower of some description, wheelbarrow, garden tools and other bits and bobs you wouldn’t expect to litter your house.  To one side of this is needed a simple lean-to for guests to secure their bikes.   Adjacent to this we envisage a small ‘hort’ (fruit and vegetable patch).  Here I would like to try and grow some of the stuff that is either difficult, expensive or downright impossible to get here – raspberries difficult (only seen occasionally at local markets and stupidly expensive; rhubarb impossible to get here although I have seen tinned stuff in Perpignan.  Blackcurrants are also on my radar.  We have been nurturing a horseradish plant in our garden here in  Cardedeu.  By rights, is should have landed up on some German’s plate as we bought it three years ago at a market in Aschaffenburg.  We flew it down here in ‘vegetable class’ – like most Ryan Air passengers and having encouraged it to produce roots by immersing it in water, duly planted it.  Now we have four or five horseradish roots which in time will find their way from our garden to your plate!