July 2010

The schools in Catalunya broke up for the summer holidays five weeks ago and since then many of the kids have been occupied in Cases de Colonies (summer camps) of one form or another.  Our five year old son spent three weeks attending what could loosely be called a tennis camp…..swimming, tennis, gymkhana, water fight, tennis, clay workshop…..I am not a fan of the long Spanish school summer holidays (the primary reason given being the summer heat), but the one clear benefit is the opportunity for children to try a sport or some other such past time and should they get hooked pursue and hone those skills in future years.   It might be something of an oversimplification but there must be some correlation between the current crop of Spanish world champions – football, basketball – and individual winners – Contador, Nadal….Alonso aside and for another day.

And now the feel good tsunami that comes with the warmth of summer engulfed the weekly visita d’obres at La Rectoria today.  A cheery throng of owners, builder, aparellador and architect opened diaries and noted holiday dates and duly swapped vacation plans.  The  subcontractors sandblasting the wooden beams brought something of the seaside feel with the odd shower of black silicon dust finding its way toward us. 

Work continues on the roof and the second of three sections is now being reassembled.  The reinforcing cinturon, a belt of concrete and steel rods is firmly in-situ and the newly sandblasted beams and joists are being put back in place.  Some have been replaced as required from a stock Pere has, but all are of a considerable age in this section of the roof.  One had a distinctly different grain and hue, darker with black circular lines in places.  This I was told was fusta de riera, wood from a tree by the stream below the house.  Naively I then asked if timber for the original beams had been sourced locally.  If you could see the location of the house you’d realize what a dumb question that was, built as it was in an isolated valley long long ago.  

So these beams have been given a new lease of life and if they had a tale to tell I guess it would involve many man hours of sawing, chopping and cleaving.   Being hauled to the site by donkey, ox or horse and then cut to size and hoisted skyward and fixed in place until disturbed by Pere, Viçencs and Josep.

We were in turn joined by the Alcalde (Mayor) of Sant Feliu de Pallerols who seemed impressed by the work being undertaken.  He proceeded to recall childhood memories of time spent at the house with the then incumbent priest and housekeeper Paquita.

And so the visit drew to a close.  Holidays are at hand and we are about one month behind (our) schedule.  If this was an end of term school report I think the pupil would be getting ‘A’ grades, congratulatory back slaps and a chorus of well dones.  And so it should be for our team  and especially my wife Goretti who has kept one and all in check and monitored progress with I guess a sense of excitement and has learnt a good deal along the way.

This time next year and the finish line will be in sight…and the start of the next stage will be upon us.

The sun is high in the sky during these weeks and if you are fortunate enough a walk may occasionally be accompanied by a light warm breeze.  Not surprisingly, mornings are the freshest part of the day and if I feel up to it I go for a short run around Cardedeu. As rapidly as the sun ascends, temperatures rise accordingly and by midday are reaching the mid 30’s.  Barcelona is a very hot and sticky place to be at this time of day and remains thus until early morning the following day.  I’m stating the obvious because one quickly hears puffs and pants and complaints about the heat…..can’t say I’m a natural sun bunny, red hair, freckles and the facial complexion of a ripe tomato.  But hey, it seems only a month ago folk here were moaning on about how long, cold and wet our winter had been.  It only goes to remind me of bus rides through Leith with auld wifies ga’in on aboot ‘the heat’ after one week of a Scottish summer.  Us humans, we are hard to please and rarely are happy when it comes to all things climatological.  Long live the seasons.

And so to the house, taking advantage of the fine weather the first phase of making good the roof is well underway.  On our visit last week the oak beams (bigas) and purlins (cairats) over the dining room were largely in place and the rajols (first layer of terracotta tiles) were being fitted.  Above this will be laid the insulation and ultimately the roof tiles.  All this is hot and thirsty work conducted in the full glare of the hot summer sun.  The Paletas are not complaining, sporting what many would consider an enviable suntan.

Monday this week, Goretti and I conducted a foot slogging exercise around Barcelona to see firsthand examples of what the floor in our part of the house will look like when finished….wall to wall concrete.  Being a relatively inquisitive soul I largely enjoyed our tour of two private loft apartments, an office/warehouse and shop.  The resultant outcome – a nod in the direction of a light grey concrete will most likely be the preferred finish to our floor.  Our walls are a dark natural stone which will be touched little by direct sunlight, so it will be necessary not to further darken an already dusk like space.  On the contrary, light must be channeled in wherever possible.

We have also been making progress with regards to the kitchen, final finishes to the guest bathrooms and wardrobes.  August is almost upon us and the summer recess.  We are also starting to give more thought to the final product and how to get you ‘the guest’ to come and stay with us.

Meanwhile, Spain are World Cup Champions and deservedly so and the Spanish Constitutional Court put paid to any sense of genuine national euphoria with a well aimed kick in the Catalan ribs and an anti-Catalan ruling.  A long and on-going story is set to enter another chapter.  Enjoy the summer.

Not so many years ago when I was a boy growing up in Scotland I remember you could distinguish the passing of the seasons by the nuances as they were dictated by Mother Nature.  My memory tells me we had more snow then and perhaps colder winters.  ‘Jack frost’ used to etch pictures on our livingroom window, which were punctuated first thing in the morning by a child’s fascinated touch.  Although still winter, snowdrops erupted through the soil as a harbinger of spring some months hence.   A box of tangerines delivered by my Grandfather told me you were in the depths of a Scottish winter and a boiled and mashed turnip provided a sweet counterpoint to haggis or roast beef. The defining announcement of spring was the vast carpet of daffodils that blankets much of the Banks of the Dee from the Bridge of Dee to Torry in Aberdeen.

Summer for me was visits to the farm of my Mother’s family and bowls of voluptuous, fragrant and soft strawberries which in good years ripened by the sun needed little sugar but mashed with a fork and accompanied by ‘real’ double cream were a gift of summer.  The raspberries and gooseberries of the season, the former served fresh the latter as a ‘fool’ were the equal of the strawberry.  And so to autumn, the first frosts of which could be felt early in September.  The fruit here was the bramble, for pies or crumbles along with the bramley apple.  Autumn for a young boy was the crisp rustle of golden leaves strewn on the pavements and paths and blown into banks and drifts to be kicked and scrambled through.  Seasons were dictated by Nature.  They provided the timeframe for much of our traditions.  They dictated the time of harvest and planting, the run of fish to our rivers and the birth of new life be it a lamb or a shoot of barley.

So why this burst of nostalgia? And what of it for La Rectoria?    I turned my hand to cooking and became a chef thirteen years ago.  I knew what a relatively small place Earth was before I picked up a knife and the daily deliveries to the kitchen door only reinforced that.  French beans, sugar snap peas and mange tout from Kenya and Tanzania, pepper, courgette and aubergine from Murcia Spain, immaculately graded new potatoes from France along with salad leaves.   So what?  But grapes from India, year round strawberries from wherever, tomatoes of dubious quality from The Netherlands, flabby farmed salmon and even Peruvian asparagus.   Our ability to obtain vegetables and fruit and other foods of almost any type whenever we demand it has both an environmental cost and is detrimental to their quality, as much of the produce is picked or harvested early so as to maximize it’s ‘shelf life’.

As a consequence of this and numerous other factors food is beginning to lose its meaning to many in the western tradition.  In the increasingly frenetic lives we follow food preparation and its consumption for the family unit is becoming as dislocated as many families themselves.  Personally we do the majority of our fruit and vegetable shopping in the Catalan markets.  The majority of the produce is indigenous and some markets stock produce sold by local farmers, Vic in particular has offered some lovely surprises.  However, much of the produce would appear to come from the agro-machine of Spain, its production often forced and therefore ill served.  The strawberries look great but to mix metaphors are ‘mutton dressed as lamb’, appearing in markets from early February.  The cherries are generally fantastic and we have macerated about 3 kgs in a spiced vodka syrup for use in puddings of various forms and fresh our son gobbles them up with great relish.  I do have trouble with the peaches and apricots in particular.  Apricots are fruit of the gods, golden and velveteen, succulent and soft, I have always dreamt of them as a fruit that provides a marker to what is good about a Mediterranean summer.  The reality is somewhat different when faced with reddish, milky yellow hard fruit which I can only guess has been picked way too early.  Not all is lost.  We have found ‘albercocs de pages’, grown locally and sold looking like an apricot.  Last night served up as ‘Apricot Dartois’ – blanched apricots placed on a bed of frangipan and puff pastry, topped with puff pastry and baked for half an hour.  Tonight with some left over frangipan I have made a version of ‘Pear Bourdaloue’, substituting the pears with apricots .

So where is all this going and what of La Rectoria?  I cook because I enjoy it.  Cooking can be therapeutic connecting  you in so many ways culturally and with agriculture and nature.  It is one of the major elements of the glue that keeps families together.  It can be a tool for social well being connecting families and communities.

We have not designed a menu for La Rectoria.  In all honesty it will be a mix of us the proprietors, Scottish and Catalan.  It will be British and Mediterranean – Spanish, French, Italian and North African.  I think we will attempt to keep the ingredients as local as is possible and seasonal.  We will not be happy just to feed you, but we want to provide you with fare that connects you with where you are.  Your meals will be served at one table, thus if you are a party of two or there are16 people in the house you will be sat with other guests, so that over simple food you can share experiences, parlar and come away contented.   Food and who we are  and how it defines us is a topic I wish to develop and will return to in future.