August 2010

Given that all of our team – architects, aparelledor, paleta – are or have been on holiday and with an invitation to spend time with old and dear friends on the  Côte d’Azur it was bit of a no brainer not to pass it off.   So two days after my sister left we packed up the old Astra and headed off on the 601km+/- from Cardedeu to Cagnes sur Mer, tucked between Cannes and Nice.  I’d never been further north than Perpignan so this was something of a minor ‘road trip’, French stylee.

A considerable portion of the drive (taking the quickest route) was by ‘Péage’ ( toll road) which for the most part does not follow the coast.  The towns of Bezier and Narbonne drum up images of rugby and evenings spent drinking Fitou in Granville Road, Finchelli, as it was affectionally known whilst living and working in London 20 years ago.  On to Montpellier and the western fringe of La Camargue,  white horses, black bulls and fields of (probably mosquito infested) rice  –  Sainsbury’s sell it! Lovely red grains with an almost nutty flavour.   Aix en Provence and on to Cagnes sur Mer.

Now the purpose of this piece is not to give you a blow by blow account of our stay with our hosts, but given the love of food which we share with many of our friends our taste buds were stimulated by a number of simple artisan products and a small productive garden which provided us with a few ingredients. 

Tarragon, that aniseed scented herb provided the trigger to make a sauce béarnaise to accompany barbecued steak.  Greengages (Claudias) made for a quick and simple greengage crumble enfused with homemade Mirabelle eau d’vie.  Homemade lemonchello was produced, smoking ice cold and tangy from the freezer.  Camambert and brie that would run off a stick and lipsmackingly smelly goats cheese paired with bread, yes but bread of regal quality and wine with the balls required to cut through the richness of the cheese.   Homemade apricot jam and toast for breakfast for a tasty start to your day or brioche, croissant, or almond encrusted pastries.

The car was dually packed and we returned with a few figs from the garden for our homebound picnic, six freshly picked lemons and a bag of almonds still coated in their velvet green pods.  Armed with these goodies, on our return home we have been stirred into action in the last few days.

First – the Lemonchello.  Casting our eyes over a few recipes it’s production is now ongoing. 

0.5 litres vodka

6 fresh, unwaxed lemons

350g sugar

350ml water

 • wash your lemons and carefully peel the rind from them, whilst removing as little pith as possible.

• place the rinds in a washed and sterilized parfait jar; cover with vodka and leave for a couple of weeks in a cool dark place, stirring occasionally…..that is where we are at now.

• put the sugar and water in a pan.  Dissolve the sugar and then boil for five minutes.  Mix with the vodka and lemon rinds and leave for a few more weeks before straining and storing in bottles.

• Leave the bottle in your freezer to enjoy at your leisure.

 Secondly – Homemade Lemonade.  Now, having something of the Aberdonian in me I wasn’t about to throw six handpicked, peeled lemons in the bin.  So for a summer drink for all of the family here is my Mum’s recipe for Lemonade. 

2 lemons

1 pint boiling water

4oz sugar 

• wash your lemons, cut them in half and squeeze out the juice and reserve.

• put the squeezed lemons in a jug and pour over the boiling water, add the sugar, stir and leave to cool.

• add the reserved lemon juice to the water and lemons, stir, strain and pour into a bottle and chill in the fridge.

 The above is the original recipe, but if you prefer your lemonade to be less sweet reduce the quantity of sugar and if you like it sharper still use more lemon juice.  On this occasion we used the six peeled lemons and added 1 ½ pints of water and 4oz of sugar for a very lemony concoction which went down a treat with some gin and ice…..if we had had a dash of tonic it would have been even more majestic. 

Thirdly – The Almonds.  These have been dually shelled from their green outer casing, the nut retained in its hard shell.   These are now lying on a tray, being sun dried for storage and future use. 

Fourthly –  Figs.  Well, these are currently ripening on a tree in the abandoned garden that abuts our house in Cardedeu.  These are maturing splendidly this year and some we consumed the other day as part of a ham, rocket and oven dried tomato salad.  Some have been eaten as they are and none too bad they are.  The remainder have been transformed into jam. 

1.2kg fresh figs

1.0 pectin sugar

Juice of 1 lemon 

• cut your figs in half, chop or blitz your figs –  what you choose to do will either give you a chunky through to a smooth fig jam.

•place in a pan with the lemon juice and warm through.

• add the pectin sugar and heat gently until the sugar is dissolved.

• bring to the boil and cook rapidly for ‘5’ minutes. 

• take the pan off the heat, put into sterilized jars, cover with jam paper, seal with a lid and turnover the jars for 3 minutes.

• spread on hot buttered toast and enjoy the sweet succulence of fig jam.

 Foodies, there you have it for now.  But we intend to serve you the above and much more when our time comes to open our doors to you at La Rectoria.

 In the meantime, what of La Rectoria? Well, the builders are due back this week and we made ourselves busy tidying the garden last thursday.  Another scorcher of a day it was to, during which we had a visit from the Alcalde (Mayor) of Sant Feliu de Pallerols and a number of other luminaries from the  ajuntament (council).  In short, the reason for their visit was to decide if we could put the rubble and soil from the excavated foundations in the field adjacent to the house.  This would save us carting the stuff to the dump and it would also assist the council who want to improve public access to the church.  The result, a tenuous thumbs up but we won’t be able to crack open the champagne on that one until the ‘i`s are dotted and the ‘t`s are crossed.

Of late we have turned our backs on La Rectoria and have for some of that time been home.  By home I mean the land of my birth, my spiritual home, Scotland. ……’you can take the man out of Scotland but you can’t take Scotland out of the man’ kind of thing.  Nationalism, that feeling of home, identity, is a funny quirk of humanity.

Holidays, time off are for recharging batteries, stepping back, chilling out.   Thus far we have accomplished all three.  What with work – teaching English – and the reconstruction of La Rectoria, our regular routine is pretty full on and incessant – house, work and vice-versa. On and on.  If it was solely building a house that would be simple enough, but as is self evident the end result of all of this is the establishment of a business, a casa rural.

Thus, during our time in Scotland, having left our son with my sister in Aberdeen, Goretti and I drove to Crieff.  Destination Yann’s, the creation of Yannick Grospellier my old head chef and friend and his wife Shari.  This guest house, come restaurant has become something of a destination since opening two and a half years ago.  Having eventually taken the plunge to open his own business Yannick has created something of a Mecca to the rustic fare of La Savoie –  La pierrade,  La raclette –  and other bistro classics that utilize the best of Scottish ingredients, beef, lamb, scallops, langoustines and more.  Apart from visiting old friends the raison d’être of our visit was yes to possibly crib ideas, but also to identify potential problems, clarify ideas and explain our plans in the hope of eliciting constructive criticism.  Bedroom design, restaurant layout and kitchen equipment were poured over and the daily work was observed.  For me it was good to blow off the dust of what is involved in the working day of a chef.  It did not seem like four years since I last dawned chefs whites although I realized that I’ll have to get back into shape vis a vis cooking, but more than that remembering to work cleverly as well as with skill.  I helped with little bits of mise en place but did little during service itself except keeping out of the way.  I think some sort of stage somewhere might be in order before we open next year.  Over the piece our two days with Yannick and Shari were very useful and a big thank you must be extended to them and we look forward to receiving them and the girls here in Catalunya before  too long.

The wealth of Scottish culinary ingredients was exemplified during our time in Scotland.  A visit to the Loch Fyne Oyster bar and shop provided us and Uncle Eric with a superb picnic – smoked salmon and mackerel, duck pate, succulently perfumed strawberries, oatcakes all washed down with a bottle of ‘Fyne Ale’ a hoppy locally brewed beer.  And whilst parked in Eric’s motor home on the banks of the loch a bounteous supply of wild raspberries provided the basis of the dessert that night ‘cranachan’ – that Scottish dessert of whipped cream, toasted oat flakes, whisky, honey and raspberries.  A ‘Pick Your Own’ farm offered up a rapidly picked selection of blackcurrants, brambles, tayberries and rasps which in turn were used to make that most underrated of British puddings ‘summer pudding’.   Mussels for moules à la marinière,  sautéed scallops, haddock and chips.  Try good british food before you knock it!

Meanwhile back at La Rectoria it was a joy for us to show my sister what we have been up to over the last few years.  Besides the house and its surroundings it was good to demonstrate again the wide variety things to see and do in central and northern catalunya – Montserrat, old Girona, Santa Pau and much more. 

So enjoy your summer holidays wherever you are and when the time comes we will be more than ready to welcome you.

So here we go again.  This isn’t a reference to the blog but to our second camping expedition to La Rectoria in the space of one month.   Camping doesn’t cause me any problems, relative peace and quiet, no TV, your day dictated by the number of daylight hours etc.  No, it’s trying to remember everything – clothes no problem; food for two days (with no fridge) O.K.; things to amuse kids – painting stuff, kids garden tools, football and more.  Garden tools and other ‘bits and bobs’….where does the list end?   Last time we did this I forgot the harness and visor for the stimmer with the result that I had to make an additional two hour, 150km trip to Cardedeu and  back.  It would be great to leave camping and gardening paraphernalia there but as yet there is nowhere to secure them.

Thus on Friday last we arrived with Silvestre’s youngest cousin to find Viçenc and Josep still on site…at 17.00.  I make this point as my recollection of Britain is building sites abandoned by 15.00 on Friday with all and sundry decamped to the pub.  With tent erected and makeshift kitchen and shower in place we set to getting ready for the job in hand for the next couple of days….’painting’ 500 terracotta ceiling tiles (rajoles) and tidying the garden a bit more.  Pere claimed one of his guys could perform the former task in about two hours.  More on that piece of hyperbole shortly.  We had taken our own homemade take-away with us for supper  – homemade pizza – and with that devoured we settled down for the night. 

Breakfast the next morning and the ‘best laid plans….’ – gadamit “no butter!”  So it was olive oil and marmalade on toast – kind of different.   Having moved approximately 200 tiles the previous evening to where they were to be painted, Goretti and I went to consider the job in hand.  Not so much painting as dipping.  Dipping rectangular ceiling tiles into a mix of chalk paste and water in such a way as to leave a terracotta diamond set against the white chalk background….each corner should be dipped for about 8 seconds… 32 seconds plus time for cleaning the tile prior to dipping and then leaving them to dry.  Lucky to do one tile a minute.  500 in two hours….hats eaten and more!

I retreated to the garden to make slightly heavy weather of strimming the weeds in the main camp ground, but by lunchtime the weeds were felled, gathered up and piled to one side.  Meanwhile back at the tiles and four hours later 200 or so had been dipped and with some aplomb….The game strategy was hatched and after lunch a further 150 were dispatched, with me lending a hand and the two boys acting as labourers, collecting tiles for us to dip.  A Dickensian picture of a family at work. Tiring repetitive work, but highly satisfying, knowing that we were making a tangible contribution to a finish in the house, one that had been there prior to the restoration work.  Knackered we freshened up using the invaluable solar shower and sank to bed.

Too much coffee or perhaps it was the intermittent sound of gunfire (hunters pursuing porc senglar) but me and Goretti were wide awake at 02.00. Aching body, warm tent, coffee induced insomnia, sleep was not so sound or serene as the previous night.  Feeling closer to 60 than 50 I struggled upright on Sunday morning.  Sitting for breakfast I wondered if I would ever be able to leave the chair.  Returning to the previous days sweat saturated clothes I completed a further hour of garden action with the stimmer and finished by venting any spasms of pain or discomfort by felling bamboo plants tall and short. 

And so the final push with the tiles.  Running short of chalk paste we scrapped to 501 and then proceeded to do a ‘Sunset Boulevard’ thing dipping our hands in the paste and leaving our prints on a tile apiece.  Along with a few festive themed sponge painted ones we want these placed on the ceiling as our personal testament and commitment to this house which is increasingly becoming part of us and our family.