September 2010

It’s a cool Sunday morning, slightly overcast and damp.  We had a great british start to the day, light rain and drizzle but it was perfect for the run we’ve just completed.  The 26th Marxa de Blanc i Blava, organized by the Cardedeu penya (supporters club) of Espanyol, or Paraquitos as they are affectionately called.  Thus, I’m feeling a little sore and tired.

It was billed as a run, you had the choice of doing 8 or 16kms.  We opted for the former.  I had imagined a pleasant jaunt along country lanes and around Cardedeu.  The reality was more akin to one of those army cross country affairs you’ve probably seen on TV….along muddy woodland pathes and very nobbly  farm tracks, the main hazards being the occasional steep track or doddering participants completing the course on foot.  I guess in hind sight it was more akin to a ‘Dads Army’ training course.  About 1km from the end two chalked signals on the road indicated ‘llarg’ or ‘curt’, by that point the choice was obvious –short- and I was at the finish a few minutes later.  The tangible rewards were a very fine botifarra (sausage) baguette, water, soft drink or wine and Espanyol hand towel and assorted other goodies.  Very civilized. 

Yesterday included yet another audience at a bathroom showroom.  Having pretty well tied down which loo seats we would like, our attention turned to bathroom sinks.  A relatively simple task one would think, after all what is the function of a sink –  to wash face and hands, clean teeth, shave.  A sink might have other uses when on holiday – to cool beers etc, wash smalls and other items of clothing.  Any other suggestions are most welcome.  Given we have seven guest bedrooms and public loo, plus the facilities in our quarters, that kind of ups the anti a little.  Only two of the bathrooms have exactly the same dimensions.  Some accompany rooms that we wish to make that little bit more special and a couple have the added complication that their shape makes the choice of finishes somewhat complicated.  Again we were pouring over catalogues, me following Catalan by gist etc.  Italian, Spanish, German and whatever makes they were.  Round, rectangular, deep, shallow, coloured or white.  Things that looked like they had come from the set of ‘Star Trek’ and other downright  way out architectural styles and creations.  After some angst we have come up with a short list of contenders, generally two choices for each room based on style and price to chew over and then that leaves the taps to select.  Showers, their doors and shower heads and the general finishes are the next wee hurdle but those are for another week.  One step at a time.

An hour or so later, arriving at La Rectoria we were met by a welcoming party of sorts, our neighbour, Jordi , Pere, Carme, Lluisa and her dog from down the road.  They constitute what I guess I can call the committee of the Aplec de Sant Miquel which is scheduled to take place next Sunday 3rd of October.  Two hundred neighbours and people from Sant Feliu de Pallerols will converge on La Rectoria for this annual gathering, blessing,  arros and dance to mark El Dia de Sant Miquel.  The committee’s concern was that wet weather would put paid to the outdoor celebrations.   Anyhow, I left them to gather the final picking of this year’s bramble harvest.  They fell off on touching and some were the size of grapes.

Inside the house continued good progress is being made with the roof.  The race is on to finish this part as soon as possible, making the house water tight prior to any substantial autumn rains.  Fifty per cent of the rajolas (internal tiles) have been fixed in place on the final section of the roof to be restored and I guess this will completed in the next week.   Meanwhile three of the iron frames that are to be fitted in each and every window have arrived.  Dark grey and imposing looking, oozing strength and rigidity these will give a bold finish to the windows of the house.  The one sitting proudly in the dining room looked more like some kind of sculpture.

Our visit finished with a hasty gathering of what has been a bountiful harvest of Quince from our two trees.  I would  guess about 10kg.  Too much solely for the obvious transformation to Quince Cheese (Codonyat), so other recipes will be uncovered in due course.

As I write this, yesterday’s haul of brambles has been turned into four jars of sticky sweet bramble jam.

700g brambles

700g warmed sugar

Juice of one lemon

Two tablespoons of water

Place the brambles, lemon juice and water in a pan and warm gently for about 10 minutes, shaking occasionally until the berries are soft.  Meanwhile, warm the sugar in the oven then add to the softened berries.  Continue to cook slowly until the sugar is dissolved, then turn up the heat and boil rapidly for about 8 minutes or until the temperature reaches 104°c .   Remove the pan from the heat and test for the ‘setting point’.  Place a spoonful of the jam on a chilled saucer and leave for a minute.  Then run a flattened finger through the jam; if the jam crinkles  and wrinkles and remains parted the setting point has been achieved.  If not put back on the heat for a further five minutes and then repeat the test again.  When ready pour carefully into warm sterilized jars, cover with waxed paper and seal the lids tightly.  Enjoy!

As sure as next week brings the autumn equinox there has been a marked change in the weather.  A week ago we enjoyed a beautiful Sunday morning on the beach.  A gentle swell of the surf barely creating waves as it met the beach, water warmed by the summer’s sun and comfortable temperatures for sitting out lobster like, reading, smoking or whatever your beach pleasure vice entails.  Today and 10°c cooler, with grey cloud laiden skies that followed a most tempestuous storm last night.  The streets of Cardedeu filled with the downpour and were soon like rushing rivellettes.  Autumn is here. 

Removal of the roof is all but complete and the squad who sandblast and treat the wooden beams and joists are back on site, leaving their trademark layer of black silicon – something akin to walking on the volcanic beaches of the Canary Islands or the moon I guess.  Whilst all that has been going on on the top floor, the door to bedroom two on the main floor has been created – knocking through the wall from the main hallway and defined from above by a steel reinforcing beam.  Below this in the basement, work has started on pointing the bear stone walls which will remain thus  – bear stone – throughout our ‘home’.  When finished our home will have concrete floors , stone walls with the exception of the new dividing walls and white vaulted ceilings. 

Since the excavation of the basement and the demolition of some walls commenced in February the resultant material has been deposited in piles in the garden adjacent to the house.  Separated into three lots, large stones, mixed ‘ruins’ of soil, broken tiles, stone and other inert material and finally soil.  All of this was accounted for in the tender process and it has been dealt with in an orderly manner so far.  The Aplec de Sant Miquel is three weeks away and for the last few years 200 neighbours and residents of Sant Feliu de Pallerols have come to enjoy a simple church service followed by an arros and sardanas , the catalan folk dance.  All this has until now happened largely in our garden and a spectacle it is too.  But before it can take place this year the above stated mountains of debris have to be disposed of. 

We have been in discussion with the local council since June regarding this matter.  The council are also planning to improve visitor access to the church of Sant Miquel de Pineda, adjacent to the house, upgrading the road and providing parking space about 100m from the house.  Great, anything that brings attention and people to the house is most welcome by us.  Thus, we have been talking to the council about disposing of the ‘ruins’ in the proposed car park area, thereby providing the foundations.  We would get rid of the soil and stone and the council would have made a start to their car park.    We should get that done in the next couple of weeks in time for the Aplec. 

Culinary news this week.  Figs have been to the forefront again.  Two more ‘pickings’ have been undertaken.   The first were;  given to our neighbours, eaten as a luscious salad and the remainder transformed into fig and red pepper chutney.

 Fig and red pepper chutney 

Figs 1kg

One large red pepper

One large white onion

Sugar 200g

White wine vinegar 200ml

Pimenton picante 1 teaspoon

Whole coriander seeds c.15 

Finely chop the figs, julienne the onion and pepper and place in a pan with the other ingredients, bring to the boil and cook until all of the free liquid has evaporated.  Place in sterilized jars and leave for at least 2 months prior to using. 

We have tried a little of the aforesaid chutney and it would appear to go well with cold meat and cheese.  I guess it might be a winner with pâte as well.  ‘Will keep you posted. 

Some of the second ‘picking’ of the figs are now sitting gently in my tum as I write this, having just consumed Sunday lunch.  They were served up as ‘roast figs with cinnamon and red wine syrup sabayon’.

Roast figs with cinnamon and red wine syrup sabayon’  – for 3 

12 ripe figs

5 egg yolks

100g caster sugar

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

25 ml red wine syrup 

Cut the figs in half, lay on a baking tray and roast in the oven for 10 minutes at 180°c, until bubbling and throbbingly hot. 

Meanwhile place the egg yolks, sugar, cinnamon and syrup in a bowl set over a pan of gently boiling water and whisk to form a sabayon.  The whisked yolks will balloon up  and will be ready when the whipped mass forms a ribbon like trail when the whisk is removed. 

When the figs are roasted, I gratinate them either with a gas torch or under the grill.  Place eight halves on a plate, spoon over two to three very generous tablespoons of sabayon and gratinate and serve.  So sweet and velvety. 

Finally, last night we had dinner with friends, us bringing the pud.  This took the form of ‘hot chocolate soufflé with macerated cherries’. 

Hot chocolate soufflé with macerated cherries – for 4 

300g Pastry Cream

30g soft butter

150g caster sugar

65g unsweetened cocoa powder

8 egg whites

Icing sugar to dust soufflés

Beforehand make the pastry cream – this can be made a day in advance.

100ml half fat milk

150ml double cream

15g plain flour

10g corn flour

40g caster sugar

3 egg yolks 

To make the pastry cream, place the cream and milk in a pan with a dessert spoon of sugar and heat until it starts to bubble.  Meanwhile, place the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl and whisk and then gradually mix in the flour and cornflour.  Pour one third of the hot milk/cream mix into the whipped egg yolks, mix and then add back to the pan on the heat.  Continue to whip for a few minutes until it starts to thicken.  Pour out into a flattish container and cover the surface with cling film to prevent a skin forming.  Leave to cool until needed.  

For the soufflé, brush the insides of the ramekins with softened butter and taking about 40g of sugar add this to one of the ramekins and move it so all of the sides are coated with sugar.  Place any remaining sugar in the next ramekin and repeat this process until all four are coated with sugar.  Place 4 or 5 macerated cherries in the bottom of each ramekin. 

To make the soufflé firstly warm the pastry cream, this can be done by placing it in the microwave for about 10 seconds.  DO NOT over heat or it will split!  When warm place in a large bowl and mix in the cocoa powder.  In another large bowl whisk the egg whites until they start to stiffen and  to this add the remaining 110g of sugar and beat until you get semi stiff peaks.  Take a large spoonful of the egg whites and mix this into the chocolate pastry cream, then carefully fold in the remaining egg whites.  Divide the mixture between the ramekins leveling the tops with a knife and cleaning the edges of the ramekins.  Place on a hot baking tray and place in an oven at 190°c until risen – about 8 minutes.  

Remove carefully and quickly, dust with icing sugar and serve immediately before they collapse.  Speed is of the essence.  Although on this occasion I didn’t serve these with ice cream, that would be an ideal combination – vanilla, raspberry, cherry etc. 

I think after all of that another run is in order tomorrow morning!  Oh, and the lemonchello we made the other week is a winner.

On the building site and in the classroom it was back to work this week.  Hods and grammar books in hand, the summer was over and work commenced.  The workforce on site has been doubled – from two to four – and the difference is self evident in what has been achieved this week alone.  Already much of the final part of the roof to be renewed has been stripped off, with ‘scaffolding’ in place and work on the reinforcing belt started.

Today is La Diada, L’Onze de setembre, in recent times 9/11 in the rest of the world, thereby submerging this Catalan National day with something of a contemporary calendarial tsunami.  This morning started bright and sunny, but admittedly sleepily on my part and I needed an extra nudge and poke from Silvestre and the words ‘Papa’ to summon me from my bed.

A holiday day, you bet ya.  When we joined the C17 just south of La Garriga the traffic was nose to tail until we got to the plain of Osona.  The small restaurant on the carril bici just passed St. Esteve en Bas was doing a roaring trade with cars and cycles packing the car park.  We arrived at La Rectoria and immediately walked a few hundred metres up the cycle path.  Our mission today, to inspect the work and pick some brambles (where I left you last week).  What struck’, however, was the volume of cycle traffic.  Blokes in groups, families, lean, fat and thin, lycra clad cyclists of all ages packed the cycle path and whirred and fizzed passed with the customary  ‘adeu’ or ‘bon dia’ until the sacred lunch hour and then with the odd exception silence descended.  An hour and a half or so later with a purple, thorn impregnated left hand and two containers ladden with brambles we headed back for lunch.

Thankfully we are on the last (biggest third) portion of the roof.  This north facing side of the house has the chimney and overlooks the garden.   As with the roof restoration that has gone before, scaffolding has been, I hesitate to say, erected.  More accurately a combination of metal girders and beams have been thrust through the outer wall on to which other beams are placed as a walk way, with a hand rail fitted and held in place with what I would describe as clamps.  One variation of this is the use of jacks which are used to support the walkway at an angle from underneath.  These in turn are held perilously in place by being wedged into the main wall of the house forming a triangle of wall, walkway and jack.  It all seems to work and I’ll leave that there. The chimney it would seem is in good order and apparently only needs a good clean and pointing and otherwise will not be interfered with.

This last week I have been teaching away from home and entertained a fellow teacher and our two students to the autumnal comfort of ‘bramble and apple crumble’.

6/7 sour apples (pomes àcides)

300g brambles

½ teaspoon cinnamon

180g flour

120g butter

60g sugar 

Peel, core and dice the apples.  Place in a pan with the cinnamon over a moderately high heat and cover.  Stirring occasionally, the apples should start to soften and disintegrate.  If the apples are very dry add about 100g of brambles at this stage – enough to release sufficient liquid to help the cooking of the apples.  When the apples are almost ‘stewed’ add the remaining brambles and take the pan off the heat and put the mix in an ovenproof dish, filling it to a depth of about 4cms. 

In another bowl, sift in the flour and add the diced cool butter.  Rub with your fingers until the mix is homogenous.  Then add the sugar and mix to a ‘breadcrumb’ consistency.  Place this mix loosely on top of the stewed fruit to a depth of up to 1cm.  Dotting the top of the crumble mix with a few small cubes of diced butter adds to the rich ‘crumbly’ nature of this pud.

Cook in the oven at about 160°c until the top is golden brown and……crumbly.  Serve with cream, custard, ice cream or whatever pops your cork!  Yummy, it’s autumn.

Thoughts on the house have taken something of a U Bend turn this week as our attention has moved to the bathrooms.  Which leads me neatly to writing a wee post script to last week’s piece.  A French motorway service station information board drew my attention to the fact that much of the route we had driven from the Côte d´Azur to the Spanish frontier and beyond followed the route of the Via Domitia, built in 118 B.C. by those organized Romans, linking Italy with Hispania.  However good the food, wine and weather in France, one basic necessity of a civilized society is a descent ‘Kazi’ or ‘John’, and given our straw poll of motorway service stations was evidently lacking……As a Glaswegian friend once informed me, ‘Glasgow will be great once it is finished’.  Likewise, France and it’s motorway loos.

Two years ago when we were preparing for the tendering process we got out our metaphorical spades and got down to work getting together some prices for this and that, including bathroom fittings.  In short we initially went for the ‘cottagey’ old look – wooden toilet seats and victoriana type fittings.  It was all very nice and suited the look of the old place.  It did the job; we got some prices and it gave us a yard stick to measure tenders against.  Recently, those brochures and prices have been unearthed and having awoken from something of a Laura Ashley twee-middle English kind of stupor we’ve come to our senses.

New brochures have been acquired as we have turned to satisfying you the customer.  Waking up in the morning from a good night’s rest we hope to make your short trip to and stay in the bathroom a pleasant if not comfortable one.  As the dividing walls have not yet been constructed, this week we took some chalk and a measure tape and marked out the dimensions of these sacred spaces on the concrete floor of La Rectoria. 

Architect and lifestyle magazines have been poured over and this culminated in a visit to our architects office in Girona this morning.  Over fine coffee and coca (a Catalan pastry) the design and layout of the bathrooms was largely finalized with we hope the odd element of care, comfort and curiosity built in.    Given that the average person will spend 576 days of their life in a bathroom, this period of voluntary incarceration should be quality time.

Moving on swiftly, a quick reckie from the house up the carri bici on Thursday revealed a plentiful abundance of mores  – brambles.  We Brit’s have even made a verb out of this fruit, ‘to bramble’ and thus in less than an hour of frantic ‘brambling’ we collected about 2.5kgs of juicy black berries which have been dually frozen.  Jam and jelly making might be in the offing.