October 2010

Today will pass most people by and why not.  25th October, so what?  I wouldn’t have remembered the date exactly unless I’d looked it up.  I only remembered it was the month of October. 

It was one of those ‘where were you when JKF was shot?’ moments.  Me, I was working in a kitchen in Edinburgh.  25th October 2004, probably listening to BBC Radio 2.  If I remember correctly it was during a typically uneventful lunchtime service and the news came on.  ‘Radio 1 DJ John Peel has died’.   So what?…..again I can hear you say.   Well, the reaction to his passing so suddenly said it all.  Here was a man who had marked a generation artistically and culturally.  To me he was someone who opened the door to a wide and almost limitless diversity of music, and who played a significant part in widening my horizons generally.

Going back to about 1974/75, the music scene was getting pretty bland to say the least.  On the one hand you had had a number of years of teen bands and the hubris of Abba mania and on the other super groups and stadium rock with 10 minute guitar solos and moog synth’ sounds dominated the airwaves.  Then it all changed.  Punk came along and Peel played it.  My first recollection was ‘Neat, Neat, Neat’ by the ‘Damned’ and it still sounds fresh 35 odd years later.   

For a number of years after I was an avid Peel listener, 10.00pm to Midnight, Monday to Thursday and it wasn’t just punk, Ivor Cutler, John Cooper Clarke, Culture some Two Tone tunes too.   But bands like The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Ramones were main stays for a while.  His all time favourite tune‘Teenage Kicks’ will always be associated with Peel because like the Undertones who wrote it, he was largely responsible for so many bands and performers getting the oxygen of publicity that led to their success.

When I became lapsed listener, Peel moved on continuing to unearth and promote new talent, styles and musical forms.  I did pick him up again years later on his Radio 4 show ‘Home Truths’.

So, standing in that kitchen and hearing the news on the radio, it hit me.  I either carry on here for a few more years or I take the plunge and do what the intention of my becoming a chef was in the first place…to be my own boss.  Life was way too short and here was a man who had simply departed before his time. Thus followed chats with Goretti and the decision of as to whether we should have a guest house in Scotland or Catalunya. 

So six years on and that is where we are today.  John Peel thank you.   My being here in Catalunya is partly down to you and the windows and doors you opened for me.

You can almost now hear the clock ticking.  A while back this project seemed somewhat abstract; all mud and rubble, drawings and hard hats, planning applications and minutes of site meetings.  Now with the roof well on the way to being completed, with tiles being fitted and some of the gutters in place, time lines for the completion of the project are becoming clearer.  But remember, if the reconstruction of the house was not a large enough proposition, thoughts of the business that underpins this entire project are becoming increasingly important.

Our target date for opening is now coalescing around the 1st August 2011.  With the roof water tight our immediate thoughts are now on the weekly topic of the bathrooms.  Like any good thriller, that subject is approaching its climax if not its finale and like constipation, it’s not something to dwell on.  I can now sense the approach of a plethora of other issues hot on the heals of all things ceramic, as the partitions are put in place dividing rooms, piping and wiring are fed through the building and holes dug for grey waters and tanks etc.

In the meantime, we are increasingly turning to issues relating to the business – website, record keeping and the management of bookings, housekeeping, gardening, marketing and the more mundane daily chores.  Ultimately, on a personal level there is the family to move there, the school and more.  Lists may be a forte of mine, helping me to prioritise my days and weeks.  But we are now beginning to see the need for some kind of project management thingy……timeframe and deadlines, cut off points and room for the occasional if and but.  You might now have gleaned that I have never benefitted from any type of formal project management training, but there again I guess neither has most of mankind.  So let’s put that dampened middle finger in the air and trust on good old intuition to cobble together some kind of plan.

On site, the first of the two iron curtains that will mark all of the windows and arches have successfully been installed and are already starting to weather and wear, bearing copper and russet blotches and scars.  As mentioned tiles are lying in serried ranks on the roof and gutters fitted.

Back to the business itself, this afternoon we attended a seminar organised by the Department d’Innovació, Universitats I Empresa  of which Turisme is a part, the main protagonist and speaker being Conseller, l’ Honorable Senor Josep Huguet, the head of the aforesaid Catalan Ministry. By way of gist I managed to follow the drift of his talk.  The need for quality public and private tourist attractions and infrastructure in Catalunya…the emergence of Chinese tourists looking for city focused, heritage based attractions.  The broad canvas of what Catalunya has to offer – romanic heritage, beach holidays, gastronomic fare of the highest order, eco-tourism,  the need for improved quality and new means of communicating with an ever changing audience by way of the internet and twitter, facebook and if needs be smoke signals.  Having had the privilege of seeing first hand Mrs. Thatcher leave the House of Commons on the day she resigned as Prime Minister, having shook the hand of Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jnr. whilst campaigning in Boston and having drank a pint along with the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament, Alex Salmond it was nice to add to my list of ‘flirtations’ with luminaries of political, nae historic importance, that of a Catalan politician.  ‘Squeezing the flesh’ of the great and the good, we mere mortals simply follow our uncertain but somehow pre-destined paths while others try to determine theirs and ours too. ‘And why take ye thought of raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.  And yet …..even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Listen up politicians.

‘Ever wanted to travel to the future?  Well, just behind El Cort Ingles at Maria Cristina in Barcelona you will be confronted by an opaque glass structure.  Walk through the door on a journey akin to ‘Alice through the looking glass’, you enter a dimly lit space filled with screens bearing constantly changing images and tables with touch screen images.  This is the future of the bathroom and toilet as told by Roca, bathroom furniture designers and manufactures to the world.

Ambient music mixed with the sounds of water – running, dripping, cracking.  Images of domestic normality, the young, the old, adolescents, couples, the young and vain, the young and scruffy; stretching to shake off sleep, preparing for bed.  These and other continually changing scenes are played out on a 10 meter wall.  Adjacent walls show images of water – drops and bubbles, flowing or shattering.  A bank of apple computers projects distorted images of the approaching viewer.

Upstairs you are confronted by the more pedestrian display of Roca products; potties, bidès, sinks, shower trays, and baths.  But the designs at times push the perception of what constitutes bathroom furniture.  Soft curves or angular forms.  Sinks that might look more at home in Star Trek and shower heads and baths which verge on the decadent and for those Cleopatra people who spend an inordinate proportion of their lives in the loo.

A wander round the display did help us fix on a few ideas for La Rectoria and we departed leaving the door and returning to Earth, October, 2010.

Last week we awoke to a beautifully sunny Sunday October morning.  The sun kissed the fields and woods surrounding Cardedeu as I enjoyed a wee run around the town.  Goretti’s Mum joined us for a cup of coffee followed shortly after by Mar, Scottish John and wee Martin and then it was on the road to La Rectoria for the annual Aplec de Sant Miquel,  held adjacent to our house. 

The outlook did look a little ominous as we drove to Vic and beyond.  But, as we left the last of the 12 or so tunnels that connect the conmarca (county) of Osona to La Garrotxa the clouds parted and the sunlight streamed on to the Vall d’en Bas.

On our arrival we parked some 400 meters from the house and numerous cars were already parked along the roadside and people were striding up the carri bici towards the church and house.   La Missa (Mass) had just finished  and many of the throng  had taken up their seats beneath the sky blue awning chatting in the warm autumnal air and waiting expectantly for the feast to follow.

Preparations for lunch were almost complete.  The finishing touches were being put to the Mar i Montanya arros – mussels, chicken and pork paella  – and a three substantial metal griddles each containing about 80 large sausages were being  grilled on the embers of what had been the wood fire on which the rice had been cooked.

We introduced ourselves to the Priest and briefly discussed a wedding that was to take place there the following weekend before taking our seats at the end of one of eight long trestle tables beside our neighbour Pere and the Alcalde (Mayor) of Sant Feliu.  No sooner was lunch announced than a queue appeared three wide and twenty plus deep, amiable and expectant.   The steam from the paella mixed with the smoke from the cooking sausages and blew clouds of hunger inducing smells over the assembly; the queue dispersed quickly with plates heaped with rice. 

Thereafter followed a  further not insubstantial, ‘hale and hearty’ course of mandonguilles (meatballs) and sausages which ´flirted´ with the occasional pea and mushroom; a robust wine accompanying both plates.  The waistline was then given a reprieve as sharp and juicy green mandarins were handed around along with pots of flam (Crème Caramel) supplied from the dairy of La Fageda, near Olot.  Coffee was served with small sweet pastries, vi ranci poured from four litre containers and whisky or ratafia were offered round.   Time to loosen the belt and lottery tickets were purchased for the prizes……a live rabbit, a live duck and assorted small food hampers.

Sardanas ensued, that seemingly simple, rhythmic catalan folk dance performed in circles of three to thirty people, interlocking arms at shoulder level, counting and concentrating on their delicate steps, occasionally moving slowly to the left or right.  The accompanying music played on wind instruments – clarinet, oboe and the catalan gralla producing a somewhat discordant sound.

John and Mar thoroughly enjoyed seeing the house, local village and surrounding area for the first time.  The day was capped by our winning a basket of assorted sheep’s cheeses and yoghurts from  Mas Claperol, a local farm we have to get to know better, where you can ‘sponsor’ a cow in exchange for various dairy products.  Something else to be explored in future.

With what has been a glorious week of weather, the roof has been made water tight, if not yet finished.  On Thursday the final insulation and water proof layer were put in place and on Friday the final compression layer was applied.  Therefore, rain or shine the roof has been sealed and all that remains to be done there (for now) is the fitting of the tiles.  Other finishes will be put in place in due course.

It can also be said that the place has had a good tidy up and made ready for the aplec (gathering) tomorrow.  What to do with and where to put the minor mountain of excavated soil and rubble that has sat adjacent to the house for the past six months or so was finally resolved this week and in a somewhat deft and professional manner.  Pere called in a digger and the majority of the material has been taken to the small field on the south side of the house where it has been leveled to provide the basis for what will be public parking and access to the church.  All this might sound somewhat bland and matter fact except that on seeing the end result you realize you could just about play a game of snooker on the finished surface, such is the degree of care taken.

All of this has occurred in a sun soaked start to the autumn.  Warm enough for a most pleasant trip to the beach late this afternoon.  Our one kilometer stretch of beach at Premià is normally pretty chocka ( full) when summer is in full swing.  Today 2nd October, the sum total was half a dozen fisherman pitching their rods, half a dozen swimmers, us three included and a bunch of kids mucking around and the chiringuito (temporary summer beach bar) was gone.  The Catalans have turned their backs on the beach until next summer.

As I tap this out, Goretti is slaving over a bubbling pot of what will be quince cheese (jelly), that slightly tart and tasty counterpoint to manchego or other cheeses, as is your wish. 

Quince Cheese

Thoroughly wash the quince, then chop them into chunks and place in a pan…..skin, stalks and pips and all.

Bring to the boil and cook until they are soft.  Then pass the cooked fruit through a non metallic sieve (better still, use a plastic mouli if you have one).

This leaves you with a flesh coloured pulp.  Weigh the pulp and return this to the cleaned pan with an equal quantity of sugar.  (We have the somewhat excessive quantity of 4kgs of pulp, so 4kg of sugar are required on this occasion.  A quarter of this amount would satisfy a normal, sane family.)  For every of 2kg of fruit and sugar add the juice of one lemon.

Cook the pulp, sugar, lemon juice mix stirring regularly to avoid it sticking to the bottom of the pan.   Cookery books say that the jelly is ready when taking a wooden spoon through the pan a clear line is left in the pan.  Such is the amount Goretti is cooking our guide is when the spoon stands up of its own accord and it has a deep amber colour, the jelly will be ready.

Carefully pour the molten mass into plastic containers to a depth of about 3cm and leave to cool and set.  Leave for a few weeks before eating.  Store in a cool dark place and it will keep for up to one year.