Food



With the passing of the summer solstice, followed by Sant Joan (23rd June) celebrated here in Catalonia, the heat of a Catalan summer is with us.  And what better way to sate one’s thirst than by drinking a glass of homemade elderflower cordial.

From the front entrance of La Rectoria, along the via verde cycle path, down to the main road and almost wherever one cares to look, Elder trees can be found both in our Vall d’Hostoles and the neighbouring Vall d’En Bas.  Their floral umbrels announce themselves almost as the second symphony of colour of spring from early May until early June, following the earlier flowering pear and plum blossoms.

Elderflower umbrels, scented with Spring

 

Some three years ago we made our first batch of elderflower cordial and found it relatively easy to make and most refreshing to drink.  And as I spend the better part of the day in the kitchen before, during and after the summer, day in, day out, this cordial provides a fantastic pick me up.

How easy to make?  Well, we start by grabbing our re-useable shopping bag, the telescopic gardening shears and out the door we go.  You will see from the recipe that follows that 15 flowers are needed – which yields about 1 litre of cordial when made.   We have learnt with time how much we use over the course of the summer and therefore we generally make 3 times the recipe on each occasion.  So, over the following half hour stroll we gather 45+ umbrels prior to returning home.

Elderflower cordial in the making

Now to the recipe.  Mine is taken from ‘Sensational Preserves’ by Hilaire Walden, a fantastic reference on all fruit and vegetable related preserves that now serves me well along with Mother’s recipe for Orange Marmalade and that now family heirloom, the old jam pan.  The book itself has its own heritage as I bought it at ‘The Cooks Bookshop’, 118 West Bow, Grassmarket, Edinburgh, owned and run by the late Clarissa Dickson Wright, https://www.theguardian.com/…/clarissa-dickson-wright-tv-chef-dies-two-fat-ladies  who found fame in the highly proclaimed TV cookery show ‘Two Fat Ladies’.   So thank you Clarissa for bringing this book to my attention and to Hilaire for the bounties its pages contain.

So here goes…

Elderflower Cordial

(makes about 1.1 litres, 2 pints)

15 large elderflower umbrels

900g sugar

1 lemon, sliced

40 citric acid (ask at your chemist)

500ml boiling water

Put the elderflowers, sugar, lemons and citric acid in a large heatproof bowl.  Stir in the boiling water to dissolve the sugar.  Cover (I do with cling film) and leave in a cool place for 4 days.  Lift the cover every day and stir.

On the fourth day, stain the liquid through muslin, (I use a jelly bag www.lakeland.co.uk) and carefully pour into bottles.  Store in a cool, dry place.

To dilute, the ratio is close to 1:20 cordial to water as it is very concentrated.  Dilute with chilled water for maximum benefit.

Chilled cordial. Stirred, never shaken

I use the concentrated cordial as a syrup to garnish dessert plates and also to make Elderflower Sorbet….more of that another day.

Advertisements

Spring has sprung in a spluttering kind of fashion this year.  Bright, sunny and warm one day.  Wet, overcast and blustery the next.  Yesterday exemplified that.  We started our day under grey damp skies with a brief visit to the ‘Temps De Flors’ festival in Girona – the annual splatter of colour that adorns patios, churches, gardens and more with an array of creative floral and related designs and props.  The festival is complemented by numerous other activities which in total provide the visitor with yet another excuse if one were ever needed to visit a city which grander than its size belies.

On to La Rectoria our industry for the day entailed Goretti applying a mild acid to the steel curtain that marks the windows and doors, the aim being to accelerate the oxidation thereby giving that ‘irn bru’ (very sweet Scottish drink)orange rusty effect which will be ‘fixed’ by finally applying a coating of oil.  Mission accomplished.  For my part, I did some weeding, spraying of weeds and path construction in the garden.   We finished off with our weekly walk around the house, making or trying to make decisions about this and that.

Our third port of call was ‘Lactium’, a cheese fair in the fine city of Vic, Osona.  Wow! We discovered some whopping examples – a one and a half year old hard and equally strong goat’s cheese from Can Pujol, Vilassar de Alt.  A soft but beautifully balanced goat’s cheese from Borrada.  But the pick of the bunch came from a farm near Banyols, Mas Alba.  The genial owner had on display four or five cheeses each inviting me to pull up a chair, uncork a bottle of wine and settle down for indulgent session of cheese munching had time not been more pressing.  One resembling a French ‘crotin’ was elegantly soft and creamy with a gentle nudge of goat. The winner was the aptly called ‘Uff’, named so after numerous friends had simply exclaimed ‘uff’ having had a nose full of the cheese.  It is exciting and a pleasure to have such excellent examples of artisan deftness on our doorstep and we hope on your plate in future.   The whole experience drove me to serve up a potent little goat’s cheese soufflé for lunch today.

As a footnote to our visit to Vic, one stall holder having learnt of my nationality quickly asked my opinion regarding the prospects for Scottish Independence following the Scottish National Party’s victory in recent Elections.  I dually gave him the proud Scot speech, adding the need to consider deeply all of the facts before ‘going it alone’, as it were.  Without blinking the same man then asked me of my opinion on the subject of nothing less than crop circles, those geometric forms that appear in the corn fields of Southern England and which are alleged by some to be the result of Extra Terrestrial visits.  I swiftly dismissed this idea as mere fantasy and we walked on.

On reflection however maybe the ideas of Scottish Independence and crop circles are related.  Both satisfy our desire for escapism and fulfil that part of our nature occupied by dreams.  Or perhaps more sinisterly, our nationalist politicians actually are little green men from space – ‘Uff’, the smell of nationalist politics.

One diversion I’ve omitted to mention since we started this blog is skiing. Well, today I rolled back fifteen or sixteen years to enjoy a superb day’s spring skiing – in France. Hardly next door to La Rectoria, yes, but an invitation from friends to join them for a weekend’s skiing was not going to be passed up. So we are holed up in Marignac some 30kms north of Vielha. Right now the legs are like jelly but it was great to get back on a pair of planks. The snow was wet and heavy with a consistency close to that of damp sugar, but the sun shone and our son had his first taste of the sport.

Now our priority never was to be situated in a ski resort when we started out to look for a suitable house five plus years ago. But La Rectoria is not only situated in some stunning countryside, handily placed for Barcelona and Girona , it is also within striking distance of some not too shoddy skiing. The nearest resort whose name escapes me right now is under one hour from La Rectoria, La Molina in Cerdanya and Nuria near Ribes de Freser are one and a half and Andorra about two hours. Today we are about one hour further west of Andorra enjoying French bread, pork rillette and some skiing. So the point of all of this is depending on when you come to stay with us you can indulge in a variety of past times. Skiing, golf, cycling, walking, history, natural history etc…….

Meanwhile back at the ‘fort’ work has been continuing apace against a backdrop of rainfall on almost biblical proportions. Some 250mm – ten inches in old money – fell over a period of five days last week. Thankfully no damage was done, although a little water did enter a bedroom and measures are being taken to ‘root out’ this problem; a channel is being installed along the back wall of the house and a water repellent product will be used on the inside wall. The main cause would however appear to have been a pile of builder’s sand at the back of the building which resulted in the accumulation of water. All in all the rains have tested and identified areas where excess rainfall has to be redirected away from the house and disposed of. Tiling of the bathrooms is almost complete on the top floor and the tracking of wiring and cementing of walls continues. Any external work ground to a halt due to the weather as much of the surrounding country side took on the appearance of Chinese rice plantations with fields submerged in water. With spade in hand we have been able to plant a few trees and bushes. A greengauge and an apple tree and two blackcurrant bushes. The sole cherry tree has also been moved close to where the hort will be. Thus in time we hope to harvest some of our own fruit.

I’ve had something of an irritating itch this last week.  The diagnosis was a need to write a few lines for the blog, something that didn’t happen last week due to an enforced leave of absence…..50th Birthday.  Uncharted territory and all that.   Thursday and the 365th day of my 49th year, so what!  Just another day, normal routine, blah!  Friday 25th and a clutter of metaphysical questions reveal themselves; highly anthropocentric.  Half a century gone where and what now? Kind of Janus like, looking forward and looking back.  Back on family and friends and the many threads which together have made for an interesting tapestry of  life.   Forward to a future yet to reveal itself, but one which in the greater scheme of things looks more uncertain and unpredictable than one might have foretold a short while back.  But then again that might be a ‘punto de vista’  formulated as a result of the onset of the next age in life.

In short, I was treated  to a most memorable birthday weekend spent in the company of a very special friend and having dinner at one of Spain’s best restaurants, El Celler De Can Roca.  Five hours of ruminating over 12 courses, not including canopes, chocolates with dessert and a very special birthday cake.  I won’t wait another 50 years to repeat the experience.  Once bitten, not twice shy!

Back to reality and one week on, by the end of today I was smelling like a mobile barbeque.  The day was spent burning material collected from the garden – branches from the pruned hazel trees, bamboo roots and other pieces of organic detritus.  The hope is that we get the area to the west and north of the house sown out in grass in the next two or three weeks.  The ground is moist and in the main it is getting warmer, although driving to the house today the Pyrenees have more snow on them now than they have had all winter.  We have been itching to get some of the external building work done and plans for a garden shed, pergola and lean to for bikes are rapidly coming to a conclusion.

Inside, the first hints of finishes are beginning to appear.  A major surprise was to see the first bathroom tiles being fitted and looking good too.  In  our two ‘premium’ bedrooms, where the beds are situated in the middle of the room, the stone bedheads have been constructed.  On the main floor we have been presented with a couple of options for varnishing the beams and wood finishes.  The neutral option was not one of them and I guess it will be the preferred one.

Finally, in line with our desire to maintain the idiosyncratic character of the place something of a mystery has been installed on the wall of the main hall.  A tile bearing the neat and flowing inscription ‘Be Be Cueta Cueta Nial Nial’ was found by our builder.  It means nothing in Catalan or Spanish as far as we know, but it was there in the house and someone at some point took the time and effort to score it indelibly into the stone and so it will remain.

While building work proceeds at La Rectoria, a crust still has to be earned and bread put on the table.  Visits are mainly confined to weekends and what with family commitments the start and end of the week seem to melt and merge together.  Not complaining, but this fairly frenetic timetable leaves little time for me to keep my hand in, in the kitchen.  Thus the Christmas break provided time and an opportunity for playing chef.

One dish I put together was an iced parfait.  Let’s call it ‘Parfait de mores de la Vall d’Hosteles amb el meu licor de mores’ – Bramble parfait infused with homemade bramble brandy.

The recipe:

300g brambles

125g sugar

300g ml double cream

50 ml bramble brandy

Pâte à bombe  mix – 150g sugar, 100ml water and 5 egg yolks

2 egg whites

 Place the brambles in a pan with 25g of sugar and cook over a gentle heat until the sugar has dissolved and the brambles are soft.  Set aside to cool. 

For the pâte à bombe, put 150g of sugar into a pan along with 100ml of water and heat gently until dissolved.  Then increase the heat and place a sugar thermometer in the pan.  Now whisk 5 egg yolks in a bowl until pale, thick and creamy.  When the syrup reaches 120°c  add this to the egg yolks in a slow steady stream whilst continuing to beat them rapidly until the mixture is thick and cream coloured.   Then fold the cool brambles and juices into the bombe mix. 

In another bowl whisk the egg whites until lightly stiff. To this add the remaining 100g of sugar and whisk until firm and glossy.  At this stage add a few drops of vinegar and then fold the meringue mix into the bombe mixture. 

If two bowls were not enough, take a third and whip the cream until it begins to thicken and fold this gently into the bombe and meringue mix.  Pour the finished mix into a 1 litre mould and freeze. 

I served the parfait along with some lightly poached brambles, strawberry coulis and an almond and poppy seed tuile.  Wait until we harvest some brambles this coming autumn and you will be able to sample this dish during your stay with us at La Rectoria.  Bon profit.

Work continues at a healthy pace inside the house.  On the top floor the construction of the divisions has been completed in all five bedrooms and bathrooms, so now you can see the size of each making visualizing the ultimately finished rooms that much easier.  Thus it was yesterday we spent a couple hours with the architects discussing at length the ‘design’ of each bedroom on this floor.  Given that the floors will be toba (terracotta tiles) and the ceilings bigas de roura (oak beam) with teules (terracotta tiles) we do not want to ‘over do’ the rustic feel of the place.   Therefore, contrary to the vision and preference of the architects we are plumming for white walls in all of rooms, with no exposed stone, thereby making the rooms appear as large and spacious as possible.  Door finishes will be white, wardrobes included – and the carcases thereof.  Lighting will be subtle, using mostly wall mounted up/down lights.  Any sense of modernity will be maximized in the bathrooms with stylish, clean uncomplicated finishes.  It is our intention to try and provide the customer with as much comfort as we possibly can; to pamper and ensure that you leave the world of work or whatever somewhere else.  Although the general finishes between one room and another will be of a similar standard, we will designate two as ‘premium’ rooms which will provide that little bit extra for the guest.

The metal curtains which mark the windows have been fitted in all of the top floor rooms.  But the major development of the week was the widening of the doorway from the hall to the dining room.  Now just shy of four meters wide, this entrance shows off three of the five arched windows in the dining room and the views of the valley beyond.  A folding door will separate the hall from dining room giving greater flexibility as to how the two rooms can be used.

And….completing that somewhat spurious link between dining room and food, last week a spot of kitchen experimentation led us to trying a recipe for ‘Stuffed Pigs Trotter’s’.  Before all you squeamish anglo-saxon readers dash for cover, the finished product was something not far short of fantastic.  The recipe needs a bit of tweaking – i. changing the wayin which the trotters are initially cooked; ii. preparing a more elaborate stuffing.  But all in all they were unctuous and simply cried out to be tried again.  So get those bibs out and pour a large glass of Priorat!

The night of Halloween is the eve of All Saints or Tot Sants and for this we were holed up in La Rectoria, snuggling around the open fire which had been appropriately augmented with a couple of pumpkin lanterns.

We arrived on the afternoon of the day before Halloween to find that the builders had kindly tidied up the part of the house that was to be home for the next couple of days.  Our wee gas kitchen established and make shift dining table erected, one end supported by a stone wall recess the other by six bags of cement.  John,Mar and Martin arrived and promptly inflated their double bed mattress topped by blankets and quilt….home from home.  Us, we rolled out our ground sheet, old rug and sleeping bags on the hard concrete and thus our ´ying` and ´yang`sleeping arrangements were established adjacent to the kitchen.

We enjoyed post dinner seasonal treats of roast chestnuts and toasted, runny golden caramelized marshmallows fortified by a good dram.  Then it was lights out in a water tight but windowless house.  Appropriately for Halloween, the night was black but for the outline of the windows.  Sleep was punctuated at times by the sound of wind and rain, sometimes light at others more intense and by the cold of autumn and the mild discomfort of the concrete floor beneath.

Daybreak brought with it the last of the rain which gradually gave way to a sunsplashed autumnal day.  After breakfast we drove to the La Fageda, 6km or so from Olot.  Packed.  The diasporia of Barcelona and Catalunya had converged on this most beautiful of woods dominated by tall stands of handsome beech trees.  Autumn and the golden hues it brings makes this one of the busiest times of the year in this part of La Garrotxa. Given that it is autumn a blanket of  leaves covered much of the forest floor, broken in parts by rocky hillocks covered with mosses.  A steady line of waterproof clad visitors trod through the wood many stopping regularly to take photos; panoramas or close ups.  Those leaves that remained on the trees shimmered with the remnants of the residual rain.  We wandered off the path and were soon rewarded with a rich find of Trompetes de la mort and three tiny Ceps.  A couple of handfuls of chestnuts completed our forest foray.  After lunch back at the Rectoria it was up the hill that flanks the south west of the house.  This time we found ‘Escarlets’, large pink topped fungi in some abundance.

Through Sunday and Monday morning numerous families came to Sant Miquel to pay their respects to loved ones in the small cemetery behind the church and soon the graves were marked with brightly coloured floors.   As a holiday and celebration that we are not accustomed to in Scotland in hind sight this seems a fitting way to remember the departed.

As for the house, work on the interior is now well and truly under way.  On the uppermost floor the “paletes” have been more than busy erecting partitions and so bedrooms 5, 6 and 7 have now taken shape with bathrooms marked out.   The same process is now well underway with two remaining bedrooms on this floor.  A window has arrived for our inspection and has passed the test.  Numerous other issues are now looming –  swimming pool, garden shed, radiators and more.  Meanwhile we still find time to earn a crust during the week.

Next Page »