La Garrotxa


Exciting, anxious, stressful times?  If the adrenalin isn’t coursing through the veins every now and then something must be amiss.  It makes the senses more acute, awakening that primeval fight or flight condition.  An adrenalin rush isn’t exactly what I need at the moment, as having somewhat carelessly broken a bone in ‘me foot’ I’m now laid up in plaster for a month and with a move in the offing the timing couldn’t have been worse.  Hopping around the house I’ve managed to pack a few boxes, wrap up the odd item and make a prone nuisance of myself!  As a result I’m increasingly boxed in as we again pack up our things and prepare to move out of the house come warehouse of the last four years.  The last few days have been a mix of throwing out, sorting out, shredding, packing and stacking.

And yes up the road the place almost resembles Piccadilly Circus as carpenters, electricians and builders come and go.  From the outside the walls have taken on the appearance of a newly decorated Christmas cake whilst the inside is rapidly taking shape.  We are on schedule and with that we should be able to welcome you from the end of September.  A firm date still has to be set and when our website is up and running we’ll let you know when that is.

Thus we are beginning to make that transition from promoters/builders to guest house owners/operators and as a result this blog/diary will be up for change.  More ‘newsy’ stuff about La Rectoria and events past and present, recipes and life in and around La Garrotxa through the eyes of a scotsman.  Much of what has been said in the last 18 months or so might have been a little pedestrian, but I guess it will serve as a memory to us and those who have been involved with us.

It is over six years since we drove up to this area for the first time to look, think and dream about….what if we did leave Scotland and come here to start a guesthouse?  Now we are almost there.

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What triggers a memory?  What is it that occasionally transports you back to that different time and place where the common thread seems so infinitely insignificant?  With a little thought the answer is perhaps quite obvious – a smell, a situation, an image.  Any number of things provide that link with the past to the present.  So it’s kind of funny that today I managed to squeeze in two such back to the future moments.

Today was beautifully hot.  The first such day we have had this summer and I’m not complaining.  For the simple fact that millions of Britons skimp and save 50 weeks a year to board a plane and head south for a slice of sun, sunburn and the odd beer.  So, sitting in our guest dining room at La Rectoria having spent a few hours tending the garden with grease and dirt on my shirt and trousers, accompanied by the honest glow and sweat of that work, I was contemplating our potential choice of dining chairs when I was teletransported back to an anonymous hotel in Edinburgh on a Saturday afternoon like countless others when I would have been preparing for the dinner service that evening or a banqueting function for 400 odd similarly anonymous persons.  The link – simply that I would be doing much the same thing all too soon, but for me and maybe 14 other guests.  A pitifully small number in comparison but with the relish that they will be our guests in our home.  

The second flashback took me back 40 plus years to something of an enchanted childhood – the enchantment being a castle shared with some magic friends.  The trigger this evening was the shrill scream and swoop of some 30 swifts as they dived over the houses and gardens in Cardedeu as the swallows had filled the skies at Brotherton Castle in their pursuit of flies and other fluttering insects.  Here the swifts and swallows salute the onset of dusk and the bats see out the setting of the sun and it is a majestic summer evening scene.  At school they symbolised freedom in both time and space.  I suppose the underlining thread to all this is our invitation to celebrate the wedding of school pal, Patrick and his wife Mandy.  Now that will be something to remember. 

So much for nostalgia.  The future is looking pretty damned good up the road where many cyclists voiced their approval of our endeavours as the passed to and from on the carri bici adjacent to La Rectoria today.  The ‘Opening Soon’ sign will be up ‘pronto’.  And if those are our choice of dining chairs, they’ll give your aitch bones some darn good comfort.

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.

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.

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…..giving 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.

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.

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.

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