Sant Feliu de Pallerols

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.

On Friday I was meant to go into Barcelona first thing to meet up with a colleague, but leadened skies and heavy rain put paid to that.  Goretti had an appointment with a serraller (blacksmith) and  Albert our aparellador (surveyor) at La Rectoria to discuss the ‘finishes’ to the periphery  of the windows, arches and doors. So I took the opportunity of accompanying her.  In our limited experience of working with architects (the extension to our flat in Edinburgh and this somewhat larger project) we have learnt that they can be prone to flights of fancy which can then be converted into items of not inconsiderable cost.  This is not to diminish their art and creative bent and both Goretti and I have thought on occasions that given a bottomless pit of money, the opportunities open to us re-the design of La Rectoria would be mind boggling.  Therefore I guess, there is nothing quite like a budget to keep you focused.

Thus it has been with the metal finishes of the house.  The initial idea was to ‘mark’ (frame the profile) the outline of the windows, arches and doors with bands  of steel 10 to 20cm wide and 6mm thick.  In time these oxidise to russets and browns.  Kind of nice.  The shear cost of 6mm steel has put the kybosh on using it on the facade of the arches but we are intending to use it as intended elsewhere.  So the serraller produced his weighty sample of steel, the colour of Heinz Tomato soup.  When darker it will provide a good counterpoint to the stone of the house.  Prudence has also led us to the decision of plastering as opposed to pointing exposed stone walls on the main floor, as originally intended.  The pointed stone might have  aesthetically been our choice, but at three times the price the decision was something of a no brainer.  So, these are the types of decisions we are having to weigh up on a weekly basis as alternative options are thrown up to us.

As we arrived at La Rectoria under grey skies and low cloud, a large cement mixer was already at work supplying another truck with funnily enough, cement, which was being pumped into the top floor of the house.  Inside, Vicenç and a colleague armed with some kind of electrically operated scraper were smoothing out the liquid mass across the floor.  This operation was to be repeated in the basement as well.  In total some six or seven truck loads of cement.  When finished this should help reinforce the overall structure and provide a layer on to which to put the floor finishes.

Meanwhile outside the garden and carri bici immediately leading to La Rectoria has taken on the appearance of a ploughed park.  That will be rectified in good time.  But in the short term we are going to have to pay some attention to tidying and maintaining the garden in the coming months.  Mechanical means will have to be employed to tackle the majority of the work, but we are considering a biological/organic four legged option.  On frequent visits to Barcelona Zoo with Silvestre we have seen African Pygmy goats frolicking gaily in their pen.  These playful wee beasts could provide us with mobile weed and flower munching garden maintenance machines, reaching the parts lawnmowers cannot reach.  I’m looking forward to erecting the sign- ‘Caution – Exotic Pets’.

Patron Saints.  So What!  In Scotland Saint Andrew’s Day passes most people by and at best it is celebrated as a ‘dinner, dance’ or has been hijacked by Scots politicians to enable them to go on junkets to the US in an attempt to sell tartan and scotch.   Hardly the stuff of mass participation and inclusion. 

Every year England on the other hand celebrates Saint George’s Day like a visit to your New York shrink.  “Why is it not a national holiday? “Why aren’t there more flags flying?”  “Are we ashamed to be English?” “What does it mean to be English in Europe?”and more…..I can only guess at the collective angst and psychosis.  Our Irish cousins meanwhile have transformed the holiday of their patron, Saint Patrick, into one of their finest exports and in doing so succeed in getting a significant percentage of the world’s population bladdered every March 17th.

Little did I know when I started going out with my now Catalan wife ten years ago that Catalunya and England share the same Saint; along with Greece, Georgia and Russia among others.   Since when did the Vatican start to franchise Saints?   But here the Catalan’s have been very shrewd.  A small state flanked by bigger neighbours.  Having lost its independence in a very violent civil war and having had its language and thus much of its identity stifled for the subsequent  40 years, has since democracy found a clever and pleasureable way in which to rejoice Sant Jordi and bolster both its culture and identity. 

Sant Jordi is celebrated as the day of the Rose and the Book.  Generally, but not exclusively, a man gives his partner a rose and a woman gives the man a book.  An equal exchange?  That is open to debate, although one that is of little or no relevance here.  The success of the collective celebration of the day, however, cannot be argued. 

As I got off the train from Cardedeu at Passeig de Gracia yesterday morning and stepped out onto the same said street I could hardly move.  Up and down the street as far as you could see the pavement was lined with stands selling books or roses.  Tables decked in the red and yellow stripped flag of Catalunya.  The enthusiasm of the people was palpable.  Books being bought for young and old.  Roses too.  It was a picture to see octogenarian gentlemen buying red roses for their loved ones.  Gypsies trying to flog roses, blaring out “Una rosa por tres euros!”

I suggest the great success is the simple fact that the Catalans have married the celebration of Sant Jordi with the joy of the written word and most importantly Catalan.  What better way to foster your aural tradition and language.  Days before the 23rd April publishers are marketing their wears on radio and TV and on the day you can seek out your Catalan writer of choice to buy your own personally signed copy. 

As for me.  Well, I have yet to get passed the stage of reading TEO…a collection of stories for early readers.    In these days of cynicism it gives one heart to witness the energy of a nation spent in a simple act of national pride which is both benign but yet binds its people together with a type of epoxy super glue.

La Rectoria.  Much as ever, more foundations, with the added excitment today of having witnessed the first internal down pipes installed for the euphemistically named ‘grey waters’.  Also, piping from our bathroom for the shower, loo and sink.  And the arches on the north facing side of the house are being opened up.  

Finally.  Today the Carril Bici (cycle path that runs in front of La Rectoria) was very busy, conveying a steady stream of cyclists up and down the route.  Bellies full in many cases with breakfasts of butifarras, pastries and coffee.

Two weeks have been a long time and I have missed putting these ramblings down on paper.  My inability to do so can be explained by way of a fun packed previous weekend with Old Friends from England, Will, Sara and family. Like millions of others like them they have experienced firsthand the unsurpassable power of good old Mother Nature.

Arriving from Diss on the Thursday before last, they were staying in an apartment near Banyoles, just north west of Girona.  Nicely appointed gaff…..large living/dining area with balcony overlooking L’Emporda and small but adequate postage stamp sized kitchen, plus two ample bedrooms and a very well  finished shower room/loo.

One glaring design fault was the glass entrance door to the apartment building, largely invisible at a casual glance open or closed and an accident waiting to happen.  Point noted for our project!  The other ‘design fault’ was the proprietor.  Cold towards kids and quickly cottoning on to the fact we were friends of paying guests, made the comment that he hadn’t taken too kindly to previous customers having friends around the place – people skills not great!  Little did he know we had sleeping bags etc. for our sleep over to catch the Barça-Madrid match that night.   A warmer welcome was to be had from the neighbouring Donkey and Cockrell providing us with a somewhat discordant dawn chorus at ‘donkey O’clock’.

So with our ‘tourist hats’ on we started out late on Saturday morning to sell La Garrotxa to Will and Sara.  And the gods were with us.  In bright sunshine and a cloudless sky, the best day of the spring so far, we drove to Santa Pau via Mieres.   Santa Pau does not have to be sold to anyone.  A gem in its own right.  Set on a rocky outcrop, flirting its not inconsiderable medieval charm from a distance.  Perfectly small, you can stroll around it in half an hour…..longer would be better.  Narrow stone covered streets and archways surrounding the as yet to be restored central ‘palace’.   The perimeter walls offer picture postcard views over verdant green fields to the surrounding volcanic oak covered hills.  Here you are in the heart of the ‘Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa’ (phew, time for an acronym!).

Suitably impressed and with time pressing we drove the remaining 10 minutes to El Hostal dels Ossos, an old favourite of ours.  Great for local food and superb for those of you with young families with its large play area for kids to let off steam.  This place is Catalan through and through.  The signature statement being made by the not inconsiderably sized dolls house structure made entirely of snail shells sitting conspicuously in the middle of the restaurant.

Sitting outside we guided our friends through the comprehensive Catalan menu.  Kids can have the seemingly banal but excellent ‘macarrons’ with meat and tomato sauce.  For starters we ordered for our guests, ‘Pa amb tomaquet’ –  toasted bread on to which you rub garlic, drizzle oil and then rub on a halved tomato, ‘Escalivada with anchovies’ and ‘Mongetas de Santa Pau with cansalada’ (white beans with pork belly) completed the starters.  For the main course we chose between, rabbit with aioli, mushroom omelette, beef and mushroom casserole and cabbage stuffed with potato.   Mel and mató  – honey and cottage cheese – was the modest but tasty pudding.

Suitably fuelled up we set off up the nearby extinct volcano of Santa Margarida.  A most enjoyable way to burn off the calories of a volcanic menu, such is the cuisine of the region labeled.  With its wee chapel nestling in the crater, this makes for a superb family walk.

And so back to Banyoles for the night……Barça 2, Real Madrid 0.    Long satisfied pause………

La RECTORIA?  Yes, yes, yes.  Keep your hair on!   We went there on Sunday morning and I think having seen it at first hand, Will and Sara appreciated the enormity of the task in hand.  Yet more underpinning of foundations and concrete being poured. 

The position of the house in relation to the cycle path 10 metres from the front door and running some 135km from the town of Ripoll in the foothills of the Pyrenees to Sant Feliu de Guixols on the Mediterranean coast cannot be understated.  Cyclists come and enjoy the ‘Ruta del Ferro’.  We will be open next summer.

We then went on to our neighbouring town Sant Feliu de Pallerols and Can la Matilda for an immensely impressive mixed paella for six..or more!  And then said what were intended to be our goodbyes to the H-S family.

With something of a massive twist of irony, volcanoes were to play an even larger part in the events of the week.  A somewhat considerably larger and more active one let forth its awesome power in Iceland. 

So what, we’re in Spain!

Thursday morning and a neighbour in Cardedeu informs me that Aberdeen and several other Scottish airports have been closed due to some volcano. Eeuhh!? 

Next thing I get a text from Will. 

“Back in Banyoles, flight to Stansted cancelled due to Volcano” etc. 

And so it is three days later they are still Stranded in Catalan Paradise.

We met up again this afternoon on the coast at Calella de Palafrugell.  Bright blue skies, a relatively quiet little beach set against an exquisite seafront of houses perched on rock and stone.  The H-S kids bravely went for a dip, Sly fell in.  All had great fun.

Will and Sara hope to make good their escape on Wednesday.  Mankind has again been humbled by the power of good old Mother Nature.  Don’t you love her?

As a footnote I dedicate the 1977 Punk classic ‘Stranded’ by The Saints to our dear friends and castaways.   The connection between that song and others, and one which is kind of fundamental to our being here will become apparent later in the year.

We were introduced to the concept of Catalan communal barbecuing last Sunday. We drove from Cardedeu and met John and Mar near Arbúcies. The rendevous was a wooded site set next to the Riu d’Arbúcies carrying the last of the cold winter waters from Montseny. The cars apart, the site took on the appearance of some medieval encampment. Billowing clouds of smoke emitting from brick built barbecue pits as families and friends prepared lunch.

Some families cooked chicken, some sausages. Some lamb cutlets and others pork chops. The three old dears next to us lobbed on a half dozen‘grenade` like globe artichokes, spraying them with olive oil making the flames lick skyward. Ultimately what everyone cooked around the site was calçots. Half leek, half spring onion. These are thrown on smoking barbecue fires until the green and white outer leaves are charred to a charcoal black. Thereafter, the eating of these serpentine vegetables takes on a ritual of its own. Bib or large napkin tucked below ones chin and holding the cooked calçot from the top, the outer blackened sheath is deftly peeled off in one swift movement. The root end is then dipped in the accompanying romesco sauce and holding your head back dropped into your fully opened gob! Sweet and succulent.

Not to be outdone we provided the dessert….I still prefer to call them puddings. To me a more wholesome and satisfying word. One that spells comfort food. A subject to be expanded upon at some future date. Well, the pudding on this occasion was a blood orange (sanguine) jelly set in cava and orange wine, infused with star anise and cloves and served on this occasion with carquinyoles (hazelnut biscotti). One for La Rectoria menu.

And so to today. We returned this afternoon from thanking Pere, a farmer and neighbour at Sant Feliu, for dragging a delivery truck from the winter quagmire that was the road to the house a few weeks ago. His home was set like three neighbouring ones next to a bubbling stream which fed each home with what was once a working lade, used to power a mill. We asked about re-seeding the lawn, once the rubble and earth have gone and other matters of local interest.

Back home, we popped next door to the vacant plot that should be but is not a garden. A few trees….a fig, a conifer and some stunted palms. Amongst the new flush of weeds and armed with a pair of scissors we gathered the first harvest of the year, wild asparagus. Juicy pencil like spears punching skywards. Ten minutes later I would say we had a good bunch of fifty or so pieces. Tea for tomorrow served with scrambled eggs, typically catalan.

And this week’s news from the house. More concrete trenches to reinforce the foundations. A backcloth to all this is the ongoing dialogue regarding the reconstruction budget and structural work. Design, pragmatism and budget. A delicate balancing act.

As for Spring. It is official. I saw my first swallows of the year at Coll de la Manya on Thursday morning, swooping and soaring as elegantly as always.

What a difference one week makes.  Ten days ago there was still a distinct winter chill in the air.  Mornings were announced with a hoary frost that blanketed fields on my drive to work and Montseny behind us was capped with snow.   This has all changed and markedly so.  Temperatures have leapt some 10⁰c and the warmth of the sun can now be felt on the back of one’s neck. 

Whereas it might be said that on occasions summer fails to materialize in Scotland, spring in Catalunya tends to be pretty short.  Blossoms come and go and spring flowers as I know them are all but nonexistent.  The most dramatic difference is how rapidly temperatures change and can quickly reach the mid to high 20s.  Thus, the wonder that is spring is compressed into but a few weeks here.  Well, that is my perception anyway.

It was warm up at La Rectoria earlier this afternoon and the change in the air was noticeable.  Spring is all but here, and the signs are evident.  Two lonely daffodils close to the back door, a few primroses to and catkins drooping from the hazel trees.

Mammals have been active as well, particularly those of a burrowing kind.  Whereas our busy builders have been moving soil and rubble from the basement of the house and piling it high in the garden for removal at some future date, somewhat smaller but equally active little creatures have been digging here, there and almost everywhere.  An energetic colony of moles (talp) are leaving their trail of evidence.  Meandering mounds of fresh earth can be found a plenty around the house.  The question has to be asked, do they have ‘Molers’ in Catalunya?

Goretti came home on Thursday with tangible proof of larger beasts.  Looking somewhat like a piece of dried penne pasta she produced a 5cm long wild boar (porc senglar) tooth which one of the builders had found.  I look forward to seeing my first live one….at a safe distance.

Work would appear to be slow and possibly a little unexciting at present.  Look closer and steady progress is being made ensuring all is O.K. regarding the foundations and this will continue until after Easter.   Trenches of concrete are being poured next to and beneath walls as appropriate, reinforced with 1cm bars of steel.  It will be heartening to see the forest of support jacks disappear from the basement once this work is complete.

This week work on La Rectoria has been at a standstill .   Due not to some national strike in reaction to centrally imposed budget cuts, but instead to approximately half a metre of snow alighting on the roof and the surrounding area.  Yes, La Garrotxa received quite a dumping of snow.

Apparently the local village of Sant Feliu de Pallerols was without electricity for 24 hours and temperatures in the area fell to -14⁰c over the preceding days.  As a result we have not visited the house ourselves, but the builder and aperallador have, ensuring all is O.K. with a view to recommencing work on Monday.

This glitch in progress is nothing to what many thousands of Catalunya’s residents have had to endure since the blizzard on Monday.   Much of the Province of Girona has been without electricity, depriving people not only of light and heat but ultimately water in some cases as electrical water pumps have been rendered useless.

Although weather forecasters warned of the impending storm 48 hours or so in advance, little or no action was taken to help ameliorate the effects of any potential problems (sounds a little like another country I’ve lived in).   As a consequence Barcelona almost ground to a halt on Monday afternoon in only two or three inches of wet snow as drivers headed home on mass.  Some 3,000 trucks were stuck on the south side of the French frontier as the border crossing at La Jonquera was closed for two days.  And rail commuters (me included) had a difficult if not impossible journey home on Monday as trains were cancelled.

I eventually took a train to Mataró where Goretti collected me at 22.15.   The normally straight forward half hour drive from there to Cardedeu took SIX HOURS on roads largely bereft of snow.  Why?  Ask the Police who were largely ineffective and conspicuous by their absence.  No explanation was given to the several hundred car and truck drivers at the Tunel de Parpers.  Ho, hum.

So, nevermind.  Let’s look forward to next week.  Warmer weather and sunshine are forecast for the beginning of the week  and if that is the case we will be greeted by progress at the house and signs of spring in the surrounding countryside.

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