summer


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.

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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.

Given that all of our team – architects, aparelledor, paleta – are or have been on holiday and with an invitation to spend time with old and dear friends on the  Côte d’Azur it was bit of a no brainer not to pass it off.   So two days after my sister left we packed up the old Astra and headed off on the 601km+/- from Cardedeu to Cagnes sur Mer, tucked between Cannes and Nice.  I’d never been further north than Perpignan so this was something of a minor ‘road trip’, French stylee.

A considerable portion of the drive (taking the quickest route) was by ‘Péage’ ( toll road) which for the most part does not follow the coast.  The towns of Bezier and Narbonne drum up images of rugby and evenings spent drinking Fitou in Granville Road, Finchelli, as it was affectionally known whilst living and working in London 20 years ago.  On to Montpellier and the western fringe of La Camargue,  white horses, black bulls and fields of (probably mosquito infested) rice  –  Sainsbury’s sell it! Lovely red grains with an almost nutty flavour.   Aix en Provence and on to Cagnes sur Mer.

Now the purpose of this piece is not to give you a blow by blow account of our stay with our hosts, but given the love of food which we share with many of our friends our taste buds were stimulated by a number of simple artisan products and a small productive garden which provided us with a few ingredients. 

Tarragon, that aniseed scented herb provided the trigger to make a sauce béarnaise to accompany barbecued steak.  Greengages (Claudias) made for a quick and simple greengage crumble enfused with homemade Mirabelle eau d’vie.  Homemade lemonchello was produced, smoking ice cold and tangy from the freezer.  Camambert and brie that would run off a stick and lipsmackingly smelly goats cheese paired with bread, yes but bread of regal quality and wine with the balls required to cut through the richness of the cheese.   Homemade apricot jam and toast for breakfast for a tasty start to your day or brioche, croissant, or almond encrusted pastries.

The car was dually packed and we returned with a few figs from the garden for our homebound picnic, six freshly picked lemons and a bag of almonds still coated in their velvet green pods.  Armed with these goodies, on our return home we have been stirred into action in the last few days.

First – the Lemonchello.  Casting our eyes over a few recipes it’s production is now ongoing. 

0.5 litres vodka

6 fresh, unwaxed lemons

350g sugar

350ml water

 • wash your lemons and carefully peel the rind from them, whilst removing as little pith as possible.

• place the rinds in a washed and sterilized parfait jar; cover with vodka and leave for a couple of weeks in a cool dark place, stirring occasionally…..that is where we are at now.

• put the sugar and water in a pan.  Dissolve the sugar and then boil for five minutes.  Mix with the vodka and lemon rinds and leave for a few more weeks before straining and storing in bottles.

• Leave the bottle in your freezer to enjoy at your leisure.

 Secondly – Homemade Lemonade.  Now, having something of the Aberdonian in me I wasn’t about to throw six handpicked, peeled lemons in the bin.  So for a summer drink for all of the family here is my Mum’s recipe for Lemonade. 

2 lemons

1 pint boiling water

4oz sugar 

• wash your lemons, cut them in half and squeeze out the juice and reserve.

• put the squeezed lemons in a jug and pour over the boiling water, add the sugar, stir and leave to cool.

• add the reserved lemon juice to the water and lemons, stir, strain and pour into a bottle and chill in the fridge.

 The above is the original recipe, but if you prefer your lemonade to be less sweet reduce the quantity of sugar and if you like it sharper still use more lemon juice.  On this occasion we used the six peeled lemons and added 1 ½ pints of water and 4oz of sugar for a very lemony concoction which went down a treat with some gin and ice…..if we had had a dash of tonic it would have been even more majestic. 

Thirdly – The Almonds.  These have been dually shelled from their green outer casing, the nut retained in its hard shell.   These are now lying on a tray, being sun dried for storage and future use. 

Fourthly –  Figs.  Well, these are currently ripening on a tree in the abandoned garden that abuts our house in Cardedeu.  These are maturing splendidly this year and some we consumed the other day as part of a ham, rocket and oven dried tomato salad.  Some have been eaten as they are and none too bad they are.  The remainder have been transformed into jam. 

1.2kg fresh figs

1.0 pectin sugar

Juice of 1 lemon 

• cut your figs in half, chop or blitz your figs –  what you choose to do will either give you a chunky through to a smooth fig jam.

•place in a pan with the lemon juice and warm through.

• add the pectin sugar and heat gently until the sugar is dissolved.

• bring to the boil and cook rapidly for ‘5’ minutes. 

• take the pan off the heat, put into sterilized jars, cover with jam paper, seal with a lid and turnover the jars for 3 minutes.

• spread on hot buttered toast and enjoy the sweet succulence of fig jam.

 Foodies, there you have it for now.  But we intend to serve you the above and much more when our time comes to open our doors to you at La Rectoria.

 In the meantime, what of La Rectoria? Well, the builders are due back this week and we made ourselves busy tidying the garden last thursday.  Another scorcher of a day it was to, during which we had a visit from the Alcalde (Mayor) of Sant Feliu de Pallerols and a number of other luminaries from the  ajuntament (council).  In short, the reason for their visit was to decide if we could put the rubble and soil from the excavated foundations in the field adjacent to the house.  This would save us carting the stuff to the dump and it would also assist the council who want to improve public access to the church.  The result, a tenuous thumbs up but we won’t be able to crack open the champagne on that one until the ‘i`s are dotted and the ‘t`s are crossed.

Of late we have turned our backs on La Rectoria and have for some of that time been home.  By home I mean the land of my birth, my spiritual home, Scotland. ……’you can take the man out of Scotland but you can’t take Scotland out of the man’ kind of thing.  Nationalism, that feeling of home, identity, is a funny quirk of humanity.

Holidays, time off are for recharging batteries, stepping back, chilling out.   Thus far we have accomplished all three.  What with work – teaching English – and the reconstruction of La Rectoria, our regular routine is pretty full on and incessant – house, work and vice-versa. On and on.  If it was solely building a house that would be simple enough, but as is self evident the end result of all of this is the establishment of a business, a casa rural.

Thus, during our time in Scotland, having left our son with my sister in Aberdeen, Goretti and I drove to Crieff.  Destination Yann’s, the creation of Yannick Grospellier my old head chef and friend and his wife Shari.  This guest house, come restaurant has become something of a destination since opening two and a half years ago.  Having eventually taken the plunge to open his own business Yannick has created something of a Mecca to the rustic fare of La Savoie –  La pierrade,  La raclette –  and other bistro classics that utilize the best of Scottish ingredients, beef, lamb, scallops, langoustines and more.  Apart from visiting old friends the raison d’être of our visit was yes to possibly crib ideas, but also to identify potential problems, clarify ideas and explain our plans in the hope of eliciting constructive criticism.  Bedroom design, restaurant layout and kitchen equipment were poured over and the daily work was observed.  For me it was good to blow off the dust of what is involved in the working day of a chef.  It did not seem like four years since I last dawned chefs whites although I realized that I’ll have to get back into shape vis a vis cooking, but more than that remembering to work cleverly as well as with skill.  I helped with little bits of mise en place but did little during service itself except keeping out of the way.  I think some sort of stage somewhere might be in order before we open next year.  Over the piece our two days with Yannick and Shari were very useful and a big thank you must be extended to them and we look forward to receiving them and the girls here in Catalunya before  too long.

The wealth of Scottish culinary ingredients was exemplified during our time in Scotland.  A visit to the Loch Fyne Oyster bar and shop provided us and Uncle Eric with a superb picnic – smoked salmon and mackerel, duck pate, succulently perfumed strawberries, oatcakes all washed down with a bottle of ‘Fyne Ale’ a hoppy locally brewed beer.  And whilst parked in Eric’s motor home on the banks of the loch a bounteous supply of wild raspberries provided the basis of the dessert that night ‘cranachan’ – that Scottish dessert of whipped cream, toasted oat flakes, whisky, honey and raspberries.  A ‘Pick Your Own’ farm offered up a rapidly picked selection of blackcurrants, brambles, tayberries and rasps which in turn were used to make that most underrated of British puddings ‘summer pudding’.   Mussels for moules à la marinière,  sautéed scallops, haddock and chips.  Try good british food before you knock it!

Meanwhile back at La Rectoria it was a joy for us to show my sister what we have been up to over the last few years.  Besides the house and its surroundings it was good to demonstrate again the wide variety things to see and do in central and northern catalunya – Montserrat, old Girona, Santa Pau and much more. 

So enjoy your summer holidays wherever you are and when the time comes we will be more than ready to welcome you.

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.

The sun is high in the sky during these weeks and if you are fortunate enough a walk may occasionally be accompanied by a light warm breeze.  Not surprisingly, mornings are the freshest part of the day and if I feel up to it I go for a short run around Cardedeu. As rapidly as the sun ascends, temperatures rise accordingly and by midday are reaching the mid 30’s.  Barcelona is a very hot and sticky place to be at this time of day and remains thus until early morning the following day.  I’m stating the obvious because one quickly hears puffs and pants and complaints about the heat…..can’t say I’m a natural sun bunny, red hair, freckles and the facial complexion of a ripe tomato.  But hey, it seems only a month ago folk here were moaning on about how long, cold and wet our winter had been.  It only goes to remind me of bus rides through Leith with auld wifies ga’in on aboot ‘the heat’ after one week of a Scottish summer.  Us humans, we are hard to please and rarely are happy when it comes to all things climatological.  Long live the seasons.

And so to the house, taking advantage of the fine weather the first phase of making good the roof is well underway.  On our visit last week the oak beams (bigas) and purlins (cairats) over the dining room were largely in place and the rajols (first layer of terracotta tiles) were being fitted.  Above this will be laid the insulation and ultimately the roof tiles.  All this is hot and thirsty work conducted in the full glare of the hot summer sun.  The Paletas are not complaining, sporting what many would consider an enviable suntan.

Monday this week, Goretti and I conducted a foot slogging exercise around Barcelona to see firsthand examples of what the floor in our part of the house will look like when finished….wall to wall concrete.  Being a relatively inquisitive soul I largely enjoyed our tour of two private loft apartments, an office/warehouse and shop.  The resultant outcome – a nod in the direction of a light grey concrete will most likely be the preferred finish to our floor.  Our walls are a dark natural stone which will be touched little by direct sunlight, so it will be necessary not to further darken an already dusk like space.  On the contrary, light must be channeled in wherever possible.

We have also been making progress with regards to the kitchen, final finishes to the guest bathrooms and wardrobes.  August is almost upon us and the summer recess.  We are also starting to give more thought to the final product and how to get you ‘the guest’ to come and stay with us.

Meanwhile, Spain are World Cup Champions and deservedly so and the Spanish Constitutional Court put paid to any sense of genuine national euphoria with a well aimed kick in the Catalan ribs and an anti-Catalan ruling.  A long and on-going story is set to enter another chapter.  Enjoy the summer.

Before this week’s blurb, two brief apologises.  First, for not posting a blog last weekend; over hectic schedule with the family which was great.  Second, keep the blog focused.  Well, the occasional emotionally skewed rant a la football etc. should be excused.

Summer is here and it’s official.  In Catalunya it is trumpeted in by La Revetlla and Sant Joan on the 24 June.   La Revetlla takes place on the night of the 23rd.  Coca de Llardons is eaten, a flat catalan bread topped with lardons and pinenuts accompanied by a glass of cava.  Fireworks and bangers are set off and the evening has a real party atmosphere, more akin to New Year’s Eve.   All this used to be accompanied by bonfire – bonfires made of old furniture.  Sant Joan was what we British euphemistically call a spring clean.  A thorough top to bottom cleaning and clear out of the home.  It was time for renewal.  Old chairs, tables were tossed on the fire to be replaced by the new.   Now this symbolism has been lost, largely due to the wider risk of forest fires and the alternative provisions made for the disposal of household items.  Never mind, the sentiment is still there.

Sant Joan and the Catalan public holiday was on Thursday; the Spanish don’t move their public holidays to the nearest weekend, as a consequence people often take the Friday off work as well, which makes for a long weekend.  Me, I had no choice, no classes on the Friday.

So with car packed we left Cardedeu on Thursday afternoon and pitched our tent next to La Rectoria.  A makeshift kitchen was put together under the arches of the house and with a near to full moon that bathed the Vall d’Hostels in a silvery light we settled down for the night.  I was first awoken by the dawn chorus, a cacophony of bird song.  Then it was a couple of early bird ladies out for a morning walk.   And it was only just after 07.00 when I got up.  Cup of Earl Grey and armed with strimmer I set to work on the ‘feixa’, the raised ground to the west of the house.   My senses quickly focused on the smell rising from the carpet of cut vegetation, chamomile.  It was a lovely awakening to a beautifully sun soaked morning. 

The carril bici was soon conveying a steady stream of cyclists and walkers passed La Rectoria and if I had a euro for every one that passed during the day I guess I would have earned 100.  And so the feixa has been cleared of chamomile and more noxious weeds.    We will have to gen up on our botany.  The small patio adjacent to the church is sporting a colourful array of plants and flowering shrubs and trees and the family returned with wild flowers and grasses gathered on a summer walk to the Ermita de Santa Cecilia.  The start of another colourful season in La Garrotxa.

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