Wednesday, 30 June 2010

West Country vibes

Apples at the Powderham Country Park orchards.

And some pokey-sounding cider... They like it strong down here!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

For Those That Love to Eat @ Glastonbury

The travels may be over, but I'm not quite back to reality just yet. As of tomorrow, I'll be working at The Rocket Lounge Restaurant in the Shangri-La area of the wonderful Glastonbury festival!

Unsurprising, since the restaurant is the brain child of Chris Gillard, Head Chef at St John, the menu is suitably nose to tail affair, with a few indulgent twists... It will certainly beat the hot dogs and falafels!

Maybe see you there...

As I walked out one mid summer evening

It was three quarters of a century ago that Laurie Lee's epic journey across Spain ended, guided by little more than a sense of adventure and a desire to broaden his horizons. Traveling on foot, he walked from Galicia to Andalusia, through town and country, dessert and mountains, immersing himself deep into what he so evocatively describes as "the firey heart of Spain".

His vivid, captivating account of the journey, As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning, has been a great companion to me on my own Spanish adventure... Rolling into two-horse towns in the middle nowhere, knowing no-one, and having no idea what my time there would bring. Many times I sought reassurance in Lee's beautifully poetic prose as I've virtually re-traced his steps, immortalised in ink on the pages in front of me.

In the passed five months, I've seen this huge and diverse country in many a new light. The gastro-paradise of the Basque Country; the hard, rugged mountains of Asturias; The steep valleys and rolling hills of Galicia; the best of city life, all hip barrios, fancy architecture, and urban beaches; I've found hotbeds of life in some of the country's most out of the way regions; Learnt Spanish by the beach, and walked alone in hectare upon hectare of open farm land, with only the odd cow as company.

I chose Spain for many reasons, but in reality, my over-riding motivation was the Spaniard's national adoration of all things pig, and their production of what in my opinion is the greatest food product in the entire world, jamón iberico.

If I was looking for pigs, well I certainly found them, getting much closer than expected at times. But it's not only the pork products that stand out in the memories of my trip. Repeatedly I've been welcomed into people's lives, treated as family, and experienced first-hand the pursuit of a lifestyle that is so different to what I had been used to, yet so utterly inspiring. The pursuit of a life based on personal interests and passions, following what you believe in, and a commitment to knowing that it is possible to make a difference, even if only your little corner of the world.

And now, inevitably, it is time for my journey to come to end. Like Laurie Lee, the final point in my journey is the coast of Andalusia; He left in midsummer 1935, on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, departing on a British naval gunship, on express despatch from Gibraltar. Meanwhile I'm catching the 22.05 Ryan Air flight to Leeds Bradford International. But hey, times change...

Hasta luego España. Te echaré de menos.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Todo del mundo

There are many idiosyncracies of the Spanish language that I've come to love over the passed five months. The very liberal use of obscenities still makes a smirk slide across my face, whilst their use of 'no' as an affirmative is something I've fully bought into. But there's one turn of phrase that never fails to prick my ears up as being so illustrative of the nations attitudes when it comes to adding grandiosity to a statement, the laissez faire attention to detail, and most importantly, the all-inclusive nature of life here, particularly when it comes to socialising.

Todo del mudo – literally all of the world – is the default expression used to describe instances or situations that lots of people take part in. For example, you might say “a las ocho por la tarde, todo del mundo va a pasear y a tomar aperitivos” - “at eight in the afternoon(!), everyone goes for a stroll and to drink pre-dinner drinks”, or “todo del mundo en los hostales son Americanos” - “everyone in the hostels are American”. It's also very effectively used to describe places where a mix of people can be found, for example, un bar de todo del mundo.

For the last two days I've been staying in La Quinta luxury golf resort, just outside Marbella, Malaga. As nice as it is, I think it's pretty safe to say it's not a todo del mundo kind of place. In fact, I'd go as far as saying it's pijo giri (posh foreigner) kind of place. So when Wednesday came around, bringing Spain's first outing in the World Cup, I decided to head out of the resort in search of what's left of real life on the Costa del Sol.

Thankfully, just down the road is San Pedro. A fairly sleepy working class town, who's occupants fill the various service industry jobs that the resorts, hotels, and leisure complexes that stretch the length of the Costa del Sol necessitate.

After having pootled into town along San Pedro's calle principal, I wrestled the battered old Nissan that I'd borrowed for the day into a tight parking spot just outside the first bar I came to – Bar Manolo. As I edged backwards and forwards in the midday sun, all four windows down, and sweat forming on my brow under the heat and pressure, another car slid up behind me, casually double parking, as if the road itself was one long parking bay. I'm still fairly new to driving abroad, and this is a custom I've yet got used to.

Anyway, if La Quinta is a pijo giri kind of place, Manolo's bar is the exact opposite. Inside, silver-haired old men sat sipping glasses of red wine. Men in work boots stood at the bar with cold San Miguels. A drunk with a big red nose and shaky hands shared shared rounds of tinto de verano (red wine and Fanta limon), with a table full of business men who'd knocked off early for the afternoon. Young mothers sat lined up in a row at a table, as their kids ran around the bar in front of them, dressed head to toe in the Spanish strip, complete with red and yellow head scarfs, and national flags painted on either cheek.

Manolo's bar is definitely a todo del mundo kind of place. A cross section of literally the entire town had come together for Spain's first big day. At least three generations, sharing in the pleasure of a national event unfolding on the big TV in front of them.

As the afternoon wore on, and Spain's chances were continually thwarted, there were many a furrowed brow, shaking of heads, and vocal cries of “!joder!” (no translation for that one), but this was all interspersed by the cheerful gossiping at the tables, the wheezy laugh of the drunk to my left, and the energetic activities of the kids, entertaining the families and anyone who cared to pay them any attention, instead of the football match they'd come to watch.

As it happened, not even good old fashioned togetherness was enough to change Spain's luck that afternoon, but instead of brawling in the streets, the inhabitants of San Pedro strolled along the paseo, and ate ice cream on the terraces. It was nice to see todo del mundo watching their team lose, and remaining cheerful about it.

Credit to Clare Brody and fedegottardo for the images.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Chocolate con churros

It's taken me five months to try chocolate con churros. And over two days last week, whilst in the company of French chocolate aficionado, I ended up indulging in this wicked, and most typically Spanish of combinations three times in a row.

Considering the weekend was spent in Granada, the historic capital of the Kingdom of Al Andaluz, the last stronghold of the Muslim's occupation of Spain, and a hotbed of all things arabic in the Peninsula, tea would have been a more appropriate beverage. As it was, my gallic traveling companion could barely function without her thrice daily fix, let alone pass a cafe without being drawn in by the lure of steaming mugs of chocolate.

In Spain, hot chocolate is served thick and gloopy, with a similar texture to custard. The default accompaniment are the deep-fried fingers of dough, drenched in white sugar, known as churros. It's a combination something akin to tea and biscuits in England, chips and mayonnaise in Holland, or grits and gravy in the deep south. Both are good, but the sum is greater than the parts...

After having had a rather gluttonous few months, I had designated my final fortnight as a time to behave myself when it came to idol snacking... My french companion, however, being a few years my junior, and therefore being in possession of a somewhat faster metabolism, had no such reservations...

But anyway, I'm still officially on holiday. The diet can start next week.

(Thanks to oboulko for the foto)

Monday, 14 June 2010

Kickin' off my boots

My farming days, for the time being at least, are over...

(Image courtesy of berly816)

Los olivares

If you would have asked me two weeks ago if I'd like to have my own olive grove sometime, I would have gone misty-eyed at the thought of hazy evenings spent strolling along the terraces, plucking fruits off the trees, and once a year, carting my crop of olives up to the press to make my batch of oil.

Now, after having spent the last ten days or so working at la Finca El Cercardo, I have something of a better idea of exactly what's required for a bumper crop of oil.

El Cercado is situated in the Lecrin Valley, in the foothills of the majestic Sierra Nevada, which tower some two thousand meters above. The finca has two and a half hectares of terraced olive groves, all of which needed to be weeded, strimmed, pruned and cleaned. The process is completely free of chemicals and pesticides, resulting in fabulously smooth, and completely organic oil.

(The image is taken from kellycrul on Flickr - my camera is still roto)

Monday, 7 June 2010


A revitalising beverage for a summer's day in the Sierra. If you don't have oranges growing on trees in your patio, shop bought ones will do the job just fine.

Enough for 4 thirsty farmers

Two largesprigs of mint – a couple of dozen leaves


The juice of six or seven juicy oranges

The juice of one large lemon



In a large jug, 'muddle' half the mint leaves together with roughly a desert spoonful of sugar, as if you were making a mojito. Juice the oranges and lemons into the jug, and add the same volume of water. Add the remainder of the mint leaves and refrigerate for a couple of hours. Serve in tall glasses over plenty of ice.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A walk in the dehesa

La Finca Banega, my current home from home, nestled in 350 hectares of dehesa in the Sierra de Aracena.

The only company are the oak trees, and a herd of native Iberian breed cows. A happy life on the farm, resulting in top quality meat for the table.

Wild flora of the dehesa.

Sunset over the Sierra.

El Museo del Jamón

Aracena is a fairly typical Andalusian pueblo, all white-washed buildings and fountain-centered plazas, tucked away in the mountains of rural northern Huelva. Over an hour's drive from the nearest city, it's verging on the middle of nowhere, except for when it comes to the jamón industry, of which it is virtually the centre of the world.

Or one of four centres (if that's possible?) of the world to be precise; The area around the sierra is one four denominacion de origen, marking jamón of particularly high quality in Spain. The others include Dehesa de Extremadura, Badajoz; Jamon de Guijuelo, Salamanca; and Los Pedroches in Cordoba.

Naturally, upon arriving in Aracena, my first stop was the Museo del Jamón...

Greeted by a wall of hanging hams... Mmm, que huele!

A statue of Alberto Germán Franco, outside the museum, "a tribute to all the people who have worked in the Iberian Pig Sector". I'm proud to be able to claim that applies to me!

All quiet on the southern front

It was almost like being in time warp. A parallel universe, existing outside of space and time. Every bar, cafe, shop and apartment had shut out the world, hiding any signs of life behind steel shutters. I crept through Plaza De Las Angustias, caught in a daydream where the world was inhabited by me, and me alone.

With my shirt damp against my back, I limped to a table outside the first cafe I came across that hadn't shut it's doors for the afternoon. Shadows softened as the sun's rays were filtered through the thick, sticky clouds that shrouded the city. The atmosphere was hot and damp, carrying the unmistakable musty scent of slowly fermenting grapes...

Clinging to the fringes of the sprawling conurbation that rims the Bay of Cadiz lies Jerez de la Frontera, a city of great historical significance; A bustling trading settlement in the reign of Al Andalus, a strategic outpost during the years of the Reconquista, and an important industrial hub in more modern times.

Influences from it's history both recent and ancient are proudly displayed throughout the city. Grand edifices of bygone colonial times share real estate with raff-and-tangle concrete palaces of the post-industrial age. Old and new sit side by side, decorated with dusty yellows and glistening azure blues that are so typically Andalusian. And amongst it all, in the courtyards, store houses and side streets from the old town to the outskirts are bodegas. For whilst Jerez may seem like little more than a sleepy, if handsome, industrial city, it is of course, the centre of the world when it comes to sherry.

Strolling from street to deserted street, not a single sole crossed my path. The huge wooden doors of the bodega I'd been meandering towards were bolted shut, as if the staff had left town, planning never to return. Still, I knocked.

After a humid few minutes wait, I was just about to turn on my heals when the doors creaked and slowly swung open, to reveal a beautiful vine covered courtyard. At the entrance stood a weary looking employee, Ignacio, who seemed so surprised to see anyone, he invited me for a look around. Ignacio turned out to be El Heffe, and whilst he was well over due for his siesta, he said he had just enough time to show me round.

As we walked amongst the barrels, he explained the cyclical fermentation process and how the conditions created by the humid micro-climate in the area, and their superior oak barrels allowed them to mature their wines for upwards of 20 or 30 years before bottling. This particular bodega, after all, exclusively produces V.O.S (vinum optimum signatum) and V.O.R.S (vinum optimum rare signatum) sherries and brandies. Basically, the best.

After a brief look at the owner of the bodega, Joaquin Rivero's private collection Renaissance art – which included two royal portraits by Goya – we reached a private room which is normally used to hold tastings for clients far more esteemed than I. But my luck was obviously in that day, or Ignacio just fancied a night cap, as he began pouring glasses for the both of us, first of their 25 year old V.O.S. Fino, then the V.O.R.S, then an Oloroso, then a 45 year old Gran Reserva brandy. Four glasses of fine vintage liquor at that hour of the day is enough to make anyone sleepy...

Back in the centre of town, as the long afternoon nudged it's way towards the evening, the city finally began to wake up. Old ladies sat huddled around the tables in the cafeterias, gossiping to one another as they snaffled deep-fried churros and dunked them into their mugs of steaming hot chocolate. Young folk gestured wildly to one another as they discussed their plans for the evening over quick cups of cafe con leche. Parents drinking beers on the terraces, as their kids played football in the square in front of them.

I sat outside a bar, sipping an Oloroso - ice cold, full bodied, carrying the taste of the barrel, and very slightly sweet - and watched the life flood back into the streets. Maybe Jerez de Fronter isn't so quite after all... They just take their afternoon napping seriously.