Monday, 7 January 2008

A Backstreet Bar in Spain by Captain Sensible

In February 2007, we were lucky to be offered a friend's holiday villa in Spain for a bargain rent. Although located near Alicante of which one hears some pretty dreadful stories, the opportunity to get away and enjoy sunshine and a different culture was very tempting. Alicante itself is actually worse than what you hear about, and should only be visited if, for some perverse reason, you feel the need to visit a town and observe how to completely ruin it by corruption, lack of planning, greed and appalling taste. Fortunately we had our car and took off into the mountains nearly every day. Here, remarkably, old Spain still survives with its neat whitewashed villages and incredible mountain terracing alight with the vivid colours of orange trees and almond blossom. It looks as if it was painted by a 16th century artist and then superimposed on the landscape. On one particularly memorable early evening we were slowly wending our way home having spent the day tramping across mountains, albeit small ones, and visually feasting on landscape masterpieces round every bend, when we spotted, and decided to call into, a bar tucked away in an otherwise innocuous row of shops. When entering it soon became apparent that we had stumbled upon a 19th century mini-institution for manic depressives. Dark, gloomy, high ceilings, deathly quiet and with just three other customers all of whom sat gazing blankly into space, smoking continuously, making no conversation whatsoever, and generally appearing as having been struck by lightning and turned to stone. The only occasional signs of life were them taking another slug of their respective poisons, or dropping yet another fag butt onto the floor beneath their stools to add to the daily, possibly weekly pile. Later it was confirmed by others that the way the average Spanish bar customer tells a good bar from a bad one is whether they have a mountain of fag butts beneath the bar stools. Clean floors are a sign of a bad bar! Deciding that this was just the place for us to observe real Spain with real people, ( what does an unreal person look like? ) we sat ourselves down and waited for the proprietress to walk from behind the bar and take our order which is what would have happened in France. No. Madame kept pottering away behind the bar, looking as if she was at least clearing up the days accumulated debris on her side of the action. Eventually we got the message, rose from our seats, took one pace to bring us up against the bar and waited to catch her eye. After a seemingly interminable length of time, Madame looked up and with the slightest motion of one eyelid, indicated she was ready to possibly take our order. The request for two glasses of vino was silently dealt with, but the request for tapas was answered with a shake of the head. We took our glasses and returned to our seats. Several minutes later we noticed that Madame had moved from behind the bar and was standing in front of a gigantic open fridge and casting an eye at the contents therein. After several minutes she turned, looked over at us, flicked her head with just the slightest movement at which we dutifully trotted over. There before us, inside this monster of a fridge were rows and rows of tapas and it became apparent that Madame was indicating we should take our pick. At this point we were almost in hysterics, but because we were incredibly hungry and the tapas looked magnificent, we pulled ourselves together and chose three dishes. They were all wonderful, totally totally wonderful. A plate of black beans unlike anything we have ever experienced before, black olives by which we now measure a good olive, and sardines with out of this world flavours. It was literally, a small feast and with extremely good wine to boot. We stayed for about an hour, sipping, munching and murmuring in low voices as we built a possible world for our fellow drinkers, all of whom stayed rooted to their original spot except for the occasional lifting of the right arm and the dropping of yet another fag butt.. At one point, one of the customers made a comment which the others ignored but continued to gaze into the far distance with the butts steadily falling and mounting. Finally, "el hombre" appeared from the back, and began clattering around removing empties, wiping and flicking the tables, and we gradually began to realise that the slightly increased speed of the fellow drinkers' eye movements indicated that chucking out time was upon us; Gathering our belongings, paying about £2.50 for the entire meal, with wine, we emerged blinking into the evening sun which had just begun to drop behind the mountains creating this extraordinary panoply of pinks, browns, shadows and silhouettes. It was how I imagine prisoners must feel upon being let out and suddenly, after the gloom and silence, having been surrounded by people whose size of sigs would overwhelm all but fellow sufferers, they finally emerge into freedom and daylight, and find, that life, landscape, colours, shapes and are all quite beautiful in a way it is so easy to take for granted.

Crossing the Pyrenées to Spain
Our holiday villa
A Spanish lavoir
Almond Blossom beauty
Taking a stroll
A Moorish fort
Sunrise over the Med
Going home from Spain

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Epiphany Cakes for Kings and Queens

Roman Saturnalia, pagan festivals and Christian festivities have all interlinked to begin the celebration of Epiphany on January 6th with the Day of the Three Kings, Wise Men or Magi. It is the Twelfth Night of Christmas and in the Middle Ages a King (which one?) decided to celebrate with a King's Cake! In Paris it was made with Puff Pastry and almond paste called frangipane or marzipan. This version is also supposed to come from Pithiviers in Loiret, France hence it's name. In Provence it was made of Brioche and dried fruits. In the time of Louis XIV, the Church banned the festival because people were over-indulging!! The French make a feast of this time of year. If you win the bean (mind the teeth!!) which today is normally a ceramic model or plastic figurine hidden inside then you can wear the crown of a King or Queen and it is your turn to provide the next gateau at the next event! Even a pauper can be King for a day! What a marvellous idea!! It is never-ending! Consequently, the gateau festival starts and does not finish until Shrove Tuesday when the crêpe season commences!! The French do not give up pancakes for Lent! We will have to learn the art of saying "No thankyou" or greed just sets in!! We aim to play the following game at the first anniversary of our village children's group! I shall make a gateau in the shape of a crown. We will choose the youngest child to hide under the table and say in random order the names of the seated children so that they can each receive their portion in turn. Whoever has the bean (feve) will wear the crown to be the King or the Queen and their family will have to supply the gateau for the following week! We will also play a circle game where the person with the "bean" drops it behind a seated child. The two children race around the circle to return to the empty space. The one who does not gain the place re-starts the game. I wonder what song we could sing?

Today we sang "We Three Kings" whilst eating our dessert of Pithiviers gateau, having walked 12kms in the rain with our walking group. We stopped at the summer chalet of the group leader for vin chaud and hazelnut broyèe - something like shortcake. Excellent company!

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Happy New Year

It's New Year's Day and we've discovered a new walk around a favourite village. We start a great 2008 having spent New Year's Eve in the toolshed with a black and white decorated dinner table to match the black and white Christmas tree! Onion and goat's cheese tartlets then Salmon en croute with a mixed leaf salad was followed by cheeses, and three miniature desserts of lemon cheesecake, tiramisu, and chocolate mousse. After the church clock had chimed midnight and after the bubbly had helped us to raise a toast to our excellent hosts as well as to absent friends and families the adults linked arms for Auld Lang Syne. The dinner party was well- enjoyed, fun and we were full.