Thursday, December 31, 2009

Winter Scene


Just a quick snap I took on 20 December of Tarragona beach. We have had raqin and it's quite cold now, but we also get lovely bright crisp days like this which makes winter so much more pleasant. Feliz Navidad or Bon Nadal whichever you prefer!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

When is a dog really a pig?

I love the Spanish jamones and wouldn't want to cast any sort of slur on them. However a funny thing happened to me which I feel I must share, hoping it will not do anything to put you off a great national product.
I was invited to someones house recently and when I walked in the door I was hit by the heavy, strong, unmistakable smell of wet dog.I reccognised it immediately from many a winter walk with dogs in my youth, and was about to say "what kind of dog have you got" when I was interrupted, and the moment passed. As time passed I was puzzled by the apparent absence of said dog, and anyway, it was 35 C outside so how did the dog get wet? I assumed there was a large, hairy dog-blanket somewhere which was creating the smell. Fortunately I never got round to asking about the dog because there wasn't one. The cause of the smell was not canine at all, but a large ham in the kitchen on the sideboard, covered loosely with a tea towel. I couldn't believe it. I was convinced the guy had an enormous dripping wolfhound somewhere which had been emitting the (supposedly) unmistakable, pungent smell of damp dog, but no. For a single person, a ham that size would take months to consume, during which time it was perfuming his flat with its own essence. He lived in a permanent bubble of musty, meaty, yeasty, shaggy haminess due to this particularly Iberian kitchen accessory, to which he was apparently oblivious. Suffice to say the flat was small, the ham was big and the weather was warm. By the end of the evening it was making me feel quite unwell. It took me a couple of weeks before I could look a salty pigs' leg in the eye again......if you know what I mean.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Spanish Ham explained




For a country whose history includes large chunks of Muslim occupation it is maybe odd that Pork has become such a definitive national meat. Some have suggested that it is actually a tacit example of Spain’s propensity for rebelling against any who try to force them to be something they don’t want to be. All I know is that Jamon is worshiped here as a national treasure and is treated with a reverence bordering on obsession.
There are two initial distinctions to understand; Serrano and Iberico.

SERRANO
meaning ‘from the mountains’ is made using white ‘Landrace’ pigs. Confusingly it is also known as Jamon Reserva. Jamon Curado, or Jamon Extra. The pigs are compound-fed. The reason they are cured up a mountain is because it’s colder and therefore better for not giving you botulism which is always a good feature!.
Examples of Serrano appellations are:

Cured ham of Trevélez:
cured at least 1,200 meters above sea level. They are qualified to be among the “sweetest” cured hams due to the low degree of salting necessary for the drying and maturing processes to succeed properly. This is caused by the north winds coming from the high tips of Sierra Nevada, which still had copious amounts of snow on it when I was there last May (whilst the city temperature in Granada itself was about 35 C!)

Cured ham of Teruel:
cured at least 800 meters above sea level, with a minimum of a year of curing and aging.

IBERICO
Is made using black Iberian pigs or ‘pata negra’ . It tends to come from the west and south-west of Spain hwere teh cork oak forests border with Portugal. It is classified depending on feed and exercise. The best and most expensive are free range and fed only on acorns (bellota) the next best is fed a mix of commercial feed and acorns, and the least revered is fed only commercial feed and is housed in compounds. The hit parade looks like this:

3. Jamón Ibérico Cebo Campo hogs are compound-fed only commercial feed. Cured 24 months
2. Jamón Ibérico Recebo hogs are raised on commercial feed and fed acorns for the last few months of their lives. Part pasture, part compund fed.
1. Jamón Ibérico Bellota hogs are fed a diet almost exclusively of acorns (bellotas). The are free range and are cured for 36 months. The exercise and diet have a huge impact on the flavour. This is the most prized.

A final varition is a paletilla which is a front leg instead of a back leg. This is less revered, smaller and generally cheaper.

Bellota jamones are prized both for their smooth texture and rich savory taste. A good ibérico ham has regular flecks of intramuscular fat. Because of the pig's diet of acorns, much of the jamón's fat is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol. (wikepedia)
The fat content is relatively high compared to Jamon Serrano thus giving a richer taste.
Other words you might have seen are Huelva, Jabugo, Guijelo, Salamanca. These are towns which have a DO status and produce particularly good Iberico ham

Of course the hams are not refrigerated. I don’t know how that would go down with the UK health and safety police, but it isn’t a problem here. Every bar has a ham on a stand and many have them hanging from the rafters which is a splendid sight to a glutton like me. Some bars employ sexy staff to entice customers in. I prefer the sight of sexy hams! The curious inverted plastic cones are to catch the drips of fat which form as the ham continues to cure and shrink. Pig fat in your hair tends to drive customers away!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More Xmas decorations. Oh, and by the way...anyone for a spot of Rodin?










More Xmas decorations.
Oh, and bye the way.....anyone for a spot of Rodin? Enjoy!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Herbs R Us !



AT LAST! I've found a local Arabic shop that sells fresh herbs!! I can indulge myself with BAsil, Dill, Parsley, Tarragon, Coriander and MINT. So it's fresh mint tea in the mornings from now on. No more dusty tasting teabags!! Yipeeee!!!!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

XMAS DECOR

Xmas is upon us and Tarragona has done it again. They have decorated the city centre with such understated style and class that I think every local council form the UK should come on a visit to see how it should be done. I've only taken a few quick snaps so far and they don't do it justice alt all, but will update with more.



A SURREAL TRIP TO BARCELONA



Had the wierdest trip to Barcelona the other weekend. Took late train after work at 9pm. All good. Nodded off with Ipod. Woke up when gang of 8 noisy yoofs bounded on board and chose to sit next to me. Actually they surrounded me as it were. Last time this happened (25 years ago in Paris) I got mugged, so felt a prickle of apprehension. The guy opposite me seemed to have the role of ringleader/court jester and was talking non stop and making his mates fall about with laughter. He kept trying to catch my attention but I resisted his attempts. I noticed he had the end of a joint in his hand which he seemed quite happy to flaunt. I then witnessed him openly and overtly chop cocaine on a cigarette packet with a credit card and snort it .....twice in 15 minutes. This explained his manic chattering and fidgeting. They eventually disbanded and I arrived in peace (un-mugged!). Had booked a very cheap but centrally located Hostal. And therein lies the tale. Readers please take note that the classic combination of "very cheap" and "centrally located" invariably, by definition, without exception, inexorably means "shocking quality". So as i dodged the prostitutes and pimps of the upper Raval, and breathed in the perfume of urine and garbage that pervaded the alley in which my Hostal resided I did indeed ponder the notion of the proverbial "false economy". I pursuaded myself, as I had done before that I was at least getting an unsanitized (literally), authentic, street-level view of one side of the true Barcelona. I was officially "keepin' it real" as they say in street-parlance. Once inside, the hostal was ok. Honest. It was. Just about....Would I stay there again?? Ermmm.....well....errr....no. But that doesn't mean that I wish I hadn't had this experience. It's one of those character-building experiences that makes for great repartee....and blog material! I really should have known better from the name.....please don't laugh....but what do you expect from a Hostal in the middle of Barcelona that calls itself Hostal Miami! I mean please...! At least they didn't have a plastic palm tree in reception.
I explored the Raval area which was a relevation. If anyone is looking for a snapshot of 18th century Barcelona, all you have to do is wander the Raval at 3am, and squint your eyes so you can blur out any 21st century references like shop signs/clothes etc. The rest is all there. The maze of menacing dark narrow alleys formed by the tall blocks of gothic flats which seem to lean towards each other. The laundry hanging from every balcony. Dripping drainpipes, smelly sewers.The murky, shady, freaky creatures of the night who loiter in groups, beckon from doorways, shout, fight, laugh, scream. The transvestites, the African street hawkers, the tramps ferreting through the rubbish bins, the party-goers swaying and staggering through the darkness. All to a soundtrack of leaking nightclub music,restaurant kitchen noises, leary crowds of partygoers, distant screams and breaking glass....there's ALWAYS breaking glass. Maybe i'd had a bit to drink, but I felt like I'd gone back 200 years. It was uncanny. And then the rats....
As I made my way back to piss-alley Hostal I saw a family of rats at work. There were 8 of them running in and out of a drain grate in the road and they were climbing up and down a shiny metal rod which formed part of a large restaurant dump bin. I have never seen rats climb anything before, let alone a shiny narrow metal rod, but they zoomed up it like it was a ladder. I was quite mesmerised by their skill and lack of fear. The street was busy with people and we were only maybe 2 feet away from them.
My nights sleep was punctuated by the usual sounds of urban Spain. Banging, shouting, barking, refuse removal lorries you name it...i'm quite used to it now. It's just part of the night here. The next day I wondered if I had dreamed my medieval fantasy. I felt a bit like Mr. Ben in the cartoon. Had it really been like that? As i walked the streets, daylight had clearly contemporized them, the creatures had changed into normal shopkeepers and punters although the hookers and pimps were still around. But I'm convinced that come nightfall the Raval will transform itself once again into its sinister, but irresistible medieval alter ego.

Monday, November 23, 2009

TRADITIONAL BARCELONA TAPAS

went to BCN on a pilgrimage to Commerc 24, the hot, contemporary tapas restaurant run by ex-Adria chef Carles Abelan. It's perfectly located in the less salubrious, but up-and-coming area of El Born. I think there is an unwritten law that seems to state that the best places are never in the 'best' areas. There's something about the integrity of a place that can't afford the best location. The food has to be good, to get people to come there. Anyway we couldn't get in. So had to shelve it for another day. In the mean time I managed to go to this place which was more old-school and very charming for it. Counter displays of raw ingredients which got passed back to the kitchen through a hatch for cooking and then delivered to you. The place was slick,busy and looked the part. Staff were nicely kitted out in white jackets and attitude; clearly from the school of 'bark and don't smile' which i'm actually begining to get used to. I've stopped taking it personally as it seems to be an 'across-the-board' policy. I orderd a pile of oyster mushrooms and some croquetas. Mushrooms were greasy and underseasoned with burnt flecks of something...maybe garlic....and lacked that vital acidity. No lemon/wine/sharp herb to lift them. I've come to the conclusion that the best way to cook mushrooms is to effectively steam them in an emulsion which reduces to become a dressing lifted by a squeeze or squirt of chosen acid. Season. Add herb. Done. I keep trying the croquetas in the vain hope that one day I'll find one that dosen't taste like wallpaper paste. I guess i'll have to keep trying....Spain has some nice food...but there's a lot of average stuff too. video

Friday, November 20, 2009

MY GOD I FOUND IT!!!


After many a disappointing 'pa amb tomaquet' (apart from the ones at Bodega and La Nau which, although different, are sensational in their own right due to the freshness of the bread and the quality of the oil) I finally found somewhere where they grill the bread for that smokey, burnt taste. They also serve whole garlic cloves so you can 'rub you're own' and therefore adjust the power of the allium to suit your mood/afternoon commitments. I have come to the conclusion that the fresh bread versions don't actually include garlic at all. Maybe this is deemed as a refinement in this region. I deem it as a churlish deprivation of joy. Anyway I feasted on bitter/smokey toast redolent with the AROMA of rubbed garlic, sweetened by freshly sliced ripe tomato, anointed with the sacred green oil and set alight with rocksalt. A shiny, timeless, fashion-proof example 'par excellence' of true food alchemy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

BLACK RICE WITH SARDINES


With Pete I ordered Rrossejat, a local signature dish variation on Paella, The rice is fried first which gives it a chewey texture not dissimilar to Farro (spelt). The flavour is built as usual with a 'sofregit' of aromatics and a stock which I guess includes squid ink as it always appears to be quite dark. This particular restaurant chose a garnish of baked sardines which were just that...a garnish, cooked on top of the rice. I have to confess it was ok....but not outstanding. I've had more sensory pleasure from Valencian Paellas and Aroces in their various meat/fish combinations, particularly a Rabbit and Snail recipe I had once with tender broadbeans. The dark Rossejat had also taken on a slightly metallic taint from the castiron pan it was cooked in. I'll try it again soon and see if it impresses more. but for the time being the jury is out...

Friday, November 13, 2009

TRAVEL DISASTER NO. 1

Last time I went home I planned it well and felt I knew the local area well enough to get from Tarra to the airport by bus. It's only 8 km. No problem. Located sales office. Tapped on window. Got ignored for 2 minutes. Then she left the office for 5 minutes. Then she came and barked 'dime' at me ( what do you want) so I said these very words in spanish.; " A TICKET TO THE AIRPORT PLEASE'. She said 'which terminal?'. I thought 'that's wierd', it's a tiny airport, there's only one terminal. She said she needed the information for the ticket. So I just said terminal 1. She printed the ticket and charged me €13.50. I thought it was a lot for a short journey but didn't say anything. Next day I was on a lovely plush bus half way to BARCELONA AIRPROT before i realized something was amiss. The miserable old bag had sold be a ticket to an airport 60 km away instead of the local one. And before you ask...yes....it's the same bus company...same ticket office...same woman. Of course I missed my 10€ flight and had to buy one on the spot for a cool €135. Ouch!!!! i'm still wincing at the memory. It appears that unless you specify, they default to BCN airport. I think they consider Reus airport to be little more than a cowshed in a field where planes are sometimes allowed to land. Admittedly it is small and basic but perfectly adequate. Oh well you live and learn....

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

THERE ARE SNAILS!!!!


Locals love their snails..and most bars advertise their availability with a simple sign in the window saying "Hay caracoles" or "cargoles" in Catalan, sometimes illustrated with a cartoon drawing which looks like Brian from the Magic Roundabout. This means 'there are snails' but translates as 'snails are on the menu'. The classic recipe produces a bowl of snails in a spicy, slightly murky and thinnish red/brown sauce. I think the murk comes from paprika which can have that effect on a sauce. They are quite delicious and very different to the classic Burgundian treatment. All you need is a toothpick, glass of wine, lots of noise and wafting cigarette smoke (yes they still allow that here) for a truly definitive gulp of Spain.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

MIDDLE-AGED RANT

I’m quite bored by the number of bars that seem on the surface to be avid followers of the ‘grunge approach to hospitality management’. This takes the following form: Not beign ready for customers at your advertised opening times. Rubbing sleep from your eyes when said customers try to order. Sweeping the floor around your feet. Having last nights dirty glassware on display on the bartop. Not having any of your preparation (menus napkins chairs etc) ready for incoming customers. Looking like you've slept in your clothes.

Grunge is cool when it is a fashion statement, when it challenges previously established views which have become flabby and dull. Views that have started to drown in their own sickly niceness. It’s a breath of fresh air, an un-ironed revolt, a faded-denim slap in the face, an uncombed, unwashed wake-up call. But like any worthy movement it takes planning, consideration and attention to detail. To quote Banksy, ‘mindless vandalism takes a lot of thought”. What I see here in some of the bars has nothing to do with intelligent anti-fashion and everything to do with laziness and scruffiness. As with many movements before, it has hit the mainstream and been adopted by those who have no clue of the original ideal.

The trick with grunge is that it should be an illusion. It’s a fashion. It’s for looks only. The art is to look like you haven’t taken any care over your appearance…..to appear to disapprove aesthetically with ironing clothes and combing hair………to pretend that you don’t wash or shave every day because you’re just too damn cool.
Sadly I’ve been in to too many bars where the grunge leaks from personal fashion choice to slovenly, badly run business. To paraphrase Shania Twain “ so you think you’re Brad Pitt (in Kalifornia)….that don’t impress me much……unless the service and food/drink are amazing and you make me feel like I am wanted” …a sticky bartop is not cool, it’s just unpleasant…….an un swept floor is a sure sign of the state of the kitchen,……the miserable pout of the waitress who would so obviously much rather still be in bed is the antithesis of hospitality in any context. I would happily welcome any of the grunge puryeyors if only they could show me how their approach has elevated their artform and made things better for the customer. Bah humbug!!!!

BATTY VISITS




Had visit from best friend. we go back a long way and share various obsessions such as food, markets, travel, wine etc. so had a great time. It's nice to share the experience so all visitors are welcome. Managed a one night in BCN which was nice. That city needs some serious time spent to really uncover it's hidden treasures. Gastronomic highs included Pete's baked Hake on sliced potatoes with garlic, (menu del dia €12 for 3 courses) the Priorat red at Bodega where they give you wine straight from the barrel (see Priorat label) chipirones (fried baby squid), a tapa of wild mushrooms and jamon in BCN, as well as a sausage and bean tapa. Of course we went to the market as well. Bought Galeras....mantis shrimp....which seemed too cheap to be true. €6/kg. ~They looked great and indeed tasted FANTASTIC, a real sweet prawn flavour. The reason for cheapness is that they are very hard to peel and contain little meat. You can't suck the shells either coz they are razor sharp and adorned with defensive spikes. But for the money would be amazing as the base for a rice dish, soup or pasta sauce. Well worth a try. Played 'russian roulette' with a plate of Padron peppers...small green peppers, sauted whole and served with rock salt (I add a squeeze of lemon and black pepper) the catch being that one in ten of the peppers are hot like chillis.....eat at your own risk!!! Finally Pete decided to join my special 'club for travel-navigation disasters' and gave me a panicked call from Vilanova i la Geltru when he should have been at the airport. Suffice to say he was in the wrong place...and time was ticking. But to his credit he hatched a plan involving a train/taxi combo based on me looking a googlemaps at home and approving his proposed route via mobile. He made it!!! the wonders of modern communications.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

MISTAKES COME IN 3's so they say....

Well I managed to accrue my 3rd food-based cock-up to follow on from the Prawns and Percebes. Let's hope this is the end of it and I can get back to some good gastronomic discoveries. Anyway I was in one of my favorite tapas bars and wanted to try some new stuff. Liked the sound of 'Aros de cebolla rebozado' believing that aros must be Catalan for Aroz (rice). So I had made up my mind this was some kind of interesting rice dish with onions. I asked the waitress and she gabbled away at me and I made the fatal mistake of nodding when I didn't really understand. Actually I did understand her, but her explanation didn't match my preconception, so I assumed I had misunderstood. She said 'it's a bit like Calamares (fried squid rings) and very delicious'. I assumed there would be squid in the rice dish. So I ordered it and almost burst out laughing when I realized what it was. DEEP FRIED BATTERED ONION RINGS!!! 'Aros' has nothing to do with 'aroz' but means 'ring' . So I sat in the deepest of Catalan bars trying to explore the inner mysteries of Catalonia's most fundamental ingredient and all I get is a McDonalds-ish bowl of onion rings. What's that expression about 'assumption being the mother of all cock-ups......'?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

ANOTHER BIG ANTICLIMAX

Been trying to get my paws on percebes for years. Those barnacles form NorthEast/Basque Spain that look like dinosaurs toes and allegedly cost lives in their harvesting. Finally saw some at local rough-neck Tapas bar and gave them a try. All I can say is that they were curiously pleasant....slightly sweet, thin fleshy tubes that you pull out of the papery barnacle shell with your teeth. I was mildly enjoying them thinking that as a curious barsnack they had a certain novelty appeal. Then the barman gave me the bill for €9. What the *?"!!*? Coupled with my Prawn fiasco the other day I'm beginning to feel like I'm getting the guiri (foreigner) rip off. But I checked the prices and they are the going rate in both cases. I fully understand and appreciate the ethos of foraging for food as a survival mechanism in all parts of the world, and i am aware that this practice has led to some of the worlds most outstanding gastronomic achievements. However, all I can say is if someone offers you a small plate of percebes for €9 you'd be better off going home and marinating a few rubber bands in some seawater and adding a tiny bit of grit every few mouthfulls. I bet you could do that for less than €2.!!!

HARD CORE PRAWN !



Having eulogised bout the local seafood I thought I'd better put my money where my mouth is. The markets have many types of prawn all with different names, and price tags. But strangely not many feature on local menus. On way home the other night I stopped off at afore-mentioned fishmongers and splahsed out on the most expensive prawn...at €59/kg(yes....fifty-nine) Now I knew I wouldn't get many for my money but was hoping for fireworks in the mouth when I ate them. Wrong. What a dissappointment, and dare-I-say 'ripoff' I got 6 prawns for €10. Once peeled I fried and boiled the heads and shells to make a stock, which in turn became a paella-esque rice using chorizo, saffron, sweet peppers and onion. The prawns were added at the last minute. The rice was good. But the €10 prawns were bland and flabby in texture. A huge disappointment and definitely not worth the money. I can see why they don't feature on menus locally, nobody would pay the money for them. I am mystified and will do further research.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

LATENIGHT SEAFOOD SHOPPING


One of the things I love about Spain is the different dynamic to life back home. The timings are all askew due to the midday siesta which takes some getting used to. I still get caught out trying to nip to the shops at 2pm forgetting they are all closed between 1pm and 5pm. The up-side is that I can walk home at 9pm from work and nip into the local fishmongers/carniceria/cheese shop/delicatessen....yes....they still all exist here as separate independent outlets (haven't come across a candlestick-maker yet) and I must say its a pleasure to hop from one to the other and shop like our grandmothers used to....
check out the local fishmongers display.....

While i'm on the subject I can't help but noticing that the fish selection in the supermarkets is also incredible. Why does the fish in Uk supermarkets look like it comes from a factory instead of the sea....even on the fresh counter....and I'm talking about Bristol...a major port twice the size of Tarragona.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A TERRIBLE CONFESSION....SORRY CATALUNIA


I have a terrible confession to make, I feel like a heretic....I am betraying the one I love but I can't help it. I've tried and tried and tried...but i just can't help myself anymore. It has to be said. The hiddeous truth is..........I.....just.....don't .........rate.........pa amb tomaquet!. (no, the cat didn't just walk across the keyboard...that is the Catalan spelling for bread with tomato)
Now.....there is history to explain.....I first fell in love with the concept of toasted bread, rubbed garlic, fresh tomato, E.V. olive oil and salt when i was 15 and ate the product in the Valencia region many times as a young tourist. I have also reproduced the concept many times in my restaurants to good effect. Chargrilled sourdough bread or similar, rub with a garlic clove, (this tastes TOTALLY different from chopping the garilc and adding it to the tomatoes) paint with olive oil, spoon on chopped tomato flesh, season...close eyes....eat....don't speak for 30 seconds at least. It is the quintessential flavour of common sense. It encapsulates in one meagre dish the essence of great cooking tradition. That is to use your circumstances and best ingredients to perform alchemy....turn base elements into gastronomic gold. In Tarra I have tried many a tomato bread and have been mostly disappointed. Why? Well. 1. the quality of the bread. Its what I would call 'yesterdays French Baguette'....no hard crust or chewey ,lemony crumb. Its the easy cop-out but it brings the dish down. 2. The garlic has been mild to absent on most occasions.This might be considered as a refined touch, but to me it's the equivalent of de-caf coffee...kind of anathema. 3. The tradition of rubbing the tomato might be historically 'correct' but leaves me cold. I'd rather have a generous helping of ripe, chopped, tomato flesh instead of a smear of tomato water and seeds. And finally the most important missing element. The bitter twang of chargrilling. All the breads I have tasted have been 'toasted' not grilled over fire. Now the odds are stacked against me as: a) I'm not Spanish ...let alone Catalan. b)can every restaurant in Tarragona be wrong and Ant is right? But I actually don't care. I don't give a flying fig if I'm out of step with tradition....I just know that chargrilling sourdough bread over flames, rubbing it with a garlic clove, topping with chopped ripe tomato flesh, anointing with EVO and seasalt tastes a damn sight better that what I have been served.(actually I usually add black pepper and ...don't call the guardia civil......basil) So all I can say is that if what I have experienced is traditional Pa amb tomaquet then it has lost it's way.....viva la revolution!!! power to the heretic!!!! But then again, Imagine a well-meaning but deluded Spanish upstart trying to show Aunt Bessie how to make yorkshire pudding!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

GRAFFITI....ART OR CRIME?



Spain seems awash with graffiti. Having used Banksy as subject matter fo many a TEFL lesson I am still wrestling with the question in the title to this post. In the absence of a definitive answer I have resigned myself to position Of impartial observer. Tarra does not disappoint. Ranging from a whole street awash with highly attractive daubings and customized bollards...to witty (?) stencils and upsidedown DaDaist musings about altered reality and absurdity.


THEN THERE'S THIS.....ROUGHLY TRANSLATED IT MEANS
"THE IDIOTS ARE BACK
POLITICS IS CARRIED OUT BY SUBSIDIZED IDIOTS
MY ENEMIES HAVE MADE ME WHAT I AM TODAY"


A stencil reminiscent of our man Banksy










I saw this small and simplistic graffito (is that the singular?) and I just really liked it. The colour jumped out at me, and the juxtaposition with the door and grille just really looked good. I call it the blue rat. On closer inspection the outline of the rat has been carved into the stone.

Monday, October 5, 2009

WOT *??!*!? NO FRESH HERBS? YOU MUST BE 'AVIN A BUBBLE.....

Well who would have thunk it (sic) the Spanish in this region don't "do" fresh herbs....and I ain't talking Mary-Jane.....i'm after Basil...Mint, Corriander....or even just plain old Parsley....but no-way-Jose. My worries started when I realized I hadn't seen anything herbal in the Supermarkets.....must be a crappy branch i thought....but no....each one housed staff who looked at me as if I really was asking for marijuana....Never mind..the AMAZING central market is sure to have piles of fresh herbs, it has better seafood than I have ever seen in the UK. But no.....all I managed to find was two mangy packs of mint for €2.5 each!!! The stall holder told me the Spanish don't really go for fresh herbs and this was confirmed by a local who I chatted to.....what a surprise. I limped back to the flat with my equally limp mint and wrapped it in clingfilm as if it were the last of a threatened species (instead of the invasive weed it is) and pondered the sick irony of a city called Tarragona not having any tarragon. I started to make furtive plans for window boxes, grow-bags on the roof terrace and scattering seeds sent from the UK in the local park....I would start a herb revolution...Barcelona will have Basil, Catalonia will be swamped with Corriander, and you can guess which town would be come my hotbed for Taragon. I could see my face on the cover of Herb Magazine Monthly....'English maverick changes the cooking culture of an entire nation"....watch this space!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

THE GRAND FINALE...DEVILS, GIANT BULLS, FIRE-BREATHING MONSTERS

The finale of the festival...a health and safety nightmare. Couldn't believe it. the potential for injury is huge. The basic premise is to watch a parade of devils, monsters and giant bulls parade through town spraying fireworks everywhere. furthermore the idea is that you must try and dance under the shower of fireworks to fight off the evil forces. You may wear a straw hat for protection....yes straw....no...not very fireproof , i know.....just don't ask...!!! And that fire spray burns...I got caught in clip 1 below. When the footage goes dark, it's coz i was brushing burning embers off my hair and shoulders....I didn't have a straw hat!
video
The parade combined a wierd, slightly subversive...pagan....tribal anarchy with what I assume it might be like in a middle eastern war zone. The noise...smell of burning phosporous....drumbeats...costumes....and hypnotic rhythm to the whole parade would not have been out of place in a Haiitian voodoo ceremony. It was staggering...and it went on...and on....and on.......and on........
video

video

Monday, September 28, 2009

Its official! The Spanish are just DANGEROUS!!!!!!

The main event of the festival. Human towers, pillars and castles. Runs for most of the days. Taken VERY seriously. Draws huge crowds. Teams from surrounding villages train together all year to compete at such festivals. And huge pride is at stake. Video clip is self explanatory. The tension during, and cheering afterwards was a surprise to me. Towers are judged by number of tiers and people in each tier. It is only recently that the young child who climbs to the top has started wearing protective headgear. And some do collapse. Hence the Red Cross tent and ambulances on standby!!!! In the clip the tower deconstructs itself to reveal a hidden pillar of people in the middle. This was a massive achievement.
WARNING: DON'T TRY THIS AFTER CHRISTMAS LUNCH IN THE BACK GARDEN!!!

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I stumbled across this group of 'castelers' who were celebrating a historic achievement in the competition which hadn't been done for 11 years by any team. Only prob is I couldn't understand what the achievement was! Oh well! The were going bonkers ....throwing beer and generally hugging everyone in sight....so i just joined in. If You don't understand what all the fuss is about don't mock...just remember....we have cricket...and that takes 5 days!

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

How to cook a Paella for 500 people!!

Foodwise, the festival promised a giant street-cooked Paella for 500, public breakfast celebration of tuna and snail stew, two different sausage festivals, a Vermouth tasting, a Vermouth and mussel tasting, a 150 meter long cake, omelette tasting, another sausage tasting, another Tuna and Snail Stew, a cheese and wine tasting, a Tapas tasting, and yet another Tuna and Snail Stew-off!! Damn! they love their Tuna and Snails!
So how to cook Paella for 500.
Step 1:
Light a gert big fire under a gert big pan. Tip in 25kg of shellfish and get someone to start stiring with and oar.
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Step 2:
Get a man in a white jumpsuit to chuck in chopped onions, tomatoes and about 50 kg rice.
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Step 3:
Lubricate Rice with buckets and buckets of hot stock.
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Step 4:
Lubricated workers so they don't dry out!!!
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Step 5:
Serve up to the waiting crowd
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Saturday, September 26, 2009

THE CRAZY SANTA TECLA FESTIVAL!

Historic festival kicks off properly the day after I move in to the flat. Takes place all over the city for 7 days. Promises to include, human towers, pillars and castles, fireworks, The Hundred Year Old Spoken Dance of the Devils of Catalonia , Dancing Giants, Dragon of Sant Roc, Turks and Little Horses, Saint Michael and The Devils, and various acts that look like transvestite Iberian Morris Dancers. (Imagine hairy men in judo suits with ‘Priscilla Queen of the Dessert’ head-dresses and Swiss cowbells jumping around and knocking sticks and whacking people with inflated pigs bladders)
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We also had the various pole and ribbon concept dances.....
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And then what I can only describe as the dance for people who can't actually dance. It seemed to involve ordinary people forming a circle in the street, holding hands.....and then sort of jogging on the spot for 15 minutes whilst a band played for no apparent reason. I assume it was the precurser to the modern day aerobic class. All very cordial and pleasant and no doubt good for the circulation so who am I to ctiticize....
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Friday, September 25, 2009



There's something about walking down a tree-lined rambla at 11pm in shorts, sandals and a t-shirt with a paradoxically warm/cool breeze blowing that makes me want to kiss strangers!! The paradox is, of course, that the breeze is distinctly cool compared to the heat of the day, yet by British standards it feels like a giant hairdryer on a low setting is blowing in from the horizon. Just went to Bodega, a bar full of wine barrels where u can take any old bottle to be filled from their selection of 10 generics for about 2e a litre. It’s not a wine mecca....you get what u pay for, and the Rioja is definitely better than the Priorat....but you can't get a more authentic snapshot of Spain’s fundamental connection to food and wine as an integral component of every day existence. It’s a filling station for wine which happens to have some good things to eat. That’s all. But I definitely got the faint echo that places like this (like many a good English pub) provide people not just with cheap wine, but with an antidote to the often harsh realities of daily life. Dark wood, blue and white tiles, hanging jamones and chorizo. An austere glass chilled counter housing tortilla, sliced ham, anchovies and marinated squid. A bell jar of tanned, shiny, salty whole almonds. Now i've seen many of these since my arrival but most make my alarm bells ring when the ham is starting to curl, the anchovies look yellowish and the backdrop features a microwave. This one didn't. Can't tell you why. But I was right. For all its simplicity it was superb. The tortilla was at room temperature. Moist and tasting of fruity olive oil, sweet onion and soft potato. Spiked on a toothpick with a leaf of ruby ham. The almonds burst under your teeth with a salty, roasted explosion. Asked for a tapa of ham. Unusualy, she seemed pleased I'd asked. She rubbed bread with cut tomato and topped it generously as if she were feeding a son. The taste was wonderful, musky, sweet, soft, meaty, and moist from the tomato. Wow.

BODEGA

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I rent a room.

Locate viewing street. Shave. Nice shirt. They are looking for a safe tenant, so dress safe. Meet student in doorway waiting for same viewing. We chat. Owners arrive. We go up 6 floors in lift. Flat typical average Spanish flat. Dark, grannys' furniture, central well, roof terrace for drying laundry. Room ok, furnishings basic but ok. Single bed, cupboard, desk, drawers, ceiling light. Window onto central well. OK. Two existing tenants ….Anna…nurse approx 30 y.o. and Roberto, Brazilian approx 45 y.o. Decision time. Student viewer backs down and says it’s not for him. The owners like me, I can tell. Think quick. Nothing to lose. Cheaper than Hostal. I’ll take it. Perfecto! Deposit 1 month + 1 month advance rent, copy of passport, NIE (numero identificacion de extranjero). Read through contract with owners. Surprise myself at how much I can understand of the Spanish legal speak. Sign. Keys. I’m in! That was easy! I have a home! Feels good.
Fetch cases from Noria. Say my goodbyes to them but I’m pleased to leave. Unpack properly for first time. Actually feels like today I have arrived. My new flatmates throw an impromptu lunch for me. Great welcome. Thx guys! This is going to be OK!
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CENTRAL MARKET

Just love the buzz. It’s how food shopping should be. It’s so real…..no artifice. First the noise…..chaotic, uptempo, makes your heart beat quicker as soon as you walk in, then the smell…..fresh sea smells, cheese, jamones,…. Then the violence. The beheading, de-scaling, gutting, boning. The urgency to sell…to bargain…to get the best. My eyes are everywhere. I suddenly realize I’m smiling for no reason. Is that weird? Who cares! I walk around anonymous, watching, taking in everything, the prices….what could I sell a portion of squid for…the cuts…..is that ribeye? looks different….that must be tripe…’callos’…seen that on menus…now I know…. Chickens with head still on like in France…..que buscas carino? (what are you after, love?)....nada….solo mirar gracias!!! (nothing, only looking thx). I stand next to people straining my ears to try to understand. This is full speed, no-holds-barred real language...some Catalan, some Castellano. The best language lesson you can have and it's free!
Outside it’s like I’ve been to a rock concert, my ears are ringing. I head to basque tapas bar. Small beer in strange flat tumbler. Chistora sausage still warm, mushroom croqueta, tuna with padron pepper, fried cheese, pincho moruno. Would this work in UK? Keep thinking!
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Nice Flat in Casc Antic


Went to see more flats in Casc Antic. First one really nice. Much better. I could quite happily have this one. Except 450 /mes....Next 2 back to 18c Paris ....musty .....creaky ....tiny....and I suspect rodent-friendly if u know what I mean.
After a bit of maths I realized that the only practical start up solution would be a flat share. Luckily saved some numbers from the local paper so made the calls. Determined not to use moblie so had to go back to hostal, get laptop, go across square to sister hotel for free wi-fi, then skype. Made appt to view room... Friday.
Hotel gets shirty with my constant usage of wi-fi. Need a lift so go to Central Food Market. Some people get their kicks out of window shopping for shoes or cars…..I do food markets. And this is a goodun!!
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THE FLAT HUNT AND THE BROTHEL


Went to school. Slightly dissap to only get 15 hrs. Still gives me opp to get other work. Did budget based on 900€ and realized sharing might be the only option. Still, went to see flat through agency reccommended by school. Modern, lift. All marble. Heavy smell of bleach made my eyes sting. Agent said it was the overzealous cleaner. Flat nice. Modern. But soooo boring. Don't mean to be fussy but it was so anodyne. Also area far and downhill from anywhere I would want to socialize. As the 'yoof' of today say..."I just wasn't feelin' it".
Went to Boronat, another agency. Said they had studio. Agreed to see it next day.
Santa Tecla fiesta week starting to kick in. It’s gonna be a week of street partying and historical celebrations. The Catalan flags are everywhere. As are signs of fierce brooding separatism. Weather thankfully cooler than last month.
Traipsed the gothic quarter and arranged to view more flats.
Guess what! First one was RIGHT next to the puteria! I couldn’t help but smile as we approached. Actually it was very cute.(see previous pic below) Absolutely perfect if you want to spend a year pretending to be Toulouse Lautrec....low ceilings...wobbly walls, mangy furniture and a pervading reek of mildew....and no doubt a neighborhood discount with " 'er nex-door". Throw in a free dose of 'consumption' and you could be well on you way to featuring in the Catalan re-make of Moulin Rouge!
I absolutely loved it. But it wasn't practical. The next 2 I saw were worse. Only in that they had all the 19c drawbacks but none of the charm. I was also slowly realizing I could not afford a place on my own.
Still I had some more viewings. In the Casc Antic (old part of town) as they call it. I’m beginning to love the area, and my newly ascertained prospective earnings add to the authenticity of living the 'impressionist dream'. Hopefully the STDs and ensuing madness will not follow. Went back to trusty old Hostal Nuria for a shower, then out to catch some fiesta. Live band in Placa de la Font....the locals turned out in force.The 'guiri' (foreigner) gave in at about 2am and hit the sack with earplugs 'a la Glastonbury'. Had a good nights sleep!!!

First Day of New Year


First day of 'new year'. Ropey night in hostal Nuria. But absolutely typical of expectation. No air con, window open, noise from medieval streets. Mad sax player at 2am...argument in Catalan with neighbours. ..and nearly with me. Smoke-filled bar with local blue collars...Itchy bed, flat pillow...but nice bathroom. Traffic noise.... Back ache...fleas? Not sure. Maybe just my imagination. Check back on this point.
Everything as expected ...except feeling of vulnerability. (always thought I was a really resilient adventurer) Sadly this is overwhelming any sense of joy,liberation,excitement. Although I get by well I realize ...esp with the 2 langs that I am a COMPLETE foreigner. My notion of being a hispanophile is a joke. I'm a wannabe. It will take years.And does it provide any answers? Dunno. Although I already realize that to be happy you need good friends and family around you.
Went to main flat rental agency. They very aggressively pointed out I would need to give 6 mthd dep. And/or have a referee in order to get a flat. So reconsidering private paper ads. Decide take refuge in the joy of a Menu del Dia on Placa de la Font. Olives, ensalada, paella, postre, vino (bottle on table for you to help yourself) for 13e. Feeling better! Siesta needed. Made ap. to see a flat by market. Private ad. Quite hopeful. Sweet old couple meet me outside a typically dark dusty and depressing building. Show me flat of matching description. Big. With typical dodgy Spanish wiring. Depressing furnishings. Four bedrooms.....except one cannot be used because it is unsafe due to subsidence after a block of flats was built nearby 8 years ago. Still trying to get the insurance money. He showed me the huge cracks then shut the door and calmly told me to pretend that room didn't exist! Shame. Big flat. But no thanks!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

FIRST NIGHT....what's that red light...?


Did lizzaran. Great Basque tapas bar chain with realy good buzz and loads of tapas on the counter! Wandered the medieval streets. Great atmosphere.Still think this town amazing for a film shoot! Inadvertantly found brothel, complete with ropey old hag at bar who tried to entice me in. Little did she know.... See the pic above. It's the innocent looking bar with the nice planters above it and subtle red lights!!! I legged it back to Nuria, Got newspaper off bartender for accom leads. Hit the sack. Made plan for fire escape. Including radical jump to next balcony etc...be prepared. Hid valuables in random places.

Arrival In Spain


Arrived without incident. The heat hits. But I knew that. Calm down...walk slowly...relax! Accept that you will sweat, so will the locals, it doesn't mark you out as a foreigner!! Having done a reke. trip I know my way around. Always helps. Get train from Reus to Tarra. This is it now. Put my Spanish to the test. The realities of functioning in a foreign country on a day to day basis are upon me....and I love it! Best way to learn. Walk from RENFE to Placa de la Font. Uphill. Know the way. Still impressed by the 18c vibe. Arrive at Hostal Nuria, my budget accom. for however long it takes. They recognize me from my last visit. Reminds me of childhood holidays... noisy blue collar bar downstairs with the inimitable atmosphere that comes from the combination of utilitarian functional 1970's design, strip-lighting, thick cigarette smoke, the smell of a hot plancha grill, trash TV on the wall in the corner and a bleeping gambling machine. Toothless tattooed elders smoking and arguing, younger wideboys with earstuds and obligatory blue work trousers and shirts also smoking and arguing. Room small...basic...but newly modernized. I'd checked it out last time. Basic single bed, small table (no lamp) tiny cupboard enough for 6 hangers. Balcony onto medieval narrow side street. can almost jump to other side...(see later) Bathroom fully tiled and modern! Almost a shame not to have clanking plumbing, dripping taps and the smell of sewers. If i'd wanted functional modernity I could have checked into the Holiday Inn!!!!