Archive for November, 2010

There’s no such thing as a free lunch

November 30, 2010


Following on from my horticultural extravaganza of picking my own olives, a couple of days ago I was out in the campo with some friends to enjoy a paella and plenty of tinto under a bright blue autumnal sky. Well….at least I thought that’s what I was doing.

The patch of land about twenty minutes drive north of Valencia is typical of many in the area. Not so long ago a few thousand square metres would have kept a family in fresh vittles most of the year around, as well as a few chickens scratching in the dirt and a pig for the matanza, the annual ritual of killing it to provide the joints, sausages, innards and gizzards for the coming year. If it was big enough there would be enough olive trees for oil and nibbles, and almonds, oranges and lemons for health’s sake. A few hardy ancients still grow a cop of tomatoes and artichokes, but usually the only crop you see these days are weeds and withered branches.

Paco has lived in a casita, a tumbledown one-storey house, on his bit of God’s green acre for fourteen years. When I first came to Spain eleven years ago with barely a peseta to my name, I lived in one for about four weeks…and that was enough for me, so if nothing else, I admire Paco for his stamina and consistency. During the last few years he’s been slowly working his piece of land, trying to bring it back to life, and he’d invited a group of friends along to show what he was doing. I didn’t know him personally, but he’s a friend of a friend, and I’m always happy to go somewhere, have a quick shufti, nod at all the right places, and then sit down and scoff my face.

We did the usual preparatory shuffling of setting the table and chairs up and getting the fire going so Vicente could cook his paella, but just before I could settle my bones I was told we were going to pick a few almonds. “Well, that’s not so bad,” I thought; “warm me up a bit.”

Ever picked almonds? No, I thought not. A little word of advice here; it may look good in the tourist brochures when you are being enticed to shell out hard earned coppers for a bit of a rustic adventure, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty and have to spend your time doubled over or sat on your behind while getting showered with something as hard as hailstones, you begin to wonder if it might not have been a bit of a better idea to go to the nearest take-away for a kebab, and sit under the sun on your terrace at home to eat it.

About six of us jollied forth for the picking while Paco and Vicente cleared a patch of ground to plant onions. My first idea of casually selecting the nuts from the tree was soon abused when it was pointed out that we had to pick up all the ones that had fallen naturally, hence the doubling over. And there were hundreds of them. Someone handed me a plastic bag, and within a couple of minutes I gave up the doubling and arse shuffling, and got on my knees, partly in supplication to the Almighty to get me out of this, but mainly because I’m too old, too fat, and just too tired for all this harvesting malarkey. Too late to get out of it now, though.

So around I shuffled, grubbing in the muck and grass like a pig rooting for truffles. Pick up a handful, chuck ‘em in the bag and move on to repeat. After about fifteen minutes I leant back on my heals for a rest and looked around. Behind me were neatly placed piles of almonds. My first thought was that someone had been wasting their time simply piling the almonds instead of chucking them in a bucket, quickly followed by my second thought…Bollocks!, when I realised that I had a hole in the bottom of the bag, and the little piles where mine. Every time I stopped and threw some nuts in the bag, they stayed where they were, and as I moved on, dragging the bag behind me, I deposited small piles of nuts. I grabbed a bucket and went chuntering back to start again.

Not being one to tell my granny how to suck eggs, I always thought that the way to get the almonds off the branches was to whack the tree with a pole. But there again, that might just be for olives. I wasn’t the only one to have the same thought, though, because John – he’s clever, and knows about these things – turned up with a three metre length of bamboo and began to lay into the tree. A bit of warning would have been nice.

Not having seen him approach the tree with his whacker, I wasn’t ready for the cascade of hard shells that bounced off me. It didn’t do me a lot of damage, you understand, but I did feel a bit like Chicken Licken when he thinks the sky is falling in on him. Fair comment, though, he did apologise…and kept on hitting the tree.

After about an hour’s whacking and picking we decided to call it a day, as we’d filled four buckets. No-one ever tells you there’s a stage two to this sort of thing, do they? Well there is, and it’s equally as tedious, cracking the shells open to take out the kernel. After another hour, fortunately this time with a beer in hand, we’d filled four small jars with almonds. As with my foray into the harvesting and preparation of olives, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps those old chaps weren’t so daft after all to leave the land. Why break your back for a handful of nuts when you can pick up a packet all nicely shelled at the local grocer for coppers?

The paella was good, though.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web sites, , and Spain Uncovered.


The Fruits of Love’s Labour

November 30, 2010

A few weeks ago I made my first olive harvest. Friends had been telling me how much their trees had yielded; those with plenty of trees and fruit had sent some to the cooperativa for making oil, and those with a few less trees were busy salting and preparing them to have with an aperitivo sometime next year. (A word of warning to those who have only come as close to an olive as taking it out of a jar. Never, ever, eat one straight from the tree. They are extremely purgative and will have you doubled up in pain as you try to hobble as fast as you can to the toilet. You’ll usually fail to get there.)

The simple truth is that by the time you soak the olives in brine, changing the water each day for the first month, then each week for the next couple of months, and only then can you add you preferred selection of herbs to create that perfect olive flavour, and for which you’ll have to wait another six months before you’ll actually be able to find out if you got the mix right, it’s easier to nip to the nearest Mercadona and bung a few herbs and spices into a jar of already prepared olives and only wait a few weeks. To do it the prescribed historic way will probably cost you more in salt than the best olives your local deli can offer.

Not to be outdone, I picked my own harvest – all twenty-six of them. Not twenty-six trees, twenty-six olives. Don’t laugh! It’s easy to be scornful, but just think how gastronomically cultural I’ll seem when I open the jar about next June and nonchalantly offer them to my guests. “These are my own crop,” I’ll tell them. “And of course I picked them by hand and prepared them according to an ancient recipe.” (In fact, as my eldest son is getting married in August I may just keep them that little bit longer to reach absolute perfection, and present them as the piece de resistance of the wedding dinner.)

Having mentioned my small attempt at organic production to friends I’m getting inundated with advice. “I’ll give you my grandma’s recipe, it’s the best I’ve ever tasted,” says Silvia from Murcia, although Italian Giovanna swears that I should really use her grandma’s because the Italian’s have the best olives in the world, overlooking the scandal of a few years ago when it was discovered that some of the producers in Lucca, where they supposedly make the  best and purest olive oil in the world, were blending small quantities of local oil with large quantities of Spanish olive oil and passing it off as their own, conveniently forgetting to mention it on the label.

I remember going into a café in America years ago and seeing a sign that read, ‘Cookies like Grandma used to make, $1. Cookies like Grandma thought she used to make, $2.’ Since then I’ve ignored all advice from everyones grandma and rumbled along in my own sweet way.

And so it’s been with my precious little jar of olives. They’ve been through the preliminary salting and are now into the secondary, weekly salting stage. In just two weeks I’ll be dithering over the recipe. Do I add a couple of bay leaves and just a sprinkle of crushed chilli, or maybe go a bit eastern with a small handful of whole green cardamom? There again, how about whole black peppers, thyme and rosemary, for that rustic flavour?

It’s all too much! I think I’ll just nip round to Mercadona and buy a big jar of Gordal.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, Spain Uncovered.

Five rules the self-development gurus don’t give you

November 13, 2010


I’ve been studying self-development in one form or another for years and, while I’ve had a certain amount of success in some areas of my life there are some which, quite frankly, I’d rather keep quiet about.

I’ve read most of the gurus and used their techniques, but I’ve finally come to understand that maybe we can’t all be like them; maybe some people are just wired differently and no-matter how much we want to emulate those prodigies,… baby it ain’t gonna happen!

So I’ve created some of my own rules that might well be seen as excuses and cop outs, but if I use them they often get me back on track. 

  1. There’s nothing like a damn good cry. Sometimes, no-matter how much we persevere, spend hours and hours working on a pet project or future big-money maker, nothing goes right. The chap who’s supposed to be helping us design a new website never shows up; just when you think you’ve finally got your niche sorted out someone pips you at the post after you’ve put in months of work; you can’t get the licences you need for your new vegan restaurant, or any one of a thousand other things. At these times my advice to you is to have a real good cry. I do it all the time. I once read somewhere that there is nothing that can happen to you that won’t be made at least a little bit better by crying, screaming or stamping your foot. I wholeheartedly agree with that. I’ve tried them all. It doesn’t mean you give up.
  2. Know when to walk away. Too often we get a fixation on an idea that is going to be the big one, make us a million. So we put everything into it, and then more…and yet more again. We make plans, we persevere, we do everything that the good books tell us, and what happens? Nothing, zero, zilch. At this point we need to sit down with a cup of tea and a biscuit and think, “Hmmm…Is this really going to work or it is about time I stopped banging my head against a brick wall and find something else?” A friend of mine has continually worked on his web site for eleven years and got nowhere. It costs him a lump of money and he’s never earned a penny from it. Is he being persevering or pig-headed? Who can say?
  3. Be prepared to change direction. This is closely linked to knowing when to walk away because it never ceases to amaze me how often an idea comes when I’ve been pursuing something totally different. If we’d never gone in a specific direction in the first place, following a new idea or project, we’d never have come across the information that might well take us where we really want or need to go. Sometimes we totally ignore the new idea until we come to a dead end with the original one, and it’s only when we sit back with a cup of tea and look at all the new stuff we’ve learned that we discover our new goal. That’s after a good cry, of course.
  4. Negative isn’t always bad. For a brief period about twelve years ago, I was involved with a network marketing company (shudder!). No-one was ever allowed to make a negative comment or voice a negative thought, only positive, positive all the way. I’d describe myself as a reasonably optimistic pessimist, but at least it allows me to look at things from both sides of the coin. Yes, the glass is half empty as well as half full. It’s all about balance. If you have even the slightest inkling that all isn’t well with your project, listen to it. By that I don’t mean that you have to have everything perfect before you put your toe in the water, I just mean that thinking negatively intentionally will often show you were a plan is failing, but will also often show you where you can make improvements.
  5. Every day in every way we’re not getting better. Fortunately, that stupid old phrase, much used in the psychobabble industry a few years ago, ‘Every day in every way I’m getting better and better,’ is almost never heard these days. The fact is, some days we get worse, some days we sink lower, some days we can’t raise our head above the blanket because a whole world of (…insert whichever expletive you wish in here…) is waiting out there. But that will end. It may take a long, long time, but it will end. It just means that some days you may have to cry, scream and stamp your feet.

Fiesta’d out

November 11, 2010

I’m propped against the bar set up for the village saint’s day fiesta in a one-horse town in the province of Teruel. If fact, it’s probable going over the top to say the place is one-horse because other than the odd feral cat wandering the streets in the heat of the day, this place usually shows as much life as an embalmed and entombed mummy. But this weekend is fiesta, when the world and his brother, sister, cousin and uncle all come to the dead-end place of their birth to celebrate their Fiestas Patronales. No-matter how much you hate the place, or what a rotten childhood you had here, there’s never an excuse good enough not to be here for this weekend of weekends.

As I look out over the night-time throng, watching girls with big arses in tight white pants promenading in front of ogling pubescent boys, I wonder what on earth I’m doing here drinking watered-down beer.

The music system in the bar is playing good modern Spanish rock, but step away a couple of metres and you walk into a walk of sound from the band at the far end of the park, who are playing really bad Spanish rock, mixed in with English songs they’ve obviously learned from a CD because, if it weren’t for the tune and the odd recognisable word, they might as well be singing in Hindustani.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, , and Spain Uncovered.

Raining on my parade

November 9, 2010


A near terminal rift with my vertical neighbours occurred recently when I was entertaining a new bit of totty to a birthday dinner. The theme was Moroccan and my apartment was ablaze with candles in sconces, rugs scattered hither and thither, and rose petals floating in silver and luxuriantly enamelled blue bowls. Aromas of tajin filled the air and freshly laundered gelabas (those voluminous robes that make everyone look incredibly sexy, no-matter – well, almost no-matter – their size) laid out for my new amorada. Believe me, if anyone was going to score that night, it would be me!

In preparation for the event I’d laid out a Moroccan-ish style rug on the terrace. On it I’d placed a low table and some Indian silk thread embroidered cushions. In the plant pots I’d plunged candles and those bamboo paraffin burners that look good but cost all of eighty-five cents from a garden centre. All was set.

As the clock struck nine, the bewitching hour when my little bewitcher would arrive, and almost coinciding with her finger on the bell, someone from above decided to be a fireman for the night and put out the blaze that was apparently gutting the apartments below. I heard a great sloosh, but at first I thought nothing of it. At the second I did! Someone was raining on my parade. In fact they weren’t just raining, they were completely tornado-ing! I dashed outside and saw my candles puttering into soggy indifference; my carefully laid (and borrowed) pristine white bowls serving an exceedingly thin sopa de agua, napkins limp with more lip-smacking liquid than they were designed for, cushions that would squish the arse out of the most incontinent gastronome and a carpet that whimpered “Hey, cool man, but, like, next time how about the dry cleaner?”

Coño, gilepollas, may your mother and sisters suffer the wrath of eternal fire and your cousins lose control of their reproductive organs and foster nothing but…but….and… and I’m bloody well never going to return anything that lands on this terrace again – especially the sexy red knickers!!!!”

A rather muted version of the original, I accept, but you get the sentiment.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, , and Spain Uncovered.


Scoffing with the elite

November 8, 2010

A few weeks ago I got the best commission ever from a magazine. They offered to pay me an enormous amount of money (relatively speaking, for these penurious times) to write an article about ‘deli-dining’ in Valencia. Admittedly, it was my idea, but I’m not going to look a gift Finn in the mouth! Contrary to the old saying, “Beware of Greeks baring gifts”, if someone offers to pay me to visit some of the best delicatessens in Valencia then who am I to say, “No, sorry, I’m busy that day.”

Despite what the general hoi-poloi might think, the life of a run-of-the-mill journalist isn’t one of free beanos and all-expenses-paid jaunts. Far from it, these days most of us need a second job just to survive, (and this really is the point where you ask for my bank account number to drop a few quid in), but just now and then God smiles and drops a little something in our begging bowl.

I have a phrase I use in Spanish as a bit of a joke, “Soy Ingles; no soy tonto. No es la misma cosa!” “I’m English; I’m not daft. It’s not the same thing!” People usually laugh, but, believe me, chuck, sometimes it pays dividends!

Part of the fee for the article is that I have to provide photos. Not a problem, I do it all the time, but here we’re talking about food – good food, posh food, food I wouldn’t normally eat from one year’s end to the next, at least without the beneficence of a sugar mummy, who, at my time of life are a bit scarce on the horizon.

So it’s only fair, isn’t it…purely for the sake of quality reportage of course… that I ask each of the establishments to prepare a couple of their best plates to photograph…and of course I need a red and white wine to allow me to show off their luscious gastronomy to its best advantage. Need I say more?

For five days I breakfasted, lunched and dinnered in a selection of temples to gastronomy where a short while ago I would have considered it a step up in my social calendar to have merely pressed my nose up against the window, in a tremulous Dickensian sort of way. I have been wined, dined, smiled at and accepted as a part of the über gastronomos of Valencia.

What a bugger to come back down to earth!

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, , and Spain Uncovered.

Flapping around on the small screen

November 8, 2010


When I first came to Valencia years ago, I had a Spanish teacher, and one day she said to me (it sounds better in Spanish), “Derek, you speak Spanish with a perfect accent….the problem is that the accent is English!” Fortunately we both found it amusing.

I speak Spanish about fifty percent of the time, but when El Mundo Digital (the on-line version of the superb Spanish daily – and of course I’m going to say that, aren’t I, when they put me on their front page!) asked me to do an interview I, idiot that I am, thought it would be in English. Oh no…pull out my best Español and let’s get cracking! But it’s a bit different being on that side of the camera and having to appear ‘natural’, when normally it’s me saying, ‘Just one more, I promise, and that’s it!’ The full interview took about twenty minutes. The original edit was seven minutes, so they did pretty good to get it down to 3 minutes plus. Only ever being used to seeing myself in the mirror, when I watched myself in action I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘Who’s that old man!’ Fortunately, the way the piece was edited it didn’t show my life-long nervous twitches (which I recently discovered are a minor form of Tourettes Syndrome, and quite common), nor could you hear my perennial sniff. I’ve always been a wild gesticulator, (‘cut off my hands and call me dumb’, as the old saying goes), but when a friend saw the original edit she said that I could get a job signalling airplanes on to a runway or conduct an orchestra. Cheeky tyke!

Equally fortunately, the recording was made before I acquired my new scar, a crease down the forehead, the result of being mugged. I was coming back from a friend’s birthday party about five weeks ago at about two in the morning, moderately lubricated, it has to be said. The entrance to my apartment block has the usual decorative metal gate as the first opening, and a flight of stairs before you get to the actual door. While I was fiddling the key in the lock someone came up behind me, apparently taken by the bag full of books I was carrying (although the plonker wouldn’t know that’s all the bag contained). He probably saw this drunken old fart wandering up the street in the early hours of the morning as an easy target. Boy, did he make a mistake! He smashed my head against the metal bars, but he didn’t know that the drunken old bugger doesn’t give in easily, especially as the bag was a present from my son, Tom, for my birthday this year. About all I remember is us scuffling on the stairs that lead to the entrance, and the one thing that I’m cheerful about is that there was so much blood flowing that his clothes would have been covered in it. (Apparently the forehead is a proper bleeder – in all senses of the word.) Long story short, I ended up it hospital – where I felt like yelling at everyone, ‘No, I’m not some silly old sod who got rat-arsed and fell over, I got bloody-well attacked!’ although I didn’t bother because most of them were probably more entertained by the bloke who was heaving his guts over walls, floor, windows and sheets, with the full accompaniment of, ‘¡Jesus, Dios, nunca, jamas mas! ‘Never, ever again!’ And how many times have we heard that!

Eventually I ended up on a trolley with a mere snippet of a girl getting ready sew my forehead up. “This is going to leave a scar,” she told me. “Believe me, sweetheart,” I told her, “with a face like this it’s not going to make a great deal of difference!”

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, , and Spain Uncovered.