Archive for January, 2011

The Staff of Life

January 28, 2011

As I ride around Valencia on my battered old Rocinante, made famous in my widely broadcast video interview with El Mundo (, for those who missed it – shame on you!) I’m seeing all sorts of new foodi places opening. At first it was the wonderful deli’s in the city that were slipping in a few chairs to tempt the weary with a copa of something rather delicious and a tapa to while away the time while they waited for their homeward-bound order to be packed. (By all means read the beautifully written article commissioned by Finnair’s inestimable in-flight magazine, Bluewings But today I hitched myself off my bike to visit a a new bread shop that opened three weeks ago and sells ‘certified ecological bread’. What more, may I ask, could one want on a grey day in Valencia.

The young girl in her sleek black outfit and glaring white pinney, who reminded me so much of the cheeky young maids of Lyons Tea Rooms in England during the ….. I’m not telling you, it makes me seem so old, was a delight. As if she was laying out a libidinous display of Dior cosmetics, she casually drifted her hand in the direction of the succulence that was on offer. “May I offer you to our pan intergral (brown bread to thee and me), or our pan rustica, made from the finest grains of organic wheat.” It’s bread, for Christ’s sake, but I couldn’t but help be mesmerised by the insouciant flirt of her hand (sheathed in a sensuous black rubber glove, the sort that surgeons with style might use) as she attempted to direct my eyes and choice to the baskets on the shelf behind her domain. Truth was, it could have been a plastic bag of Warburtons best, it would have made no difference. My eyes were solely on the slinky, black clad maid before me.

“Perhaps you might like to discover our speciality breads,” she simpered. “Pan con olivas, or maybe pan de tomate. Or for the more discerning, our pan de cebolla?”

Plummet to earth! The mention of onion bread took me back thirty years, when I lived a solitary existence on the side of a hill in the Lake District, almost on the boarder with Scotland. The only heating and cooking I had was a battered old Aga, long before it became the ‘must have’ of the hoity-toity Chelsea and BBC producer set who never do more than photograph it for the next tedious ‘just look how we can create a wholesome, crisis-busting, fully-nutritional Sunday lunch for sixteen people for ₤6.2s.3d, and still have enough left over for a taxi to the Left Bank for a winey-cheesy do with ….’ (insert name of latest divvy who’s big in the ratings). Mine was from the 1950s, when Aga was meant to be for proper country oiks like me. The vent at the back that directed the smoke up the chimney was wrapped around by an old oil can, held in place with two wire coat hangers. The oven door had to be held in place with a wooden peg, which worked better than any thermometer because as soon as we smelled smouldering wood we knew the bread was ready.

That’s bread baking! Not some arty-tarty chap setting himself up as ‘arte de pan’ or some such fancy name. It’s proper bread, kneaded by hand, sat on top of a knackered old Aga to rise, and taken out when the peg begins to burn. A knob of butter, a cup of tea, and your arse on an old kitchen chair. The stuff of life!

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


Valencia’s next big financial black hole?

January 26, 2011

Valencia’s Mayoress, Rita Barberá, has just announced the winner of the competition to design the new Parque Central on an enormous patch of semi-derelict land behind the Central Station. The project will cost 72.9 million euros, but you can bet your bottom dollar that by the time all the lakes, green zones, aroma garden and kids play areas are up and running the bill will be into triple first figures, most of it hidden away by the  Town Hall’s clever accounting.

The winner, Kathryn Gustafson, pocketed the neat little sum of 3 million euros, nice money if you can get it, and I’m pretty sure that there will be some nice fat fees involved for her in the actual building of the park. But I think that our town hall, bulging with councellors under suspicion of enormous amounts of corruption, could have given Ms Gustafson just that little bit less and bunged a bit of the folding stuff in the direction of El Cabañal, the historic fisherman’s quarter, that Barberá and her cronies are determined to destroy by slashing a swathe through the listed buildings to make an extension to the beach. But that’s another story.

Valencia City is my home, and I’m very happy to live here, but I can’t be closed-eyed about the other grand schemes that have done damage to the city, or at least haven’t lived up to their potential because of the narrow mindedness of the city and local governments.

When Valencia won the competition to host the 32nd America’s Cup in 2007, the city turned out in its tens of thousands to cheer and dance in the Plaza de Ayuntamiento. Such great plans were announced, and boasts were made as to how much the city would benefit. Sadly, the only benefit that really exists these days is the benefit of hindsight. True, the America’s Cup did get Valencia’s name known world-wide, but apart from the few months the boats were here, the grandly named Port Copa America, has lain largely empty, its great boat sheds that still bare the name of Alinghi, Luna Rosa, Oracle, et al are staffed by a single security guard, and the expensive cafes and restaurants barely have a client, and have given up the ghost one-by-one. (

There have been numerous suggestions of how the area could be used, but the council always claims poverty, (probably rightly so, as recent government figures showed that the Valencian regional  council was the most expensive to run in the whole of Spain, throwing the words of the regional president, Francisco Camps, back in his face when he claimed it was the cheapest). So where’s the 72.9 million for the Parque Central coming from? Best not to ask.

Yet more fortunes were spent in the construction of the track for the annual Formula 1, despite there being a highly respected race track not half-an-hour’s drive from the city. The drivers hated the track, and the concessionaires of the cafes and restaurants of Port Copa America, which sits alongside it, thought that at least they might make a few bob during three days the races take place to make up for their losses the rest of the year. Sorry, loves, not a chance. As well as looting the city’s coffers to build the track and all the infrastructure, and paying good old Bernie Eccleston a fee rumoured to be 68 million euros just to thank him for coming to the city, the wily F1 owner had also included in the contract that he would run all the catering. So those who were paying their money to the town hall in the way of rents and taxes weren’t allowed to profit from the exercise. The F1 lost money from day one, and we’ve still got five more years to go.

The helmet-shaped shell of the vastly over-budget Agora, which has only been used once since its sort-of completion (council ran out of money); the millions of overspend that’s just come to light about the Pope’s visit to Valencia for the World Meeting of Families (a major chunk of it being part of corrupt dealings by some council members and marketing companies, part of the infamous Caso Gürtel, the largest corruption scandal since Spain became a democracy); the ludicrous idea of putting wi-fi in the nine-kilometre River Turia, the park that runs through the city; the new railway station for the AVE, the high-speed train between Valencia and Madrid, that looks like a big, grey corrugated iron shed, and would have Joaquín Sorolla, Valencia’s famous artist son who gives it its name spinning rapidly in his grave at the thought of such crass design – the list of project flops goes on and on.

About the only real success is Valencibisi, the network of bike hire stations that run throughout the city that has been such a roaring success that further memberships have been stopped because of over-subscription. At least that benefits the people who live here…none of the other fancy projects has done so far.

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

AVE Maria

January 15, 2011

On a last minute whim, I decided to take myself off to Fitur, the Travel show in Madrid. I go to our nation’s capital once in a blue moon, so thought I’d treat myself and take the AVE, the much lauded high-speed train from Valencia to Madrid that came into service in December.

By chance, I was talking to a friend who’d been on the train a couple of weeks ago and he warned me to allow a bit of extra time at the station. The Estación del Norte, the wonderful modernista building beside the bullring, is our central station, but the AVE goes from a station named after one of Valencia’s famous sons, the artist Joaquin Sorolla. (Who, given his artistic temperament, would be sad indeed to see the appalling corrugated iron shed that bears his name.) The problem was, no-one I know seemed to know where it was, so I was pretty glad that my friend had been on the AVE and could give me the gen on how to get there.

The reason you have to get there a bit early is because the new station is a bit of a walk behind the Estacion del Norte, but not to worry, because there’s a shuttle bus between them that runs every ten minutes. Fine and dandy, so I set off to by my advance ticket.

When I got to the main station I found that all the sales points, which haven’t that long ago been refurbished, were closed, and that you had to buy long-distance tickets at the new Joaquin Sorolla station. Fair enough, I thought, and wandered down the long platform at the side of the station to the shuttle bus stop. And there it was, waiting for me.

I went to get on and a Renfe chap dragging on a cigarette asked for my ticket. “I’m going to buy one”, I said. “Well you can’t get on the bus without a ticket,” said he, and pointed to a sign beside the driver, which, sure enough, said that only people with tickets could use it. “So how do I get to the station to buy a ticket?” I asked in complete confusion. “You walk down there”, he said, pointing to a path at the side of the station, which I knew took about ten minutes to arrive at JS. “So I can only ride on the bus with a ticket, but the only reason I want to get on the bus is to get to the station to buy a ticket.” “That’s about right.” At least he had the decency to look a bit sheepish. I could think of nothing more to do than to burst out laughing. “That’s about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!” I said, still laughing. “Just about,” he replied. “Go on, get on.”

“This is Spain,” I said, a couple of minutes later when we set off, empty except for me and the driver. “No,” he said “This isn’t Spain. This is Renfe!”

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

Twitchy and me – My life with Tourette’s Syndrome

January 7, 2011

It may seem to be a bit weird to say that you are happy to know that you have an incurable condition whose main forms of treatment are worse than the actual illness itself, which, in it’s most advanced state is seen as socially unacceptable, and may, or there again, may not, improve as you get older; is exhausting, bloody uncomfortable, and at times an absolute pain in the bum. But when I discovered I had Tourette’s Syndrome a couple of years ago, I felt a great relief that at last I had something to hang my hat on that explained the Pandora’s box of twitches, sniffs, moving body parts and over-zealous use of the ‘F’ word that had pestered me all my life.

When I was about fifteen and still dealing with the latter stages of puberty, (or ‘perturbity’ as my father referred to it in a wonderfully unintentional malapropism, which, given the state most kids get into during their early teens, isn’t a bad substitute) I dreaded visits by relations, and, a few years later, by new girlfriends. At some time during the visit dad would bring out a photo of me he’d taken when I was about ten, with my nose pointing itself in the direction of my right ear and my left eye shut tightly closed as if I’d just given the camera a great big wink. When I finally managed to grab it out of his hands and tear it into shreds, after years of this supposed piece of ‘fun’, he was highly offended. Even though a considerate and caring man most of the time, it had never occurred to him that this little bit of ‘fun’ had been devastating to me, and a reminder of something I had to deal with on a daily basis and, on fortunately few occasions, had had to put up with ridicule because of it.

Fortunately, despite the obvious awareness I have of my Tourette’s, mine is a moderately minor condition, but there have been plenty of times in my life when I would gladly have torn out my left eye or had the lid sewn up, if only I could have stopped the tortuous twitching that tired me so much and made me almost ashamed to show my face in public. I can look back and laugh now at the time when I was a young officer in the merchant navy and took to wearing an eye patch for a few days, using the excuse that my eye was watering and painful and I wanted to keep it away from the light. Unfortunately, the piratical look didn’t go with the gold braid and starched white shirt of my uniform.

Most people who have heard of Tourette’s Syndrome will know of it because of one of its most uncomfortable and disturbing manifestations, the uncontrolled shouting of obscene language. This is called coprolalia, and actually only affects a small percentage of Tourette’s sufferers, although it is usually the symptom that is made most of when people talk about the Syndrome. Fortunately for me, it’s not something that I exhibit.

The turning point came in my late thirties. I can’t say that I learned to love my facial shenanigans, but at least I learned to treat them with a sense of humour.

Kathy was a delightful, tall, curly-haired blond who shared my life for an all too short period. We were chatting one day about my facial twitches and I told her how uncomfortable they made me feel when I was with someone I cared for, as if somehow they were a deficiency in my character that would put any would-be lover off. The darling girl uttered the magic words that released me from those pervading thoughts of shame. “But Derek,” she said, “it’s so sexy!” I spent the rest of the day twitching like crazy – intentionally, at the times my eye didn’t bat away of its own accord.

From then on I began to see the humour of the situation – and there were plenty of humorous situations as far as the twitchy eye and bendy nose were concerned. Years later, when I worked as an audio producer, I began to recognise the form the sound wave of my sniff took when I was editing interviews, which certainly made editing quicker.

The mild form of Tourette’s that affects me is surprisingly common, and it’s said that around one in a hundred people in the US have the condition. Not all tics are symptoms of Tourette’s, but one of the most common is the eye twitch, an inadvertent wink. It was almost impossible to stop myself giggling a few years ago, when I had dinner with a close friend, who I always refer to as ‘The Beautiful Anna’ for the simple reason that she is. She also has the eye twitch, but in her right eye, so that when we sat opposite each other, with our laughter and smiles, we could have seemed for all the world like a couple of lovers, winking at each other in delicious anticipation of what was to come. Oh Lord, if only….!

One of the most public moments of daftness was when I was at a meeting with a group of people from a charity that helped the homeless. It was very relaxed and the conversation flowed easily. I made some comment, I’ve no idea now what it was, and a young girl sitting opposite me said, “He’s joking, I’ve just seen him wink.” She’d seen my left eye twitch, and with a laugh I said, “Afraid not. That’s a twitch. I wink with my right eye.” It could have been an embarrassing situation, but because I laughed, she laughed too, and so did the others. If you don’t get hurt or embarrassed by it, neither will anyone else.

The latest example, and possibly the most insulting if I’d let it be, was when I was having dinner at a restaurant with a friend who owns a small hotel, and a couple who had spent a week on holiday with her. The female of the pair was very self-opinionated and had been dominating the conversation all evening. She suddenly turned to me and quite aggressively said, “Derek, have you got a cocaine problem because you’ve been sniffing all night?” “No,” I said, “I’ve got Tourette’s Syndrome,” and left it at that. It was wonderful to see her face sag in embarrassment, and she immediately started mumbling all sorts of apologies. The sideways glance from her husband showed that he clearly thought the hole she was in was big enough and she should stop digging. I suppose I could have let her off the hook and made a joke about it, but I didn’t. She’d been insulting and deserved to suffer the embarrassment that she was so obviously feeling. A little power can be a marvellous thing at times!

When I finally discovered that there was a name to the condition that had quietly dominated my entire life – even one as potentially hurtful as Tourette’s Syndrome – I felt an unexpected sense of relief. Even knowing that there was no cure didn’t bother me – at least I knew that what I had was not a deficiency in my character and was, in fact, pretty well wide-spread. People with Tourette’s Syndrome aren’t psychologically impaired, we’re not intentionally obstinate, or particularly unintelligent.

Most people with the disorder lead normal, productive lives, and some even excel in their chosen professions. It’s thought that both Dr. Samuel Johnson, the famous British poet, essayist, and lexicographer, and Mozart both suffered from Tourette’s. As did Howard Hughes, and even though his eccentricities became severe as he got older, it didn’t stop him from being extremely successful as a film director and producer, and in the world of aviation, where he owned a number of airlines, and at one point held a quite a few air speed records a pilot.

So it seems I’m in good company – okay, famous, if not particularly good. I’m lucky that my level of Tourette’s Syndrome is pretty mild. Frankly, I’d rather be without it, but I take heart in something a friend reported to me that my girlfriend of the time said when he was talking to her about how embarrassed I sometimes felt about my twitches and sniffs. “But that’s Derek,” she said, “it’s one of his endearing mannerisms. He just wouldn’t be Derek without it.”

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


Peace on the edge of the city

January 6, 2011



I’m sat on the ground, leaning against the wall of the Ermita de Nuestra Sra. de los Desemparados, Our Lady of the Forsaken, in the Partida de Fiscal in the huerto, the acres of market garden that surround Valencia, within a stone’s throw of the City of Arts and Sciences. The partida, a piece of land, next to me is called the Partida Romance, and I can’t help thinking in a sardonic sort of way that between the three of them, Fiscal, Romance and Forsaken, they seem to pretty well sum up my life at the moment.

The day is slightly cloudy, but warm, with patches of pale sunlight appearing in the gaps in the clouds. God seems to be smiling on me because as the clouds drift by they seem to break and divert, leaving me in a little patch of almost continuous sunshine. Off in the distance I can hear the susurration of the traffic on the motorway between Valencia and the beach at El Saler, as it passes the rice paddies of the Albufera, birthplace of Valencia’s – and probably Spain’s – iconic dish, the paella. But the noise isn’t loud enough to cover the twittering of a few birds or the skittering of dried leaves across the tarmac in front of the Ermita when the occasional light breeze wafts by.

Valencia prides itself of being Spain’s third city, although on the quite many of its residents will tell you that in reality it’s not much more than a big town. Everything’s compact and within walking distance if you are reasonably fit. Nowhere is this more noticeable than if you talk a walk into the huerto.

From where I sit I look over the top of fields of artichoke, cabbages and spinach, to the City of Arts and Sciences, and the chi-chi new apartments on Avenida Francia, where many of the city’s ‘new money’ have made their home. On my ride through the tiny narrow roads that cut through the market gardens I passed patches of ground newly turned, with a heron pecking the ground as it follows a tractor cutting the furrows for the next seasonal crop, most of which will end up in the Central Market and the neighbourhood markets scattered throughout the city.

Parsley and spring onions are showing their fresh heads, and in another couple of weeks the kale and spinach will be pulled. Large patches of alcachofa, Jerusalem artichokes provide Valenciano’s with one of their favourite foods, although I’ve always found them laborious and boring to eat, and the spikey grey/green leaves seem to overwhelm the plant that produces such a small amount of edible material.

A five-minute drive from my little patch of sunlight, the rice fields of the Albufera begin, once the biggest rice producer in Spain. In fact, during the Moorish occupation of the country this region was the most productive in the then known world. At the turn of the year the rice fields of the Albufera look like little more than a patch of sodden earth after a heavy storm has passed, but by June the emerald green stalks will stretch as far as the eye can see, broken only by the occasional one-storey casita, where there farmer stores his tools and where he would once have slept during harvest time.

On the other side of the city, running alongside the motorway that follows the coastline to Barcelona, later in the year a carpet of darker green will cover the ground. These are chufa, tiger nuts, that make horchata, the strange milky-looking drink that’s supposed to contain more vitamins and minerals than almost any other plant, coming a close second to the magical aloe vera. At least with horchata you can savour its fresh, slightly sweet flavour, whereas swallowing the juice of the aloe vera is like trying to gulp down a slithery, slimy egg. Served with giggle-worthy (at least to the British) sponge finger called fartons, horchata is a favourite drink of Fallas and hot summer days.

I never leave the huerto without a few plant cuttings, this time it was from a great stand papyrus. Up-ended into a jar of water, they will begin to put out roots in a couple of months, and by late summer will be about two metres high. It’s how my terrace garden comes together; a bit here, a bit there…although I think I’ll draw a line at flooding it and trying to grow rice.

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


Son of the Soil

January 3, 2011

I made pumpkin soup for lunch yesterday, and if I say so myself, it was pretty dam good. I’ve never made it before. In fact, I’ve never particularly liked the stuff. The Spanish seem to think it’s the height of gastronomy to bake it in the oven and then ladle it with awful synthetic spray cream. I always pass on it, claiming I don’t have a sweet tooth, but the truth is that I find the flavour flavourless. However, I added a few chunks of Danish Blue to my soup and it lifted the pale cream sludge to delightful heights. My Spanish guests said so, so it must be true.

As a second course I produced a big bowl of garrafon, a fat white bean with a tiny black smidgen at the tip, which Yanks call lima beans, and the nearest the Brits would get to would be butter beans. The garrafon is one of the two staple beans of a paella, the other being a broad green bean called bachoqueta. I’ve never seen garrafon served as a stand-alone dish in Spain, but I’ve always loved butter beans, simply boiled until soft with a bit of salt and pepper, and then ladled into a bowl topped with a bit of the liquid and a big knob of butter. Splendid stuff. But I went a bit overboard with the garrafon, and cooked them very slowly with a few spices and the stock from the bones of a jamon Serrano.

Alongside the beans was a bowl of curly lettuce leaves topped with parsley and sprinkled with lemon and olive oil, and for desert we ate orange segments dipped in honey.

Now, I’m not telling you this to show that I’m some sort of gastronomic smarty pants, but for the first time since I was a mere slip of a boy, a major part of the meal was picked, podded, dug or cut straight from the ground. Grown by hand, weeded, watered and cared for by concerned souls until it arrived at the table. I’m not sure if the flavours would have been that much different if they’d come from supermarket shelves, but I like to think so.

I’ve got to be honest and admit, though, that all I actually did was cook the stuff, others strained their back growing it. I came along a bit late in the day for that.

A few weeks ago I was invited by my friends Olga and John to visit a piece of land they were working, along with a group as assorted as any you are likely to meet in your life. Chinese acupunturist, publisher, bass player and timpanist for the Valencia Philharmonic with teacher wives, computer technician, tour organiser, and scattering of other occupations, supervised by Vicente, who owns the land.

When I say ‘land’, don’t run away with the idea of sylvan fields of arrow straight plowed furrows and shady orchards of olive and orange trees. Yes, there are those, as well as lemon, grapefruit, nispero, and a pretty fair selection of veg, and while there are furrows, these have been hacked out the hard earth by hand. This little God’s green acre is in the back yard of what was once a ceramics factory, in an industrial area now devoid of industry.

Everything is put together in a ‘waste not, want not’ sort of way. Where soil exists it has been arduously cleared and planted, where it doesn’t, building blocks form small walls into which the excess soil from the garden has been dumped, so that tomatoes, peppers, courgettes – and this year strawberries – are grown. The frame of the greenhouse that covers them comes from a disused old trampoline, and the propagating tent used to be shelving made from angle-iron, where in the past plates and other pottery would be stored.

Every Sunday a small group of stalwarts, assisted by anyone who feels like a morning in the fresh air, get together for a few hours tending, building and pottering. Once a month Vicente’s wife, Maria, cooks an enormous paella or fideua. (I missed the last one, where some of Olga’s Chinese friends put on a splendid banquet, part of it picked and in the pan within a couple of minutes.) John, being an aficionado of Valencian wines, does the booze run, and as two o’clock comes around we all start setting up tables and gathering scattered chairs to sit down to a wonderful Spanish lunch en familia.

A couple of weeks ago, Vicente, Olga and I were the only ones free to go to the huerta, and while he and I began building the angle-iron propagator, Olga did some weeding before picking the dried garrafon pods. In true abuelo fashion, she sat quietly with the basket of pods on her side, stripping the beans into a bowl balanced on her knees.

As knocking-off time arrived, I picked a few oranges and lemons and put them in a bag in the back of my car, along with four kilos of olives that would soak in brine and herbs to be ready to eat in a few weeks. Olga handed me a bag of garrofon telling me to spread them out on a tray for a couple of days to let them dry off properly. She suggested I take a pumpkin, but I told her I didn’t even know how to cook it, so she explained, cut it in sections and bake it in the oven, then scoop the soft flesh out to make into a soup.

I soaked the beans overnight on Friday and cooked them and made the pumpkin soup on Saturday (although you need to add the blue cheese just before you serve it). As I was leaving the garden yesterday I picked a few lettuce leaves and parsley for the salad, a lemon to squeeze over them, and half-a-dozen oranges for desert.

I can’t say I’ve become part of the ‘slow-food’ society – we’ve not got around to growing chickens or making cheese yet (although Vicente grew some wonderful mushrooms in plastic bags), and besides, Mercadonna is just around the corner, but there’s something about working out in the fresh air and being able to take something fresh home to eat that goes beyond the simple pleasure of fresh air and exercise – weeding isn’t exactly my exercise of choice – or economics. After sitting at a keyboard for hours on end, it’s quite nice to get dirt under the nails and feel the sun on your neck. And I just love the soak in a deep, hot bath when I get home.

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