Son of the Soil

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.


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