dissabte, 11 abril de 2015

An afternoon near the Roques de Benet mountains

Una setmana santa tranquil·la a casa, descansant i fent coses de casa i de familia - però un dia vam fer una escapada. Una tarde vam anar a Horta de Sant Joan, o més concretament la zona d'El Port amb les muntanyes Roques de Benet, i el camí cap a la Mas de la Franqueta. Molt bonic, com sempre (és un lloc que visitem sovint), aquests dies tot verd i amb els barrancs i rius plens. Vam passejar una estona i vam contemplar les muntanyes cubistes tal com va fer Picasso fa uns anys. Fins i tot vam esperar fins gairebé la nit per a fer 4 fotos dels ultims rajos de sol i uns nuvols molt xulos.
So, a quiet Easter at home doing "family things" but one afternoon we drove up into the local mountains for a stroll with the kids. We went to a place near the town of Horta de Sant Joan where Picasso spent a couple of summers as a youngster and where he apparently "invented" cubism. Looking at the interesting skyline of the town, but above all the "square" mountains of Roques de Benet, he "saw the light" - or so the story goes. We had a grand time and even waited till dusk to get some sunset type photos as the last rays of the sun turned the, normally red, rockfaces golden.

dissabte, 28 març de 2015

A weekend in Barcelona with Kitty, Daisy & Lewis included

Als 90 vaig anar a Barcelona molts cops, per molts motius – és una ciutat molt interessant que m’encanta. Però des del naixement dels nostres fills i altres factors, hi hem anat molt poc en els últims anys, ja que tenim altres prioritats. A banda de les manifestacions i altres actes de la PDE i a favor de l’independència (als quals intentem no fallar), crec que només hi hem anat 2 cops amb els fills en els últims 10 anys, i sense ells, cap. Però l’altre dia vam decidir fer un cap de setmana de parella (sense xiquets) per a “fer alguna cosa diferent”, cosa poc habitual en mi!

Malgrat tenir una llarga llista d’hostels per a triar, vam decidir quedar-nos en el centre més cèntric possible, a l’Hotel Continental, a les Rambles mateixes! Bàsicament perquè no m’agrada perdre hores comparant i mirant, i aquest era el primer que vaig trobar, i, segon, perquè m’agradava l’idea del buffet i cervesa “gratis” 24 hores al dia, i last but not least, per ser l’hotel on Orwell va quedar durant la guerra civil. L’hotel, una mica car pel nostre pressupost, però un dia és un dia, i molt xulo. Habitacions netes i bones – encara que suposo que no eren de color rosa quan estava Orwell –el buffet excel·lent, i l’ubicació immillorable – a 20 metres del Metro de Plaça Catalunya. 
Vam dinar en un petit restaurant al Carrer Santa Anna, La Lluna. Us ho puc recomanar, menjar bo i normal (res de plats quadrats amb invents revolucionaris), i quantitats adequats, i moltes opcions per a vegetarians. I l’edifici, molt interessant.
Evidentment vam passar una bona estona al FNAC i al Carrer Tallers (botigues de discs), però la part més interessant va ser passar tota la tarda, i diumenge de matí, voltant el barri de Gracia. Quan la Sílvia hi estudiava a Barcelona, hi anàvem molt però ara feia 20 anys que no hi havia anat a passar temps. Infinitat de botigues interessants i petits bars i comerços, una Barcelona molt diferent del que normalment veig quan acompanyem els visitants de família i amics a veure els llocs emblemàtics. Vam trobar moltes llibreries i botigues de discs – pels que voleu llegir en anglès, aneu-hi al Hibernian al Carrer Montseny!

La visita coincidia amb el fet de que acabo de llegir La Plaça del Diamant, per fi, tant en català com en una traducció a l’anglès. Aquest llibre m’ha deixat sense paraules – un altre dia intentaré escriure alguna cosa – és el millor llibre que he llegit en molt de temps! Així que evidentment, hi vam tornar a la plaça per a fer una foto (20 anys desprès d’una altra foto que no trobo) amb la Colometa. Per cert, si això fos a Anglaterra, n’hi hauria souvenirs, botigues, visitor centres, rutes senyalitzades per atreure “turistes literaris”... 

Dissabte a la nit vam anar de concert ! A més, un concert de peu, com anàvem quan tenia 20 anys ! L’idea del cap de setmana i concert era com un regal per a l’aniversari de la Sílvia i vaig triar un grup que no coneixíem però que era evident que ens agradaria – els Kitty, Daisy, and Lewis. Blues, rock ‘n’roll, soul, amb continus canvis d’instruments i un bon toc d’humor negre, una passada! 2 hores de peu, com en els vells temps, però aquest cop se'm van adormir els peus! En acabar el concert vam comprar el seu disc (en vinil, of course), i vam fer fotos amb tots tres :)

Diumenge vam voltar més i vam acabar en una fira de roba « vintage » dels Susi Sweet Dress i ho vam passar molt bé – la Sílvia va comprar algunes peces, i ens van regalar una cervesa - i desprès no vam dinar ja que ens havíem fartat al buffet-esmorzar de l’hotel. Desprès cap a l’autocar (ja no ens fiem de Renfe) per a tornar a la normalitat.
(Fotos a sota)
Living just a 2-hour trip from Barcelona means I have seen plenty of this magnificent city over the years. Having said that, though, most of my time there was in the 1990s, or specifically pre-kids, pre-mortgage, pre-2003. Since our kids were born, I think we’ve only been twice as a family for “pleasure” – though we have kept going to river Ebro campaigning activities and events related to the independence of Catalonia! But, we now have other (economic) priorities! However, much to my own surprise as well as everyone else’s, I organized a (kid-less) weekend visit there recently as a birthday gift for my wife, Sílvia –a much needed and well-deserved break.
We wanted to get away from the tourist crowds we normally see when we do “the sights”, but still booked a hotel right bang in the centre of the Rambles! The Hotel Continental. Basically because (a) I hate searching and comparing all day on internet and have a tendency to book the first half-decent thing I find, (b) it has a “free” 24-hour buffet and bottomless beer barrel, and (c) Orwell stayed there during the civil war –though I don’t think the bedrooms were pink back then... it was a little over our budget, but carpe diem, as they say. I can recommend it, though – perfect location (20 yards from Plaça Catalunya Metro stop), nice enough rooms, great balconies and seating areas, interesting decor, and the buffet and beer!

We did a bit of shopping in the centre – records, books, looked at musical instruments –and then had lunch at La Lluna restaurant, again slap bang in the centre of Barcelona. A great place, really nice building with excellent staff, and good wholesome “normal” food (none of these fancy inventions on square plates) with decent quantities – plus they had many veggie options. Another recommendation for you there!

We then went to the “inland” part of Barcelona, the Gracia neighbourhood which is like a different town, only two Metro stops away but rarely visited by tourists. It’s well worth it, though, for the excellent small shops and bars and cafes, and “normal life”. We spent ages in second hand and new bookshops and record shops again and just wandering the streets. I also wanted to visit the Plaça del Diamant square (20 years after my last visit) to see the statue of Colometa, the suffering heroine of my favourite Catalan novel (more on that in a later post). Don’t tell anyone I recommend this area of Barcelona as the locals like to keep it tourist free, but believe me you won’t regret it! I’d suggest avoiding the socks and sandals look so as to blend in better...

After that, concert time! Yes, we relived our youth by going to one of those sweaty noisy smelly beer-drenched concert halls where you stand up and get crushed from start to finish (I got pins and needles standing up for 2 hours – hardly a rock’n’roll ailment!). I’d got us tickets to see Kitty, Daisy and Lewis who we’d never heard of, but judging by a couple of music videos I checked out, I knew we’d love them – and we did. Two sisters and a brother, constantly swapping instruments and mics around, gave us some good old-fashioned blues, rock’n’roll and soul with a sound dose of black humour. Afterwards we bought their album (on vinyl of course) on the way out and had our photos taken with the band. A grand time!

Sunday morning consisted of stuffing ourselves with a triple breakfast at the hotel buffet, and then more street-wandering before ending up in a vintage clothes fair where Sílvia purchased a couple of things and I got a free beer. Still full, we skipped lunch, and then caught the coach back to our normal lives.

 Photo of Sílvia taking a photo of the restaurant.
 Blurred photo of Sílvia in the cool restaurant, La Lluna
 Buskers in Gràcia
 Yours truly with Colometa - the main character in my currently fave book
 Hobbit-esque windows
 Second-hand English language book shop in Gràcia

 Groovy band kickin' some ass (does that sound suitable?)

 Sílvia (on the right) with Daisy (on the left)

 Interesting decor in our hotel
 Shops close on Sundays in Barcelona -wandering colourful back streets

 Experts in fashion say this is "vintage clothing"
 More windows in Gràcia

 How many cities have graffiti-pictures of authors? Merce Rodoreda, author of the Plaça del Diamant book I mentioned above.

And the final word, from the band themselves:

diumenge, 15 febrer de 2015

Absinthe / Food and drink (4)

Amb una mica d’Oscar Wilde i 4 pel·lícules, em vaig quedar amb les ganes de saber lo que era l’absenta però sabia que estava prohibit en molts països ja que es deia que era una beguda molt perillosa. Aquest perill és, però, una mica de llegenda segons una mirada a Wikipedia i per això es va tornar a fabricar i comercialitzar fa uns anys. I concretament a Tortosa és un dels llocs on es fabrica – per tant, l’any passat en vam comprar.
Bé, provat ja – diversos cops – he de dir que (a) m’agrada, i (b) no m’he convertit ni en artista ni en un borratxo. Té bon gust, em recorda una mica a begudes com les herbes de Montserrat, bàsicament perquè està fet d’herbes – el principal sent el donzell (o artemisia absinthium!).
Hi ha (almenys) dos maneres de preparar-ho. Pel que diu Wikipedia, la més espectacular – amb foc –es una “nova” manera de fer-ho, però els famosos artistes de Paris ho feien amb la segona versió, amb aigua gelada.
1.Amb foc, poses dos tarrons de sucre damunt la cullera especial dalt del got. Li fas passar l’absenta, i prens foc al sucre. Es desfà i cau a la beguda. Ho remenes i ho dilueixes amb aigua freda.
2.Metode més tradicional – poses un dit (o dos) de la beguda al got i els dos tarrons de sucre a la cullera. Tires aigua gelada poc a poc damunt el sucre, el qual es desfà i cau a la beguda. Remeneu i a beure! Sembla ser que una proporció bona, pels dos metodes, és una part absenta a 4 o 5 parts d’aigua.
En fi, ho explica tot molt millor a la Wikipedia. I aquí tens l’info sobre la beguda tortosina.
So, thanks to Oscar Wilde and a couple of films, I always wondered what absinthe (the weird green drink all these artistic-type folk used to down by the bucketful) was – I say “was” as I was sure it had been banned thanks to all the crazy behaviour it led to. So, imagine my surprise when I saw it is made and sold in Tortosa! A bit of internet research soon showed up that it hadn’t been banned everywhere, and it’s fame was a little bit exaggerated and, in fact, it was/is now coming back into fashion. So I bought a bottle of the stuff.
I have to say I like it – it has a delicious “herbal” flavour (basically it is made from herbs such as wormwood) to it and goes down well on a night after a hard day’s work. It has not converted me (yet) into either (a) an artist or (b) a drunk. Despite the word cannabis blazened across my bottle, it no longer (if it ever did) includes any cannabis.
According to Wikipedia there are (at least) two ways to prepare it.
1.       1) With fire. Balance the special spoon you get when you buy the drink over a glass. Place two sugar cubes on it. Gently pour the absinthe over the sugar. Then set light to the sugar and it will gradually melt into the drink. Stir and add cold water.
2.      2)  The cold water method. Set up your spoon and sugar cubes again, having already put the drink in the glass. Pour cold water slowly over the sugar and into the drink. The sugar dissolves. Stir it in and Bob’s your uncle.
In both versions, it seems that a suitable proportion is one part absinthe to 4 or 5 parts water. Apparently, the “burning sugar” method is a modern idea, and the Bohemians and other drunkards who used to live it up in Paris used the second method. Me too, I tried the first, but prefer the second. Anyway, you read and I’ll drink. Oh, and here’s the local manufacturers’ web page.

divendres, 30 gener de 2015

Calçotada / Food (3)

Today’s Catalan food post is about a feast rather difficult to reproduce outside of Catalonia as you probably don’t have the basic materials – calçots (*see below*).

The calçot-eating feast (calçotada) is a January-March outdoor fun barbecue feast thing with friends and family. It can be an Organized Event at a restaurant with an outdoor eating area, but, in my opinion, it is best when held at someone’s house – a house out in the wilds with a bit of land.
First, invite a few friends or family around. The days before, get all the ingredients or divide the chores up amongst your guests. The famous calçot sauce (see below) should be made if possible the day before to get it out of the way.
It’s a kind of romesco sauce made with roasted tomatoes, roasted garlic, ground hazelnuts (and almonds optionally), chilli pepper, ground toasted bread, vinegar salt, and olive oil. There are variations of course. The resulting sauce should be delicious, slightly vinegary or spicy, and thick.
On the day, you want your guests there nice and early (i.e early for lunch – about 11 o’clock is fine for a 2 o’clock meal) as most of the fun of the day is to be had searching for suitable wood for the barbecue, getting it lit, chatting, drinking beer, a few crisps, a bit more chatting, preparing the food.... you need two kinds of wood, one suitable for producing embers for barbecuing the meat and another one (e.g. dry olive tree branches is what we use, though in the area where this tradition started out - Valls - they use pruned branches from vineyards) for making a quick huge flame.
Done that? Start to clean up the calçots – scrape a bit of soil off, cut any roots or excessively long leaves off – and  get them on to whatever you’re going to use to barbecue them  - some kind of grill thing, a home-made wire contraption or even the metal springy bottom from a bed! Anything which allows them to get “burnt” quickly when you flare up the fire.
Have some more beer, and a few peanuts. Greet the latecomers.
Probably best to barbecue the meat first, and then try to keep it warm. People usually do sausages, lamb chops, black puddings. Then throw the quick-burning branches on the fire, and place the layer of calçots in the flames for a few minutes till the outsides go black – i.e. burnt. Immediately wrap them up in bunches in old newspaper. This keeps them warm and helps them to finish cooking on the inside – i.e. go soft.

Now, you usually all stand around a long table in the garden with a little dish of the sauce in front of you, the wine on the table in a porrò (see photo below - designed to pass around, pouring from the small hole directly into the mouth without touching it (with your mouth)), and remember (too late now) you should be wearing your don’t-care-if-I-make-a-mess clothes. Some less experienced calçot feasters also wear bibs. It has been said that in the urban capital of Barcelona they may even wear gloves but that’s nonsense ... the whole point is to make a mess. Get a calçot, hold it up by the leaves and peel the burnt skin down and off till you see the tender white calçot. Dip it in the sauce and hold it above you, and gently bite away at the bottom. You may need a few bites and a few sauce-dips to finish one, eating as far as the non-tender green leaves. Then repeat. You will soon see the sauce and burnt stuff gets everywhere, a very dirty messy meal! It’s said that a typical adult would eat about 10 of them. The calçots, and especially the sauce, are delicious but don’t overdo it as once this part of the feast is over, you tidy the table up a bit and dig in to all the other great stuff. Usually a plethora of barbecued meat, roasted artichokes, a variety of omelettes, olives, crisps, toast with allioli (like garlic mayonnaise, homemade also before lunch), roasted red pepper and aubergine, wine and/or beer and so on. When you’re well and truly stuffed you can sit around all day in the nice Mediterranean winter sun, chatting away, and having a coffee, or get dragged into doing games and sports by the kids who are usually fed up of just cooking and eating by now.
As I’ve said, difficult to reproduce this event in South Yorkshire or other places in the world, but no winter-spring visit to Catalonia is complete without trying one!

* The key to the question – just what is a calçot? Well, according to different English web pages or newspaper articles it could be a spring onion, a shallot, a scallion, a green onion, a sweet onion, looks like a leek... whoah, wait a minute! Having eaten many, I’d say it’s a kind of bland sweetish (i.e not really cry-your-eyes-out onion flavoured) onion but the trick is not so much what dodgy translation we can find in a dictionary, but more in how it is grown. The farming technique and soil is key to producing the "calçot". As the onion starts to grow, you pile the soil up around it, and again a few days later, and again, and so on. It’s a slow and careful process (my father-in-law used to do it) but if you do it well, and the weather is suitable, and the kind of soil right, eventually you get these long white 2 cm (?) thick “onions”. Try these links... Guardian , Wikipedia , another blog post on the subject by someone else.
Photos say more than a thousand words, they say...

dilluns, 26 gener de 2015

Thyme soup / Sopes de frígola / Food (2)

So, as threatened, here goes for a bit of food-blogging. The Catalan recipe I’ve chosen to start with should really be the last one to be posted, though, as it is perfect for an evening when you’re feeling stuffed, bloated, after pigging out on a plethora of other rich Catalan food. But, a promise is a promise – I rashly promised a friendly soup-blogger that I’d post a Catalan soup recipe and as I don’t know how many food posts I’ll be doing, I’d better get this one done now! Shut up Brian and get on with it...

Thyme soup / Sopes de frígola
Ingredients – a nice ripe tomato; dried wild mountain thyme – especially good if you collect it at the right time of year, the magical summer solstice; a “spring garlic” (i.e like a spring onion in shape but really a young garlic stem/plant before the bulb starts to grow to its usual size if that makes any sense); stale bread (we use yesterday’s baguette); salt; olive oil; and water.
1.       Put some sprigs of thyme in about a pint of water (I’m guessing numbers here from watching the missus making it in the following photos). Bring it to the boil and keep on a low boil for a few minutes till the water goes golden-coloured, i.e thyme-flavoured.
2.       Meanwhile, as that’s boiling away, chop the “spring garlic” thing up into really small bits and place in a bowl.
3.       Get your tomato and “roast” it on an open fire – i.e. hold it in tongs and burn the outside while it hopefully goes soft on the inside over embers.
4.       Peel off the burnt skin (the tomato’s, not yours) and chop the tomato up nice and small into the bowl.
5.       (If you don’t have an open fire, skip points 3 and 4 and open up a tin of tomatoes from the supermarket and chop one up!)
6.       Bang a bit of salt into the tomato and garlic mixture.
7.       Chop up your stale bread (e.g. 3 inches of baguette should do the trick – as the actress said to the bishop), and heap it into the mixture.
8.       Lashings of locally produced (unless you’re living in the north of England) extra-virgin olive oil over the mixture. Mix it all up.
9.       Your thyme “broth” should now be ready. Sieve it and pour this liquid over the bread-tomato-garlic mixture. Mix well.
10.   Enjoy it!
Especially recommended as a light meal to help you digest on an evening, and/or to keep the winter blues away. This quantity should serve one or two people depending how much you like it! Now for the photos....