Year of Grace, Day 221. An encounter with camagrocs

Camagrocs (Cantharellus lutescens), known in English as ‘yellow foot,’ are edible fungi that grow in pine forests. I’ve been seeing these small mushrooms with grey funnel-shaped caps and yellowish-orange stalks at my second favourite stall in the Ametlla market. I’ve never seen them featured as desirable for eating in any of my fungi books, perhaps because of their size. One would need to gather a whole lot to make a meal of them. They’re not too big but their colours were so tempting, I just had to try them.

Yellow chanterelles, Cantharellus lutescens

Yellow foot, Cantharellus lutescens

Although fungi are quite pricey (from 15 – 22 Euros a kilo) even though they’re now in season, camagrocs weigh so little that a handful cost no more than 2 Euros. These colourful chanterelles made just the right addition to scrambled eggs. I sautéed them lightly in olive oil and just a tad of butter with chopped parsley and garlic. Their colours remained true even after cooking, and their stalks were crunchy-crisp. With their subtle champignon-like aroma, I shall be trying them again. I’m so pleased to discover and taste yet another edible mushroom.

They are also known as rossinyolic; a rossinyol being a nightingale. Rather apt for this blog, don’t you think?

I couldn’t resist sketching them as well.

Ametlla, camagrocs sketch1_1860

Year of Grace, Day 220. Clumsy is fine; clumsy is good.

Clumsy is fine (下手でいい, heta de ii); clumsy is good (下手がいい, heta ga ii) — clumsy sums up the spirit of etegami (絵手紙, lit. “picture letter”), a Japanese folk art consisting of an impressionistic,  naïve illustration, postcard-sized, accompanied by a brief message or phrase, drawing and text both alluding to the season or thoughts and feelings of the sender.

I was introduced to etegami by No. 2 son, when I visited him some years back, while he was working in Yamaguchi Prefecture. He’d been practising for half a year, and their teacher came all the way from Chiba, near Tokyo, once a month. The lessons, which took the whole afternoon, were capped by an evening meal that everyone pitched in to prepare. I was very impressed by No. 2 son’s results. The whole point to it, he said, is to make it as effortless as possible. My first attempts were not encouraging. My past sumie lessons hindered rather than helped. One of the women in his class, an architect, was also impressed with No. 2 son’s work. Hers, she told me, just didn’t gel — she was too impatient and her thoughts had been rather more on the meal to come.

The plums we’ve been buying from the Central Market in L’Ametlla over the past weeks have been so fresh, with the powdery bloom on them still intact, and so intensely coloured that after photographing each new batch for some days now, I thought it was time to renew my acquaintance with etegami with the plums as my subject.

Assured by the etegami credo that clumsy is fine, clumsy is good, I took out colours and brushes inherited from No. 2 son.These were my first results. They’re larger than standard etegami – and I hadn’t actually intended to send them off as letters. Not yet anyway. I’m just pleased to have my fingers touching paints and brushes again. It was good to rub the stick of sumi on its stone and enjoy the slow rising of its incense-like scent.

Unlike sumie which leaves me feeling slightly dissatisfied with my results, I find the spontaneity and light-heartedness of etegami liberating. I don’t have to have perfection. Etegami are in a sense like my regular grace journal posts. I dash one off when I’ve got something to share. Etegami are the graphic equivalent. Both have to be done at white heat –- when a thought or mood or feeling strikes – get it down. And finish it. No going back another day to edit. No deliberating about a word or phrase – if senior momentitis strikes and there is that one word I cannot recall — tough! I just have to make do. Getting the feeling or thought down is all.

With etegami, the brush is deliberately held at the very tip. Rather awkward but it releases my fingers and my mind and intentions from control. No doubt that is the whole point. I regard my subject and follow its contours with the brush tip, trying not to look at the resulting effect. If I do, then concentration is lost and that’s when I realize that I have been aiming at the endpoint – the goal. In other words, the entire subject. And the line that results is a contrived line, not a natural one. I find that the trick is to move the brush with my breath. It is like meditation. Correction: it is meditation.

And on the third attempt, left devoid of colour, the shapes of the mandarins are the closest to their natural selves. Perhaps because I let the brush move in cadence with my breathing without any striving. I put down my thoughts on the drawing thus: [Being] in the moment is the way. [Being] in the goal, lines go awry. Keep to the moment.

On this 220th day of my grace journal, I remind myself of things to be grateful for. There are a whole lot, but I’ll just share these few. First and foremost, I am grateful to enjoy continued good health, with all my senses intact.  As I age, I become more aware of my body’s physical state and how much of what I had taken for granted 5 years ago or even last year cannot as effortlessly be done now. I am thankful too that I continue to be able to write and to be inspired by simple things that grace my days — the fruits and vegetables from the market, their colours, their tastes. The views and seaweed-laden scents of the sea. All the novelty that goes with a new setting, of being a stranger in this not-quite-so-but-still strange land. I am grateful for the friendliness and kindness of my new neighbours. I had not anticipated that I would be on a new adventure at this stage of my life, and for this unanticipated pleasure, I am thankful. That M and I are able to enjoy the pleasures of good, simple food grown and produced locally is one of the best aspects of this latest adventure. Above all, I am grateful to friends and readers who continue to follow my journal and encourage me with their kind and insightful comments. Thank you, thank you all!!

Today's lunch -- fresh cheese, black olives, ewe's milk cheese, lavender honey, French bread from bakery across the road

Today’s lunch — fresh cheese from a local dairy, black olives pickled by our favourite market seller’s husband, ewe’s milk cheese also from a local dairy, lavender honey from neighbouring town El Perello, French bread from bakery across the road, and Arbequin olive oil, not pictured, also locally pressed. Parsley — a freebie from my other fave market stall seller.

Year of Grace Day 219. Amid olive groves to El Perello

We took a country road yesterday from L’Ametlla de Mar towards El Perello – definitely an inspired choice. The road took us right in the midst of farms (fincas) and casas de campo (country houses), through groves of olives, carobs, almonds. I find it soothing to regard the stark colours of bare earth and stone — the gold and amber ones that make up the dry walls and terraces that give the orchards a precise and geometric formality against the amorphous informality of leaves — the silvery ones of olive and the lacquered green of carob.

The landscape was level at first but as the road began to curve, it became more interesting and varied as it rose and then dipped into deep gullies (barrancs) and gorges, which most likely fill up with rushing water in the winter. There were stands of pine forests, their intense green boughs of needles a good foil for the silvery grey of olive leaves and their gnarled twisted trunks.

The olives are ripening, and pressing of the season’s oil will be taking place soon, perhaps in about a month or so.

From afar, there didn’t seem to be much by way of flowers but closer to the ground, I came upon tiny flowers  – unidentified as yet. There was also a mauve flower that looked like field scabious but I shall have to go back and photograph it again, as it turned out fuzzy.

To our great surprise, the road took us past the entrance of a pottery called Terra Cuit, whose huge clay pots and other products are on prominent display by the national road N340. These pots are fantastically enormous and I can well imagine they would easily accommodate a couple of people within. They would make lovely rain collectors. M had been wondering for the past weeks how to access the place, and just like that, yesterday we found it. Brilliant!

I couldn’t resist punching up the colours a bit — have a good week ahead everybody!!

Year of Grace, Day 218. Un Jardin en Méditerranée

I mused the other day about how everything tastes so good here. “It’s all that sun,” A said, visiting us yesterday on his family’s usual weekly jaunt to civilization, as they’ve dubbed the charms of Ametlla. I have to agree with him: the intense brilliance of the sun works miracles on the fruits and vegetables grown around here.

But there is also such a thing as spirits of place. These same fruits and vegetables, were they to be transported to Bonn or Leamington Spa, say, would not taste the same. Same produce, totally different eating environment. I remember the same experience with wonderful Welsh lamb some years ago when I was still living in England: taken back to Warwickshire, roasted in the exact same way, its flavour was but a shadow of how our first taste of it was, eaten within site of the sea in a little holiday cottage. And my neighbour, Welsh-born and bred, also had the very same experience, such that she has never brought back any lamb from her hometown. Who knows what causes the change in taste: it’s only about two hours’ drive and kept in a cooler, it shouldn’t suffer unduly from the trip. And one doesn’t really expect meat to behave in that way. Go bad, yes; but lose flavour?

What’s brought this on? I’ve had a perfume called Un Jardin en Méditerranée (A Garden in the Mediterranean) for some time in Bonn but had rarely worn it. I’d bought it because it reminded me a little of the scents that fig trees and their leaves exude in the sun. Hard to describe, but it’s warm and inviting, and one that you get when you’re in the shade of a fig tree in the middle of summer. But in Bonn, it smelled harsh and artificial and so chemical that I almost ended up ditching it. I’m glad I brought it with me to Ametlla after all.  I thought I’d give Un Jardin en Méditerranée another chance one bright sunny day. And to my amazement, that harsh chemical artificial scent that had put me off it all these years was not perceptible at all. Truly astonishing!

Here in the Mediterranean, a scent called Un Jardin en Méditerranée is in its true element; it’s at home. Perhaps with perfumes as well, there is such a thing as the right place to sense them properly, to sense them as they were meant to be sensed. In cold, usually grey and drizzly Bonn, surely even I could have foreseen that a scent such as Un Jardin en Méditerranée did not have a chance…? (Even if I’d bought it whimsically expecting to be transported there for a brief whiff of a garden with figs ripening in the sun.)

I do find these discoveries about taste and, now, scent quite intriguing. What is it about places that affects our senses so?

Year of Grace, Day 217. Today’s market find: Boletus edulis

Two market finds today: a penny bun or Boletus edulis and a chayote.

Ametlla penny bun or porcino_1769

The penny bun, also known as cep or porcino, is such a rare luxury in Bonn (there known as Steinpilz); here it was one of three wild fungi at one of my favourite market stalls. I bought one to try.  I cut it into ¼ inch slices and slowly cooked half in a light film of virgin olive oil and the other half in a similar film of butter. I’d been advised by wild fungus eaters in Bonn to cook them at very low heat and for no less than 20 minutes. That’s to ensure that all harmful bacteria and other microorganisms are disarmed. The butter-cooked Boletus slices were marginally better than the olive-oil ones. I was expecting a stronger flavour and aroma from them, rather akin to those of matsutake, another popular and pricey autumn fungus in Japan, Korea, and in Northeastern United States. I remember one truly unforgettable risotto of porcini –- its aroma so heady — eaten at a trattoria in the former Jewish ghetto of Rome.

The chayote, Sechium edule, will be for another day – perhaps a stir-fry. I asked our favourite market stall owner, who grows them, what its local name is. She said, “There isn’t one really. Most people don’t know what this is.” “So what do you call it then?” I asked. “Oh, a potato without the flouriness.”

I said, “We call it chayote in the Philippines, and in the Caribbean, it goes by the name of cho cho or christophene.” Another customer, an older man, got curious, and asked how to cook it. And the lady explained how she cooked them. “The young shoots are also edible,” I said.

“Oh, I didn’t know that. How do you cook them?” the lady asked. “You can steam them and serve them as a salad with a vinaigrette or add them to soups at the end of cooking,” I said.

Other market buys today were gorgeous plums, again with the powdery bloom on them still. Fresh as fresh can be. And mandarins, similarly freshly picked, with their leaves still intact.

Ametlla plums w powdery bloom_1771

On the way home, the lovely blues and turquoises of the sea beckoned.

And on the cliffs above the beach, wild morning glories shone like sapphires strung on gigantic necklaces, and dates, clustered like amber, slowly ripened on the palms facing the sea.

Year of Grace, Day 216. Eating the land

The taste of everything we buy at the Mercat Central is so robust and satisfying, and the quality equally superb that, even without intending to, we have unwittingly evolved into vegetarians. What?!! Vegetarians??!! How our old selves (and our family and friends too) would have loudly scoffed; we have always been unrepentant omnivores, and prided ourselves on being so. Yet here we are — even without intending to, much less planned to — in the situation of not having prepared a meal that featured meat or fish as a main course in the past 12 days.

Someone — I forget now who — once said that ethnic food, all traditional, indigenous food, was in a sense eating the land, eating off the land. That is, gathering and gleaning what there is, naturally growing and ripe — and thus at its prime — for turning into a meal. And that is what we have been doing since arriving here about a fortnight ago. We eat — always — with our eyes first. Whatever looks good on that day is what we buy.

And so we have brought home assorted varieties of aubergines – now at their peak, and tomatoes – the small firm ones for eating on their own or salads, and the huge beefsteak ones for cooking. And M has excelled himself in turning these into all manner of delicacies. Brushed with virgin olive oil pressed from local Arbequina olives, they are grilled, and they become so meaty and flavoursome just on their own, they hardly need any seasoning – not garlic, not pepper. Not even salt. And unlike other aubergines we have used before, grown in very hot climates, these locally grown ones have no bitterness at all, such that they do not need the presalting to sweat out their bitter essences before they are cooked.

The totally white aubergine is no doubt what gave this vegetable its other name -- eggplant.

The totally white aubergine is no doubt what gave this vegetable its other name — eggplant.

For salsa – the enormous tomatoes are perfect. Cut into thick slices, brushed with olive oil, together with halved and oil-brushed onions and roasted with garlic in their skins, until the onions are slightly charred, they exude the most tempting aromas throughout the flat and, no doubt, the entire neighbourhood.

These organic tomatoes may not win county fair awards, but their flavour was superb. And they were sooo juicy.

These organic tomatoes may not win any awards at the country fair, but their flavour was superb. And they were sooo juicy.

All that is needed is to skin the tomatoes –- not such a fiddly job with these, as they literally fall off their skins seemingly just waiting for their chance to be reincarnated and shine in a salsa. Dice the onions, and add some chopped herbs (initially some highly aromatic basil, and yesterday some cilantro), and a bit of salt, one or two tiny hot peppers (M usually puts only one), and it certainly beats the salsa that M used to make in Bonn.

M's salsa, with locally pickled olives.

M’s salsa, with locally pickled olives.

Nothing but nothing beats eating locally — preparing food in a simple manner with good quality ingredients grown and produced in nearby farms. The meals we have prepared, since we arrived nearly a fortnight ago, have centred on what is in season – aubergines, tomatoes, herbs. Made with local virgin olive oil of the Arbequina tree, they have made such satisfying and superb main meals in themselves. Partnered with bread made by our neighbourhood baker, or with rice grown in the Ebro Delta just a few kilometers away, these simply prepared vegetable dishes are, to my delighted amazement, such genuine gastronomic stars, that it would be a downright insult to them to be cast as mere supports for meat or fish or any other main dish.

For dessert, we have a range of locally grown fruit – mandarins and ginjols (jujubes) from our now favourite market seller – a very friendly woman whose produce comes from their own farm in L’Aldea, about 30 km from Ametlla de Mar. From her as well we bought the Arbequina olive oil, and their own pickled olives (her husband pickles them himself, she said), both green and black: nothing in them but water and salt. Tomatoes, eggs as well – all come from their farm.

Crisp, sweet with an undertow of acidity, local plum.

Local plum — crisp and sweet with a subtle undertow of acidity.

The one fruit that we have indulged in that is not grown locally here, but comes just a bit further south, are cherimoyas (here spelled ‘xirimoia’). And they come from our other favourite seller where we have found the most gorgeous plums in their powdery blue bloom and basil, and yesterday, cilantro.

Before coming to Ametlla de Mar, I don’t believe I would ever have entertained becoming a total vegetarian. Although vegetables and fruits have always been plentiful in our diet, their flavour and quality in the places we’ve lived till now have not been outstanding enough to warrant giving them star billing in our diet. Now however, a Mediterranean diet eaten in this Mediterranean town makes total sense. With such fabulous tasting local aubergines and tomatoes and olive oil and herbs in season – there is utterly no reason to want for anything else. Well… okay… maybe a freshly caught fish or prawn or octopus or tuna from the sea just off Ametlla de Mar. But, surprisingly enough, I am not missing those. Not yet. Not with these oh so excellent and satisfying delights of the vegetable kingdom.

Indeed, the ancient wisdom of eating off the land, eating the best of the land –- whatever is in season – is, as that Americanism has it, most definitely a no-brainer.

Year of Grace, Day 215. Tapa y Beguda, 2.5 Euros

Yesterday was the final day of Ametlla de Mar’s 10-day long gastronomic festival and a national holiday commemorating Columbus’s landing in the Americas. It was as well my mother’s birthday; she would have been 103 today.

A special offering at bars throughout the festival was a serving of tapa and a beverage (beguda) for 2.5 Euros. We hadn’t been paying sufficient attention to the posters announcing these specials — well, actually I had, but without realizing that these prices were time-limited. And so on the very last day we set out to do a modest sampling to celebrate the above occasions. The tapas were excellent and nicely presented. I had a well-chilled cava and M had a tinto (red wine) for our first tapa.

Flaked bacalao

Flaked bacalao — the black seeds are Nigella sativa (not sesame).

Flaked merluza with blue potatoes and caramelized onions

Flaked merluza on crisp-fried blue potatoes, a slice of baguette, and caramelized onions

The early evening sky over Ametlla de Mar’s port was gorgeous. And the palm trees framed the view from the bar ever so nicely. Ahh… I could very easily get used to this place 🙂

Year of Grace, Day 214. A Catalan tradition — human towers or castells

Soon after the tasting meal of arrossejat at midday yesterday, six or seven groups of mixed ages and genders, similarly dressed in white trousers but with differently coloured shirts, a different one per group, marched into the port of Ametlla de Mar where around a crowd of 400 – 500 had assembled for the local gastronomic festival. They were ushered in with the sonorous sounds of oboe-like instruments dating back from medieval times – – traditional Catalan shawns called gralla — and a small drum called tabal. I assumed, never having seen the spectacle before (the festival announcement had mentioned them), that these were the castellers, – groups who erected human towers called castells (Catalan, ‘castle’) – a spectacular feat of physical strength, endurance, balance, and group solidarity unique to Catalunya.

Catalan shawm called gralla.

Catalan shawm called gralla.

Catalan drum called tabal

Catalan drum called tabal

In no time at all, the castellers sorted themselves out in twos, each helping to encase themselves around the middle with long black tasselled sashes tightly lapped several times. Or rather, it was the person who wound him or herself into the sash, known as faixa, pulling tightly against the other who secured the other end just as tautly.

There was a variation on winding that I observed –- flipping the fabric into a twist midway, so as to create a subtle bump in the back, and perhaps a change in direction of fabric stress on the sash. The sash, a part of traditional Catalan folk wear, originally served to warm the kidneys, but for castellers, serves not only to give support to the back and stomach muscles, but also as footholds for ascent (though less so for descent).

Tying up the end of the sash was also a matter of individual preference in some of the castellers, some simply tucking the ends in, and others choosing an elaborate twist. Over the black sash went one or two red twisted kerchiefs.

Then the formation of the castells –- the human towers –- began. First the base, called pinya, whose members consisted of robust castellers. The ones in this core group – at the very middle and the ones that bore the most weight – raised their hands in the air then clasped each other’s hands as they hummed in unison. Others them joined behind each of the core castellers at the periphery, until a sizeably wide foundation had been built. The pinya also serves as a safety net, in the event of accidents.

Once the foundation was stable and ready for the upper levels, the shawms began their piping, accompanied by the drumming of the tabal, a signal that subsequent levels could proceed. Three castellers in bare feet then climbed up over the foundation, using the shoulders and sashes of the lower group as foot- and toe-holds.

Another three castellers then came up from different directions, again using the backs of the knees, the sashes, and shoulders and hands of the previous level to balance on. And so it went, and the last to ascend were two children, no older than 5 or 6 it looked to me, a boy and a girl, protected by safety helmets, climbing up swiftly with no hesitation – – there was no time to lose. I was watching the little girl with awe – she used her knee to propel her onto the first level casteller’s sash, then shoulders, and using the casteller’s hands, on to the next, and the next dizzying height. So unflinchingly brave for ones so very young. Please click on the video below.

One child balanced at the very summit, legs straddling the shoulders of castellers below, as the other climbed over and raised one hand with four fingers out (for the four bars of the Catalan flag), then just as rapidly, both climbed down, now sliding down the backs of the castellers’ legs swiftly to descend. At the very foundation, they went straight into the waiting embrace of proudly beaming (and I am certain extremely relieved) parents. The other levels soon followed suit, exercising the same care and precision with which they were erected. The disassembly of the castell is apparently more accident-prone than its erection.

A very moving spectacle, and one that could not have been achieved without endless practice and solidarity and mutual trust and reliability. Many of the castellers hugged each other tightly and intimately beforehand, evidence of the closeness of their friendships, and as well of the potential fatal risks associated with this Catalan tradition.

The last castell was in fact halted just at the pinya stage, and a short pause of dancing to the local marching band’s music ensued among the castellers. It was a very hot day, and the forceful midday sun and the physical strain were likely to be overwhelmingly challenging. Only when the castellers had had sufficient respite did they come together again for a final castell.

I was glad to have been witness, at such close range,  to these incredible achievements from the casteller groups, local Los Xics Caleros from Ametlla de Mar, Els Xiquets del Serrallo , and Els Castellers de Vila-Seca (please click on the castellers’ sites for more info).

Year of Grace, Day 213. A local gastronomic festival: Diada de arrossejat

Today was a perfect day for a festival – a warm and sunny autumn day, and as tomorrow is also a national holiday, there was plenty of time for fun – gastronomic and otherwise.

The star of this festival is arrossejat, a rice dish typical of fishing villages all along the coast of the province of Tarragona. Traditionally it was a very humble dish, making use of the odd fish and seafood in a fisherman’s catch left over after the best and biggest items have been sold. The word “arrosejat” comes from “rossejar,” to toast till golden, which describes the colour of the rice in this dish. I’d only ever read of this dish, and so was quite keen to see how it was prepared. Fortunately, there was a competition for the best arrossejat, and several aspiring chefs, of all ages, started their charcoal fires just after 10 this morning. Please click on each photo to enlarge.

The first step is preparing the broth. Various crustaceans –- mantis shrimp, prawns, crabs – are fried in olive oil till they turn red. I noted one chef using a very green olive oil, obviously home-pressed. Then a picada – a mix of garlic cloves, paprika, parsley – is prepared in a mortar. Once the crustaceans are done, they are pressed or cracked with the pestle, the better for their flavours to be extracted, and together with the picada, added to a cauldron, water added, and all is brought to the boil.

A mix of diverse coral fish are then added. Once all the flavours of the fish and seafood have been thoroughly transmitted to the broth and concentrated through further cooking, the broth is sieved, and used for cooking the rice.

Before the rice is cooked however, it is fried in olive oil until toasted to a golden turn. When the rice has absorbed all the flavoursome broth, the dish can be served as is, or finished for additional “toasting” in the oven.

I had hoped to be able to taste some of the competition results, which smelled heavenly and so temptingly, but only the judges were able to do so. Alas.

Tasting tickets, at a reasonable 5 Euros each, included a dish of arrossejat served in a traditional glazed dish, a choice of octopus in tomato sauce or fried battered fish or a braised fish dish, and 2 helpings of wine (any from 3 local vintners, including cava both natural and rose, regular white and red wine) or beer.

I found my portion of arrossejat a bit lacking in flavour and rather overly toasted and dry. The octopus, though, was tender and tasty, and so was the fried, well-seasoned fish. In other places, arrosejat is apparently served with allioli (garlic mayonnaise) and portions of fish from the broth.

The meal was followed by a demonstration of castellers, and this was quite a spectacle indeed. The most impressive part was seeing children, no older than 5 or 6, climbing fearlessly and agilely up to the top of these human towers and nonchalantly sliding down to be caught up in the safe arms of proud mothers and fathers. I shall post photos of the castellers in a later post.

An absolutely fantastic festival!! And definitely adds to Ametlla de Mar’s attractions.

Year of Grace, Day 212. Serendipity’s inexplicable ways

If there were anything needed to convince me even further that this place is just right for M and I, then yesterday’s serendipitous event is it. We had just come back from a late morning drive along the coast south of Ametlla de Mar, past Roques Daurades and on towards L’Ampolla. Below is one lovely part of L’Ampolla.

An email from M’s sister had come in, revealing that her husband’s cousin lives 180 km south of Barcelona. More or less around these parts. In no time at all, M and his brother-in-law’s cousin were chatting on the phone. It turned out the cousin, A, was right here in Ametlla doing some errands. And much more intimate than mere cousins, A said. They had been suckled together at A’s mother’s breast, something that one only reads about in stories (and a nod to a previous post on queso de tetilla). How absolutely serendipitous is that?!

We tagged along as A did his errands, and he introduced us to his circle of friends, one of whom we’d already had the chance to meet. Such as the lovely manager of the local branch of the Agrobotiga, the marketing cooperative for local products. It was where we’d stopped for wine the other day, and, unfamiliar with Catalunyan wines, asked for advice. I said I liked white wines that were “afrutado pero seco,” whereupon she recommended the Adernats Blanc from Nulles, Tarragona. And a Shiraz blend for a red, once she’d learned that that grape variety is one of my faves.

Being with A reinforced that first meeting with the charming Agrobotiga lady. And it was wonderful to chat with her, now being on a different level of interaction. And that switch from formal to familiar, from being a customer to the friend of a friend, underlined how one feels about place – any place. Our links with people are those that make a difference to how we feel about a place. They bind us to a place and provide that sense of belonging — or at this early stage of settling in — of the promise of being part of a community.

The Agrobotiga lady divulged that the town centre branch was closing the next day, that is today, as the holiday season is officially over. In the summer, she said, it would be impossible to see the colour of the pavement of the street just outside her shop for the crowds. The population swells thrice, from year-round 6,000 to 18,000 from mid-July to August. The main Agrobotiga just on the outskirts of Ametlla de Mar is open all year round though. A then pointed out that the best quality local wines come from the Priorat, the region further north from here and inland from the coast. Once, he said, he’d brought a small barrel to be filled on the spot at a vintner’s there. No wonder most houses have underground wine cellars.

I had been wondering about bookstores, and one of A’s errands took us to one at the far end of Ametlla town centre, which we had yet to explore. Again, A introduced M and I warmly to the bookstore proprietor as “familia.” The proprietor’s name is Antonio, a name easy for me to remember as I told him, he and my late father and a nephew are “tocayos.”

We got to meet A’s beautiful family — wife and two daughters here also doing some shopping —  later. What an amazingly incredible day! Who would have imagined that here, of all places, M would find extended family? And, it turns out, our nearby bakery is one of A’s favourites.

Earlier that day, way before we’d met A, the baker’s wife mentioned that special pastries would be ready later that afternoon – with assorted fillings of apple and cream and other delectables. And then she said, “We’re neighbours now. If ever you run out of anything –- sugar, salt, milk, eggs, whatever – come!”

Ahh… truly a warm and endearing welcome! Together with the serendipitous encounter with M’s brother-in-law’s cousin, these are signs –- if ever we needed any —  signs indeed that here would be an excellent place to unpack our bags for some time.