Year of Grace, Day 211. Discovering Tetilla: A Galician cheese

We drove along the coast yesterday through 3 towns: Tres Calas, St. Jordi, and Calafat.

St Jordi

St Jordi

The beach at Calafat, the cloudbank on the horizon is over the Mallorcan Islands.

The beach at Calafat, the low cloudbank on the horizon denotes the Mallorcan Islands.

And on the way back, we checked out the Mercadona, a sprawling supermarket just outside Ametlla de Mar. Until now, we’ve been buying at the Mercat Central and the local Spar supermarket close to the flat, as we prefer walking when doing our shopping. Besides learning that sweet corn is called “Blatt de Moro” in Catalan (blatt = wheat), we bought a curiously shaped cheese called Tetilla, its shape recalling a part of the female anatomy has given it its name. Our curiosity was rewarded by its attractive and distinctive flavour: creamy and buttery with a mild undercurrent of sourness, unlike any other cheese we’ve eaten. Yet another culinary discovery.

Tetilla is best eaten within a few weeks, and because of its distinctiveness to Galicia, it has a “Denominación de Origen Protegida.” Aside from eating it on its own, I tried Tetilla as a melted topping on my improvisation of the Mallorcan dish, Tumbet, which is similar to other Mediterranean dishes, such as Ratatouille, that feature aubergines, tomatoes, and olive oil. Even at a very low temperature (I’d turned the oven off before deciding on a last-minute elaboration on the Tumbet), the slices of Tetilla melted readily. And they did complement the vegetables very nicely. Even without the cheese, this is a scrumptious dish.

An Improvised Tumbet — A Baked Aubergine Dish
½ cup (or more) virgin olive oil (I used the local Arbequina variety)
2 large aubergines, sliced into 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick rings (these do not need to be presalted – the usual procedure to rid aubergines of bitterness; these were not at all bitter)
1 large onion, sliced into half rings
4–6 fat cloves garlic, chopped (less if you’re not a fan)
1 red bell pepper, sliced into half rings
1.5 – 2 cups chopped juicy tomatoes, fresh or canned (I used a 400 g can)
salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup chopped parsley
5–6 slices of Tetilla or other melting cheese (optional)
5–6 fresh large basil leaves, torn in half

Procedure
In a large skillet, heat 4 tablespoons olive oil at medium heat and quickly fry the aubergine slices, one layer at a time. They do not need to brown. Set them aside.
Add more olive oil as needed, as aubergines absorb a lot of oil.
Once the aubergines are all fried, fry the onions gently over low heat and when wilted, add the garlic, stir-frying until aromatic.
Stir in the red pepper slices, tomatoes, and parsley; season to taste, and cover.
Let the tomato mixture simmer for about 5 minutes and turn off the heat.
In a baking pan or casserole, arrange the aubergine slices in overlapping rows.
Salt and pepper them, then cover them with the tomato sauce.
Place in the middle shelf of the oven and bake at 200°C (~375°F) for 12 -15 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling up the sides and the aubergines are tender (check with the tip of a knife or fork – if the knife goes through without resistance, the aubergines are ready).
Turn off the oven, and add slices of Tetilla or other melting cheese such as Mozzarella on top. Close the oven door: there should be enough heat to melt the cheese.
When the cheese has melted, remove from the oven and garnish with basil.
Serve at once. We partnered this with locally grown short-grain rice from the Ebro Delta, but a baguette or other crusty bread is also good for sopping up the copious and delicious juices. A local, unpretentious white wine from Nulles,Tarragona, called Adernats Blanc, also went well with it.

Year of Grace Day 210. Ensaïmada and pa de sel

These are the Catalan spellings for the traditional Philippine — or to be more historically correct, Hispano-Philippine — pastry ensaymada and bread roll pan de sal.

The name “ensaïmada” comes from “saïm,” Catalan for lard, the shortening traditionally used to make the airy yeast pastries original to the Mallorcan islands, a few kilometers’ sail across the Mediterranean from Ametlla de Mar. The cloud banks over the islands were visible from the port when we took a long stroll there yesterday towards sunset. Ensaïmadas, made in the time-honoured manner, are unique and specific to the Mallorcan islands, so that they are now protected with a European Union Geographical Certificate, similar to the Denomination Controllé for wine and other terroir products of Europe.

I was delighted to come across the familiar coiled buns of ensaïmada at the Mercat Central on Saturday and as well the bakery close to the flat. The ensaïmada pictured above, from the bakery, was unbelievably light, and although it may sound clichéish, it was as light as duck down. I have not eaten anything as delicate and as airy as this. Ever. In contrast to Philippine ensaymada, this one is liso (plain). Its only adornment is the generous powdering of confectioner’s sugar. It had no need of any at all, unlike the typical Philippine buns which are generously slathered with butter, granulated sugar, and grated cheese. Much as a true beauty, this ensaïmada needed no cosmetics for enhancement: this ensaïmada was truly superb just as it was, in its natural state. I have yet to try the other geographically protected variant made with cabello de angel (angel’s hair, referring to shreds of pumpkin or squash hearts).

I have been in search for quite some time for the pan de sal of my Manila childhood – characterized by a crisp crust with a tender, pullable inner crumb. As a child I had not cared for the crust, and once I had broken open a fresh roll, I would pinch in small round bits or gently pull out in long shreds the soft white crumb within. It was a challenge to see how long I could pull them until they broke. The hard crusty crispness shaved my palate raw, leaving it painful throughout much of the day, much as the crust of a freshly baked baguette now does, and which as an adult I now tolerate for the pleasure of relishing those contrasting textures of crispness outside and tender chewiness within.

Left, pa de sel; right, pa de segòl (rye).

Something happened to the original, palate-torturing pan de sal of my Manila childhood during my teens. Elaborated with egg and milk and shortening, its once crisp exterior became tender, and to those like me who had once suffered lacerated palates, the new improved pan de sal was truly welcome. Many years later as my palate learned to genuinely appreciate the role of textures and contrasts to the mouthfeel of bread, I came to have a better appreciation of the old, unimproved pan de sal. But alas! It was no longer to be had, at least in the usual supermarkets and shops. Perhaps in some specialty artisanal bakery somewhere in the Philippines, it may yet be found.

Although I had hoped to find pan de sal in Spain, after all, this Philippine roll originated here, I had not expected to find it here in Ametlla de Mar. The discovery of local pa de sel was totally unexpected: M had gone for rye bread and I’d asked for a couple of rolls. The only rolls in the bakery that day were these, and when asked their name, the baker said, “pa de sel” o “viennas.” How fortuitous! They are not the usual oval shape with pointy ends as the Manila version, but more of a Kaiser roll, and thus the name vienna, in much the same manner that ensaïmadas are called mallorcas in Puerto Rico.

This geographical baptism of pastry and bread takes me back to my mother’s favourite bakery in Manila, called Vienna Bakery, which specialized in just those hard, crusty rolls with tender interiors that my mother adored. And which the untrained palate of my childhood self would break open, completely ignoring the crust, and just slowly pull out in long, long shreds their soft chewy crumb.

The pa de sel in Ametlla de Mar is unlike the pan de sal of my Manila childhood. Despite the crisp crust, its crumb is too tender and doesn’t draw out into long shreds. Perhaps, like all childhood memories of taste, that kind of pan de sal is not as I have treasured its memory to be. But who knows? Perhaps I may still encounter it, somewhere in Spain, perhaps in the Basque region, where most of the Spanish settlers in the Philippines originated from.

Year of Grace, Day 209. El Mercat Central

It hasn’t taken us long to shift from the standard Castellano “buenos días” to Catalan “bon dia,” from “gracias” to “gràcies.” People we meet are friendly, meet our eyes, smile, and greet us amicably, and this is one of the pure joys of living in a small town like Ametlla de Mar. Just this morning, our landlord, whose office is across the street from our flat, stepped out onto the verandah and called out our names. I was sitting with my laptop inside the flat, but the French windows were open and the filmy curtains were billowing out into the verandah with the cool morning breezes, so he knew we were already up and about. “Your desks,” he said, “are on their way.” His son would be carrying them in. It was much as yesterday afternoon. I was potting the myoga and purple-leaf mitsuba outside on my verandah, and he stepped onto his verandah to say the desks would be coming in the morning. (And yes, I did manage to stow a few of my precious Japanese herbs in the crammed van. How could I ever do without them? I am amazed at how resilient these plants are. They’ve been sitting without soil in plastic bags for days as I found time to pot them only yesterday, and they’ve miraculously shown no sign of having been under stress.)

This casual way of communicating is so refreshing and reminds me so much of how rural Filipinos chat. Our neighbours here engage in it as well, parents calling down to their children in the street below, and vice versa. There are frequent “conferences” taking place in the streets, usually in the evening, when people are coming back from work and buying bread for their supper at the bakery, also just across the street from the flat.

In the old days when water had to be fetched from a well, idobata kaigi (Japanese: “well-side conferences”) had a role to play in cementing village friendships (and the opposite as well no doubt). Having lived in a fairly isolated part of Bonn Poppelsdorf (though it was mere minutes away from bustling cafes and shops and the university), so quiet and astonishingly rural in feel because it was surrounded by woods and we were the only house on that lane, I do find it thoroughly enjoyable and a bit of a novelty being in the midst of the bustle of Catalan community life.

“El mercado central” is “el mercat central” in Catalan and just a few minutes’ walk from the flat. Our first foray into the mercat was last Saturday. These were our finds.

The above fungi are rovellons in Catalan or saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus).

Beautifully striped aubergines — two of which  M cut into cubes, quickly fried in olive oil (pressed from the local Arbequin variety of olives), then very, very slowly braised over the lowest heat with garlic and fresh tomatoes (also from the mercat) until all were meltingly tender. Served with a generous sprinkling of fresh basil, they were divine.

We also bought beautiful plums – so freshly picked their powdery blue bloom was still intact and a big bunch of very aromatic basil (the seller couldn’t remember what they were called, and I only remembered albahaca later). These locally grown basil are so intensely scented that their perfume scents the entire dining and living room. I love them and rather than keeping them in the kitchen, they are in a tall glass on the dining table, and I pick a few leaves on the spot to add scent and grace to whatever it is I am eating.

And I nabbed the last bunch of squash flowers — their stalks are sooo sweet and crisp. Rather than frying them tempura-style as I had planned, I added them to the leftover braised aubergines with more basil for a vegetarian pasta sauce. Heavenly.  I needed some parsley as well, and the seller asked how much I wanted.  When I said “just a little,” the seller handed me a bunch — for free. How magnanimous is that? I love this town already.

Year of Grace, Day 208. Saint Gengoux de Scissé

We bid Bonn auf Wiedersehen at precisely noon on the first of October, three hours later than planned: it was tricky getting everything to fit in the van. I had to ditch some items, like an aubergine-glazed pot that would’ve been perfect for tiny blue-green-purple succulents — something to adorn the rental flat we’d be calling home for some time.

Everytime I say “auf Wiedersehen,” I am reminded of the much-loved old British television comedy series “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” featuring a group of unemployed construction workers, mainly from the Midlands and further north, forced to travel the world seeking short-term building contracts, starting with Germany –- hence the title. We divined they were speaking English, but it took M and I several episodes to get acclimatized to the diverse (and so entertaining) regional accents. We became avid followers — as the series took the group to an American Indian reservation, on to Havana, and to Thailand as well.

Our route south took us past Luxembourg to France. At half past 6, the sun was still fairly high, unlike its location at this time further north in Bonn, and I tried the old trick of calculating how much time we had till sunset: 5 fingers, each finger being 15 minutes. (Or was it 5? My memory has turned fickle, but my first reckoning turned out to be right after all.) Sure enough, we reached St. Gengoux de Scissé an hour and a quarter later, just as dusk began to fall. The lights of the B&B had been turned on and shone out through the tall, narrow windows as we stepped into the gravelled courtyard. Oh, it all looked so inviting! Our host had phoned earlier, just as we were doubting whether our route was correct. It had meandered through well-tended vineyards and lovely villages in the heart of the Bourgogne, seemingly unending, that we suspected we were being led in the wrong, though thoroughly delightful, direction.

Who was St. Gengoux de Scissé? “Gengoux,” it appears, is the Burgundian spelling of Gangolf or Gangulfus, the Latin reversal of Wolfgang. Gengoux was a pious and wealthy knight who served under Pepin in 8th century France, and was venerated after divining a source of water that could detect prevarication: quite likely one of the first recorded lie detectors. It was tested on his wife who, while immersed in the fountain’s water, swore that she was faithful, and if not, may her arm fall off: whereupon the skin on her arm did slough off. Gengoux consequently gave away his wealth to become a monk. Gengoux’s wife’s lover, a priest, later murdered Gengoux in the monastery. Gengoux’s relics have been scattered throughout his native Burgundy, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland, such that Gingolph, Gengoult, Gengon, Gengulfe, and diverse variants of the name abound. Even before his miraculous lie-detecting fountain, as a young man Gengoux had been known to heal all sorts of animal complaints, and human ailments too, such as blindness.

Incidentally, there is a Gangolf Strasse in Bonn, along part of the old city wall, the site commemorated by a plaque set in the cobblestones. It is the street that leads from Bonn central station’s bus terminals to the specialist toy store, Puppenkönig, and on towards the Munster, past a fountain. Could this fountain be alluding to Gangolf’s original one? Definitely something to confirm when I’m back in Bonn.

After that rather long prologue, St. Gengoux de Scissé is where we spent the night at a delightful B&B called Le Bourg. A blazing fire in the salon with its library well-stocked with cookery books (one entire ceiling-to-floor shelf) and a most welcome, simple but oh-so-satisfying home-cooked meal of carbonnade of pork (slowly braised in a flavoursome broth of beer and spices), served in the romantic intimacy of the salon, were just the thing after a long journey. It also capped rather fittingly our month-long ordeal of packing our household and paring it down to essentials.

Le Bourg was all that we had hoped for and had actually delivered far more than we’d expected: a genuine jewel in the midst of a vintners’ village; one we would never have encountered had my first choice of accommodation been available. All too often in my experience, at least in this case of B&Bs, it is actually a blessing not to get one’s heart’s desire at first.  An old Burgundian burgher’s house has been and still is in the process of being lovingly restored (deliveries were ongoing as we sat to breakfast the following morning) by its Dutch owner, a former accountant who is certainly in his natural element as architect and designer.

All was tasteful in all senses of the word and Anton was the perfect convivial innkeeper, warm and chatty but not intrusive. We were also introduced to his two adorable Bassetts Fauve de Bretagne, a breed we’d never come across before, and just the right size and, most importantly, disposition for eventual pets. Apparently they’re hypoallergenic and their hair doesn’t shed, besides which they are affectionate and good with children (a nod to eventual grandchildren). After a restful sleep and an energizing breakfast, we were off, but our stay and welcome at Le Bourg had definitely set the right tone to our Southern European odyssey.

This little nook in the salon overlooked by a mysterious lady was where our dinner was served (we were the only guests that night). M vaguely recalled a story about the lady, an aristocrat who, after being painted, became the mistress of the painter or some other person, and died in poverty and obscurity. Please click on the photos below for a larger view.

We shall definitely come again to stay at this delightful village and B&B.