Year of Grace, Day 230. Hummus – badge of a tolerant society or just a passing fad?

While eating my pan-Mediterranean breakfast of hummus from the local Mercadona (a supermarket chain), harissa from a Moroccan food shop, Catalonian escalivada — a salad of charcoal-grilled aubergines and sweet red peppers — and locally baked bread, with a lacing of local green olive oil from this year’s first pressing, I pondered on the ubiquitousness of hummus in lands where it is far from an original staple.

Bottom left — escalivada, a Catalonian dish of charcoal-grilled aubergines and sweet peppers; top right — harissa, a Moroccan hot chili and lemon condiment; middle right — hummus, flecked with wild thyme flowers and leaves.

Hummus, as everyone knows, is a very simple paste of boiled and mashed chickpeas, sesame paste or tahini/tahina, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic (and other condiments to personal taste), usually eaten as a dip for pita or other unleavened or leavened bread. All of these ingredients are common throughout the Mediterranean and widely eaten by poor and rich alike from Lebanon and Syria to Israel and Palestine and less so in Egypt.

So what is it doing in a supermarket in a small fishing village in Southern Catalonia? Where there are not just one but two varieties available – a plain one and a paprika-flavoured one (we prefer the plain).  And moreover, what was it doing in chain supermarkets (Tesco and Sainsbury, and the upmarket Marks and Spencer) in the small town of Leamington Spa in the heartland of England (where one could have a bewildering diversity of varieties)? One could argue that L’Ametlla de Mar has become multicultural, though this is not borne by the current faces I see as I walk around this village of 6000 souls (in the summer the population does triple however). The permanent foreign contingent is largely Western European – Germans, French, English – with a sprinkling of Asians (me and the staff at the Chinese stores and restaurant) and a few North Africans (but then again hummus is not a North African staple). So who are the beneficiaries of this light-meal staple and dip more commonly seen throughout the Levant and supermarkets in England?

I contemplated this as I happily dipped my locally baked circlet of bread into the hummus, sprinkled with the new flowers and minuscule leaves of aromatic wild thyme, that I had picked from a sun-drenched hillside facing the sea in El Perello just two days ago. And I compared hummus’s fate as a global food with that of sushi.

Who could have foreseen that sushi, which used to provoke (and still does) shudders among non-eaters, would become a permanent staple of sandwich, salad, and light-meal food chilling cabinets throughout Bonn, Germany? (Or in England and elsewhere all over the world too?) And yet it has – within the space of 11 years, since I first came to live in Bonn.  It has certainly captured the hearts (and stomachs) of many a Bonn Feinschmecker. It does cause me a great deal of dismay, however, to see it being thoroughly impregnated, or more to the point, drowned, in soy sauce before being conveyed to conspicuously appreciative mouths. (Can one still detect the subtlety of fresh fish thus?)

If sushi has made tremendous inroads into the Bonn gastronomic scene, hummus has not. Or at least as far as I had seen from three months back when I left Bonn in October 2015. And Bonn bills itself as an international city. Bonn lost its status as the capital when it was moved back to Berlin after the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, and consequently its international diplomatic community.  Years later a marketing agency thought up a campaign to shore up the city’s sagging international character. And the resulting slogan? “Bonn – Stadt, Ville, City.” I cannot help but point out the obvious: it is a markedly restricted view of “international.”

It does come as a huge surprise to me that despite the predominant Turkish and other Mediterranean (Spanish, Greek, Syrian) residents of Bonn, swelled by international students of Bonn University and the staff of numerous UN agencies that have relocated there, hummus is not a regular offering in any Bonn supermarket. Not even in Turkish or other ethnic food shops. And yet, here it is, very much a staple in this humble Catalonian fishing village whose population cannot compare to Bonn’s hundred thousands. And there to be found as well, in Middle English towns such as Leamington Spa, Kenilworth, Warwick, and Stratford, with populations no greater than Bonn’s, albeit similarly endowed with an international citizenry through the universities of Warwick, Coventry, and Birmingham.

Could hummus then possibly become like sushi in the near future, with the influx of refugees from Syria into Bonn? Can exotic foods like sushi and hummus, as they become culinary staples to be found in the smallest of supermarkets far from their native lands, become indicators of multinational tolerance, badges of multicultural harmony in a global society? Would someone who readily takes to foreign and exotic food heartily take an outlander for a neighbour? Accept him or her a friend? Consider and respect him or her as a fellow human being?

Or are sushi and hummus just passing food fads, made popular to the wider world outside of their homelands, by celebrities and/or gourmets, as has happened with sushi? Are marketers, always on the lookout for trends, simply following the latest ones by welcoming sushi and hummus into their ready-to-eat food chiller cabinets?

What do you think? Would you say that hummus in the local supermarket is a gauge of social tolerance? There are other ethnic foods that have gone global – hamburger, pizza, spaghetti. Have they contributed at all to our acceptance of the stranger in our midst? A bit heavy to consider first thing in the morning, perhaps, but you see what happens when you have hummus (unexpectedly found in a local supermarket) in a tiny Catalonian fishing village for breakfast.


Year of Grace, Day 229. Crema catalana vs. flan

Among the dessert offerings in restaurants here in the Lower Ebro, known locally as Baix Ebre (‘x’ is pronounced ‘sh’ in Catalan), there is one that I have grown quite chauvinistically addicted to, not because of any leaning one way or the other to the Catalan campaign for autonomy, but because of its unrivalled superiority over any other Spanish dessert I have tasted locally over the past three months. I am speaking of the pride of this staunchly patriotic region — crema catalana — and right the Catalans are to be intensely proud of it.

Although I do relish refined dishes as well as any other Feinschmecker, I tend to be even more appreciative of simple fare made sublime, as a result of deft handling by a sensible and, more to the point, sensitive cook, of the humblest and commonest of ingredients. And what could be more common than the eggs, milk, sugar, lemon zest, and cinnamon that go into the making of such a superb delicacy as crema catalana? I also appreciate that it is predictably served in a plain and unsophisticated clay dish.

My curiosity for exotic desserts has been a constant in my past dining, but lately I have come to see the wisdom of a renowned fine diner, who on discovering an excellent place to eat on trips abroad, never seeks any other. Why risk having a less than satisfactory meal elsewhere when you’ve found a place that is so evidently good, she asks? When you have only a few meals to eat in a certain place or within a certain time span, a disappointing meal is indeed a sad waste of time and money. Not to mention the effort of finding and eventually deciding on a place to eat. I feel much the same about local desserts, and so invariably I choose crema catalana.


Thus, much as I am tempted by the different local flans – flan de leche, flan de huevo, for instance – I leave the experimenting to M. (I confess to sheepishly stealing a teaspoonful or two, if only to justify my unwavering allegiance.) I beg to be excused another chauvinistic declaration: that the flan de leche as I have sampled here in L’Ametlla de Mar is no patch on its far-flung, exotic colonial descendant — I refer to the Philippines’ signature dessert of leche flan, by far a richer and denser custard. The local flan de huevo was no vast improvement over flan de leche either, contrary to my expectations.

Restaurant Mestral's flan de leche

Restaurant Mestral’s flan de leche

Cafe Xavier's flan de huevo

Cafe Xavier’s flan de huevo

I would rather have a superlative crema catalana and be able to compare which local restaurants excel in it, than suffer the occasional sad consequences of an unquenchable culinary curiosity. (I have to qualify that this restriction only applies  to local desserts, which is probably evidence that my sweet tooth is not as easily swayed as M’s. Or, that the choices have been rather limited.) So far, there are two L’Ametlla de Mar restaurants whose variants of crema catalana have been to my satisfaction. Thank you and saludos, Restaurant Mestral and Café Xavier! It is difficult to say which is superior: both were rich and creamy (despite the absence of cream in the ingredients, only milk), with the barest undertow of lemon and even harder to detect cinnamon (or could it have been an unorthodox replacement of it with mace?). And both were adorned with a mirror-like burnish of burnt caramel in just the right proportion for a welcome crunchiness and smokey, restrained sweetness to counteract what would have been a cloying custard without it. If I may be allowed a slight favouritism, perhaps the glaze of Café Xavier’s crema catalana was more generous and more satisfyingly seared.

Year of Grace, Day 228. Promising an early Catalonian spring

I am told by L’Ametlla de Mar residents that it’s an unusually mild winter, even at 5°C. Notwithstanding my own misgivings, the almond trees seem to agree. As early as the first of January, there have been blossoms on the trees closest to the sea and its weather-tempering influence. Last year, it was only in late February and early March that the almond blossoms began to bloom. But here they are this year, stalwartly blooming in the middle of an olive grove, despite the chilling winds of the Mistral and Levante, promising an early spring.

Almond blossom cut

I only hope late frosts don’t undo any fertilization some early, diligent bees have managed, or there won’t be any nuts to look forward to, come late summer.

Year of Grace, Day 227. Blessedness each day

For me, there are a few authors that bear re-reading, year on year, and of those, I have been, over the past few months since moving to Spain, steadily going through two favourites from way, way back. With all our books and other belongings stored back in Bonn, and the only things we have with us just the barest of essentials, and no English books in the public library or the only bookshop in town, and not wishing additional clutter, I’ve had to be content with what has been stored in our hard drives. And two sets of books have been keeping me company since I devoured the modest library of this flat we’ve been renting.

They are both mystery series: the first being Rex Stout’s, who features the incomparable Nero Wolfe, whose preoccupations other than detecting wrongdoers are quite close to my own – eating and cooking well and tending to plants; in Wolfe’s case, orchids. Ten thousand of them under glass in a brownstone in New York – an extravagance, especially with a gardener to assist in caring for them, as with a Swiss chef to concoct elaborate dainties for Wolfe’s not so delicate sixth of a ton physique. I could never hope to have such luxuries as ten thousand orchids nor a live-in chef and gardener, but it is a wonderful escape, nonetheless, for my imagination to dwell on, especially when I am ill. And during those two weeks recovering from flu, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, his cheeky assistant, as alike as night and day in their character and approach to life, have kept me excellent company. One thing I can say for reading a series in chronological sequence: it is an excellent way to see how characters evolve and grow in their author’s hands.

And so I find it true as well of the second series now keeping me company, this time as I recover from the bronchitis acquired during my bereavement trip to California. I have mentioned more than a few times before of my affection for Brother Cadfael, the apothecary detective of Ellis Peters’ medieval historical series. And re-reading them now in their chronological order, I am enjoying, not only the triumph of good and justice and truth as the wrongdoers are uncovered, but also the unfolding of history, during the internecine wars over the throne in 12th century England. As well, I am taking further, and greater pleasure surely,  in reading about the traditional herbal remedies that Brother Cadfael concocts from the herbs that he grows in his garden: pellitory for skin sores, Lady’s mantle and mulberry leaves for burns, and so much more besides.

Lady's mantle, Alchemilla mollis, flowering below pink foxgloves. Both are used in traditional medicine. Photographed in the medicinal garden of Hildegard of Bingen, in the Rhineland, Germany.

Lady’s mantle, Alchemilla mollis, flowering below tall pink foxgloves. Both are used in traditional European medicine. Photographed in the medicinal garden of Hildegard of Bingen, in the Rhineland, Germany, summer 2015.

But above all, I treasure the pearls of wisdom and grace that embroider Ellis Peters’ writing. And among today’s reading is this from the fifth chronicle of Brother Cadfael, The Leper of Saint Giles: “Here I begin to know that blessedness is what can be snatched out of the passing day, and put away to think of afterwards.”

May this day be graced with such blessedness that will warm hearts and minds when we contemplate them afterwards.

Year of Grace, Day 226. The saddest of times, the happiest of times

On this first day of this new year 2016, I am sipping and savouring with great pleasure, and for the first time ever, chocolate- and macadamia-infused Kona coffee, a prezzie from my cousin Becca who lives in Hawaii. We would not have met again recently (the last time we saw each other was over four decades ago), had it not been for my brother Stan’s passing in early December. Thus, out of the family’s and my brother’s misfortune –- many blessings and much, much grace.

And indeed to meet again and spend time with long-unseen relatives for my brother’s funeral have been unlooked-for blessings. There were also new family members — greatnieces and greatnephews, in-laws — to be acquainted with. It was as well an occasion to marvel at and be impressed by how fine these extended family members have grown, and how pleasant and wonderful they were to be and speak with! It was indeed the saddest of times and the happiest of times. Veritable yin-yang.

Having stayed a week longer at my brother’s place after his funeral, I found it difficult not to unconsciously expect him to pop in at the door, as if he were just back from work or had just gone out briefly to do some shopping. I kept expecting him to burst in somehow as I huddled with other relatives reminiscing about him. It was almost as if at any moment he would cut in with his boisterous greetings and (just a tad) overloud voice (a family trait – most of us being prone to becoming rather overexcited in company). Where were his jokes and his spontaneous puns that always cracked us up and made us groan more often than not?

It would have been nice to play one last heated game of Scrabble with him – he was ever so competitive. To be able to top a 7-letter word of his with one of my own, just as I had oh so many decades ago with “fluorine.” That was my first ever 7-letter Scrabble move.  I appreciate how he never dumbed down his game for ten-years-younger me.

But of all the things I rue the most — it is not hearing his remarkable tenor voice again, soaring astonishingly and rather frighteningly high. I was always rather anxious his voice would break, but it never did. And it is indeed a great pity that his wonderful singing voice has not, so far as I know, been recorded for posterity. Oh how I wish, just for one day, perhaps even just for one hour, that he could be magicked into life and be well enough to sing one of his favourites, that I might be able to record it and listen to him again and again. And he would be there, with his marvelous voice, anytime I cared to listen.

A day lily blooming by the Palo Alto public library, a short walk from my brother's house.

A day lily blooming by the Palo Alto public library, a short walk from my brother’s house.