Year of Grace, Day 239. Early spring flowers

Whenever we go for a walk, wherever it is, my eyes are often cast down, ever in anticipation of some tiny flower or fungus at ground level. It always makes my day, and the walk too, if I find something already in bloom, this early in spring.

On the foothills that look out onto the village of Pla de Corrals is a designated ecological reserve, and there were some early ground irises – no taller than my thumb – of a wondrous blue colour. (The colour in these photos has not been enhanced, btw.)

Here’s a closer look at this miniature beauty.

And on a hike by a side path near a limestone tor on the way to neighbouring Barxeta (where most Pla de Corrals residents shop at the two supermarkets there), I spied a ground orchid. Just the one. Truly marvellous to come upon it in an unlikely spot.

A short distance away from the orchid was a group of parasitic plants. They are equally lovely.

Although the mornings and evenings are still rather wintery, midday temperatures are rising, and I am looking forward to more spring beauties coming up in the foothills near the ecological reserve.

Year of Grace, Day 238. Arroz Valenciana mixta at Puig-Mola

We’d been thinking of trying the restaurant at Puig-Mola since we first arrived here. Mercedes, the owner of the lovely casa rural named La Casona de Ferrando, where we’d stayed in nearby La Drova, had recommended it. But the restaurant was open only at midday, and never on Mondays. So it was only recently that we got the chance to try one of the house specialties, arroz Valenciana mixta.

Restaurant Puig-Mola’s rice dishes are made the traditional way, that is to say, over a wood fire, and each order is intended for three. What happens when you only have two people dining? We wrap the remainder for you to take home, said Jose, the chef. (His name was pronounced by our hostess with the accent on the first syllable.) The restaurant was unusually quiet for lunch, perhaps because it was the middle of the week. We were the only customers in a space good for at least 100. The restaurant’s setting is brilliant: all-glass walls look out onto the mountains that tower over Puig-Mola, Barx, and La Drova and the surrounding fruit orchards – plum, apricot — slowly awakening with incipient blossom. Late oranges awaiting harvest glowed on the trees. Just below the restaurant, a stately pawlonia’s candelabra-like buds revealed mauve-violet tips.

Our arroz Valenciana was being cooked from scratch, so it took some time before we were served. While it was cooking, Jose came out from the kitchen and asked if we’d like to see how it was prepared. We followed him eagerly. Normally, he said, the entire cooking area would be occupied, and diners are hardly ever shown the kitchen. We did feel quite privileged.

Our arroz Valenciana mixta had chicken, vegetables, and red prawns as sweet and moist as amaebi in sushi. I had expected a lingering smokiness, but there was scarcely a hint. Our arroz Valenciana came in an enormous pan, though we did manage 2/3 of it. Our verdict? It was good. It was tasty. The vegetables were well-seasoned, the meat tender. There were surprisingly albondigas (meatballs) made of botifarra (blood sausage) subtly flavoured with cloves. But perhaps we had been expecting something quite out of the ordinary, some unique quality that cooking over a wood fire — the restaurant’s claim to distinction — would bestow upon it and justify the above-average prices they charge.

Year of Grace, Day 236. Only in L’Ametlla

On our penultimate day in L’Ametlla de Mar two weeks ago, I was at the bank, where there was a fairly long queue. Before me were 5-6 people. Luckily 4 stepped up to be served as a group, one woman doing the speaking and interpreting from Spanish to German. Without any hesitation whatsoever, the bank manager switched from Spanish to German. And very good German it was too, with no discernible accent. The group spokeswoman, strangely enough, persisted in speaking Spanish to him.

Next up was a woman, obviously a long-time customer as she was greeted by name – this time in French. And the manager’s French was, similar to his German, untouched by a Spanish accent. Absolutely amazing.

When my turn came, he switched to Spanish, asking me, “¿Estas bien?” I hesitated before I replied; his query was rather odd, as we’d not met before. Then I remembered, of course I’d been ill all this while, and he’d only met M. “Más mejor, gracias,” I replied. Whereupon he said, “Your language is English, yes?” And he went on with the transaction, all in fluent English. I do hope the bank values this treasure and pays him accordingly. As I left, more customers had crowded in, and I closed the door on a merry babel of tongues. How harmonious the world would be if we could speak and understand each other’s language as effortlessly as that polyglot banker!

That concluded, we rewarded ourselves with a farewell meal at our beloved Restaurant Mestral – named after the chilling northwest wind – but the atmosphere in it is anything but. It was as well a pre-Valentine’s meal. Fortuitously, a gastronomic festival dedicated to the mantis shrimp, la galera in Catalan, had begun that very day. This is the third year running that 4 fishing villages of the Baix Ebre (Lower Ebro) – L’Ametlla de Mar, Alcanar, Sant Carles de la Rapita, and Amposta – are honouring this locally caught delicacy.

Mestral’s special mantis-shrimp menu began with three starters. Our hostess very kindly offered to explain in Castellano, if we didn’t understand Catalan, but having lived for 4 months in L’Ametlla, we managed. When it comes to food, we become almost as polyglot as our banker ☺. (Btw, the regular menu is translated into English, French, German, and Russian.)

The starters:
Aperitiva de la casa amb vermutet — home-made vermouth of local herbs with home-cured unripe olives.
Torradetes de brandada de llagosti i galera – brandade of crayfish and mantis shrimp on toast.
Crema de galeres amb xips de carxofa i cruixent de pernil – a bisque of mantis shrimp with artichoke chips and crisp (Serrano) ham.

Brandade of crayfish and mantis shrimp

Brandade of crayfish and mantis shrimp

 

Mantis shrimp bisque with artichoke chips

Mantis shrimp bisque with artichoke chips

For mains:
Arros melos de galeras i ortiques de mar amb algues – rice with mantis shrimp cooked in a broth enriched with sea urchins and seaweed.
Suquet de galeres i peix de la Cala – a light stew of mantis shrimp and locally caught fish (seabass, red mullet).

Rice cooked in mantis shrimp and sea urchin broth

Rice cooked in mantis shrimp and sea urchin broth

Stew of mantis shrimp and fish

The mantis shrimp proved challenging to eat; its shell isn’t amenable to peeling. Eventually like the locals around us, we cut off a manageable section with knife and fork, then brought it to our lips and sucked with no inhibitions the sweet flesh with its crunchy red coral in the middle of the white meat, coated with delectable sauce. We were among the first guests at opening time at 1 pm, and in no time at all, all tables were taken. Beware the sharp spines – we’d been warned at the outset by our cheery hostess, who called me “Lady”. The mantis shrimp comes by its name justly, and M wore evidence of the encounter (cuts below his lips) for days afterwards. Dessert was a subtle mint sorbet on a piña colada jelly, and chocolate-walnut cake (home-made) with whipped cream. Well-chilled limoncello, also home-made, rounded the repast.

It had been almost a year since we first ate at Mestral; it was just after our first day of house viewing. As we parted from the agent, we realized it was 2 pm, and asked if he could recommend somewhere to eat. He pointed just behind us – there’s a good place, he said. Mestral’s location – in a residential neighbourhood (except for a bakery) – and its unprepossessing facade did not call to mind anything out of the ordinary. (And frankly I’d much rather a restaurant paid more attention to its food than its décor.)

Both M and I were all the more impressed then when the food turned out to be outstanding. And there was such a warm welcome from the hostess and the youthful chef (a new father — his wife and baby were there for a brief visit). That memorable meal over, we strolled to the beach just minutes away, where we sat contentedly on a bench under palm trees, looking out to sea. We could very well see ourselves living here, we mutually agreed. And indeed we did return to do so, eight months later. And only then, having eaten at other restaurants in L’Ametlla, did we realize that our agent, a Gallego, of course would know where good seafood was to be had when he’d recommended Mestral that very first time a year ago.