Off to a sunnier place

For the past few months, I’ve been posting on a completely different blog, called Olives, Pines, Rocks. I no longer live in Bonn, having moved to a sunnier place — to the southeastern coast of Spain, known as the Orange Blossom Coast or the Costa Azahar. My grace journal continues there, and it is now on Day 258.

At first I thought I might be able to consolidate the Nightingale Cottage posts with my new posts, but it proved too complicated. So, to my loyal followers and readers, thank you for having been with me so far, and I hope you will continue to accompany me on my adventures, making a new garden and a new life in Spain.

View of mt from veranda cropt




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.

Year of Grace, Day 235. Ana of L’Abadia’s paella campestre

I’ve written before about Ana’s distinctive cooking in her restaurant, L’Abadia, in the centre of Gandia. Last week we had a chance to dine there again, and once again we were captivated by her inventive way of flavouring.

We began with mussels steamed in a light broth that she’d made just a tad sour, though not as sour as Asian sour soups like Philippine sinigang or Thai tom yam. The broth was so delicious and plentiful enough that we asked for spoons to eat it as soup. Ana had used lemon quarters, several fat cloves of garlic, and fresh bay leaves casually torn into pieces for seasoning.

I love the complexity of flavours that fresh bay leaves give to a dish, and for that reason I make sure to plant bay wherever I am. Even in England, I’d managed to grow a tree from a mere sapling (and it did surprisingly well despite the cold and wet because I’d planted it in front of a brick wall that faced south, thus ensuring it would have radiated warmth at night when the sun shone on it by day, and incorporated lots of pea gravel into the soil for good drainage). Most of my friends are surprised when I say I use bay leaves fresh, instead of dried, which is of course the more usual way of using them, and they are very nice that way too. I was rather pleased to see that Ana uses them fresh as well.

The pièce de résistance was Ana’s paella, featuring seasonal spring vegetables – sweet fava beans and tiny baby artichokes – with chicken and rabbit. Our experience of paella has been rather of the seafood variety, and we have always enjoyed it, except when the rice came exceedingly al dente. Which is to say, quite hard in the middle. Ok, a born rice eater, I won’t mince words – it was what I would call quite raw. I don’t know why very al dente should be a preference for paella – I can understand why pasta should be prepared thus, and prefer mine that way too. But rice?

In one quite famous restaurant in Barcelona, where people without reservations (including us) had waited over an hour to be seated at lunchtime (and I assumed this signaled that the food would be outstanding), I was disappointed at the quality of their paella real.  I didn’t find anything real (royal) at all about rice that comes quite raw, but this is just my humble and very plebeian observation. (Actually, it was dubbed “royal” because all the seafood had been peeled or shelled beforehand.)

Ana’s paella thankfully didn’t come al dente – the rice came perfectly cooked through, having thoroughly absorbed all the robust richness of chicken and rabbit broth. The tender artichokes and very young sweet fava beans added a satisfying earthiness and depth that offset the flavourful meat. Sweet pepper and aubergine slices added brightness in colour, and taste as well. Ana had a light hand with spices, so that each ingredient tasted of its own natural goodness. The acidity of lemon juice sprinkled over was a nice touch.

Ana came out from the kitchen to ask how we liked it. We were profuse in expressing our enjoyment. She smiled broadly, “It’s different from the usual seafood paella that most people know,” she said. “It’s called paella campestre – typical of this region. You know, you go out into the field or the garden, and see what’s coming up, what looks good. You see some fava beans that look ready to eat while they’re still young and sweet, you can even eat them raw, and then you go check the artichokes and pick the tiniest ones, before their chokes have toughened. And you’ve got yourself the makings of a nice lunch.” And indeed it truly was.

Ana’s paella campestre called to mind a similar Japanese way of showcasing the earliest vegetables of the season by adding them to be steamed together with plain, white rice: wild greens like butterbur or tsukushi (horsetails) in early spring; chestnuts or wild fungi like matsutake (pine mushrooms) in the autumn.

I’m truly glad that we’d followed our instincts when we spied L’Abadia’s blackboard set on the lovely pedestrian shopping street of Carrer Major, that very first time we went to Gandia. Otherwise we would not have chanced upon it, as its quite private location on a cul-de-sac on Carrer Abadia is a bit removed from the other restaurants on Plaça Major, the square with the statue of Sant Francesc de Borja.

Year of Grace, Day 234. Yellow cottage

Today is the first day I can sit under the pergola outside Yellow Cottage and write. It’s been quite cold over the past few days – after all, as M keeps reminding me, it is still winter! The temperature has dipped to single digits, not unlike Bonn – with gusty winds. Frost and heavy rain had been reported in outlying villages and snow inland. A garden table that we’d borrowed to serve as a desk was delivered sheathed in ice.

Inside Yellow Cottage with its 45 cm-thick walls and tiny windows, it is 15°C. Right now out in the sun, it’s quite hot; in the shade it is pleasantly warm at 19°C, and every so often, a breeze comes from a nearby grove of pines, setting astir the fronds of the Washingtonia palm partly shading the pergola. (Their swishing in the wind reminds me of the silag fronds set in similar mellow motion just outside the cool bamboo hut of an aunt, Nana Sianang, where my cousins and I used to escape the hottest part of the afternoon during summer holidays. Strange, isn’t it, how a single sound can transport one all the way back to childhood.)

It’s been a week since we moved to the village of Pla de Corrals in the town of Simat de la Valldigna in Valencia. Yellow Cottage, the house we’re renting until we can move in to the house we’ve bought, is one of several refurbished stone dwellings overlooking fruit orchards – olive, orange, plum, apricot — at the foot of mountains once quarried for marble. At the edge of the village is a (mercifully not too conspicuous) reminder of past quarrying — straight, smooth white cliffs incongruous against the red-brown layers of unhewn rock. Irregular chunks of marble – possibly offcuts — find their way under pine trees, and in the gloom underneath appear to be stones once painted white.

Yellow Cottage is one of two houses our agent showed us at the end of a week’s house-viewing in the region of La Safor. Perhaps if we hadn’t had our hearts set on the house with a view of the mountains and the sea (which we later rejected as it needed extensive renovation), we might have considered buying Yellow Cottage or its neighbour. I don’t even recall how renting Yellow Cottage had come up.

Throughout the week, except for a couple of misty rainy days, I’ve rejoiced in the glory of this bucolic landscape — gentle slopes with fruit trees in neat ranks with white-walled, red-tiled houses for contrast – somewhat Tuscan-like. The trees are in the process of being given their spring pruning, and the tidy results are impressive – demonstrating local diligent husbandry. (I make a note to myself to learn how to prune fruit trees like this.)

Mornings, just after eight, the sun tips the grey-white peaks of the surrounding mountains with pinkish gilt — these peaks that during the past freezing days of fog and mist could have easily deceived newcomers as snow. Thick pine forests enfold in deepest green most of the higher and middle flanks of the mountains, though these are being encroached upon on the gentler slopes by orange trees in well-ordered rows. As the sun’s light reaches deeper into the valley, it silhouettes the grey-green foliage of olive trees and magics them into silver filigree. What joy to start each day with such a view. Even on the dreariest mornings of freezing mist and fog, the craggy mountains and dense forests loomed like Oriental ink paintings in 3D.

There is one drawback – the mountains that shelter this enchanting valley also shelter it from telecommunications. We have been bereft for days of internet and mobile phone access through our former provider, MasMobil. We’ve now switched to the oddly named Movistar, which has a transmitter in the village. Movistar also had a modem (luckily with one for Macs) which links us to the internet.

Living in Yellow Cottage is like living in a doll house. There is something make-believe about this sweet space (as our niece, who visited us for the weekend with our daughter, called it) with its rough timber beams, whitewashed walls, and terracotta floors. It’s a house such as I’ve always dreamed of – though I realize how inconvenient it must have been in the old days, and in some ways still is. There is no central heating: traditional rural houses like this were built with the aim of keeping out the intense heat of summer, not with letting in the warmth of winter sun. There is however a wood-burning stove and a propane gas heater downstairs. Upstairs has an electric air-conditioner that both cools and heats. One great feature of Yellow Cottage is that all the rooms are surprisingly equipped with multiple electric outlets – even out on the upstairs verandah, which means I can write there for as long as I wish on my laptop without having to charge its batteries elsewhere.

I get thoroughly wretched when it’s cold, but being able to step out into the sun and sit under the pergola outside during warm days like today makes up for the cold indoors once the sun sets. It’s rather good fun having a toasty fire ablaze in the evenings. Anyhow, spring will be warming or, more to the point, heating up this valley soon. And it also makes for friendly rivalry as to who can get a good fire started in no time at all with the least amount of fuss. Our daughter, bless her heart, turned out to be a champion fire maker.

Year of Grace, Day 233. The almond orchards of Rasquera

One thing I’m going to miss when we leave the Lower Ebro region is the almond blossom of Rasquera. The orchards are at their most splendid bloom just now, a full month earlier than last year. Their breathtaking beauty is so reminiscent of cherry blossoms.

They are stunning with the mountains behind them.

And much like the gently coloured mist that cherry blossoms create in Japan in spring, all over Rasquera, the almond blossoms fill me with wonder and gratitude at such beauty.

May your spring, wherever you are, be as full of wonder!

For behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers have already appeared in the land … And the voice of the turtledove has been heard in our land. … Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, And come along!'” — Song of Solomon Chapter 2: 11-13. 


Year of Grace, Day 232. Dining in the shadow of the Borgias

It is irrational I realize, but I felt a shade of trepidation dining in the city of Gandía, just south of Valencia, whose claim to fame is as the ducal seat of the Borgia family, or in its Spanish or rather Valencian spelling, Borja. Which, history tells us, had been infamous for all sorts of malevolence in medieval Italy, in particular for poison secreted in a ring, ready to hand for sprinkling conveniently into food. (Recent historians now allege all this infamy may have been grossly exaggerated, but not being a historian, I am not qualified to comment.)

So perhaps it was with enormous relief that our first visit to Gandía during its regular mercadillo or open market day (last Friday) ended without any mishap associated with food poisoning. To the contrary, we had a superb meal, prepared by a female chef (the first we’ve met in our 4 months in Spain), in L’Abadía (The Abbey), a lovely restaurant a mere minute’s walk from the Borja palace. Where can you dine on 5 courses, each one lovingly prepared from scratch, for 11 Euros (just a bit over 11 US dollars)? It was a fitting cap to an introduction to Gandía. We shall be back to sample more of Ana’s offerings and explore more of this alluring city.

Year of Grace, Day 231. Back from Valencia

It’s amazing what a difference a few hours’ driving south from Tarragona can make. Crossing into Valencia in late January was bidding Catalonian winter and its fierce chilling winds goodbye. As soon as we passed the delta of the Ebro River, almond trees were all out in splendid bloom, from white to dark pink and all shades in between.


On the road from La Llacuna to L'Orxa

On the road from La Llacuna to L’Orxa

Road to L'Orxa almond blossom zoom vg_2401We had set out for a brief foray into the region of La Safor – also known as Costa Azahar or the Orange Blossom Coast. It stretches south of the city of Valencia and before touristy Costa Blanca. The past glorious week was more than enough to convince M and I that there indeed was a more benign and welcoming climate for us: for me especially, as with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, winter is becoming increasingly challenging. We were enjoying 22ºC at mid-afternoon – just about summer. Sun and warmth and almond blossoms – and the heady perfume of orange blossoms soon to come. Ahhh… Valencia promises bliss.

And the food! The food! There is a vast variety of paellas that do not find their way into restaurants, being made exclusively at home. As everyone knows, Valencia is the homeland of paella. And I’ve already been promised by a new-found friend, also a keen cook, to be taught how to prepare these zealously guarded seasonal dishes.

Paella de chipiron, Casa Babel in Villalonga

Paella de chipiron, Casa Babel in Villalonga

Watch this space, my friends. We’ll be cooking Valencian in no time at all. Or more precisely La Saforian….