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 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.