Year of Grace, Day 220. Clumsy is fine; clumsy is good.

Clumsy is fine (下手でいい, heta de ii); clumsy is good (下手がいい, heta ga ii) — clumsy sums up the spirit of etegami (絵手紙, lit. “picture letter”), a Japanese folk art consisting of an impressionistic,  naïve illustration, postcard-sized, accompanied by a brief message or phrase, drawing and text both alluding to the season or thoughts and feelings of the sender.

I was introduced to etegami by No. 2 son, when I visited him some years back, while he was working in Yamaguchi Prefecture. He’d been practising for half a year, and their teacher came all the way from Chiba, near Tokyo, once a month. The lessons, which took the whole afternoon, were capped by an evening meal that everyone pitched in to prepare. I was very impressed by No. 2 son’s results. The whole point to it, he said, is to make it as effortless as possible. My first attempts were not encouraging. My past sumie lessons hindered rather than helped. One of the women in his class, an architect, was also impressed with No. 2 son’s work. Hers, she told me, just didn’t gel — she was too impatient and her thoughts had been rather more on the meal to come.

The plums we’ve been buying from the Central Market in L’Ametlla over the past weeks have been so fresh, with the powdery bloom on them still intact, and so intensely coloured that after photographing each new batch for some days now, I thought it was time to renew my acquaintance with etegami with the plums as my subject.

Assured by the etegami credo that clumsy is fine, clumsy is good, I took out colours and brushes inherited from No. 2 son.These were my first results. They’re larger than standard etegami – and I hadn’t actually intended to send them off as letters. Not yet anyway. I’m just pleased to have my fingers touching paints and brushes again. It was good to rub the stick of sumi on its stone and enjoy the slow rising of its incense-like scent.

Unlike sumie which leaves me feeling slightly dissatisfied with my results, I find the spontaneity and light-heartedness of etegami liberating. I don’t have to have perfection. Etegami are in a sense like my regular grace journal posts. I dash one off when I’ve got something to share. Etegami are the graphic equivalent. Both have to be done at white heat –- when a thought or mood or feeling strikes – get it down. And finish it. No going back another day to edit. No deliberating about a word or phrase – if senior momentitis strikes and there is that one word I cannot recall — tough! I just have to make do. Getting the feeling or thought down is all.

With etegami, the brush is deliberately held at the very tip. Rather awkward but it releases my fingers and my mind and intentions from control. No doubt that is the whole point. I regard my subject and follow its contours with the brush tip, trying not to look at the resulting effect. If I do, then concentration is lost and that’s when I realize that I have been aiming at the endpoint – the goal. In other words, the entire subject. And the line that results is a contrived line, not a natural one. I find that the trick is to move the brush with my breath. It is like meditation. Correction: it is meditation.

And on the third attempt, left devoid of colour, the shapes of the mandarins are the closest to their natural selves. Perhaps because I let the brush move in cadence with my breathing without any striving. I put down my thoughts on the drawing thus: [Being] in the moment is the way. [Being] in the goal, lines go awry. Keep to the moment.

On this 220th day of my grace journal, I remind myself of things to be grateful for. There are a whole lot, but I’ll just share these few. First and foremost, I am grateful to enjoy continued good health, with all my senses intact.  As I age, I become more aware of my body’s physical state and how much of what I had taken for granted 5 years ago or even last year cannot as effortlessly be done now. I am thankful too that I continue to be able to write and to be inspired by simple things that grace my days — the fruits and vegetables from the market, their colours, their tastes. The views and seaweed-laden scents of the sea. All the novelty that goes with a new setting, of being a stranger in this not-quite-so-but-still strange land. I am grateful for the friendliness and kindness of my new neighbours. I had not anticipated that I would be on a new adventure at this stage of my life, and for this unanticipated pleasure, I am thankful. That M and I are able to enjoy the pleasures of good, simple food grown and produced locally is one of the best aspects of this latest adventure. Above all, I am grateful to friends and readers who continue to follow my journal and encourage me with their kind and insightful comments. Thank you, thank you all!!

Today's lunch -- fresh cheese, black olives, ewe's milk cheese, lavender honey, French bread from bakery across the road

Today’s lunch — fresh cheese from a local dairy, black olives pickled by our favourite market seller’s husband, ewe’s milk cheese also from a local dairy, lavender honey from neighbouring town El Perello, French bread from bakery across the road, and Arbequin olive oil, not pictured, also locally pressed. Parsley — a freebie from my other fave market stall seller.

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.