Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The 'Matador's Cape': a venture into the Catalan Kitchen

Fresh back from my Pyrenean trip I am keen to try cooking some Catalan dishes in my kitchen. I found (and slightly adapted) this recipe for ‘Toreador’s Cape’ in Colman Andrew’s book ‘Catalan Cuisine’ (Collier, NY). It’s like a simple -  and very cheap - version of paella (I think the ingredients costs less than 7 Euro) and delicious to boot.

Ingredients (to serve 3-4).
125 g rice
Half a jar / large tin of chick peas
125 g dried salted fish (I had to cycle to an African shop to find this)
2-3 tomatoes
2-3 heads of garlic
I thread of saffron (you can improvise with turmeric if the cost feels prohibitive). 

Bake the peppers (quartered) and when done remove the skins. Bring the fish to the boil, simmer for 8-10 minutes, let cool and crumble into small pieces, taking out any bones.   Cook the tomatoes and garlic and saffron (tumeric) in oil until the tomatoes are reduced.  Add the rice and fish and stir so the rice gets coated with the tomato juices. Add 3 cups of water and the chickpeas and simmer until done.   Stir as needed. Top with the quartered red peppers (the ‘Toreador’s cape’) and let cool.  

Sadly I only thought to take the photo after taking my first serving. I mixed red and yellow peppers in my version (as I never live life by the book!)

Good news stories

I’m currently editing three experiences of cashew / mango / paddy growers in India who joined an organic / Fair Trade project that has turned their lives around.  Their production techniques have improved through trainings, they are part of transparent value chains (and not selling on spot markets), they are no longer using dangerous chemicals and their self-confidence has increased  (one has started a plant nursery as side business). It’s part of a Swiss funded development project that recruited 4000 cashew farmers and linked them to an existing organic cashew processing plant that wanted to develop export links to Europe.   It’s really heartening to deal with good news stories when the papers are so full of bad news and seemingly insurmountable problems and obstacles.  It also reminds me of the importance of buying organic and Fair Trade produce even when the price is higher.  It's not just about avoiding pesticide residues or antibiotics but about having a less opportunistic, less  destructive and more transparent production and trading system.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

En passant, days 17-21; Biescas - Aramatis via Col de Somport

Sabinanigo - Canfranc - Col du Somport (1650m) - Vallee d'Aspe - Val de Baloutous - Aramits and old friends (from thirty years ago)- Blagnac (Toulouse's airport) - home.

Spring's coming.

I've compressed the last four days ' voyage into one blog as there was some slippage in my (not quite) daily blogging routine.

Started the last leg of my voyage by visiting the hugely impressive Museo Angel Oresanz et Arts du Serrablo.   They have collected hundreds of artefacts from the depopulated surrounding area to build a display of how peasants used to live, their cheese, wine and bread-making tools, their agricultural implements, bells for the livestock, vernacular architecture, etc.  It makes for a fascinating visit.  The forge and the hay cart were particularly striking

Outside the museum dry stone walling takes on a completely different meaning:
Going up into the mountains I stop at Canfranc, the world's second longest railway platform - sadly abandoned now - though moves are afoot to restore it.  
Though I think they have their sense of direction slightly mixed up

There is a tunnel under the Col du Somport now - to allow year round transit through this pass. Its the longest (8km), newest and was the most controversial road tunnel in the Pyrenees. The legal (and extra legal) challenges lasted some 20+ years as the route would increase traffic flows - particularly HGVs through the Val d'Aspe, one of the last refuges of the French Brown Bear.   But the top road remains open and used and has some of the best views from any pass in this chain.

This HGV clipped a rock on a twist in the road in the 'Gorge of Bridge of Hell' and got a flat tire. Not the sort of thing you can fix alone.   That driver probably had a very long wait until some suitably heavy machinery could be mobilised. 

But he did share his misfortune with some illustrious forebears. Just above sits the the Fort de Portelet which used to be prison. Reluctant guests in the past include the Seventh Lord Elgin (on his travels back from the Middle East), Leon Blum (head of the Popular Front government who were in power when the Nazis invaded France in 1940)  and Philippe Pétain (the head of the Vichy Government who was imprisoned here for a while by the French for treason after the Second World War).  That's some history.

I stayed just down the road in a 13th Century Chateau in the pretty hillside village of Cette-Eygun

I accidentally saved the best bit if this trip until last. La Cirque de Lescun. Just off the Val d'Aspe. If Gavarnie is concave and tunnel like, closing in on the visitor, this is the just the opposite, convex and opening up new vistas around every turn.

A few kilometres down the valley the transhumance is beginning

And I cross my final pass for this trip, the le Col de Labays (1350m), still carrying snow

I drop down the valley to catch up with some friends from thirty years ago. Last time I was here this house and barn were almost derelict - just liveable in. Now its a picture-postcard pretty dwelling.

Francis demonstrates the use of an ergonomic garden tool. A double handed fork. Its great - you don't have bend and twist your back to dig over the soil.

Two hours later the patch is clean and planted up with onions. 'Come back in September and help us eat them'

And, finally helping Mark and Mirielle muck out and feed their sheep and goats

Their neighbour comes by to borrow one of those ergonomic forks. I'm heading back to Toulouse, but with an invitation to join Mark, his 165 sheep, 75 goats, 8 dogs and 2 donkeys in the high mountains for a few days in September, when he will be doing his five month summer stint as a upland shepherd. An offer not to miss.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

En passant day 16: Ordessa

Ordessa - another Pyrenean pin-up, another UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site - just south of Gavarnie,  across the border.  In fine weather, when there's no snow, a well equipped walker can walk between the two - passing through the Breche de Roland, making use of one of the refuges on either side for an overnighter.  But that's at 2800m+ and its ill advised to go above 1700m at the moment without full snow and ice equipment, and the refuges aren't open.  It must have been a tumultuous geological event that threw these two natural wonders up so close to each other, either side of the border. Privileged to have visited them both when there are relatively few tourists around.



I get to 'walk in' my new boots (and fleece and top)

And get back in time for a glass in my local tapas bar

Friday, 10 April 2015

En passant day 15: Parc Naturel de la Sierra y los Canones de Guara

I only made it to the northern edge of this park - but I'm glad I did.  The three highest villages in the valley I visited are completely depopulated (since 1965): a few holiday homes and a couple of refugios for hikers. 



En passant day 14: Los Mallas de Riglos & Castillo de Loarre