Andalusian Cooking for Beginners, Part 1

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Like many country folk round these parts I cook over wood. It adds such a lovely flavour . . . and I don’t have an oven. Luckily I grow wood in the form of olive trees which get a severe prune every four years, and various fast-growing flimsy things that have branches which crack off now and again when you least expect it, and which are easier to saw through.
So preparing dinner – Andaluz style – starts with dragging branches up the drive to the house, and sawing them. Initially I saw them into pieces short enough to fit into the hearth, and then, after a while, into long pieces that won’t fit, but will after half has burnt off.
Making a revuelto – a sort of broken omelette – is relaxing enough, but assembling the wood required to make jam and sterilise the jars is a gargantuan effort of self-sacrifice and physical endurance that I won’t be repeating any time soon.
Obviously, the sensible idea is to borrow a chainsaw, get a whole load done at once and keep it in the woodshed, but with one thing and another . . . To be honest, I still have to build the woodshed. The branches and hefty roots are currently under a massive, flapping, black plastic sheet held down by scaffolding at the back of the barn, a blot on the landscape I’m sure for the government officials who fly over it looking for illegal extensions and people to fine in order to meet the municipal electricity bills.
Generally I end the wood preparation session, slumped against the wall staring vacantly into the distance, with a glass of Rioja. I draw that out as long as I can, and then I think about what to cook. In Part 2 I’ll get onto that, the what to cook bit.

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Olive and Yellow

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The farm is carpeted with yellow flowers. There are such a lot of them, creating such a visual treat, I feel reasonably guilty not knowing what they are. I don’t suppose it matters too much, but I’ll ask someone. Spring is phenomenal for wildflowers, but there’s some spectacle or other all year round. It got to about 24 degrees yesterday, with a navy blue sky, but going into the shade – specifically the house – was like diving into a freshwater pool.

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The Future is Olive

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This is an olive farm among olive farms in the very region that produces more olive oil than anywhere else in the world. As a matter of fact, much of that ‘Italian’ virgin oil comes from right here although you might need a barcode scanner or a magnifying glass to see that.

For most of the year the olive trees are basically iconic scenery, dotted lines across the bald straw coloured hillsides, left to their own devices. From now through to January they are the centre of attention.

About a month ago during one of our over the fence evening chats Fernando suggested I might want to start pruning my trees which looked like thick shrubs. He demonstrated and made it look pretty easy. Obviously when he handed me the clippers I couldn’t work out which shoot started where or cut through them even with two hands on the clippers. Just cut off anything that’s growing vertically, he said. That’s how you end up with the big open space at the centre that lets light and heat in over the winter. I now know I have 300 and something trees, and that some of them are easier to get up than down from. I’m pretty handy with a saw, my hands have changed shape – fat paddles – and are covered in callouses; my ring will be on for life.

The trees however look quite good, and when I go past an olivar that’s been neglected, my sawing and clipping hand gives a twitch. Maybe if journalism dries up this is a new career path.

On the 20th of October, two weeks ahead of schedule because of the spring drought, the conveyor belts at Nuestra Señora del Rosario co-operative olive press started rolling. Farmers have been showing up in their pick-ups to tip sacks of olives through the grates and a couple of weeks on the place now smells of squashed olives again, and will do through to January. You can drop off as little as kilo or a lorryload; price depends on quality. I often come here, not selling olives unfortunately, (according to Andalucian law this year’s crop belongs to the farmer that owned the land and tended them up to May last year) but spending cash. The co-op has a store where you can buy shovel handles, chicken wire, and cement mix, as well as cheese, water, and washing-up liquid, which is convenient. Sometimes I browse in the overalls section. Not Selfridges, but it will have to suffice.

Meanwhile Fernando and his cousin Fernando are in his fields higher up the hill bashing branches with a stick so the olives collect in the nets they’ve spread right around the base of the tree. He has around 850 trees to go. Arturo and Rosi and the in-laws are doing the same in the fields below. With the tock tock tock of wood from all directions it sounds like a jousting tournament. Not that I’ve been to a jousting tournament. Anyway, jousting, goat bells, cockerels, a lot of birds (gone wild after the rain), and barking dogs.

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Prepare Your Own Olives in Just 18 days, 9 hrs

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You know those olives you can buy ready to eat from any deli? Well, you can make them yourself for free in just 18 days and 9 hours. Ismael and his father have just spent five days harvesting most of the olives and taken the last sackload to the co-op for pressing, but I did shake and bat the olives off the old manzanilla olive tree by the bathroom. My former neighbour Mari had cornered me in Zahara the week before and asked if I’d made my aceitunas de mesa. I said I hadn’t (thinking, damn, more stuff I need to do) and she gripped my arm and gave me detailed instructions on how to do it, along with a Tupperware tub of ones she had made earlier. Mari is a keen smoker; her olives were powerful stuff.

Anyway, we collected around 25kg, which is plenty enough to go with a glass of wine. For several hours afterwards I sat in the garage while it rained and less enthusiastically sorted through them, chucking out any that looked too black or too green, then whacking the chosen ones with the base of a wine bottle to mash them up a bit. (Diego in the ferreteria had a basic machine for doing this, but he wouldn’t sell it, saying it was rubbish and a waste of money, even though I really wanted it).

What you are supposed to do at this stage depends on who you ask. You definitely have to soak them, but some say in salt water, others, just water. Some say leave them in the same water for the first three days, others say change the water every day from day 1. Some say leave them for two weeks, others for three weeks. Everyone says put a lid or a plate or something on top of the olives so they are completely submerged, which, ironically, is the one thing I forgot to do.

These are the steps I took:

  1. Changed the (unsalted) water every day for 18 days, then drained the olives, and hauled them into the kitchen to bottle them.
  2. (If you are dealing in less industrial quantities, maybe soak them in vinegar for a couple more days).
  3. Made some brine. I used litre bottles, first putting in a couple of big tablespoons of salt dissolved in boiling water, then topping the water up to just under 2/3 full. Threw in a bit of sugar, and then filled to the top with vinegar, and shook it all about.
  4. I then set about lighting a fire and boiling a couple of dozen jars six at a time, for 10 minutes of rollicking boiling, in a large pail to sterilise them, dropping in the lids at the end. (You can skip this four hour stage if you have an oven, or a dishwasher.)
  5. About this stage in the process I lost all interest in bottling olives. After all it’s not like they’re going to run out of them in Cádiz.
  6. However, I continued, and ladled in the stinking olive slosh, making sure to pack them in well, then stuck in garlic and chilli, and poured in the brine to the very, very top, and stuck on the lid. Job done.

As I say, only took 18 days and 9 hours.

Aside from present Mari with a return offering, I have no idea what to do with all this. People are sick of olives round here. I’m hoping to have a lot of guests around Christmas who regard olives as interesting and exotic. Unfortunately they’ll need to be time-travellers from 1970s Britain.

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Rally Driving

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We had three days of rain in mid-September which previewed what would happen when the rain really started, i.e. the barn would leak, wind would drive water under the doors, the bathroom would be a lake, and the track dissolve. I watched the track dissolve with horror because the farm is pretty isolated. For instance it’s about 90 minutes to the main road, three hours walk to Zahara, so the track is pretty useful.

About 300 metres of it is on the property, curving down at a 45 degree angle from the house at the top to the place where a gate should be. The pictures don’t tell the story. It’s basically a mix of clay and rock with gullies and olive fields to either side. Beyond the non gate there is another gravelly drop, a tight bend (clay) over a culvert, a long stretch on a slant with tall, tough vegetation down the middle and big holes for the wheels to slot into, a wide mud bog bend with a deep red mud under water chaser, and eventually a blind summit made of sharp rocks, some deep, broken, concrete drainage channels, and the all clear of the schoolhouse and junction. As drive up you see nothing but sky; as you drive down bits come off the numberplate. This is partly why the farm was cheap.

After this there is a tarmac road, popular with tractors and vans pulling trailers of hunting dogs, which winds, and winds, and rolls over the mountains several miles to the road to Seville. To be honest it would all be a lot easier in something other than a right-hand drive Peugeot GTI but we can’t afford anything higher off the ground that actually starts.

Obviously I’d been well-happy to be a passenger-navigator, and wouldn’t have chosen to get back behind the wheel as the skies opened to unleash several months of rain, but for the fact Dave went to London and needed a lift to the airport in Jerez. I didn’t much like driving on the wrong side on roundabouts, bends, motorway slip roads at first. I spent the journey back struggling to convert miles to kilometres in order to avoid adding to our growing collection of speeding fines, and trying to recall what he’d said about avoiding getting stuck on the track. Was it roll it in neutral? Or put it in second and step on it? I don’t know. I got halfway up pretty fast sideways and then, feeling that was probably good enough, left the car under a tree where it sunk into the soil.

After hiking the rest of the way (with 10 litres of water and 2 litres of wine), I collected wood, lit a fire, and sat down with a drink, at which point a cat, Bob, trotted by briskly with a mouse dangling from his mouth –the first he’s ever caught. A phobia about cats torturing mice is part of the reason I wasn’t keen to get two. I made efforts to herd him and his captive prey outside but he wasn’t having any of it, given the rain. The life and death struggle continued at length behind the settee, from the bathroom, the bedroom, the stairs . . . audible even over the tedious Se Llama Copla, a singing competition always on the one channel we get when we get a channel at all.  Afterwards I went in and dealt with the aftermath, swearing and whimpering as I gathered the mashed up remains and padded into the dark in my slippers to send them flying over the wall. But killing stuff, that’s what the cats are here for I suppose. Yes. Well done Bob.

A day of challenges though, and the chances are it’s not the last mouse or the last rain I’m going to see.

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C15s and Gatitos with Ribbons

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A friend, Ismael, was going to sell us a car, a Citroen C15, the Andalucian Land Rover. The advantage the C15 has over a Land Rover is that they are worth a lot less and usually available. They are so basic they can be patched up by anyone with some mechanical know-how and a spanner, and therefore keep going for decades – which means there are always ancient, battered, patched up, workhorses for sale in the sierras. Unfortunately Ismael couldn’t get his to start, so we went round to his garden to see it.

When he opened the door in order to demonstrate how there were no front seats and the window would need to be extricated from the door frame there was loud mewing from a big cat and about eight kittens `- gatitos – occupying the seat well. We didn’t get the car (although it did later make it as far as the farm where it stayed for a while before being towed back), but we did get a couple of the kittens.

I’d been hankering after a troubled refuge dog – once we’d finished the fencing, after I’d done the next batch of work trips – and I wasn’t keen on the idea of putting further complications in the way, but after being told with depressing regularity that without cats the farm would be inundated with mice once the cold weather starts, I vaguely relented. Ismael brought two round on the basis that if I didn’t like the look of them he’d take them straight back home again.

Inevitably that didn’t happen.  The minute I saw the cat which hereafter will be called ‘Bob’, I liked him a lot, so that was one. And the she-devil cat, henceforth to be known as ‘Joan’, shot off into the unsavoury depths of a wood store, where any efforts to retrieve her by groping around blindly in the dark were met with a deep hiss and a swipe of claw. Bob dashed in and hid behind her in the murk, and it began to rain. Satisfied with his work, Ismael left with a cheery wave. In the small hours of the morning the kittens, lured by string and a newspaper ball, switched location to a dark area beneath the settee where they huddled in miserable silence while we fretted about food, milk, litter trays, what they wanted, etc.

They are brother and sister, as were their parents, which doesn’t seem quite right, but anyway, now fully confident and well happy with things generally (see before and after photos above). Bob is dark, slow and soft, and Joan, white, sharp and fast. Neither show any inclination to go mousing, and actually, because of their size and the amount of owl activity these nights, they’re still kept inside rather than thrown out to prowl the various hollows and sheds from whence the rustling currently emanates. Our neighbours at the egg farm have a lot of peckish hunting dogs, and Fernando says if his own dogs  – now down from four to three after Johnny the pitbull assassinated Bruto the donkey-sized mastin over Gorda the labrador the other morning–  see the cats they’ll get them.

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