Stick the Chicken in the Wall

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Today is the grand finale of Christmas celebrations: día de los reyes magos, feast of the epiphany. The three kings have finally arrived bearing gifts and we are going to stuff ourselves. On Christmas Day Proper I finished the bathroom floor and ate a baked potato so I’m about ready for some heavyweight feasting.

Like most Andalucian farmhouses this one has two kitchens, and again, like most Andalucian farmhouses they were last updated about 150 years ago. Indoors I have a thick-walled room with flagstone floor and a large open fireplace. Inside the fireplace there are hooks and some long-handled industrial-looking iron tools for poking things. This is the hob. On either side there are deep alcoves for storing wood, and above the one on the left, an horno de leña, much like a pizza oven; a deep, dark space with an iron door in which everything is cooked from bread to roasts they say. In seven months in this house, I’ve only peered inside and closed it again.

That’s basically it for inside, although I have added a sink and running water, a table and two chairs.

No-one cooks indoors during summer if they can help it for obvious reasons. These include the fact it’s easier and more sociable to eat at a bar; 40 degree days that make a crackling fire indoors borderline life-threatening; the potential to survive without cooking on melon, jamón, goats cheese, and tomato, onion and garlic drowned in vinegar and olive oil, followed by grapes and figs. However, plenty of people do cook everyday, they just do it outside in the summer kitchen.

This can be the same range of mod cons set up in an outbuilding across the courtyard, or a pizza oven meets prototype barbecue plus a smoke box built into an outside wall – which is what I have here. Unfortunately the wall the cooking facilities are string along faces west, and has no shade, and so presents challenging conditions for cooks forced to make jam, say, after 10am.

There is a short window of opportunity around 10pm on a summer night when the temperature has dropped sufficiently to be able to contemplate the idea of building a fire, and yet enough light remains to cook by if it is something quick. Generally though, the days’ activities (and inactivities) drift and I cook in the dark, using the acoustic method, guessing by the volume of sizzle whether meat is cooking or not. This is a whole new twist London restaurant Dans le Noir could consider.

I once invited 14 people for lamb shanks, and then realised I didn’t have enough plates, cutlery, or glasses; that I had no pan big enough, or a table that everyone could sit around. So preparing for that meal started with a high speed dash to IKEA and an afternoon frantically making furniture.

Here there is also a preamble to each meal. It starts with scouring around outside collecting dry leaves and twigs, and rifling through the wood pile for sticks of varying thickness, before getting the fire going using skills learnt in the jungle at the knee of the master fire-maker himself, Ray Mears. It’s kind of like camping.

Now the process has moved indoors. It’s still like camping but the sort of camping in films with a post-apocalyptic theme where they break into abandoned houses and burn furniture in the middle of the room before barricading the doors against plague victims or zombies. While I have made some improvements since taking these pictures, the process remains the same and there’s no denying that kneeling on the stone floor blowing on twigs to get a fire going in order to cook an egg or boil peas feels odd. But there we go.

So the fire is crackling in the kitchen hearth, prematurely ready for artichokes and potatoes. The unknown unknown is the mysterious dark hole in the wall which is stuffed with sticks and now alight. Once it’s glowing hot, I shall shove in the chicken – I can’t guarantee to cook it for 15 minutes at 370 degrees and then reduce it to 350 but I aim optimistically aiming for edible. If all else fails, there is the bar.

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