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 we 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 essentially 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 cakes 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 we have added a sink and running hot 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; the 40 degree temperatures that would make a crackling fire indoors borderline life-threatening; the potential to survive nicely on melon, jamón serrano, goats cheese, and tomato, onion and garlic drowned in wine vinegar and olive oil, followed by grapes and figs, washed down with lots of wine. However, plenty of people do cook everyday, they just do it outside in the summer kitchen.

This is either pretty much the same range of mod cons but 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 we have. Unfortunately the wall the cooking facilities are string along faces west, and has no shade, so presents challenging conditions for cooks hoping to tackle anything (like jam, for instance) after say 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 standing in the sun and building a fire, and yet there is just enough light left by which to cook 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 making furniture out of planes and planks rather than peeling onions.

Here there is also a preamble to each meal. It starts with padding around the garden collecting dry leaves and twigs, and rifling through the wood pile for sticks of the requisite 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 though the process has moved indoors. It’s still kind of like camping; the sort of camping they do 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, and sleeping on mattresses. While the surroundings are slightly more salubrious than when these pictures were taken, there’s no denying that it feels slightly odd kneeling done on the kitchen floor blowing on twigs in order to cook a burger or boil peas. But there we go.

So the fire is crackling in the kitchen hearth, prematurely ready for artichokes and potatoes.  The unknown quantity 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. And if all fails we do still have a christmas pudding . . .

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