Archive for July, 2009

Take Me Back to BARCA!

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“I think I’ve died and gone to heaven. I’m not coming back. I love you, have a good life.”

So went the text I sent to fellow food dorks Kopibren and Melf the first time I stepped into Barcelona’s massive La Boqueria market on La Rambla a couple of years ago.

I can’t believe I let myself leave. (Who leaves heaven?!) Twice now. On both departures, the ever-unfolding cornocopia of treats both in the market and the neighbourhoods beyond left a growing, grating, gnawing feeling of unfinished business.

The only comfort – this means I’ll have to come back. Again. And again. And again.

Chances are, you’ll get to go before I do, so here are some highlights from what stood out most from my grazing haze. I know there’s plenty more I’ve yet to try, so let me know what made it to the heavenly spheres of your list and I’ll prioritise it for my next pilgrimage.

Boqueria Boogie

The first thing to do in Barcelona (and possibly also the 2nd, 3rd…and last thing) is to do a slow stroll along all the aisles of La Boqueria. The most cunning of visitors (e.g., my parents) rent a short-stay self-catering flat near the market so that their stomachs as well as their eyes can enjoy a VERY well balanced diet.

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Above, left: I’d always wondered what those little caps at the bottom of jamon legs were for. Up in Las Alpujarras, I learned that it was to catch dripping fat. Mmmmmm….

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Above, left: These strange looking tubular-with-a-beak shellfish are called percebes, or gooseneck barnacles. They thrive only on rocks heavily pounded by surf, so harvesting them is quite the task. They’re considered a big-time delicacy in Spain, usually steamed or served in soup. Apparently the Spanish have eaten through their domestic supplies, and now are heavy importers from Canada

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Above: Nice work if you can get it, being surrounded by a mushroom mountain all day

The done thing is to have tapas in the market, but you’ll need to get there early, or else be very patient, or else put sharp elbows to good use. To boost your civility batteries, consider digging into some paella on the perimeter on the market. It also helps you to tour the market without going completely mad or bankrupting myself… I mean… yourself.

This time around we went to Bar-Restaurant Galdric which served an excellent and generous paella for 2 for €22. Last time around I plonked down at a stall in the same area but I forget the name. You can’t miss it if it’s open — look for the colossal paella pan outside.

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Crazy about Chocolate

IMG 0258There are plenty of smoothies, fruit salads and sweets at the market to tempt you for dessert. Or, you could wander a little east along Barri Gothic to Meson del Cafe, and indulge in a little churros and Spanish hot chocolate…the type that’s so thick you could pick it up it with a knife…

The Spanish take their hot chocolate pretty seriously. We learned at the Chocolate Museum in Bruges that back in the day when chocolate was the fashionable and exotic import from South America and available only to the aristocracy, Spanish ladies had their servants bring them hot chocolate even during mass. This to-ing and fro-ing caused so much disruption that hot chocolate was banned from church. Church attendance promptly plummeted.

Tapas Tip

Right. Tapas. Whatever list I put together for now will be grossly incomplete. And the thing is, there are plenty of marquee names that will charge you an arm and a leg (e.g. I’m still working up my wallet’s nerve to go to Cal Pep) and there are plenty of holes in the wall who will serve mediocre bites, microwaved after sitting on the shelf for a wee bit too long.

So, let me just send you to Cervesceria Cataluna in the Eixample distict, my favourite place for variety and value for money. There’s always a waiting list for tables, but the real action is up at the 2 bars. Stalk a bar stool, pounce fast and mercilessly (the locals will give the tourist no quarter) and rotate the 1 barstool among your group if you need to. As long as someone has access to the staff to order food, you be so distracted by the food you’ll barely notice you’re not sitting down.

I particularly enjoyed the grilled cuttlefish, grilled mushrooms, miniature sirloin steaks and burgers.

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Sweet Smelling

I found Papabubble quite by accident, by following the delightful scent of burning sugar down a few doors from our charming Hostel Blue on the bohemian C/ Ample. All the candy is made by hand onsite and make smart looking and tasty gifts for those who didn’t make it to heaven.

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Walking it Off

In between meals, the best thing to do is to walk and soak in the art and the energy of the vibrant city.

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Above: The ongoing building of Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia; youths playing football at Parc Guell, also by Gaudi.

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Above: This nstallation down by Port Vell gets a cheeky toilet-paper response on Rambla de Catalunya

Below: My personal favourite, even if I’m the the one being railed against

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Mercat St Josep (La Boqueria)
La Rambla (Liceu station)

Restaurant Galdric
Passatge Virreina 2
08001 Barcelona, Spain
+34 685 580 922

Meson del Cafe
C/ Llibreteria 16 (Jaume I station)
08002 Barcelona, Spain

Cervesceria Catalana
C/ Mallorca 236
08008 Barcelona, Spain
+34 932 160 368

C/ Ample 28
08002 Barcelona, Spain
(Closed in August)


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By Babs

Just a quick update – we reached Dubrovnik on Wednesday morning after a busy week of travelling, and are really enjoying it here! Admittedly on the basis of just two days in the country, I’d recommend anyone to visit Croatia and holiday here – good, inexpensive food, a beautiful coastline and city, the Adriatic is amazingly clean and clear and lovely for swimming in and overall it’s very relaxing here.

We left the farm at Orgiva a week ago on Tuesday, exactly three weeks after we arrived, and got a bus to Granada, from where we took a train to Barcelona, the first of several overnighters of the week. The Spanish train was comfortable though the cheapest tickets were for bunks in four berth single sex compartments. We stayed a night in Barcelona, ate some good tapas (lots of pulpo/octopus) and read by the beach. We skipped sightseeing as we’d both visited the more famous landmarks before and only had a day to spend in the city.

From there, we took a 20 hour overnight ferry (seats but no bunks this time!) to Civitavecchia, Italy then a train to Rome. We stayed in Rome for three nights and saw a few of the obvious things to see in Rome – the Colosseum, the Forum and the Vatican as well as too many other ancient monuments to list here! It seems you can’t walk anywhere in central Rome without bumping into either a two thousand year old monument or a renaissance building designed by Michelangelo. The sights were very impressive, but unfortunately we were put off by the extremely touristy feel of central Rome – it was very hard to find any shops, cafes or restaurants that weren’t trying to rip you off.

We spent a day in Bari next, having arrived on an overnight train from Rome, and took an overnight ferry that night to Dubrovnik. Not spending the night in Bari was a bit of a shame, because it turned out to be a really nice town. I had been assuming that it was just a port town but it had all the nice restaurants and pleasant Italian feeling that I’d been missing in Rome! We also discovered that travelling two nights in a row without anywhere to shower in the middle of summer tends to make one quite grouchy 🙂

Anyway, now we’re happy to be in Dubrovnik, and might even stay another night here!

Wen and Amir at the Sistine Chapel
Wabs looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

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It was a labour of love, involving blood (mud-&-straw clumps scratching up our hands), sweat (building under the Spanish summer sun) and tears (when a supporting structure collapsed for the 3rd time).

An outdoor oven is one of those things Babs and I nurse ambitions about having someday, in that yet-to-be-identified place where we will eventually settle down (along with a massive charcoal BBQ pit and motorised roast spit). So I jumped at the opportunity to learn how to build one… by actually building one, while WWOOFING at Anthony and Catherine’s finca in Orgiva, Spain.

Our reference guide for the project was Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer. One of Denzer’s main principles is to use recycled and/or foraged materials, so that cost of building will tax neither your pocket, nor the envioronment. The only materials Anthony bought were ~30 firebricks (a few spare) and a few pieces of slate. The rest of it was sand from the beach in Motril, clay fand rocks from nearby riverbeds, and dirt and straw from the farm.

The Base

Anthony had already completed the base when we arrived. It’s a ringed stone wall, filled in with rubble. Right at the top it has insulating layers of clay and sand. The stone wall is self-supporting, but the crevices have been plastered up tight with mud and clay to prevent wasps from building nests in the gaps (The stone wall must have looked like a luxe condo block for waspy property hunters). On top of the slate are the firebricks (built denser than regular bricks to retain heat). This is the cooking floor of the oven.

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The Support Dome

Question: If you’re building a dome which has a base radius of 33cm and a height of 48cm, how many buckets of sand from Motril do you need? Answer: Many more than you think.

In any case, the shortage was a great excuse to do a day trip to the beach. To improvise in the meantime, we bulked up dome volume with an upturned bucket, a few rocks and lots of gravel. It might have been due to this makeshift base, or the coarseness of the sand, or the startling evaporation rate, or one of our sandcastle building techniques (as Babs and I hotly debated) but we had 3 major sandslides before completion.

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Above: Babs VERY GINGERLY puts wet newspaper and sackcloth on the completed sand dome to help keep its shape while I hold my breath

The Baking Layer

This first layer of mud and clay is what absorbs heat from burning wood in the oven, then radiates it back onto food. We had too much water in the mix, leading to lots of “flab” from sinking clay (what is it they say about ovens resembling their makers?). After it solidified sufficiently, Anthony did some nip tuck, and we marked out the door and scored the roof to help it bond with the next coming layer.

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Additional Heat Retention Layer

Again this layer is made of mud and clay, but with straw mixed in. You can build an entire house out of this stuff, as is the case in various pockets of the English countryside, Africa, Central America and more recently Gaza.

Getting the straw to bond evenly with the mud is quite the task (Denzer recommends you get all the kids in the family or the community involved). Two people walking on it took too long, so we eventually blasted music from the house to get things really jumpin’.

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Cutting Out the Door and Hollowing Out the Oven

After running out of mud and straw for the day, we let the furry-winter-hat-looking structure dry out overnight. The next morning, Anthony and Babs debated about whether it was dry enough to cut out the door, and excavate the sand dome. Babs was convinced only after he personally conducted the very technical “squidge” test (3rd photo).

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Above: For those of you trying this at home: If you’re going to use an upturned bucket to pad out your base, make sure it’s not too much larger than the intended height of your door!


Above: Team WABS, our hosts Catherine and Anthony, and our functionally finished oven

Drying Out the Oven

We now have a functional oven structure! There’s a 3rd layer (about 1-2 inches thick) that will eventually go on, but it’s mostly decorative. In the meantime, it’s time to start a little fire to dry out the oven from the inside. Babs and I can barely contain our pyro-glee as we slap together a clump of straw, twigs (2 sizes), a little log and a couple of pine cones for laughs. The team very graciously lets me light the flame. It burns beautifully. Babs and I spend the next hour just sitting on the floor staring at the flame and tossing in twigs and logs.

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Our First Pizza!

Given we’ll be needing to crank out pizzas for ~30 people this Saturday, the (ahem) professional thing to do was to test-drive the new oven for Monday night’s dinner. Current cooking time for 1 perfect pizza currently takes 5-8 minutes. The assignment for Wednesday lunch is to experiment with timing of pizza entry and burning-log placement, to reduce cooking time and improve even-ness of heat distribution. I forsee Babs and I insisting on a lot of practice.

If only all projects were this delicious and satisfying.

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Where in the world is Wabs?

I’ve added a page (see top row of tabs) with a google map I’ve been working on with details of our route around the world. It’s got both the route we’ve taken so far and also the route we’re planning to take along with the corresponding dates. It’ll be updated as we go, so you can always check our latest itinerary plans on Where’s Wabs?

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Posts on Restaurant Kursaal in San Sebastian and our quick stop in Granada are still in the works. In the meantime I thought I’d share a half-time report on our WWOOFing stint in Orgvia, Spain.

Early high points:

  • Orange juice from the oranges we picked just before lunch
  • Watching 1,000 yr old aquaducts built by the Moors water 400-yr-old olive trees
  • Plowing through our hosts’ bookshelves during siesta

Early low points:

  • Breathing so hard while working in the heat that you inhale a midge, and spend the rest of the day gagging on it, long after probably swallowing it
  • Weeds that beat you at tug-of-war

What on earth is WWOOFing?

WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. In summary you volunteer on an (often small) organic farm for an agreed number of hours a day and days a week, in exchange for food and accomodation. Along the way, you learn about different organic farming methods and sustainable living, as well as get an insider and rural view of the country you’re WWOOFing in. Your WWOOF host gets some sweat and muscle (and sometimes creativity and complementary knowledge) on the cheap. No money is exchanged, so no nasty work visa paperwork is needed. You pay a nominal WWOOF network membership fee to keep the network up and running.

This sounded like a genius proposition to Babs and me. We’d get to learn a little more about the food chain, AND stretch our travel budget. We decided Spain was a good place to start, and after writing to 12 hosts in various bits of the country, providence led us to a 3-week stint with Anthony and Catherine and their 3 acres of olive and orange trees in Orgiva.

Anthony and Catherine moved to Orgiva 2.5 years ago and have since built their house and the infrastructure around their homestead bit by bit, with plenty of patience and good humour. Before moving to Spain they spent the last 2 decades teaching children with special needs. I noted this with some optimism – perhaps they’ll have some patience for the occasional daftness of a lifetime city girl!

Orgiva Where?

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Above: This is an optical illusion of the idyllic farming life. Swaths of land planting just 1 type of crop creates chemical imbalances in the soil over time. The wide brown paths between the olive trees ease the way for the harvesting machine, but the exposed topsoil (where the nutrients are) is vulnerable to wind and flood erosion

Orgiva is the administrative capital of the Andalucia region, about an hour south of Granada in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It also turns out that Orgiva’s immediate surroundings — Las Alpujarras — are the setting of Driving Over Lemons by ex-Genesis drummer Chris Stewart, the first of his autobiographical Lemons Trilogy about uprooting from the UK and building a new life among peasant Spanish farmers.

Two decades worth of Dutch, German and Brits — blackberry-beeping businessmen and barefoot-as-a-lifestyle-choice-hippies alike — decided the same, making the neighbourhood a strange little agricultural cosmopolis. It’s not entirely hard to see why. Below is the view from our breakfast table on the front porch, and a few peeks around our hosts’ garden.

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Where Do We Fit In?

Specifically, in a 34-yr-old caravan in the back terrace of olive and orange trees, right next to a large patch of mint. So during the sweltering Spanish siesta, our caravan smells like Moroccan lemonade.

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In addition to our hosts, we have dos chien Andalus, Zumba (the cream-coloured one) and his mother Oliva for regular company and entertainment. Hilarious when they’re horsing around, half as hilarious when Zumba bounds off with our solar torch in his mouth, usually at dusk.

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For our 3-week stint, we have 2 major projects: 1) Build an outdoor oven, and 2) Build a compost toilet. Both are partly a lead up to Catherine’s birthday weekend bash on July 18.

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There are also the more day-to-day tasks of upkeeping the farm: Pruning trees, ripping out monster weeds choking up irrigation channels, and replacing knackered recycled wine and beer bottles around the vegetable beds.

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Our day starts at 7.30am and we try and get in the heaviest tasks done before breakfast, before the sun really goes into overdrive. The shift between breakfast and lunch goes about 5 times as slowly and we’ve since learnt the art of tracking the path of the sun and planning our course for hopping between tree shadows to get as much done as comfortably as we can manage. We wrap up at about 1.30pm (it’s too hot to work after), have lunch, shower and pootle about for the rest of the day.

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Above: Babs checking out our hosts’s alberca, part river-&-rainwater storage pond, part swimming pool.

So far, so good! Stay tuned!

Coming soon: Building a Bread Oven

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So it’s been 4 days of work on the farm and today’s an off day (we’re also taking tue off to go to the beach).

Major tasks have been getting materials ready to build an outdoor bread oven, building a concrete wall for a compost toilet, pruning olive trees and clearing monster weeds from the main irrigation channels to improve speed and volume of water going down to the trees lower down the slope.

We start at 7.30am and finish at 2pm cos it’s too hot to work after that. Hard work but very satisfying to see the results. Just not yet convinced I would want to do this long term (esp cos Babs and I are still wrestling with how it is at all economically sustainable). It’s a very pleasant lifestyle though, and I’m told the weather is ridiculously comfortable in spring and autumn.

Our hosts are vegetarian and obviously we eat what they eat, so all in all, am currently experiencing the healthiest lifestyle I’ve had, probably ever.

Am glad we’ll have another 2 weeks here (which culminates in one of the host’s birthday party). We’ll get to finish the bread oven and compost toilet, and the travel budget will be back in good shape (after the gluttony of San Sebastien)

P.S. Recently finished The Little Prince, and currently reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Have always been an Orwell fan and this continues.

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