Farming and fiestas.
Work hard and play hard. That seems to be the motto and ethic of the majority of Catalans the region in Spain where I spent my summer. Fruit and nut trees grow where the River Ebro has formed plains at the foot of the mountains and the climate is perfect for vines. The coastline has miles and miles of amazing beaches and the region is littered with Roman (and earlier) remains, churches and gravity defying terraces which stretch upwards into the hillsides.
I was living in a proper working village – where the community is still very much alive and kicking. The buzz and hum of tractors, forklift trucks and lorries are there; as are scents of one sort of another – peaches, apples or almond blossom fill the air at their respective times of the year. The elderly residents are gnarled and sun-browned, a lifetime of hard physical work obviously doing them no damage at all and they now sit outside their front doors watching the world go by. Many of these people were some of those who took to the mountains as children and hid with their families when the last days of the civil war played out around them.
Rugs with piles of almonds laid out to dry are spread in the tiled streets outside front doors and crate loads of fruit can be seen piled up alongside the refrigerated distribution centres waiting to be taken up to the markets in Tarragona or Barcelona, and everybody gets up at the crack of dawn and it’s all hands to the deck to pick and harvest when the crops suddenly ripen or when winds or rain are forecast.
I began my summer here in Catalunya helping friends out with their cherry harvest – which is always a pleasurable experience although this year’s crop was especially poor; and then the peas and the beans arrived – with the sweet sugar snap peas hardly requiring any cooking at all; and the apricots, peaches and greengages. I have NEVER had a shop bought apricot taste as sweet as those plucked direct from the tree for breakfast.
I helped to prepare and dry countless trays of cherries and plums and I sun-dried tomatoes – although I guess technically they weren’t sun dried at all as I used a drying machine, and I soaked them in garlic and olive oil trapping the summer flavours, and sprinkled others with salt and basil eating them like sweets throughout the day.
Chillies were hung up on strings to dry, chopped and soused in vinegar or cooked up into the most amazing pepper and mango sauces; and then the tomatoes arrived. They were to prove the bane of my life, as every fresh batch that ripened seemed to coincide with either heavy winds which flattened the canes or sudden thunderstorms which saturated the ground and caused the fruit to explode. There were green tomatoes, plum tomatoes and yellow light bulb shaped tomatoes as well as currant tomatoes and your bog-standard ordinary ones too.
I chopped and dried, boiled and bubbled, I made salsa and I ate gazpacho every day through the summer. I was taught how to cook spaghetti squash (recipe at the end of the article) and I marvelled how on earth a courgette which was just 3 centimeters long one day and hiding in the shade of the leaves could suddenly turn into a marrow the next.
Sadly the apple harvest, like the tomatoes didn’t fair too well with the high winds and tons fell from the trees, with the majority also damaged by wormy things. The figs, which began slowly, with the tree producing about 6 ripe fruits per day – just enough for my breakfast – suddenly exploded in sweet, sticky sappyness and I was hard pressed to keep up with those. I discovered that there was a fine line between unripe figs, perfect figs, figs with a maggot in and those which contained a mass of tiny little beetles which abandoned the fruit as you picked them and ran up your arms, resembling something like the scene with the scarab beetles in ‘The Mummy’.
We had the hottest July for 3o years so after a long day in the fields or up on the terraces it would be down to the bars, where tables and chairs would overflow into the main street and cars would have to pick their way around chattering groups as they drove down the road. Children would go out to play at midnight – it was cooler in the dark – and people took to pulling mattresses out onto their terraces and balconies to sleep and a cold shower just to find some respite at 3am became the norm for most of us.
Yes,the Catalans work hard but in my next article I shall show you how they also know how to party
This was a new vegetable to me but I shall certainly look out for it in the future. It resembles a bright yellow honeydew melon and its almost as simple to prepare.
Slice it in half and scoop out the seeds from the middle then microwave both halves for 14 minutes. When cooked you drag a fork across the flesh – which pulls it out into strands like spaghetti. Serve as a vegetable on the side, in a salad or as spaghetti with a tomato sauce poured over the top. Easy, tasty and very very healthy.