We´ve had some amazing mild, sunny February weather, but yesterday things changed and the rains came down. The temperature dropped and made me yearn for warming soups. I had bought a couple of kilos of red onions from a lady in the market a few days previously. They were probably home grown as she had a wheelbarrow full of them and nothing more. The onions were eye wateringly strong, as I had found out when I used some in a salad, so I thought that perhaps they would have a gentler flavour if cooked slowly in a chutney or soup.
Memories of a romantic week in Paris with Big Man reminded me of French Onion Soup. I went to the top of the Eiffel Tower for him, despite a severe dislike for heights. After returning to ground level, pale, shaking and cold, we found a little bistro where we warmed ourselves up with Onion Soup and a bottle of red wine shared on one of those tiny Parisian Bistro tables which lend themselves to knees and hands touching over a romantic meal.
If you fancy a bowl of cockle warming Onion Soup, with or without the Gallic Romance, open yourself a bottle of white wine, pour yourself a glass and get ready to chop and cry. For two, you´ll need:
Half a kilo (or more if you don´t mind chopping them) of onions, finely sliced. French if you have them, but otherwise any nationality of onion – it doesn´t even need a French accent
Two tablespoons of olive oil
A thick slice of butter
A level teaspoon of sugar
Two heaped teaspoons of plain flour
750mlof beef stock or chicken stock with a teaspoon of marmite or Bovril (or you can use stock made with a beef stock cube)
A glass of dry white wine
Salt and pepper
A slug of brandy (optional)
It´s not a difficult dish to make. It´s cheap too, but needs a bit of patience. No rushing this one I´m afraid!
First you´ll thinly slice those onions, then you´ll blow your nose, wipe your eyes and melt the butter with the oil in a large frying pan. Add the onions, mix them around to coat them and turn the heat down to low. These will now cook very gently until they start to caramelize but still remain soft.
This can take at least half an hour, sometimes double that. It just depends on the time of year and how much water the onions have. Stir them with a wooden spoon from time to time and when they start to turn brown, sprinkle the sugar on top and keep cooking until they are dark brown. This can take another 10-20 minutes.
Now sprinkle over the flour and cook gently while stirring for a minute.
At this point you can add your wine and then your beef stock (if you have it, but it´s very hard to buy good beef, let alone find beef bones to make stock in Southern Spain). I use chicken stock (if I have some made) otherwise water and a stock cube and I add a good teaspoon of marmite to give it a beefy taste. I know it´s salty, but you haven´t seasoned yet, and depending on how much salt you like to use, you can leave this part of the seasoning out at the end.
Today I used homemade chicken stock, and because our chickens are corn fed, my stock is very golden in colour. This means that unless I add loads of marmite to darken it, it won´t be as dark as it usually turns out. Too much marmite makes it super salty, so I live with golden coloured soup sometimes!
Simmer gently for about 15 minutes and you´re almost ready to serve. Taste to check and add salt and pepper if you like. If it´s a touch sweet from the caramelized onions, I find a sprinkle of salt and a slug extra of white wine usually balances the taste out.
If you like you can serve with little rounds of melted cheese on toast at the bottom of the soup bowl, or floated on the top, but what really gives it that extra warming hit is a small hit of brandy poured in just as you serve. Bon Appétit!
Just as I finished making my soup, the sun broke through the clouds and rain, and I had a beautiful rainbow to look at and brighten my day. Lucky me, Onion Soup and a Rainbow – life can be full of the most unexpectedly lovely moments.
Clearly, drowning my sorrows in a carton of cheap wine was going to get me nowhere, so after a fairly sleepless night I got up and started to make plans. The night was sleepless because it seemed that in my new barrio (that’s a neighbourhood to the rest of us) there were either no phones, or people preferred not to use them. The common means of communication appeared to be the Spanish Yell. This involved sticking your head out of your door or window and calling for the person with whom you wished to speak at the top of your voice.
As most people seemed, to me, to be called Maria or José I was at pains to establish exactly how whichever Maria or José that was being called knew that it was their turn to respond. To this day, I still struggle with addressing members of my own now much extended Spanish family who all share the same name. Somehow, the folks round here seem to know who they are calling for or talking to through either use of a new variation of the same name, or the tone of their voice. Men called José are also often called Paco, but Paco is also generally attributed to men christened Francisco. Another name given to a Francisco is Curro and the truly young and trendy also use the abbreviation of Fran. So there you go. Easy, when you know how. The sound of a long, loud and extended “Paaaaa-co” being yelled by a woman is generally the “husband call” and a softer, gentler “Paquito” is the same woman calling out to her darling little boy. Aged 34, weighing in at fourteen stone and still living at home in an upstairs apartment with his wife and three young children.
So, there I was, groggy from lack of sleep, cold from the damp and facing another day of torrential rain. What’s a girl to do? Well, go shopping of course. I consulted my very expensive road map bought from the map shop in Covent Garden and worked out that Granada, home of the beautiful Alhambra Palace, was only 4.5 cm away. Or 60km or so as the crow flies or I drive. I worked out which road I needed to take, which junction I needed to pull off at and remembered that I would need to drive on the right and not the left. Actually, not such a challenge for me as most of my friends in London will tell you that I spent most of my time in London driving on the right anyway, so I had had plenty of practice with that aspect of Spanish road rules. And all this was in honour of a trip to The Hypermarket. I was going to do a “big shop”, which for a foodie like me is a way of setting down roots wherever it is that I happen to be. I was damn well going to make this hovel a home.
Of course, nothing went to plan as I could barely see the road, let alone keep to the right as the rain was, by now, torrential. I had also mis-timed my departure and got to the ring road around Granada during the rush hour so crawled along looking out for my junction. At least this meant I could see the hypermarket from a distance and managed to pull off at the correct junction. After buying enough food and drink for a family of eight and almost, but not quite, succumbing to a burger in a moment of feeling sad and pathetic I loaded up the car to head back home and fill the hovel with good home cooking smells. Of course, I didn’t realise that I needed to look for another, completely different exit when I pulled out of the supermarket and ended getting back onto the same ring road, going in the same direction as I had been going earlier that day. At a complete loss and unable to work out how to get off at the next exit and turn back – still a tricky manoeuvre at times – I ended up going all the way round Granada ring road before eventually picking up my road home again. I was trying to feel positive and kept telling myself that I was killing a few hours on a rainy day. Not the most fun I’ve had in a Renault Mégane though, I have to admit.
After the, now familiar, struggle back through the narrow gap (mercifully incident free this time) and up the slope with the bags I decided to head into the village and complete some tasks:
· Find the number of a Spanish Language Teacher
· Buy a Spanish SIM card
· Go back to the Estate Agent and see if I could swap to another house
The first two were pretty easy, even with my limited Spanish and, as a result, I was beginning to feeling a bit cocky and over confident. Old Derek was nowhere to be found. His “office”, which seemed to be a shared affair with several other disreputable estate agents, was dusty and boarded up. Mmm, rather suspicious I thought. Perhaps he was a Costa del Crime fugitive using an Estate Agent´s office as a cover for some more serious activities. Several phone calls to him later, I established that I could indeed swap to a house on the edge of the village with a pool, but only for six weeks of my eight week stay. Well, I thought, it’s an option. Oh yes, and it was going to cost me £4,000 and he wanted payment in cash. It didn’t take me long to realise that it wasn’t going to happen, was it?
Finally, the sun came out and I set out my chair on the patio. The promised sun loungers were nowhere to be found in the sloping hovel. Pretty soon children from the barrio were literally trying to climb over the railings into my garden and were bombarding me with questions.
“How old are you Señora? Where is your husband? Why don’t you have one then? What are you doing here? Why, why, why?”. I felt very stressed, very single, and very much in need of another carton of cheap wine and a friend to share it with.
The highlight of the day for most of the neighbourhood came when one of the local women walked, most ceremoniously, up to the gate.
“Hola Señora, tengo algo para usted.” I have something for you.
“Hola, muchas gracias.” I was conversing, in Spanish no less, with a neighbour.
She handed me an envelope which contained a “Welcome to Your New Home” card. It had been sent, with all the very kindest of intentions, from my best friend. The woman was not alone as she had bought a dozen or so of her own neighbours along with her to meet the crazy English lady who had paid good money to stay somewhere they were trying desperately to leave. I managed to hold the next flood of tears back until they eventually, reluctantly, returned to their own homes and I decided that it was most definitely time to stop feeling sorry for myself, to pull myself together and move on up. And out.
Ok, so I would move down to the coast, rent an apartment by the sea and lie on a beach all day getting brown and fat. Perfect. The next day I set off in the, now quite exhausted, car. It was quite a long drive and fairly scary for me as part of the way there I realised, thanks to a promotional sign, that I was driving across one of the highest viaducts in Europe. A panic attack threatened and I spent a lot of time that day trying to figure out a way to drive back to the hovel without going back over the viaduct. After ruling out a 200km detour, I braced myself for a repeat death drive back to the jaws of hell. Ok, so I am exaggerating a bit but I was feeling rather melodramatic at the time and felt entitled to a bit of prima donna-ish-ness.
I did find an estate agent to speak to and as we spoke about my dilemma I could see the pound signs rolling around in his eyes. I could hear a big old calculator clicking away in his brain working out how much commission he could make from a desperate woman but when I asked him to please not dick me around he had to admit that he didn’t have any suitable properties for me to rent.
Very much down, but not quite out I decided to treat myself to lunch in one of the chiringuitos, which are beach side restaurants. Clearly a woman dining alone in Spain was, and still pretty much is, outside of a large city, rarer than snow in July. I was given a beautiful table between the toilets and the kitchen. The food was ok, but I was soon hassled out as I was clearly an embarrassment and I headed down onto the beach to enjoy an hour of sun before I attempted the dreaded drive back.
As I sat there trying to work out the next move, a woman sat herself down not far from me. Not a Spaniard, as sunbathing outside of the months of June, July and August is only for foreigners or mad folk, she was oblivious to what anyone thought of her. And bless her, she made me smile and feel like a glamour model as she was about 16 stone in weight and was wearing nothing but a very small flowery thong. Hurrah for women like her. There she was all big and strong and feisty and doing what she wanted to do. I set off back up the roller coaster motorway ready to face another day but with little idea of what it would hold.
Day three in the hovel and a knight in shining armour came to my rescue. Actually it was the best friend’s brother-in-law, an ex-fireman who had recently bought a piece of land off his own brother-in-law somewhere about an hour or so away from where I was staying. His plan was to build a house of his own. A complicated and convoluted connection, but a lifeline nonetheless. Anyway, John, as he is called, rang me to see how I was getting on and quickly realised that I was one very miserable lady. You see, men do have emotional intelligence. He picked up on this in just a short phone call. Perhaps the barely contained sobbing and descriptions of sleeping between damp sheets that felt like defrosting chicken breasts also gave him a bit of a clue about life in downtown gypsy-ville.
“Right,” he said “get yourself into that car of yours and come and stay with us. You can either stay here for the rest of your trip or you can talk to some estate agents around here and we’ll sort something else out for you.”
My hero. What a man. So that’s exactly what I did.
I peeled all the clothes back out of the damp wardrobes and layered them, like moist slices of boiled ham, back into the suitcases. I loaded the wine and food into bin liners as I didn’t have enough luggage to hold the results of my excessive gourmet shopping trip. I unplugged the George Foreman Grill and dropped the keys through the door of the empty estate agents with a great sense of satisfaction. I half hoped no one had the key to get into the shop to retrieve it and to this day I have never heard a word of apology from the nasty Mrs B. I walked away hoping that her miserable little house would be infested with a damp fungus so that she couldn’t rent it out again and ruin any more holidays for unsuspecting travellers. I really am over it now though. Honestly.
I made a final trek back down the slope, through the gap and onto the road to freedom. What a great feeling it was, and the fact that John was accompanied by two young New Zealand lads who were helping him with some building repairs in no way added to the feelings of anticipation I had about moving into my next new temporary home. Well, maybe just a little bit.
So in 2016 I turned 50. I was in Italy for my 21st, 30th and 40th. To keep this birthday tradition going I always knew I'd be in Italy for my 50! This blog starts with my 5 week adventure in Puglia but my love affair with Italy continues.....