La Mancha and Windmills

Our drive from the south coast of England to almost the south coast of Spain involves a journey of 2200km. A long way. We’ve made the trip many times now and are familiar with the route, the best places to stop for a coffee, or to sit and eat some of our mammoth picnic. We know where we can stop to stretch our legs and let the pups have a little run around, and we know which hotels are dog friendly. What we’re still learning about are some of the beautiful places we used to drive past at speed, cities, towns and villages which previously were just names on the map.

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Instead of driving the route in 2 long, hard days, we now take 3 or 4 days and pick new places to stop and enjoy. We’ve loved Bordeaux, Biarritz and Burgos. This time we pulled off the motorway south of Madrid, pretty much slap bang in the middle of Spain to explore a little of La Mancha.

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It’s a province which is famed for its cheese,  Manchego, which takes its name from the province in which it is made.

It’s also famous for its Windmills, which became well known through the work of 17th Century Spanish writer, Miguel de Cervantes and his book Don Quixote. Not too long after meeting Big Man I celebrated a birthday in Spain and one of his sisters presented me with this great tome  (great in all senses of the word, it’s a thick old book!) in Spanish. I confess I still have to read it,but am reassured by many Spaniards that they have only read parts of it as part of the school curriculum.

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The tale is of a Spanish nobleman and his adventures with his trusty sidekick (a simple farmer) who sets out to restore the art of chivalry with many mishaps along the way.  One of his adventures involves Don Quixote battling the Windmills,  believing them to be ferocious giants. The province has invested money in restoring many of the old windmills,  which were used to produce flour, and they are a popular tourist attraction, visible from a great distance.

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The town of Consuegra has a marvellous collection of restored mills which are situated on top a hill and give amazing views of the 12th century castle and the town below.

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Despite the heat being in the high 30s, and not being able to go into the palace, as dogs were not allowed to enter, we enjoyed the dramatic views and the beauty of the mills and the vast plains below.

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Temperatures here in Andalucía are high, and just now, sitting in the heat without the slightest hint of a breeze, I find myself smiling at the memory of the gusts of cool air back on that hilltop in La Mancha.

A short walk around Burguillos del Cerro

It’s been a wee while since I posted. Some of you may even have picked up on the fact that we were due to go away for a few days with some pals to a HUGE livestock fair (the biggest in Europe I believe) in a town called Zafra. Well, we did get there and all went well. But the photos of the event….bleugh. Funnily enough, the only ones that came out half decent were of a huge barbecue affair (called a Parillada) they had there which, of course, we indulged in. Trust me to focus more on the food than the livestock.

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We stayed near a very lovely little town called Burguillos del Cerro – very close to the frontier with Portugal.

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It’s pretty ancient and dates back to the times of the Reconquista – way back in the 700s.

House of Garlandi. 17th Century. Constructed with Roman materials reused from the Temple of Saint Coronado.
House of Garlandi. 17th Century. Constructed with Roman materials reused from the Temple of Saint Coronado.

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The weather wasn’t great the evening we took a walk around and the light was fading, but it was very atmospheric and lovely to walk around at twilight appreciating the castle way off in the distance and the old centre with buildings that are being very sympathetically restored.

Of course, then it was time to decide where to go for dinner. Priorities, priorities!

 

There’s (almost) no such thing as a free lunch….

So, here we are, back in Spain. The sun is shining, the horrible hot wind we get in southern Spain (El Terral) has finally died down and we’ve caught our breath from the long drive.  We’re very lucky to have two lovely homes, but when you get back to a house that has been shut up for a few months, you find that the dust monsters have been to visit. We managed avoidance tactics for a few days with a combination of going out to catch up with people, and staying in feeling grumpy and full of cold (me)/Man Flu (Big Man) germs.

Finally the day came when we couldn’t ignore The Big Clean Up any more and today we made a start. Mrs and Mrs Mop began a vaguely systematic attack on the house and garden and, while there is still plenty more to be done, we felt satisfied that we deserved a nice lunch in the garden. Spring and autumn are perfect for outdoor lunchtime dining. Sometimes you get a lovely warm day in winter or a cool summer day which also permit al fresco lunches…but you definitely make the most of those perfect days.

In Spanish terms, it was almost dangerously vegetarian (well, apart from the seafood and salami). We didn’t worry, the village fiesta is upon us and we know we’ll be eating our own body weight in grilled meat and pinchitos (little kebabs) over the next few days. What did make us smile was the fact that pretty much everything we were eating had been gifted to us by kindly friends and family, or recycled from another meal. It’s good to be a frugal houseperson when the food is this good!

Lunch included:

Salmorejo (my very favourite cold soup) made from stale bread and tomatoes given to us by kindly brother-in-law. These are the ripe and ugly tomatoes which are used for soups and sauces

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Garnished with hard boiled eggs from kindly neighbour who adopted our chickens and jamon (bought from local butcher)

Salad made with leftover prawns and squid which had been barbecued the night before and avocados from kindly neighbour who also keeps us supplied with oranges later in the year to make marmalade.

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Tomato, mint and onion salad made with “tomates para picar” (tomatoes for chopping up!), again from kindly brother-in-law and mint from our garden.

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Salads dressed with our own olive oil and juice from our lemons

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Cheese and salchichon (salami). Salchichon given to us by kindly local bar owner as a welcome home present.

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Dessert was figs from our tree and apple sorbet made with apples from kindly cousin. Inspired by Rosemary’s ice cream making, I dug out my own ice-cream maker. To serve 2 people – 500g apples (peeled and cored), cooked with 2 tablespoons of sugar, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice then blended, cooled and churned in my machine. Maybe I should make more Apple Roses – I certainly have enough fruit!

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I drank a glass (or two) of Spanish wine, but Big Man was clearly feeling a bit nostalgic for England and opened a bottle of English beer.

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I thought we’d bought those beers with us as gifts for kindly friends and family. Ooops!

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PS. You know we hate waste here….the prawn shells are now bubbling away to make stock…maybe we’ll have an “arroz caldoso” in the next few days…

Summer Breeze

This summer finds us at our home in Bexhill on Sea. Which according to our family in Spain, is a good thing. They are all decidedly fed up of the 40 degree plus temperatures that are the norm there right now, rather than the exception. We are getting used to four seasons in one day. Loving the sunshine when we have it and racing outside to enjoy it. Joining in the with locals when it rains saying “oh well, it’s good for the garden”!

I haven’t managed to grow basil outdoors in England yet, so am sticking with my pot on the kitchen window sill.

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Outside in our little garden though, we’re making the most of every tiny bit of space and growing a few vegetables for the pleasure of seeing them grow. Green beans are happy climbing up against the wall and the first teeny tiny beans are starting to appear. Big Man is very entertained by the fact that the flowers in England are red. In Spain they’re white and he never believed me until this year that they are different. Oh he of little faith.

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We planted tomatoes which are starting to produce strange shaped fruit – we can’t remember what we planted – so we’re just waiting to see if they’ll turn red or we’ll be eating a lot of tomato chutney or fried green tomatoes this year.

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Various chilli plants also went in, but the little sticks telling us which were which were “reorganised” by the dogs at the time of planting so we have no idea what we’re going to end up with. We do have a very beautiful black chilli which is ready to be picked, so fingers crossed it’s a hot one!

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The parsley and rosemary are doing well, and the chives are happy doing their own thing.

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We also bought some mint roots from Spain (it seems to have a more delicate leaf than the plant we bought in England and is lovely in salads and infusions). The plants (grown in a recycled strawberry planter) are just starting to really get going.

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Of course, there’s room for flowers too, most of which were already here, I love the strong colours we’ve got. The white geraniums were grown from cuttings from a plant we had in a small pot.

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The pears continue to grow, hopefully we’ll get a lovely crop in the early autumn.

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And the dogs, naturally, are always on hand to offer advice, help with the digging and showing us the sunniest spots when we need to take a little breather.

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Sorry about the picture overload but the light was so lovely today…it made me happy to think how much you can do with just a little outdoor space.

 

A return to the simple life

Although our time in Spain will be limited to about a month (a long “holiday” some might think, but for us it’s a case of changing one home for another for a short while) we need to make the most of our time here. Sorting out a house and garden that have been looked after but not lived in for many months. Catching up with family and friends. Running around and sorting out paperwork and the dealing with the “officialdom” that invariably comes with it.

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The plan had been to eat out frequently – a menú del día (a daily set menu in many restaurants) is not expensive in Spain – and not to spend hours in the kitchen. So far, I haven’t spent too many hours in the kitchen, but the lure of fresh, local ingredients which are quick and easy to prepare has been irresistible. Add to that the fact that we can also cook outside and it’s mostly quicker to just get cooking while multitasking with the gardening.

We’ve eaten chicken (reared by a pal who gifted us two hefty chicken thighs and drumsticks) cooked in one of our cazuelas with peppers, onions, garlic, olive oil and wine.

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And rabbit, marinated in a paste made of thyme and rosemary from the garden with our own olive oil and lemon and a neighbour’s garlic then cooked on the barbecue.

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The weather may have gone from 40 degrees to grey and miserable, but with full bellies and a glass of wine, who can complain?!

Molletes de Antequera – Soft Bread Rolls from Antequera

It’s funny that when you are away from home, apart from missing loved ones, food seems to feature highly on the list of things people miss. Or is that just us? We love good bread and are lucky to have relative success making our own as we don’t have any spectacular bakers close to our home in England and Bread Man from Spain just won’t deliver to us this far away!

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About 30km from our home in Spain is a town called Antequera. One of its main claims to fame is the delicious soft white bread rolls it produces and which are typically served for breakfast or “merienda” (afternoon tea). Usually they are just split, drizzled with olive oil and perhaps a sprinkle of salt. You could be more adventurous and spread them with fresh crushed tomatoes (my favourite Spanish breakfast), or go the whole hog (excuse the pun) and add some delicious slices of Jamon Serrano.

In England you can buy soft white breakfast rolls which are very good, but not quite the same. Time to see if we could recreate a favourite breakfast bread. It’s rather an unusual method, at least I thought it was, as it involved dropping a piece of dough into a bowl of warm water and waiting for it to bob to the surface like a supersized gnocchi. Stay with me, all will be revealed…

Ingredients to make 6-8 large rolls (these rolls are typically about 30cm in diameter and quite flat, they are also lightly baked so that they don’t take on any colour)

For the “Masa Madre” – the starter, or “mother dough”

100g strong bread flour

1x 7g sachet of easy blend yeast (or you can use 15g of fresh yeast)

50ml warm water

For the second dough

500g strong bread flour

320ml warm water

1x 7g sachet of easy blend yeast (or you can use 15g of fresh yeast)

50ml olive oil

Up to 20g salt (I used less, about 12g)

To make the Masa Madre – mix the easy blend yeast into the flour then add the water and mix to a dough. If using fresh yeast, add the yeast to the water, allow it to ferment then add to the flour. Form the dough into a ball, cut a cross into the top of it and put it into a bowl of hand warm water.

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The dough will start to release small bubbles into the water (it’s all quite entertaining to watch!) and will rise to the surface within about 10 minutes (or less). Pour away the water and use the dough immediately.

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To make the second dough. Mix the easy blend yeast into the flour then add the salt. In a separate bowl add the oil to the water then add half the flour, yeast and salt. If using fresh yeast, add the yeast to the water, allow it to ferment and add the oil. Then add half the flour with the salt.

Add the masa madre to the dough (which will be very wet at this stage, I used a mixer with a dough hook) and knead for a few minutes then add the rest of the flour. Continue to knead for about 10 minutes until the dough is silky, smooth and elastic. Place the dough into a bowl which has been floured or rubbed lightly with olive oil, cover with a damp tea towel and allow to rise until doubled in size. Mine took about an hour and a half.

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Knock back the dough and divide into 6 or 8 equal portions. Roll into balls which should be placed onto a flat baking sheet lined with baking paper. Flatten them with the plan of your hand, cover with a damp tea towel and leave to rise again. You don’t want a massive rise on the rolls, they should still retain a fairly flat surface.

Dust with flour before baking for an authentic finish. Preheat the oven to 250 C/475 F/Gas 9 and place a bowl of hot water at the bottom of the oven. Place the tray (or trays) into the oven and reduce the temperature to 200 C/400 F/Gas 6. Bake for around 20 minutes. I left mine in for a few minutes too long and they started to take on some colour which didn’t affect the flavour but is not typical for Molletes.

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Eat within 24 hours as they tend to dry out a little after this (but are delicious toasted or griddled). They freeze and defrost really well and are great used as picnic rolls. Now, to work out how to incorporate Hercules, Son of Priscilla, my sourdough starter into the next batch….

 

Syrian Style Roast Leg of Lamb

I was very lucky to have been given some fabulous cookbooks by my best buddy Ria. Ah she knows me so well! One is titled Almond Bar, written by Sharon Salloum, co-owner and chef of Almond Bar restaurant in Sydney, who was bought up in a traditional Syrian household. Ooh I’d love to go and eat there! Her recipes are based on family traditions, but adapted for the modern kitchen.

Syrian Lamb

As soon as I saw her recipe for roast leg of lamb, I knew I would make it for New Year’s Eve. We had family visiting from Spain and were going to have a fairly typical Spanish Family Celebration meal – masses of seafood and shellfish to start, lamb for main course, flan (or crème caramel to us!), fruit, Spanish biscuits, turrón and 12 grapes at midnight. The lamb was not typically Spanish because of the spices, but it was a big hit with everyone. The meat is cooked on high to start with then slowly cooked to tender perfection. Don’t wait until next New Year’s Eve to try this, I know I won’t be waiting that long!

(Apologies for the photo, it’s a cropped section of a family snap which also featured the lamb…)

Serves 8-10 (but you can scale it down for a smaller leg of lamb)

  • 2.5kg leg of lamb, bone in
  • 60ml olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon sweet paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 8 cloves crushed with a pestle and mortar
  • 3 teaspoons salt flakes
  • 6 cloves of sliced garlic
  • About 10 small sprigs of rosemary
  • 1 glass of white wine (not in the original recipe)

Preheat the oven to 200C (fan)/425F/Gas 7

Mix the oil with the spices, salt and pepper in a bowl. Rub the mix all over the leg of lamb then cut small incisions all over the lamb with a sharp pointed knife. Push the garlic and rosemary sprigs into the incisions.

Place the lamb in a deep oven dish and bake on high for an hour, turning after 30 minutes to brown on both sides. Pour the wine over the meat, cover the dish with foil to make a tent and reduce the oven temperature to 170C (fan)/375F/Gas 5 and return to the oven. Cook for another 2 ½ – 3 hours, basting every 20 minutes (but don’t stress if you do it a little less).

When the lamb is cooked, remove from the oven, keep it warm (I wrap it in foil and a couple of towels) and leave to rest for 15-30 minutes and serve with all the beautiful juices you will have left in the pan.