Archive for October, 2010

OLLANTAYTAMBO AUCTION

english poster final1 300x213 OLLANTAYTAMBO AUCTIONOn Saturday 30th October at 11:00 in the morning, in the upper camp site of ORGIVA there will be a charity auction in aid of the children and soup kitchens of Ollantaytambo in Peru. I shall be running the auction, perhaps because I have a louder voice than many people, perhaps because I have been to Ollantaytambo (which is just down the road from Cuzco) or perhaps just because I’m pleased to do my little bit to help out a very worthwhile charity.


SEVILLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Things get ever more bizarre… I have been invited to be a judge at the Seville International Film Festival from 5th to 13th of November. Imagine… the last time Ana, the Wife, and I went to the pictures was back in the seventies when, in Leicester Square of London we went to see a film called Rosa Luxembourg. Neither of us understood a word of it, even though it was in english… it was all too bafflingly intellectual. This experience sort of put us off going to the pictures and since then we have more or less eschewed the medium. Cinemas are founts of infection (things have reached such a pretty pass that people no longer cover their noses when sneezing!), and of course, turpitude… why, I myself along with the then girlfriend was bodily thrown out of a cinema in Winchester back in the sixties for just that sort of behaviour.

Recently, with the acquisition of a DVD player and screen, we have been getting back into the medium a bit: we saw ‘The Godfather’ the other night – fabulous… and I have to have at least a monthly dose of ‘Withnail and I’. Apart from that there are the perennial offerings from Werner Herzog,  the hilarious ‘Les Visiteurs’ and the unfathomable ‘Last Journey of Judge Feng’.

From this you will gather that I know nothing whatever about films… but apparently that is what they are after:  I think I am to be the sort of ‘noble savage’ who saves the thing from becoming all too esoteric, and, if you’ll excuse the vulgar expresion, ‘up its own arse’. Anyway, they put us up in a fancy hotel in Sevilla for a week, and, I am told, force us to watch up to six films a day! Watch this space…


UNFINISHED BUSINESS

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

There may be those among you who wonder why I am so sloppy about getting these blogs out on time. If I have an excuse… and it has to be said, it’s a pretty spurious one, then it’s because I am snowed under with what is known as ‘unfinished business’.

I was staying with friends in London. On the night I arrived Richard was going out to his men’s group.

‘Do you want to come along?’, he asked me.

‘I don’t think so,’ I thought aloud. ‘What will you be doing?’

‘We’re going to discuss “unfinished business”.’

‘Hmm… then I shan’t come. What d’you mean anyway – unfinished business?’

‘Unfinished business is a broad term for all that stuff you’ve left undone that you ought to have done, all the work, tasks, jobs, relationships – everything you ought to finish but have left unfinished… and what it all does is builds insidiously up and harms you.’

‘Oh,’ I said blithely, ‘I don’t have any of that stuff.’

‘I bet you do,’ said Richard, perhaps a trifle needled by my smugness. ‘If you cast about, I know you’ll find a whole load of unfinished business…’

‘Maybe,’ I said, thinking about it a bit. ‘There’s about eighteen months of unanswered correspondence, e-mails and paperwork… does that count?’

‘Of course it counts. And I bet you’ll find that that’s just the tip of the iceberg – and it’s probably affecting your health too.’

My initial instinct was to dismiss all this as the codswallop it so patently was, but even so I cast about a bit in the darker recesses of my mind. As it happens I was suffering at the time from a rather painful infection that affected one of those parts of the body about which one prefers not to speak. The limb in question was becoming increasingly inflamed, even to the extent of making it rather painful to walk. Ana, the Wife, was very understanding about it and seemed to accept my explanation that the condition had been caused by some wind-blown particle – which indeed it had. But perhaps Richard was right… maybe the distressing condition that was afflicting me had been brought about by the callous and sloppy attitude I have to my correspondence heap, which was on the verge of reaching critical mass. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with this concept: when a correspondence heap goes critical, you toss the whole lot in the bin and start again with a clean slate.)

When Richard came back from his men’s group I owned up, and presented him with a long list of unfinished business.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘We’re moving. Now you’ve acknowledged this lamentable state of affairs we’re halfway there. Next you’ve got to do something about it. You must promise me that by the next time we see one another… which by my calculations should be June the eighth – you must have sorted out all your backlog of unfinished business, especially what will by then be two years of unanswered letters.’

I agreed to this draconian solution in the hope that it might revive the sagging fortunes of my poor organ. Fortunately though, on June the seventh the correspondence heap went critical and I was able to tell Richard with a clear conscience, that I had dealt with it.

You see what I’m driving at?  Toodle pipp

oooOOOooo


Hay Festival in Segovia

At last, a new event… The Hay Festival does its thing in the lovely city of Segovia at the end of September. All sorts of writers, artists, musicians – amongst whom this year the formidable and admirable Baltasar Garzón – will be gathering there. Somewhere in the programme will be me; in fact I’m doing two gigs, the first with my friend and travelling companion, Michael Jacobs. Michael and I will be horsing around with Pepa Fernández, whose weekend radio programme on RNE 1, No Es un Día Cualquiera, we have occasionally graced with our presence. That’s at 5:00 on Thursday the 23rd. And then, at 8:00 on Sunday the 26th, I shall be strutting my stuff yet again. I’m on my own this time… a bit of hubris here perhaps, but I was feeling cocky and confident when they asked me, and now, as the day approaches, I’m wondering what on earth I’m going to talk about for forty five minutes. Something may turn up. Of course the whole thing will be in spanish, which will keep me on my toes… but some poor unsung wretch, cloistered in a dark booth will be translating the whole thing simultaneously into english. Rather them than me. See you there”


LAS CHIMENEAS, RESTAURANT REVIEW

LAS CHIMENEAS, Restaurant review

LAS CHIMENEAS 300x133 LAS CHIMENEAS, RESTAURANT REVIEW

THE DINING ROOM

How far, indeed, would you go for a good feed? Mairena might seem a long way… but there’s ways and ways, and the narrow road that curls through the beautiful eastern Alpujarra, into and out of rocky barrancos, through groves of poplars and chestnuts, and villages with the smell of woodsmoke and roast pig… well the road itself puts you in the mood for good gastronomy. Figs you pass and pomegranates and pigs, walnuts and vines, almonds and olives and oranges and persimmons, and the sweet red pero or high mountain apple. Flocks of sweet scented goats, and sheep that smell of warm wool and rosemary, consider you as you go. Rabbits scuttle into the scrub and partridge clatter away down the hill. In the huertos of the villages, potatoes, onions and beans, with a supporting cast of peppers, tomatoes and aubergines, all eager for the pot, wonder at your passing.

By the time you get to Mairena you can think of nothing but what you’re going to eat… and all this multiplied by a factor of a hundred if you’re on foot. In the southwest corner of the square is RESTAURANTE LAS CHIMENEAS…. This is what you’ve come for. Step across the threshold and into a room washed with air and light (if it happens to be lunchtime), for the drop from the balcony, with its view across the hills of the eastern Alpujarra to the sea, gives a magical impression of openness and altitude. In the evening you have the sunset to the west, and later, from outside on the terrace, the typical, unforgettable stars of the Alpujarra.

My friend and confederate in these expeditions said she liked the look of the place, which boded well. I agreed with her: the atmosphere was right; there was nothing stuffy about it; you didn’t feel you had to keep your voice down or your tie on, and yet there were glimmering glasses on the table, nice napery, fresh flowers, and all the other unaccountably essential concomitants of a memorable meal.

And then came the food… and I got to taste pretty much everything, as, by the time we sat down, we were on dining terms with everybody in the place. Las Chimeneas is like that, and it’s a nice quality in a place: you can be intimate in a corner if you’ve a mind, or get it on with all the other diners. We were eight in the end, including a man who, well gone with the wine, regaled us with some fine trumpet playing…  not the most obvious accompaniment to a meal, but he was damn good. Amongst other things he played ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’… which reminds me: the food…

My notes say – ‘spinach pancake with stuff’. That is what I had; it doesn’t sound much, does it? Sometimes, unaccountably, you order a thing and you don’t know why you did. But anyway, there it was; some deep down puritanical part of me decided, against my better judgement, that spinach pancake with stuff was what it would be. (I think I might have made some sort of a mistake here, the consequence of being unable to read my own writing, as it seems unlikely that the dish would have been described thus on the menu). But blow me down if it wasn’t divine… the pancake was light and airy, but not without some bite; the spinach was creamy and full of the flavour of autumn countryside. As for the stuff, well it was terrific… some sort of cheese, unless I’m much mistaken, but just right to give you the authentic pleasure of cheese without swamping the flavour and texture of the spinach.

It didn’t take me long to get through this dish. By this time, though, relations around the table were so good that nobody seemed averse to giving me a bite of their own first course. This, in part, was due to the effects of the copious libations of extremely good wine – from Ugijar, oddly enough – about which more later).

The trumpeter’s willowy wife offered me a spoon of her ajo blanco. This miraculous combination of garlic, almonds, olive oil, and the water of a clear mountain spring, was as good as it gets. It’s easy to louse this simple dish up – too thin or too thick; too garlicky or too oily… but Sole, who runs the show here from the kitchen, has the trick of getting it just right.

The trumpeter himself, busy emptying saliva from the valve of his instrument, was happy to hand over most of his tomato and roast pepper soup: a deep rich red flavour of late summer enhanced by some pounded sofrito, and the stock of a proper chicken, or more likely a cock, and glorified, as it ought to be, by a handful of basil… nor too greasy nor too thin.

My confederate and companion went – unwisely as I thought – for the goat’s cheese salad. She always orders this… but I was wrong: the cheese was local and full of character, the leaves crisp, fresh and flavourful. She shovelled the whole lot away and left not a leaf for me.

Next, as Nigel launched into ‘My Blue Heaven’, I addressed myself to the goat stew. Now again, you’d think this sounded pretty unappetising, and once again I even doubted myself a little. You get some pretty ordinary goat here in the Alpujarra, and some pretty ordinary ways of messing it up, too. To me the only real way to serve up a choto is roast, and then… although I hesitate to say it, it can be better than lamb. But this stew was classy: the chunks of goat – for it was chunks, rather than artlessly axed bones, which I thought was a nice, if untraditional, touch – were moist and tender and tasted of goat, in the nicest possible way. And the flavour of goat was complemented with rosemary (the first time I have encountered the blessed rosemary in a dish in the Alpujarra) and a richly flavoured tomato sauce thickened with ground almonds. To accompany the goat was a little dish of pisto and papas a lo pobre, beautifully done.

The enchanting wife of the trumpeter went for the rabbit stew, and  allowed me to plunge my spoon in for a taste. The sauce, again thickened with almonds as it should be, was an exquisitely subtle concoction of carrots and setas. Rabbit can be dry, but Sole had employed all her arts to ensure that it wasn’t.

My companion had the fish dish… I have always tended to steer clear of fish in the mountains; it doesn’t somehow seem appropriate, and Mairena lies a thousand metres above the level of the sea. However, insofar as I could gather from her mumbled replies to my questioning, the cazón with a coriander sauce lacked nothing.

Having dealt with the spinach and the goat, it had to be the chocolate mousse. I am a sucker for chocolate mousse, and I was not disappointed: the flavour was deep and dark and chocolaty, and the thing didn’t sit on the bottom of your stomach like a stone.

Others went for the baked fruit salad, which I deemed inadvisable, but by all accounts it was much better than it sounded. Nigel had by this time done with the trumpet, and addressed himself to the Tarta Calatrava. this, I think, is an invention of Sole’s… but I feel unable to pronounce upon it, as it has a flan-like consistency, and I am a person who can hardly bear to be in the same room as a flan.

All in all it was a more than memorable meal. People particularly like to read restaurant reviews where the reviewer slags off the restaurant in a humorous way. It’s true of course that a bit of bile makes for good reading… but unfortunately I cannot summon up the merest drop of bile to describe Las Chimeneas.

The service was slick, friendly and just the right touch of sexy and fun. The wines, white and red, came from vineyards visible from Mairena… and they were outstanding. I didn’t know the Alpujarra produced wines like these. And Soledad, in the kitchen, is a phenomenon… a real dyed in the wool alpujarreña, artful and skilled with the traditional ways, but not above being a little influenced by fancy foreign ideas from outside the Alpujarra. She experiments constantly, and the menu changes daily.

And here’s the real beauty of Las Chimeneas: if, as I did, you come out of there and find that your companion/driver has contrived to become completely legless, you can always stay the night. The rooms are beautiful, with candles, wood stoves and sumptuous linen.

Now you’d think that dining in a place like this would set you back at least an arm and a leg… but no: it’s reasonably priced, too.

 


HAY IN SEGOVIA

chris hay blog 4 HAY IN SEGOVIA

The Man on stage in San Juan de los Caballeros

‘One starts as a poet and ends up as a travelling salesman. That is the tragedy of the writer.’ (Halldor Laxness)
On that note I’m just back from the Hay Literary Festival in Segovia. Halldor Laxness was right: it’s no longer enough just to sit down and write your book; you’ve got to get out there and strut your stuff with it, too. Now to the classier sort of writer this is obviously a nightmare. The writer tends to be on the timid side and inclined rather to the nerdish, the sort of chap who would much rather sit in a corner with a good book and a mug of Horlicks… or, for a wild night in, a glass of Sanatogen Tonic Wine. (You remember surely? ‘Fortifies the over forties’.)
There is another sort of writer though, the obnoxious prima-donna type who cannot wait to get out on the road, drink a little too much wine and make a lot of noise in front of the public. ‘Empty vessels make the most noise.’ I don’t like those kill-joy sayings… but you have to admit that there’s a lot of truth in them. Anyway, to cut to the chase: I fear I may be one of these. There’s nothing I like better than to get up on a stage and harangue my public. It keeps me on my toes and stops me getting too fusty and staid.
I think I am on record as saying that the only reason for writing a book is to have a good launch party – a thing oddly enough that no publisher seems willing to stump up for; you have to fork out yourself. Well, another good reason to write a book is to get invited to Hay on Wye, or wherever the festival happens to be having its current manifestation. I launched all four of my books at Hay in Wales, and then the Spanish versions in Granada and Segovia.
Granada doesn’t seem to be happening any more, but Segovia is wonderful. It’s the most beautiful city, set in the lovely countryside of Castilla y León. The Roman aqueduct is one of the most extraordinary things you will ever see in your life, and the food – largely pig and lamb, but they do a nice line in beans for the vegetarians – is worth the journey in itself. I don’t need to tell you all about Segovia; you can look it up in an encyclopaedia… but if you do go there, I recommend you eat at Narizotas – it means ‘big-nose’ – and that’s not because I have any vested interest at all in the place, but because I figure that if you have done me the kindness of reading this far into my first blog, then you deserve a good feed. And also, although they hardly need the publicity, it’s nice to see a thing done really superbly: the food, the wines, the ambience, the décor, the staff… it’s all just too good to miss.
To break up this turgid slab of text here’s a photo of me doing my thing in Segovia. Next week – assuming that nothing more interesting happens in the meantime –  I’ll tell you what I was droning on about.
Toodle pip