27 October 2013

Ten reasons to love winter

Following the Guardian's recent ludicrous, ten reasons to love winter, here are my ten reasons to enjoy winter... in Spain.

Bills, bills, bills

In Spain, your heating costs will be half that of those in the UK. Although there may be a cold night or two, it's pretty unlikely the mercury will plummet to anything to get you worried about your gas bill.


There isn't really a word in Spanish for "to drizzle" (apart from when coating a lemon cake), so Spain's suicide rate is right down, so that’s a bonus.

Christmas decks

The Spanish love a fiesta and of course Christmas is up there with the main party days of the year. But strangely perhaps to us, Spanish people don’t really go in for the tacky overloaded Christmas tree or the Rudolph on the roof scenario. A more modest checking of halls is in order. A bit more restrained and still festive.

The white stuff

Snow. There won't be any. Not here, anyway. I love snow, but only when it's really cold (minus 10 is about perfect) and when I'm wrapped up warm. In Almeria, you don't really need to worry about snow. If of course you do want it, you can drive with the other thousands of snow-obsessed to a huge mountain near Granada.

Have a break

With Spain's on-going love of a saint or two, there are more public holidays in catholic countries than in the UK or anywhere north of the Alps. If Christmas and New Year aren't enough, fear not, December has more bank holidays in store when you can heartily celebrate the constitution, Mary and other religious figures. If you're lucky and you get a puente (holiday on a Thursday and a Tuesday) then why not take off the in between days and have six days off!

Sun, sun, sun

Whereas in Britain many people hope for a white Christmas and they get a grey one, here, we hope for a sunny one, and we get a sunny one. Simple as that.

Sherry and a mince pie, anyone?

The festive time of year invariably means ridiculous amount of festive drinking - with friends one day, colleagues the next, family the next day, and those friendly neighbours the next. Exhausted. It's great to socialise and be festive, but if you're having to sort out your diary in September to squeeze all these events in, then maybe you have a drink problem. In Spain, there is definitely much less forced merriment. Come if you want, arrive late, even better.

Twelve divided by four

Officially winter only lasts three months in Spain. This, of course, makes sense as there are 4 seasons and only 12 months. Of course, anyone non-Spanish might find it strange to think of winter as only being December, January and February. With the heating on full blast from October to April, northern Europeans may rightly feel hard done by. By March 1st everyone here is saying "ya es primavera!" It's already Spring!


When the rest of Europe has sunk beneath a blanket of white or slushy grey, our valley and much of Spain has turned a delicate pinky white, with almond blossom. The depths of winter bring flowers to Spain, rather than sleet.

More stuffing?

If you want a traditional British Christmas roast, you can. Eating sage and onion stuffing may appear odd to a Spaniard, but if that's what you're craving, get down the beach to one of the English bars and Dave'll do you the best Roast on the Coast.

25 October 2013

a burst of colour

The other day we went out and bought two big, very bright bougainvillea bushes. To add a burst of colour at the entrance to the house. They are beautiful and certainly welcome you with an impressive flutter of colour. Who doesn’t love bougainvillea? They are stereotypically mediterranean and for me, they are typically Spanish. They can, of course, also be found anywhere where the climate permits, hence the Swiss city of Locarno proudly showing off its stunning collection with which they really want to say, “Hurrah, we have a fantastic climate here despite being in the Alps!” Fair enough.

That’s just it, bougainvillea is not a quiet background kinda plant, it’s all showy and “look at me! look at me!”, maybe even boisterous. In fact, we could go as far as say, it’s quite Spanish. Its long tentacle-like branches waving demonstratively in the air, waving the brightest colours you’ve ever seen, almost fake-looking they are so bright. It’s almost fluorescent, very loud and uncontrollable and strangely moody - you get too near and it’ll prick you, for behind that vivacious front is a spikey stem just waiting to attack. Who doesn’t love a bougainvillea?

It turns out our pool man doesn’t. Despite the beauty of the faux flowers, they are indeed a little too temperamental for Malcolm. Unfortunately, the pool is right in front of the house, welcoming people as they arrive, much as the bougainvillea will be unless Malcolm gets his way. I saw him cursing the new arrivals through his teeth this morning. More flowers in the skimmers. It’s true, the flowers and the leaves can go astray, right in to the pool, ready to be fished out by the skimmers. That’s what they are for, the skimmers. Admittedly, there are times of year when a light breeze will de-flower, so to speak, half a bush. But the good old bougainvillea just keeps on flowering, that’s what it’s there for. I’ll plant them while he’s not looking.

23 October 2013

olive bowls and chicken wire

In our local town of Huércal-Overa, if you need to buy something that is small enough to fit in your house, but not edible, alive or booze related, then you go to “Tapia”. An Almerían institution, “Ferretería Tapia”. No, they don’t sell ferrets, as they’re generally classed as “alive”. Hence, no ferrets, sorry. I suppose we’d call it an “ironmonger’s”, not that I’ve ever said, “Oh, I’m just off to the ironmonger’s, back in a minute”. And in these computer-dominated days, it somehow feels wrong calling it a hardware shop. In any case, “Tapia” in Huércal-Overa has everything you need, everything you didn’t know you needed and more.

I do love to browse in shops, especially foreign shops (Asda and WHSmiths fall neatly in to this category for me nowadays), but browsing in Tapia could literally take up your whole day. From floor to ceiling, from wall to wall, the place is crammed with things. I say things in italics as half of the things for sale, I have no idea what they are, which strangely makes me want to look at them, maybe even buy one. But no, I don’t need a plough head, or its accompanying connector (although I am tempted), as I don’t have a plough. Maybe I should get one.

Tapia is never empty of people either. Normally, there are at least four or so sunburnt expat couples looking confused in its aisles, pondering over a brown ceramic olive bowl or two. They always look quite nervous, avoiding eye contact in case one of the five shop assistants invites them to divulge what they really came in for. And they don’t even know the name of it in English, let alone Spanish. It’s a thing for …. (hand gestures).

It always amazes me why they have five people working the shop floor (and rarely by the till!). Talk about full employment! But then when you consider how disorganised the place is, you realise you probably do need their help. The last time I ventured to Tapia, and I’ve pondered over many an olive bowl in my time, I was first greeted by one of the people working there, in a very friendly, “hi, how are you doing, mate” way, which was very endearing, considering I hadn’t actually been there for about a year. I was then politely asked if I needed help. I thanked the young man and said, “I’m just looking around to start with (mate)”. Up and down each aisle I went. Plough heads next to mouse traps next to olive bowls next to insecticide next to coffee machines next to paella dishes next to screws next to garden spades. You get the idea. I love to browse, but it was getting the better of me. Where are the hoover bags? They must have them. They have everything. I gave in and asked. Off he went, skidding round the corner to the hoover bag selection. Of course, of course, next to the chicken wire. Silly me. I love Tapia. I love its random non-Germanic ordered chaos. Juan knows exactly where everything is. He put it there.

I then thought I’d catch him out. “Great, thanks, and I also need a new wheel for a wheelbarrow”. Two aisles down next to the light bulbs, and in a spin of a wheel we were there. “Aaah, no, not those wheels, I need a hard wheel, not an inflatable one”. Too many spikey things out in the desert. And before you could say, “ferretería”, he said, “ven conmigo” and we were heading right for the curtain material and… hard, non-inflatable wheels for wheelbarrows. I let out a chuckle. I think he understood. “OK, I admit, I do need your help”. Only because you’ve hidden everything like an obsessive-compulsive ironmonger. No idea why they weren’t stored or displayed next to, or dare I say, with the other wheelbarrow wheels. That would be madness and, lets face it, if it were that easy, he might be without a job and we wouldn’t have had that personal customer moment that is slightly more fulfilling than “thank you, have a nice day” at Lidl. I thanked him, paid and left, passing Joan and Fred by the olive bowls. There are so many to choose from, it’s true.

20 October 2013

Bunny Stew

Yesterday, I cooked a rabbit. I’d never cooked rabbit before, but had always liked it. The last time I had rabbit was in Soller in Mallorca, the famous "rabbit with onions", or to give it its Catalan name “conill amb ceba”. This is basically slowly stewed lumps of rabbit in an onion sauce with, of course, a hint of garlic. I love Spanish, and Catalan food for its sheer simplicity. With friends coming round for dinner, this was my chance to delight with simple Spanish food, and so I thought I’d have a go at conill amb ceba. The fact that one of our guests was half Greek and according to the interweb the Greeks love a bit of rabbit, and our other guest was half Catalan, there was a certain amount of risk in choosing this as the evening’s dish. Between them they could probably write a thesis on how to cook small furry animals. I decided to risk it, so off we popped to Mercadona.

Spookily enough, rabbit was on special at the meat counter. So when there was only one pack of pre-chopped rabbit to be found in the display fridge, and so not enough really to feed four, the smiley lady with blooded hands was keen to help bulk up my rabbit purchase with a fresh semi-hacked up bunny. I didn’t want that much more and so asked if I could have half. She grabbed a rabbit by the throat and dangled it in front of me. I said, no, I just want half, the bottom half, with no head please. She then told me, this was a half, at which point I realised the carcass she was holding up was indeed half a rabbit but cut lengthways. Once I'd recovered from my internal fainting and general squeamishnes, I asked if she could just cut the head off. No, was the answer as she chuckled a little and Mr Rabbit eyed me with the one eye. There was to be no decapitation in this shop today. We bought the beast and trundled off home.

Having scoured the web for recipes and having found hundreds of slightly different variations, I decided to cook the part that all the recipes seemed to have. The basic ingredients being rabbit, onion, garlic and wine. Simple. Although tempted to drink the wine before approaching the beheading, I didn't. I was brave (well, nearly sick actually - I don't mind eating it, but don't want to behead it - silly really, I know).

Everyone was right. It was incredibly easy to cook and was indeed very tasty and succulent, like most Spanish food. No fancy foody blah blah. No pretentions, just honest simple food. Even our Greek/Catalan couple agreed. So all were contented, apart from the rabbit.

Here's the recipe:

decapitate your rabbit (maybe you're meant to use this bit as well, I obviously didn't)
chop it up in to hunks

fry in olive oil until brown and remove from the pan


add 3 sliced onions and 6 garlic cloves (some chopped, some whole)



add a sprinkling of paprika (I used smoked paprika) and a bay leaf or two
fry until translucent


put rabbit back in pan cover with white wine and a dash of water


cover and cook for at least 3 hours on a very low heat

I added a couple of raisins and a pinch of cinnamon to give some extra sweetness
salt and pepper to taste

¡que aproveche!

 the finished dish

16 October 2013

Grandes Cambios

The weather is a funny thing in Spain. Every day there is a ten minute section of the evening news dedicated to this very subject. That is nearly as much time as is spent on the joys of handball, Rafa Nadal and La Liga. Sometimes, there’s even a follow-on programme that gives a more detailed forecast or goes on to explain certain curious meteorlogical happenings. If the British are obsessed by the weather, in Spain people are obsessed by the weather and Rafa Nadal.

The other night, the weatherman rattled off at break-neck speed a list of maximum and minimum temperatures to be expected the following day. Even if I had been able to follow his machine-gun Spanish completely, I wasn't too concerned as all I could see was 20s and 30s on the map of Spain. Then, as if breaking some dreadful news to a distressed relative, he paused for breath and pointed to somewhere north of Madrid, "but in this area it’s going to be cold"....the word "frio" was now ringing in my ears.... "with a maximum of 19 degrees". Excuse me? I was expecting a chilly 6 or 4, not 19. It's certainly all relative.

The weatherman proceeded to warn us of big changes ahead - "grandes cambios". Oh here we go, autumn is round the corner. If there were any leaves left on the parched trees in our valley, they would surely be falling soon. Grandes cambios were on their way. "And in Almeria and Murcia we can expect temperatures reaching only 28 degrees and there is a chance of a cloud, but otherwise full sun." As my friends in the UK would say "scorchio". I never saw the Fast Show, so just thought it was a bit of an insider’s joke whenever someone shouted it out mid conversation. Anyway, the much-promised "grandes cambios" were to be a temperature plummet of two degrees and maybe a cloud. I can live with that. Just as long as the day after tomorrow isn't followed by more "grandes cambios" of the same magnitude, because even I know that 2 plus 2 equals 4, and after all, autumn is a slippery slope on the temperature front. Not here, though. "And the day after tomorrow temperatures will recover". I love the use of the word "recover". I hope the temperatures are feeling better soon. Poor things. So, the long and short of it is, I don't actually need to don my autumn flip-flops just yet.

Obviously, the Spanish media are however convinced that the inevitable decline of autumn is already upon us. The next feature on the evening news was all about how to prepare your wardrobe for winter. Apparently, you can even hire someone to come round and help you with the mammoth task of packing up all those summer tops and shorts. We are then entertained with five minutes of footage showing people vacuum-pack their "summer clothes"  and then hang up their "autumn clothes" in the now empty wardrobe. The end result being a wardrobe full of the same type of clothes. The best thing is to vacuum pack them or in general use plastic storage as it keeps the dust out. Thanks for your help. Apparently, that way, in the spring, I can get my clothes back out of their wraps and they won't even be creased. It's amazing. The whole feature resembled a QVC classic.

Yes, autumn is round the corner. Almeria being the last corner of Spain for a lot of things, including grandes cambios in the weather. Still, the word “drizzle” rarely features in a Spanish weather report, so all is good. Actually, I’m not actually all that keen on the word “autumn” to be honest. Right, I'm off for a swim.

12 October 2013

Colon Day

In honour of it being National Day of Spain, I am today, largely being Spanish. I have indeed already dissed the butter in favour of rubbing garlic on my toast. I have already drunk a bonbon (the most ludicrously strong espresso you can make brought down a notch by adding über-sweetened condensed milk). I have even sat in the shade. Yes, today, I’m going to be Spanish.

Of course, there are typical things that are “Spanish”, the same way in old Inglaterra we might drink a nice cup of tea at a particular time of day or drink flat beer until we’re sick in the street. It’s only normal to build a little garlic-infused ritual into daily life. Each nation has its own way of feeling at home. So, in honour of Columbus, or Colon to his Spanish friends, I might even go to bed after lunch.

If today is National Day of Spain and I am partaking fully in the event, yesterday was National Go To The Supermarket Day. I also partook of this spectacle, albeit unknowingly until I got there. I thought “a couple of prawns for the weekend” (Sir?), but when the wave of chaos struck me as I came out of the lift from the calm and dank underground car park, I knew the prawns would have to wait until mañana. A metaphorical mañana, of course, as you’ve got no chance of a gamba on a Sunday, lets face it.

Everyone in the town below five foot and with a perm seemed to be shopping at exactly the same time as I arrived. Gossip everywhere, no one buying anything, everyone just gossiping. The crush at the fish counter with the señoras almost clambering on the ice-strewn racks even warranted a “step back ladies” from the young shop assistant behind the counter nonchalantly gutting some mackerel. The mackerel did look good, lovely colours, but I was not letting myself be allured by a glamorous fish. I grabbed my slab of frozen swordfish and I was outta there, like a bull in a fish shop.

In fact, maybe later, say around midnight, I’ll go out for some prawns, play a fruit machine and throw prawn heads on the floor of the bar. Like you do. When in Spain.

11 October 2013

¡ Vamos a España !

So, here I am back in the land of paella, sangria and mañana. A land of incredible contrasts, illogical goings-on, blazing sun, proud puffed out chests and ex-pats.

I first moved to Spain years ago straight after graduating in the UK in linguistics with German and Swedish. I’d had enough of Central European/Nordic organisation and precision. I needed to experience something a bit livelier than a debate about the ecological impact of a new car park in some town in the Black Forest. What I needed was the much-hyped, real hispanic passion. From old ladies dressed to the nines while out shopping in a supermarket seemingly arguing over a triviality (normally the price of patatas) to crazy take-your-life-in-your-own-hands festivals involving much wine, tomatoes and fancy dancing. I had decided this was exactly what I needed rather than a sensible teutonic office job. Madrid was on the prescription and it did the trick.

I loved, and still do, Spain, and in particular Madrid, with all its ridiculous lack of reason and lateness. I’ve missed mashed up tomato smeared on toast for breakfast, gallons of olive oil poured on the same pre-toasted bread, sunbathing at five in the evening, eating too much at lunchtime and drinking horchata through a straw. I’ve missed downing cheap chilled red wine at lunch, because you can and it’s included in the price anyway. I’ve missed being able to park badly and get away with it. I’ve missed that feeling you get when for a split second you’re not sure if you’re inside or out, when strolling around a Spanish city at night. It’s good to be back.

My exaggerated, insomniac days in Madrid are however a distant, and yet fond, memory. No, now I’m not living over the road from Plaza Major, above the rather strongly smelling deep-fried calamari sandwich bar. No, I’m up a dried up valley in rural Almeria. Apparently, the sunniest part of Spain (sounds good) and basically the place where Andalucia runs out. I’ve got older, as Spain has too, and now the bright lights and never-ending parties of the capital have been replaced by a rural setting so quiet you can hear your own ears. I bought and did up this farmhouse over ten years ago, and so I’m not exactly new to the area, but having not been here for quite a while and that quite-a-while having been spent in Germany (I gave in to its punctual charms - who could resist!), I wonder what delights are in store for me. Hasta pronto.