Do Anchovies Grow Up To Be Sardines?

1-IMG_6367Stand on the small town beach in L’Escala on the Costa Brava at dawn, close your eyes and try to visualise the scene a century ago. A procession of white-painted, wooden-hulled anchovy boats makes its way round the point, their triangular lateen sails gracefully inclined as they tack towards the beach. A team of strong young men stands ready to hoist the ropes over their shoulders and heave the boats up the sand – to this day the inhabitants of L’Escala are jokingly referred to as esquenapelats, their backs (esquenas) raw (pelats) from the rubbing of the ropes.

Fast forward to 2015 and though the boats have changed – and much else along the Costa Brava – L’Escala is still defined by its anchovies. Nowadays there’s a swanky new harbour round the bay at La Clota and the town beach is left to the sunseekers and bathers.

To get a feel for today’s anchovy fishing scene, you don’t need to be up at dawn: 8 o’clock is early enough. The boats, diesel-powered nowadays, chug into the harbour after a night out at sea. We join a number of others waiting expectantly on the quayside: boat owners, fish wholesalers, anchovy processors, the odd chef, some little old ladies armed with plastic bags, and a handful of the simply curious. A fork-lift truck bustles about, politely tooting its horn to clear a path through to the newly docked boats.

anchovies

anchovies, from http://www.popsugar.com

The shallow wooden trays with the name L’Escala proudly emblazoned on the sides are tightly packed with gleaming, pop-eyed, silvery-blue fish barely the length of my little finger and layered with chipped ice. One by one the trays are carefully stacked up on pallets – a steady pair of arms is needed for the unloading and the stacking, as any fish that fall to the ground are fair game for gleaners. Inevitably a few go skittering onto the quay, and we observe a brief, fairly amicable skirmish as an elderly lady and an equally elderly gentleman snatch up the wayward anchovies and stow them in their plastic bags.

Some of the anchovies are destined to be flash-fried or grilled and served with lemon wedges, but most go to be salted. Some families still do this process at home, either to sell or for private consumption, but the bulk of the catch is salted by small, family-owned processors like Callol I Serrats, in the business since 1847. Senor Callol is looking glum when I visit him at the factory on the outskirts of town – he was on the  quayside this morning too, but the anchovies were too small. In order to make it worthwhile, he needs at least 40 fish to a kilo; this morning there were more like 50 to the kilo, too small and fiddly to bother with. (Asked if an anchovy grows up to be a sardine, he grins and says no, they’re two different fish – see an explanation here.) As the season runs only from May to the end of September, he needs to be sure that he takes in enough provisions to see him through the whole year.

The fish are cleaned and beheaded by a nimble-fingered team of 6 to 8 women and layered with sea salt in big wooden casks. There they stay, without refrigeration, for between three and six months. At the height of summer, the ripening process goes very fast; early and late in the season the process takes a little longer. Then the anchovies are either filleted or left whole. Fillets are painstakingly lined up vertically in glass jars, while the whole fish are laid head to head horizontally and packed in tightly till the jar is full.

What, if anything, has changed since 1847? Very little, observes Señor Callol, pointing to the faded sepia photographs on the wall showing the women working in the old factory in town, going through just the same motions. And what about modern preservatives, E numbers and the like? He looks a little pained. All you need is fresh fish, good salt, careful handling and scrupulous hygiene, and the fish will keep in good order for up to a year. It’s a classic, artisanal product, which has been made in the same way for centuries.

The classic Catalan way is to rub slices of crusty bread with a halved tomato and some garlic, lay the anchovy fillets on top and drizzle with fruity olive oil. Or press the fillets into service to liven up an escalivada, that savoury Catalan mixture of peppers, aubergines and tomatoes, or to add a piquant touch to your next batch of lemony, garlicky hummus, slathered on toasted ciabatta or Arab bread.

seagazing

[A version of this article originally appeared in FT Weekend, one of five included in my shortlisted entry for a GFW Food Journalist of the Year Award]

Forget Magaluf…find the real Mallorca (and its wines)

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Mention Mallorca today and most people run shrieking for the nearest exit, haunted by visions of Sixties-built high-rise hotels, hen/stag parties, pubs and discos, Bratwurst, Full English Breakfasts and beaches packed with hordes of glistening northern Europeans flushed pink in the Mediterranean sun.

In truth there are two Mallorcas. One of them – the packaged version – seldom strays far from the coast. The other, more loosely wrapped, is to be found inland. And the twain, mostly, don’t meet (hooray).

1-088-IMG_9217This diminutive smudge of an island – about one quarter the size of Yorkshire with a population of around 800,000 people – receives around 6 million tourists each year. Most of these do indeed settle for the beach. Others head for the interior, where they discover a hushed world of dusty, golden stone villages, silvery olive groves and almond and apricot orchards bounded by dry stone walls and carpeted with wild flowers, medieval monasteries and churches, laidback hideaway hotels and casas rurales.

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Vineyards of Bodegues Ribas with the Serra de Tramuntana as backdrop

 

To the north of the island, rearing up like jagged vertebrae from southwest to northeast are the mountains of the Serra de Tramuntana, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. At their feet and sprawling south into the plain are the vineyards.

Home-grown wines, in Mallorca? Until ten years ago – give it fifteen at the most – few visitors to the island were even aware of them and wouldn’t have bothered to seek them out whilst holidaying here (“I’ll have the Rioja”). As for visiting wineries to get to know them in situ, forget it.

Breakfast on the terrace at Finca Es Castell

Breakfast on the terrace at Finca Es Castell

But that’s all changing. James Hiscock, who hosted me at his two super-stylish country retreats deep in the Serra de Tramuntana (Finca Es Castell and Son Ametler) where the only noises off are birdsong and the tinny tinkling of sheep bells grazing beneath olive trees, confirms there’s been “a significant evolution of producers, varietals and wines over the last ten years”, and rejoices in the fact that he can now offer great local wines to guests.

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Palma’s soaring cathedral

But hang on a bit. we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Unless you’re arriving on the island under sail and mooring off Puerto Portals, the chances are your trip will start in Palma. Give the town a little consideration – a bit like the wines, it has enjoyed an impressive makeover in recent years. The cathedral, a soaring, golden Gothic delight with its famous flying buttresses akimbo, stands guard facing the sea. Just behind is a rabbit warren of streets pullulating with quirky shops, hole-in-the-wall wine and tapas bars, restaurants and exquisite patrician palacios that have recently evolved from dilapidated family homes to chic town hotels. 1-016-IMG_9142

One such is Can Alomar, a newly opened 16-room boutique hotel in a superbly restored 19th-century palace in the heart of Palma’s old town, whose terrace restaurant overlooking the elegant Passeig del Born (pictured right) dishes up gorgeous Japanese-Peruvian fusion food.

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Old bush vines in flower, Bodegues Ribas

Hardly have you exited Palma onto the motorway heading northeast and you’re already in the vineyards. You can embark on a winery tour almost anywhere – a plus point here is that distances are small and most bodegas within spitting distance of one another. A good start would be Bodegues Ribas in Consell, a grand old estate, the oldest on the island, established in 1711 and still owned and run by the Ribas family. They have made a point of nurturing their indigenous vines, including 60 year-old Premsal and Manto Negro rootstocks, and have rescued the almost extinct (and near-unpronounceable) Gorgollasa. Try the fragrant house white based on Premsal and a little Viognier, or Ribas negre (red) where the lightly pigmented Manto Negro contributes its velvety, red fruit aromas to an elegant blend stiffened by Syrah and Merlot.

a selection of Macia Batle wines

a selection of Macia Batle wines

Next up is Santa María del Camí, in the heart of DO Binissalem, one of the island’s two DOs (the other is DO Pla y Llevant, to the south). A good landmark is the little red train, which – unless on its rounds of the vineyards – will be parked outside Macià Batle, a large bodega  founded in 1856 with a new winery built in 1996. There’s always a happy throng of fellow tasters in the shop and out in the courtyard quaffing Macia Batle blanc, a cheerful combination of local Premsal Blanc, Chardonnay and a little Moscatell, or one of the barrique-aged range of reds which blend the indigenous Manto Negro with Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot.

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Also in Santa María, and about a tenth of the size with just 10 hectares, is Bodega Ramanyà, a new kid on the block established only in 2003. Here, self-effacing, self-taught Toni Ramanyà makes four wines, including – unusually for Mallorca – two cavas, both based on Manto Negro, one pink and the other a blanc de noirs. A visit takes in Ramanyá’s treasured collection of rural artefacts, including a perfectly restored, bone-shaking 19th-century horse-drawn carriage, of the kind described by George Sand in her dyspeptic memoir Winter in Majorca.

1-091-IMG_9220A touch north of Santa María, on the scenic road from Alaró to Lloseta with the twin peaks of Alaró in the background, is Castell Miquel, a bijou castle built in the ’60s for a sister-in-law of Franco. Now German-owned, the estate’s terraces and dry stone walls have been meticulously restored and planted with international varieties. There’s a modest charge for tastings, deducted from your purchases, which would do well to include the supple Shiraz Stairway to Heaven, named after the steep ‘staircase’ of vineyards above and below the castle.

Syrah vine in bloom, Vinyes Mortitx, photo credit Julie Benz

Another dramatic drive (factor in 19 hairpin bends) – and a great day out from either Finca Es Castell or Son Ametler – takes you up to the monastery of Lluc, a pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages. Beware the cyclists, for whom this is a well-worn route, and try not to be distracted by the jagged limestone cliffs, vertiginous drops and glimpses of circling eagles and vultures.  Afterwards you can continue the climb and look in on Vinyes Mortitx, the highest vineyard on the island with 15 hectares of Malvasia, Riesling, Chardonnay and Moscatell, plus Monastrell, Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot. They make a pretty, blush-pink rosé from Monastrell, Merlot and Cabernet, fine for summer drinking. For the cooler months, their Rodal Pla, a robust but tactfully oaked Syrah/Cabernet/Merlot blend, is a standout.

Another day, another landscape. “So much variety in such a small space,” marvels José Antonio de Haro, purveyor of niche wines to many of the island’s top hostelries and my guide for the day in the flatlands south of the Palma-Algaida axis, where rugged mountains and gnarled olive trees give way to wide, flat expanses of wheat interspersed with vines. Together we visit the brand-new cellar and tasting room at Bodegas Son Prim just outside Sencelles. Typical of the new generation of highly motivated wine makers, they’re appreciated for their original, value-for-money, Mediterranean-inflected wines (varietal and blended Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah with a little Manto Negro) – check out their characterful, full-bodied Merlot.

1-13-IMG_9246At Bodegas Can Majoral  in Algaida, brothers Biel and Andreu completed their conversion to organics in 2007. They are firm believers in the potential of age-old Mallorcan varieties to produce quality wines, either as single varietals (aromatic Giró Blanc, stylish Gorgollasa) or in blends (low-acid Premsal boosted by Chardonnay and Parellada or rustic Callet with Syrah and Cabernet).

1-04-IMG_9237For a parting shot, visit Bodegas Mesquida Mora in Porreres for a taste of maverick Barbara Mesquida’s lively wines. One of a handful of women wine makers on the island, she recently struck out on her own with 20ha of vines, both local and international varieties. The biodynamic approach shines through, from descriptions of her vines and wine making through to the result in the bottle. Acrollam (Mallorca, spelt backwards), a Premsal-rich blend with Chardonnay, is a deep golden, mouthfilling white while Trispol, a dense ruby red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Callet with a label showing a mosaic of decorated floor tiles typical of Mallorca, is firmly grounded in the island. [A version of this article appeared in the August 2014 issue of Decanter] For more Decanter wine travel articles, click here.

Son Ametler, a delicious hideaway near Inca

Son Ametler, a delicious hideaway near Inca

Elderflowers are having a moment – and it’s now

elder tree in flowerThe elder tree has no pretensions to grandeur. It grows wild in hedges and ditches, along the banks of streams, on the edge of motorways, in forgotten corners of farmyards and abandoned gardens, even in graveyards.

Right now, in early summer, it’s having its moment. All of a sudden, in a brief blaze of glory, this rather scruffy little tree bursts into a shower of beautiful, white, lace-like flowers, which fairly knock you back with their delicate scent. In our neighbourhood over the next few weeks, countless chefs, housewives and hobby cooks will be spotted hunting in the hedgerows, picking the blossoms (fleurs de sureau in French, Holunderblüten in German) and placing them carefully in large baskets. It’s a brief and glorious moment in the life of any dedicated forager – two or three weeks at most – and if you don’t pick the flowers by about the middle of June (around here, at any rate), they’ll be well on their way to becoming elderberries.

1-09-IMG_0543Here’s a pair of recipes that make the most of these wonderful wild and edible flowers. One is for syrup (aka cordial), which you make by infusing the fresh flowers in a sugar syrup with lemon juice. The other combines said syrup with light cream, Greek yogurt and just enough gelatine to give a lightly set panna cotta. Keep a splash of syrup for fruit salads too, or stir some into a compote of rhubarb with strawberries. And pluck a few feathers off the flowers and scatter them on top of any dessert for a knockout effect.

Hugo

Best of all, have a Hugo, far and away the best early summer aperitif, a lot less sweet and much more fun than the ubiquitous blackcurrant-based Kir: pour a little elderflower syrup in the bottom of a large wine glass, top it up with sparkling wine (Sekt in the Black Forest, Crémant in Alsace), add plenty of ice, a slice of lemon or lime and a sprig of mint et voilà.

Elderflower syrup or cordial

Makes about 4 cups (1 litre)
Ingredients
25-30 elderflower heads
4 cups (1 litre) water
1 kg sugar
Grated zest and juice of 2 untreated lemons

  • Wash the elderflowers and spin them dry in a salad spinner.
  • Place them in a large bowl.
  • Put the water, sugar and grated lemon zest in a large pan, heat gently, stirring, till the sugar is dissolved, then allow to boil for 5 minutes.
  • Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and pour the syrup over the elderflowers.
  • Let cool, then cover the bowl with clingfilm and refrigerate for 5 days.
  • Set a colander over a large bowl and strain the syrup. Discard the flowers. Strain the syrup again, this time through a muslin or fine cloth to make sure there are no impurities.
  • Pour into bottles and keep in the fridge till needed. The syrup will keep for several months (we’re still drinking our 2014 vintage).

Elderflower panna cotta with strawberry coulis

1-white choc mousseServes 6
4 sheets of gelatine
300ml whipping cream
50g sugar
finely grated zest of ½ a lemon
100ml elderflower syrup
300g Greek yogurt
250g strawberries
1 teaspoon Balsamic vinegar
icing sugar to taste (1 – 2 tablespoons)

  • Put the gelatine sheets in a bowl, cover with cold water and leave until floppy.
  • Put the cream, sugar and lemon zest in a small pan and stir over gentle heat till the sugar is dissolved and you can no longer hear crystals crunching about.
  • Lift gelatine sheets out of the water, squeeze out excess water, drop sheets into pan of cream and sugar and stir till dissolved (about 1 minute).
  • Add elderflower syrup and allow the mixture to cool. When cool, add the Greek yogurt and whisk until smooth.
  • Pour panna cotta into glasses and refrigerate till set.
  • For the coulis, hull and wash the strawberries.
  • Place in a blender with Balsamic vinegar and icing sugar to taste and blend till smooth.
  • Once the panna cottas are set, pour some coulis on top and decorate with tiny stars of elderflower plucked off the flowerheads or other edible flowers (pansies, borage, thyme etc.) and/or wild strawberries.

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L’Auberge Paysanne, Lutter

auberge paysanne sign2I love the French expression “une valeur sûre”, meaning “a sure thing”, “a safe bet”, or even “a slam dunk”. It’s how folks around here describe the Auberge Paysanne in Lutter, buried in the bucolic southernmost corner of Alsace known as the Sundgau. This classic hotel-restaurant, dripping with geraniums from May to October (the window boxes have just been planted up), is owned and run by Christiane Litzler and her daughter Carmen. I’ve long since lost count of how many times we’ve eaten there (it’s one of our locals) and it never fails. Continue reading

A Fishy Fix

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Fish market, Catania, Sicily

Of all the workshops I do, the fishy ones are probably my faves. We kick off with a visit to the fish counter of a nearby supermarket to check out what’s on offer and get familiar with the names – in English (for most of us the working language), French (France has the freshest and best fish offer in our three-country corner) and German (for those shopping in Switzerland or Germany). Next day we cook up our fishy feast. Continue reading

Empanada Explorations

07-097-IMG_0876On our travels around Argentina last month, we carried out an intensive benchmarking exercise on empanadas, those cheeky little pastry turnovers with artfullly pinched and pleated edges that you find pretty much all over South America. They probably found their way to the continent via Spain, though they’re quite different from the large tray-baked empanadas found in Galicia, which are usually filled with tuna and sold by the slice. Continue reading

Torrontés and Tango, Malbec and Empanadas Part IV: Argentina March 2015

By Monty Style

Day 15 – From Salta City to Los Molinos

We drive south to Los Cerillos, then west into some of the most beautiful mountain scenery imaginable from Los Cerillos to Cachi and Molinos.

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We scale the Cuesta del Obispo (Pass of the Bishop), a dramatic feat of engineering but not a worrying, vertigo-inducing road. It climbs gradually up through green farmland somewhat reminiscent of Perthshire until near the peak your mind shifts to the red and gray of the Torridon Hills in Wester Ross. Except of course for the height and overall scale. Highest point on road 3380 m. Continue reading

Torrontés and Tango, Malbec and Empanadas Part III: Argentina March 2015

By Monty Style

Day 11 – Lares de Chacras to Salta City

1-27-20150321_123551Scrabble by the pool, simple, good lunch in the garden of Bodega Pulmary a few blocks from the lovely Lares de Chacras, then off to the airport heading for Salta City.
Landed in light rain surrounded by green hills and fields. An exemplary car rental chap called Daniel handed over our Renault Duster which is spacious and serves us well.

Continue reading

Torrontés and Tango, Malbec and Empanadas Part II: Argentina March 2015

By Monty Style

Day 6 – Martindale to the Uco Valley, Mendoza

Flew 90 minutes from BA’s Jorge Newbery airport to Mendoza in a comfortable Embraer of Aerolineas Argentinas, the state-owned carrier. Their route map shows “Las Malvinas (Arg.)”. On arrival we took possession of a brand new rented Ford Eco Sport. Obliged to sign a statement that we would make a special contribution to repair costs “if we rolled it over”. Supposedly happens quite often.

1-01-20150313_080724-1Drove south on route 40 past Luján de Cuyo and Chacras de Coria through scrubland, then turned west to Tupungato, climbing gently up to 1200m., 90 minutes from Mendoza. We are staying 2 nights at Posada Salentein [guesthouse of eponymous winery], which sits on a wooded crest amid their vineyards looking east down the Uco Valley. A good dinner accompanied of course by Salentein wines: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec 2013 and a sparkling wine of late harvested grapes. Continue reading

Torrontés and Tango, Malbec and Empanadas Part I: Argentina March 2015

ARGENTINA DIARY, 7th-26th March 2015, by Monty Style

Day 1 – Buenos Aires arrival

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Street view outside MALBA, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires

Endless flat grasslands below the 777 which floats motionless down to Ezeiza airport. After 13-and-a-bit hours’ flight we’re perfectly on time. Punctual and comfortable seats, but service- and meal-wise British Airways is not competitive at all. Dishwater coffee reminiscent of the UK 20 years ago.
Elegant all glass airport buildings. Simple immigration then formal-looking scanners gobble up and spew out all items of luggage. Nobody collects the customs declaration I carefully filled in.
Buenos Aires is at first sight an ecologist’s dream: fresh green plane trees line the streets, cedars adorn the many parks which, viewed from our taxi, are clean, cars are compact and traffic is unhectic, the sky is blue and unpolluted. Continue reading