TAPAS BEFORE TEMPLARS…

EXERPT 4 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK” 

La Gamba was situated in the aptly named Via Frontera, on the border of the theatre and financial districts. It was a lively informal bar with an authentic Andalucian feel, inside and out.  

Black wrought iron window grills festooned with obscenely healthy geraniums screamed scarlet against glossy viridian window frames and whitewashed walls. Just beneath the foliage on the narrow pavement along the front wall, a row of small tile-topped tables were perched precariously on the edge of the high curb. Regulars at La Gamba knew to keep their hands and elbows well tucked in when sitting at these tables to avoid constant jostling from pedestrians on one side or more serious knocks from passing motor traffic on the other. They also needed to be impervious to the acrid exhaust fumes belching out from the frequent 50cc Puch motorcycles and Vespas—the vehicles of choice for most working class “Madrineros”.

Inside, La Gamba’s walls were swathed in cheaply framed bullfighting and flamenco show posters. Ornamental pinewood beams stained dark with thick treacly varnish posed as unconvincing supports for the nicotine stained ceiling. The linoleum floor was littered with used “tapas tissues”, cigarette butts, mussel shells and prawn skins. The long bar was harshly illuminated by a double row of eerily yellow fluorescent strip lights bolted precariously to the fake beams. 

In addition to the assault on the visual senses, it was the smoke you noticed most when you entered; a sweet pungent grey-blue mist bearing strong hints of alcohol, coffee and garlic frying in olive oil. And all the time this murky soup churned around and upwards and regurgitated into spirals by a dozen sluggish ceiling fans.

But then, in defiance of this lurid environment, emerging from the monochrome mist like a glorious Technicolor oil painting there was the tapas itself:  

Tapas on an epic scale reflecting the collective culinary glory of Seville, of Granada, of Cordoba, of Cadiz, of Malaga, of Huelva and even humble Almeria. Tapas of such high quality it compelled people to brave the kitsch, the fug and the noise in vast numbers from all over the city and beyond.  

The bar was all of forty foot long, starting at the entrance and continuing two thirds of the way down the narrow room. 

Along the bar’s entire length were glass and steel chilling and warming cabinets. Within the cabinets were scores of hot and cold raw and cooked meats: Pork, rabbit, tripe, chicken, game and veal; stewed, baked, fried and grilled ‘a la plancha’ and then the fish and the sea food; starting at one end with the braised salt cod and culminating at the other end with piles of alive, gently pulsing clams and mussels, and in between; all the edible booty of the sea from gilt-head bream and baby whiting to spider crab, squid, razor clams, octopus and prawn and shrimp in heaps  and then; a row of earthenware platters resting above the cabinets, laden with steamed wild snails, deep fried baby green peppers, black pudding stewed with chick peas, tripe with potatoes in saffron sauce, four inch thick egg tortillas, mini wooden skewers of cubed pork loin marinated in paprika saffron and cumin, cured ham fried with broad beans and on and on. 

Directly above, hanging from a straining iron rod were dozens of precious Jabugo black hams. And behind the bar, on the back counter; more plates and carving boards, piled high with “Iberico” sausage, cured meats, chorizo and black puddings of all shapes and sizes. 

And finally, above the sausage, a phalanx of dark oak barrels stacked up to the ceiling: Full sized 256 litre (give or take) casks of dark sweet viscous Malagas, dry clean yellow Montillas and yeasty nutty Sherries and Manzanillas. 

And manning this visual-cum-olfactory sensory battering ram; a cohort of waiters and barmen (all men), attired in black trousers, tieless white shirts and green fronted waist coats and armed only with sticks of white chalk jammed behind their ears. No note pads here, just chalk marks scratched onto tables and bar alike. 

It was central Madrid on a Thursday night and La Gamba was heaving with a mixture of pre-theatre crowd and office workers lingering far too long on their way home from work. It occurred to Alex that perhaps it was not the ideal spot after all for what he anticipated would be a long and discreet conversation. Fortunately though Carlos Garcia had been good to his word and secured a booth at the rear beyond the bar and well away from the main crowd which tended to gravitate around the ranks of tapas like moths to a flame.

The booths were surprisingly insulated from the noisy crush beyond, but on the down-side there was a mild odour of urine and cheap soap emanating from the toilets over in the far corner. This was partially compensated for however by the fact that above, on the far wall was a row of open narrow windows which drew the worst of the smoke.

At the first instant, when Carlos saw that Alex had not come alone a look of barely disguised annoyance started to cross his high deeply furrowed brow. But then, within an instant, he took in Elena as she glided toward him ahead of Alex, smiling, eyes gleaming, hair gently swaying and a crisply tailored charcoal two piece work skirt and jacket adding to the effect, his lower lip fell. 

As she approached radiating confidence and self-assurance, right arm outstretched Carlos suddenly realised that he should stand up.  While he clumsily clambered to his feet Elena announced herself; ‘Doctor Elena Ortiz Martinez.’ 

Carlos took her hand, barely holding it, unsure whether to shake it or kiss it. He felt foolish. He had never been approached in this way by a Spanish woman and the fact that she was so attractive totally unnerved him. Fortunately though, Elena took the initiative for him, firmly grasping his limp fingers and giving a vigorous couple of shakes. ‘It’s a great thrill to meet you Professor Garcia. I simply had to come along once I realised it was you Alex was meeting. I’m a fan of yours. I even read your book. The one you wrote for human beings. That was the way you termed it if I remember correctly? Blood and History wasn’t it called?’

The History of Blood, Doctor Martinez’ Carlos gently corrected her as they all sat down.

Elena, please just call me Elena Professor. But I do remember the main theme of the book. Your incredible idea—how one day soon we will be able to map all of humanity through our genetic codes and how it will be possible to determine exactly where we came from. Our own personal genetic histories going back thousands of years.’

‘Well, that’s oversimplifying it somewhat but yes, you got the gist. And it’s just Carlos if you please…Elena. And may I ask? What is your doctorate in?’ 

‘I’m a lecturer in modern history at the university.  I guess we’re colleagues come to think of it.’

‘Only half colleagues now regretfully. I semi-retired last year and am emeritus these days. In truth I really miss the stimulation of being a full time researcher.’ Carlos felt emboldened by Elena’s spirit of forwardness and added; ‘I also miss rubbing shoulders with some of the fabulous young female lecturers emerging these days.’ 

Alex smiled. He was impressed with Carlos’ speedy powers of recovery, not to mention his obvious talents as a schmoozer.

‘I can’t claim to be either fabulous or all that young these days’ she replied, ‘although I do my best to flow with the years in most other respects.’ 

Carlos smiled back, his eyes twinkling, ‘You’re far too modest if I may be so bold Elena, and flowing certainly becomes you.’

‘Ahem!’ uttered Alex, beginning to find the exchange tedious.

Carlos turned towards Alex and said; ‘My apologies Alex, but my goodness, you really are a most fortunate man.’

‘I suppose I must be, as I’m told so often’ Alex said a touch sardonically. 

‘You are quite right. Please forgive the pathetic stirrings of an old man’ Carlos responded apologetically having noticed Alex’s tone.

Elena leaned across the table and gently squeezed Carlos’ hand. ‘Don’t apologise Carlos. He’ll get over it. It’s just that all this Transito business has made him grouchy lately.’ 

He smiled at Elena, patted her hand before returning it across the table. ‘No, but Alex is right. I have much to tell you and we don’t want to be here all night do we?’ Carlos’ face immediately took on the same serious, almost business like expression Alex remembered from their encounter at the hospital. ‘And to save us some time I took the liberty of ordering a selection of tapas before you arrived.’

‘Good idea’ said Alex relieved by the change in subject. ‘Miguel and I normally propped up the bar when we met here. The couple of times we took a table outside the service was slow.’

‘Miguel was always raving to me about this place’ Carlos continued, ‘but somehow we never met here. He was funny about doing anything with me in public. It was a shame, because I always liked his company and we got on well.’

‘Maybe he had a bit of an inferiority complex when it came to you?’ Alex suggested a little disingenuously, recalling what Loli had told him earlier that day.

‘Yes, but it was so irrational. After all, he had no problem being seen in your company, and you’re a professor too.’

‘But Carlos, you’re his brother’ Elena said. ‘That’s different from a mere work associate like Alex. I never met Miguel unfortunately but from what Alex tells me I think he enjoyed rubbing shoulders with people like Alex for the same reason that he didn’t want to be seen out with you. Whereas your eminence perhaps would have highlighted to the outside world Miguel’s self-perception of his own underachievement being seen out with Alex actually built up his self-esteem. Made him feel a sort of eminence by association, if that makes any sense?’

At that point a waiter arrived with a large steel tray expertly balanced on his shoulder laden with plates of food. 

As he deftly began placing the dishes on the table Carlos told them; ‘I actually ordered half portions, not tapas. I can’t stand a table covered in dozens of little plates, half of which one never gets to taste. In any case, I hope you find I covered all the bases food wise?’

Elena and Alex eagerly nodded their assent. Despite the fact it was not as adventurous a selection as Alex and Elena would have ordered, it was all so well prepared and they were so hungry they did not care. In fact, Carlos had chosen a virtual beginners introduction to Andalucian dishes. There were the ubiquitous large boiled prawns in their shells with sea salt, lightly battered deep fried baby squid, pickled sprat fillets in olive oil garnished with parsley and garlic, grilled goujon of garlicky rosada, a plate of thinly sliced ham and a ceramic platter of piping hot meat balls in a bread-thickened almond and saffron sauce. 

The waiter also brought a half bottle of ice cold Manzanilla and three chilled tulip shaped glasses. As he poured the palest of pale wines Carlos said; ‘I also took the liberty of ordering drink. I hope fino is to your liking?’

‘We both love it’ answered Alex, ‘but I think I’ll get a beer to start with if that’s okay. I’m dying of thirst. Anyone else fancy one?’

Elena and Carlos both shook their heads.

‘A large glass of Victoria for me and bring another half of Manzanilla with an ice bucket’ Alex said to the waiter. Then, as the waiter disappeared back into the melee beyond he continued to Elena and Carlos; ‘Might as well get set up for the evening.’ ‘Not a Malaga drinker Carlos?’ Elena asked.

‘No, I’m ashamed to say. Every year when we were boys in late August we were taken up into the Axarquia mountains near Canillas de Aceituno. Our uncle— our father’s older brother—had a finca and grew prize Moscatel grapes. He sold most of them to Scholtz Hermanos in Malaga but he also made a bit of wine for himself—and raisins too. We got roped in with all the associated chores.  And goodness were they chores, picking the grape and making the wine. I don’t know what was more mind-numbing—de-stemming the grape by hand for pressing or later on snipping the raisins. At any rate, by the end of the month we’d been up there just the smell of the Moscatel, either in liquid or dried form, made me feel so nauseated that till this day I can’t go near the stuff.’

‘It’s funny’ Elena remarked, ‘how townies like us tend to think of winemaking as such a romantic thing to do, especially the harvesting and the treading. Did you tread by foot?’ 

‘Yes. Everybody makes the wine the same way, even now. The de-stemmed berries get chucked into a kind of large outdoor trough. Then the treading is done by the men mostly, wearing flat soled rubber shoes nowadays—esparto back then—a bit like flip-flops. The must flows out of a sluice in the trough and gets collected in buckets and then chucked straight into clean empty casks.  The residual grape mush from the trough then gets pressed in a hand ratcheted basket press. The pressing can take days and our uncle would leave the filled press to weep overnight. All the tears— as the locals referred to the liquid—were then added to the cask. The Moscatel are so rich in sugar that they start fermenting well before the treading. The smell was incredible. Most people love it but I found it sickly. And even worse than the smell, were the wasps— nests of wasps in the vineyards which we always inadvertently disturbed.  And then swarms of the bastards around the treading and the pressing attracted by the sugary moisture. One year poor Miguel was stung in the eye.’

‘Ouch!’ Elena said wincing.

‘Yes, it was appalling. He couldn’t have been more than six and his distress was awful. He had to be held down writhing and screaming while our uncle’s wife pressed a poultice of earth and water onto his eye.’

‘I don’t suppose they had any antihistamines back then?’ asked Alex.

‘No! But it wouldn’t be much different now. The peasants down there are still suspicious of modern medicine. With Miguel, they physically bound him to a chair so that he wouldn’t touch his eye. It took nearly two days before he could see again from that eye and more than a week for the swelling to go down and he had sensitivity in it for the rest of his life. So no Elena—wine making in the Axarquia at least, is a dirty, sweaty and smelly—not to mention hazardous business and not the slightest bit romantic. And that’s why I never go near my native drink. Our once-famous ‘Mountain Sac’ might have been the favourite tipple of Queen Elizabeth I of England and even the magnificent Falstaff but neither of them ever had to make the accursed stuff!’

Alex continued the theme; ‘Did you know it’s probable that vines were first brought to the Axarquia by Phoenician colonists? Perhaps more than 3000 years ago? And certainly the Carthaginians and the Romans practised viticulture in that area.’

‘And what about the Moors?’ asked Elena; ‘I’ve always meant to ask you about that. They didn’t drink did they?’

‘Not officially at least’ answered Alex, ‘but they loved their raisins.’

‘Yes’ Carlos interjected, ‘and supposedly, the Moslem landlords employed primarily Jewish vine keepers.’ 

‘The Jews have always had a knack with wine, going all the way back to First Temple period when they produced most of the fine wines drunk across the ancient Middle East’ continued Alex.

‘And now two of Bordeaux’s five premier cru clarets are made by Jewish growers’ Elena chipped in, showing off her wine knowledge. ‘Not that I’ve ever had the good fortune to taste either of them.’

‘Anyway’ said Alex towards Carlos, ‘talking of things Jewish?’

‘Ah yes!’ Carlos responded to Alex’s change of topic. ‘Things Jewish, and much else besides, and which reminds me, don’t let me forget to give you this before we part tonight’ he said picking up a large heavy looking carrier bag from the empty chair to his right. ‘This is copies of all my notes from the last ten years or so about El Transito, The Sons of Kohath and everything.

My research, my theories‒‒what my sister-in-law Loli calls my Grand Hypothesis.’

The waiter then reappeared with Alex’s beer and the sherry in an ice bucket which after a reconfiguration of the plates of food he was able to deposit on the table. 

‘Perhaps we should eat before all this lovely food spoils and then I’ll tell you a story’ Carlos suggested.

‘Good food and wine followed by a ripping yarn— my idea of the perfect evening.’ Elena said.

THE FOLKS WHO WOULD LIVE ON THE HILL (reprise)

The story of the building of our home in southern Spain – in pictures

We’re often asked by people we meet, and who are familiar with our life story, if we watch the TV show, Grand Designs (on the UK’s Channel 4). For the uninitiated, in 1993 Dido and I together with a small team of local builders and on a limited budget built a house on a rugged hilltop in the south of Spain. Grand Designs is a program which follows people – often young-to-middle aged couples (as we then were in 93) – as they undertake unusual and ambitious house-building projects similar to our own, with much of the drama emanating from all the trials and tribulations of the process. Invariably dreams turn into nightmares and then finally – though not always – the original dreams are more or less attained. And perhaps because there was so much pain, mental and physical, during our building experience my answer to the question is that I rarely watch the program. The few times I have it usually culminates in me experiencing a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially when the subject suckers – I mean subject couples – go through their own darker moments and mini-disasters.

Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding clichéd, for us, as with most of the Grand Design people, it all worked out in the end and we now have an extraordinary house and home. The question of whether or not it was worth it, and if, given the choice we would do it all again is something of a moot point. Certainly, we wouldn’t do it the same way again. We wouldn’t restore an existing ruin and tie it into a new additional structure – a process that doubled both the time and cost of the project, and necessitated Dido and I becoming labourers on our own build to speed things up and to save costs. No, if we did it again, we’d do what the locals here do – bulldoze the site into a flat platform and build a completely new structure.

This is something of a second instalment to an earlier post called Walking over Almonds and some of the background, including what the original semi-ruined cottage looked like can be found there. Suffice to say here that with one or two expedient modifications from the original plans the build took around six months, beginning in the summer of 1993, and used up every penny we had (although at least we didn’t go into debt). Our architect was the gifted – Bartlett trained – Seattle-based Mark Travers (who we paid with one of my huge oil canvases of the Atacama). Between the three of us (with some help from a structural engineer friend of Mark’s) we came up with a well-built house exactly suited to our needs and passions, and, for a contemporary Andalusian dwelling, unusually sympathetic to its immediate environment.

This is an unavoidably larger post than usual, though I hope there is much of interest here, for those who know us as well as for those who do not, and perhaps even one or two useful pointers for those thinking of embarking upon a similar project…

Our hilltop property was only accessible by a goat track so the first thing we had to do was get a JCB to cut us a drive. For some reason, our beautiful Maremma Sheepdog Aura liked taking naps underneath it and getting covered in grease…
Said driveway…
The first priority was to build our main water tank. Until it was completed we had to schlep over to the local spring three or four times a day to provide the builders with water for cement etc. It took several weeks to finish. Here is the tank progressing. With all its steel it was the most expensive element of the build…
Here’s the JCB just about to demolish the old pigsty…
The water tank and bodega were excavated beneath the east side of the old cottage. They would eventually become the ground story of the east side addition, comprising our bedroom and library. That’s me inspecting the completed water tank. With its 38,000 litre capacity (designed to capture rain water from the roof and terraces) its completion represented significant progress…
It didn’t take long for us to realise that to stay on time and on budget we would have to get involved physically in the building. This was my “first day” and I’m using a pickaxe to make a pipe channel for the 5,000 litre grey water tank…
Here’s Dido cleaning hundreds of roof tiles reclaimed from the old house. The finished roof eventually comprised 1 in 3 old tiles and looked all the better for it…
One of dozens of truck deliveries…
Baldomero (our foreman), Paco and Pepe eating their lunch and taking shelter from a sharp north wind by one of Dido’s dry stone redoubts…
Two thirds of the house beginning to take shape – looking across the main room (the restored old cottage) towards the library and main bedroom…
A beer break – Dido up an almond tree, as usual…
We had to remove the old wooden roof of the original cottage then rebuild the tops of half-meter thick walls. Much of the resulting rubble was reused as aggregate in various parts of the new construction. However, this entire process was hugely time consuming. Mark and his engineer buddy (who had also worked on the Seattle Space Needle) came up with this trussed roof solution for preserving the old walls and making sure they could tolerate the weight of the new steel and concrete roof. The rods were meant to be temporary, but we liked them and kept them. Dido is standing in our front door…
The east addition roof taking shape…
We loved seeing the tiles go over the screed – real progress at last (one in three tiles was from the original house). Incidentally, Dido was on hoist duty, and we later estimated that she winched up more than 2,500 buckets of cement and mortar all told during the roof construction…
The trussed roof allowed us to have very high ceilings without the need for supporting walls or pillars. This is the restored main room. The original cottage was a warren of four tiny rooms…
Fortunately the library was sufficiently finished for us to move into it by the autumn. The stove in the background (christened Dalek) was a reclaimed BBQ and it doubled up as our oven…
These gesso’d book shelves looked great, but during the wet winter months they absorbed moisture like a bath sponge, ruining hundreds of our books into the bargain. You live and learn I guess…
Aura loved lying on the cool sand, much to the annoyance of the builders trying to finish our floors…
Our kitchen was constructed entirely from local materials including a fine wood-burning stove from Asturias, only cost us about £450 with labour!!
The south aspect taking shape, with the “original cottage” section and old casemate wall already rendered, while Dido works on her drystone redoubt
The east addition nearing completion. Here one can see how the library and bedroom form an upper story above the bodega and water tank. The little window is our en suite bathroom…
This is how the main room looks today…
And the bar and kitchen…
And the library, now with modular wooden shelving…
And our bedroom…
And finally, our emerging garden,
about five years ago. Welcome to Finca Carmel!

A “ROSIA” FUTURE FOR GIBRALTAR – and a rock-solid present…

Following on from my earlier post on our initial return to Gibraltar after a gap of over twenty years, we have managed to visit several more times, and on each occasion, we have become increasingly impressed with life on the Rock. There’s no doubting that the drab and dreary Gibraltar of last century has been consigned firmly to the past and that a new, confident and energetic modern little city is rising in its place. Moreover, the once-faded and shabby old town centre has been sensitively spruced up and now stands above its modern surrounds like a proud grandparent watching over its thriving progeny.

“Unique” has become a much overused and abused term, but in the case of today’s Gibraltar it really is just about the only adjective that does the place justice. From its airport runway pedestrian crossing (sadly, to be lost very shortly to a new tunnel) to Rosia Bay, where one swims alongside giant container ships, not to mention it being Europe’s only truly harmonious “multiculture”, Gibraltar is a total one-off.

The iPhone snaps below hopefully transmit some of that uniqueness, and a sense of its intoxicating optimism…

Looking south from Rosia Bay, across the Straights toward Jebel Musa (the “other” Pillar of Hercules) and the Moroccan Coast. An anglers and swimmers idle, a mere fifteen-minute walk from the old town…
Looking north-west from Rosia Bay toward the southern Cadiz province coast. My intrepid wife Dido can just be made out taking a choppy swim to the right of the photo. The waters here, where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, are very cold this early in the year, and the only other person in the water was a retired Royal Navy diver, and he was in a wet suit – the wimp!
A decaying old mooring jetty between Rosia and Camp Bays, one of the few remaining monuments to the “old Gibraltar”…
Concrete picnic tables at Camp Bay, looking remarkably like an Anthony Gormley sculpture (only better, for being accidental), with the busy Straights in the background…
For those craving authentic Spanish beach cuisine, but too lazy to traipse across the border into neighbouring La Linea, Gibraltar is now blessed with a handful of genuine frieduras and chiringuitos, such as Cabana on Camp Bay. The only difference from La Linea, is that here your waitress or waiter is as likely to have a Scouse accent as an Andalusian lilt, but never fear! The fried boquerones (whitebait) and the grilled calamares are every bit as delicious as along the coast…
Meanwhile, just a short stroll away in the old town, one is suddenly in a different world, that feels something like a cross between Hampstead (in London) and Valetta, with a touch of Toulouse, depending upon the light, the weather and the time of day. The one place it doesn’t feel anything like, despite being filled with Spanish workers and tourists, is southern Spain!
The old centre of Gibraltar has been blessed with fine English buildings since the Georgian period, but again, it’s only in the past two decades or so that both its government and its people have restored these architectural gems to their former glory. This house is an excellent example of what I mean, and with it’s Decimus Burton-style balconies and iron work, it has a fabulously classy colonial look…
And I could not end this piece without a couple of views of Gibraltar’s most famous feature. This one, taken early on a chilly late Spring morning, with a high sea mist clinging on to the Rock like grasping fingers…
And finally of course, a slightly unusual shot (from Western Beach) of what is arguably the most famous sphynx-like profile in the world (except of course for that of the Sphynx itself).

“HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL…”*

as early signs of spring offer a little hope…

Despite some recent inclement weather, including frost and even a dusting of snow, the Axarquia is showing early signs of Spring. The pictures here, all taken over the past week, on and around our finca (small holding) in the foothills of the Sierra Tajeda remind us of nature’s imperviousness to the current dystopia we find ourselves condemned to inhabit for the foreseeable future.

Sometimes, pictures (even enhanced iPhone snaps) are far more eloquent than mere words…

Our hilltop finca, looking south west…
(Looking west) An almond tree, already in leaf
Marcona (almond) blossom…
(Looking north-east) Our local pueblo, Canillas de Aceituno, sitting beneath Mount Maroma and the Sierra Tajeda, from our house…
(Looking north-west) The pueblo of Periana and the Alfarnate countryside…
(Looking south-east) across our “main road” toward Arenas…
(Looking south-west) From our south vineyard, a neighbouring cottage and the Rio Velez valley beyond…
Fresh orange juice every morning, assured…
(Looking east-by-south east) But it’s the almonds stealing the show…
“Shepherd’s delight”? Here’s hoping…!

* From Alexander Pope (An Essay on Man – 1734)

“PARADISE REGAINED…”

postcards from our past for the present

It took us about six years to fall in love with our Spanish home and to begin to appreciate its full value to us as both somewhere to escape, and to recharge our intellectual and emotional batteries…

Arriving at this point we had survived the physical and mental exhaustion of the eight-month build itself

Followed by the despair of being virtually penniless and then learning we had no professional future in Spain…

Then the seedy drudgery of our sojourn in Boulogne-sur-Mer

Followed by the reestablishing our lives in London (via-Tunbridge Wells) and getting ourselves back on our feet financially…

Until eventually, the resentment we had felt toward our distant Spanish home, for being the ruination of our lives, very gradually transformed into yearning, as we came to understand the sanctuary it offered us from our daily grind

And so, in 1999, I felt the need to celebrate with this set of colourful, impasto gouache sketches, done as postcards; intended to express our sense of freedom and joy at the regaining of our lost paradise. But never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined, even in that seminal year of 1999, just quite how fortunate we really were…

Not until experiencing the madness of three months of semi-house arrest in a small Oxford apartment (I refuse to dignify the “L” word by using it), followed by the oddly, even more disturbing new “normality”, did we truly grasp how blessed we are to have our little, private, mask-less, socially intimate, sanctuary of peace and sanity.

(I should add, that I still have the entire original set of 10 postcards, signed, titled and dated, and in near-mint condition, and far brighter and more charming in real life. I had originally intended to send them to select friends and family, but for some reason never got around to it. So now, I would be happy to sell them as a set for £200 – or other currency equivalent – plus postage. If anyone is interested please contact me through the “Purchasing artwork” link at the top of this page.)

WHERE THE GRASS IS (nearly) ALWAYS BROWNER…

…BUT WHERE THE ALMOND blossom is ALWAYS WHITER

I nearly titled this as a third straight “yearning” post, in the sense that after three months lock-down here in Oxford we are desperate to get back to our finca in southern Spain. But seeing as we are actually returning there tomorrow I decided on a catchier and hopefully more optimistic heading.

In fairness, when we’ve been in Spain for as long as we’ve now been in England there’s plenty I miss about our other lives in London and Oxford, but the longing is rarely as intense as what we are experiencing right now for our Andalusian home.

And perhaps there’s the clue; the fact that our little farm in the foothills of the Sierra Tajeda is the nearest thing Dido and I have ever had to a settled home. We’ve certainly owned it for more than three times as long as any of our previous homes (separately or together), and then there’s all the sweat and blood we’ve dripped into the building of our house and the rocky soil upon which it stands.

But perhaps, more than all of that, it’s simply the way the setting of our finca has ingrained itself into the fabric of our being through the sheer power of its ridiculous beauty.

So, although we missed wonders like the almond blossom display this year, thanks to about thirty years of memories, and images like the ones on show here, we can never truly miss them – they live inside of us, rendering us unusually fortunate.

STARTING OUR 28th YEAR AT FINCA CARMEL

WIshing all my friends, viewers and followers a happy 2020

The single most impressive feature of our lives since we purchased our mountain finca (smallholding) in southern Spain, and becoming part-time farmers in 1993, is how it dramatically increased our awareness of the passing seasons. A perception intensified by having planted the best part of a thousand trees, and then watched as they gradually transformed our immediate environment.

While there are many sobering aspects to the passing of the years, we have found both solace and joy through the metamorphosis of our humble hilltop. Hopefully, it will continue past a good few new years yet!

The house and finca in the summer of 1995, two years after our move to the Axarquia region of Andalusia, and 18 months after completion of the house. Some of our new trees can just be made out, such as the young cypresses lining the edge the drive. At this point, the farm comprised primarily the existing north vineyard (to the lower left of the house) and almond trees. We relied totally on solar energy and rain water, collected in a large tank constructed beneath the house…
…and this is virtually the identical scene taken this Boxing Day in the winter of 2019. The north vineyard is still there, and some of the almond trees, plus the cypresses are now 25 years older – and taller. However, in 2004 we were finally attached to mains electricity (and the Internet) allowing us to set up a remote control irrigation system and thus plant orchards (mostly olive, citrus and avocado) and a garden of sorts, and to surround ourselves with tall trees.

TRIPLE-TAKES AND DOUBLE CHOICES

During my ten  years or so as a commercial artist I had spells with two top London artist’s agents. The main and obvious advantage of having an agent was that they went out and got you commissions.  Most artists by definition, tend to be ill equipped, emotionally and attitudinally for the tasks of both finding and especially negotiating with clients. Artist’s agents on the other hand, often with backgrounds in advertising and / or art production have extensive lists of contacts and the wherewithal for exploiting those connections. 

This scene from a street in the Andalusian town of Arcos se la Frontera remains my favourite image from the series…

The big disadvantage in the artist / artist agent relationship however was the near-total lack of control the artist has over the process, from commissioning to payment.  And, it was ultimately the payment issues which trumped the advantages and convinced me to toughen-up and go it alone. My final artist’s agent’s commission was a case in point and also the last straw. What began as an unusually free brief – to paint a series of of 24 poster-style gouache paintings to decorate 12 luxury, first-class cruise liner suites for a seriously good fee, manifested as an exercise in frustration and acrimony. The fact I had to resort to the threat of lawyers against my own agent to extricate partial payment gives a good idea of just how sour things got.

This is a scene from a courtyard restaurant in Granada, right by the Alhambra Palace…

In the normal course of events, I worked directly with the clients, and delivered my work to them myself. For some reason never fully explained, on this occasion I did not get to meet the client and instead dealt exclusively with my agent. What exactly went wrong between the time of me handing over the finished pictures to the agent, and her passing them to the client – or indeed, if she ever handed them to the client, I never discovered. All I did know for sure, was that two months of hard work was never fully paid for.  Fortunately, during my ongoing film-to-digital trawl, I recently came across colour slides of several examples of the artwork from that fateful commission and the original photographic templates.

The delightful “balcon” at Arcos…

If I was ever to receive a similar commission again, apart from making sure to deal with the client on a one-to-one basis, I might also decide to produce Photoshop images (presented on the similar art papers to the original gouaches) rather than paintings. For me the finished results, especially with these highly graphic, minimalist images are at least as good as paintings, and in the awful prospect that I again would not be fully recompensed, would have expended a fraction of the time.

And finally, the Bishop’s palace in Seville.

Presented here (within the text) in triptych form are four of those very images. The photo templates comprise the central images, with the original gouaches on the right, and my new Photoshop treatments on the left. See what you think and don’t be afraid to let me know…

BLOOD, SWEAT AND LAUGHS – wine making at Finca Carmel

Regular readers of these posts will know all about our finca (small holding) in southern Spain and especially the adventures we had building our house. However, what I haven’t done thus far is said that much about the little farm itself.

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The north vineyard came with the property and is predominantly Moscatel (Muscat). The 500-or-so vines are all non-staked and pruned right back early Spring. This picture dates from May 1994 and Dido’s blonde mop can just be made out upper left…

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The Moscatel harvest is picked typically late September when many of the berries are turning to raisins. However, we prefer our “Malaga” drier than the locals go for, and pick at the start of the month. Though the wine is unfortified (no brandy or grape spirit added) it still attains a strength of over 17%  – apparently breaking all the laws of natural fermentation…

Our biggest crop is from our two small vineyards (about 1000 vines in all), one preexisting our move (in 1993) and the other planted by us in 2000. The older vineyard comprises mostly Moscatel (Muscat) used for making the traditional local Malaga style sweet wine and the one we planted ourselves which is a third Moscatel and two thirds red Cencibel (a varietal of Tempranillo) with which we make a strong red fortified wine similar to port.

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We planted out the south vineyard in 2000 and it comprises 300 Cencibel and 200 Moscatel vines. Digging 500 holes half a metre (20 inches) deep into rocky terrain, using a mattock and pickax was the toughest physical task of our lives. This picture dates from the Spring of 2002, just after we had pruned the plants and dressed the mounds. The weeding was yet to be done…

 

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One our first Cencibel harvests (I don’t think we have felt greater pride in anything we have ever produced). Cencibel is a sub-type of Tempranillo (the “Merlot of Spain”), and ripens a fortnight or so before the Moscatel…

In addition to our grapes we also grow olives (for oil), almonds, citrus, and a variety of other fruits including avocado.

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We de-stem the grapes by hand. Dido here ably assisted here by our friend Valentina and her sadly, late husband, Jean-Claude. Each and every stage of the wine-making process, from harvesting to barrelling  is highly international at Finca Carmel. Fellow-Brits, Russians, Belgians, Israelis, Americans, Australians and of course, Spanish volunteers have joined us over the years…

 

We harvest the almonds from about mid July through to mid September, the olives around the new year and the grapes, depending on the vintage, from late August when we also make our two wines.

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We still crush the grapes using the timeless method of treading. Here Dido is assisted by Jane and Pepa, our most dependable volunteer of all. A steady flow of ice cold beer and appropriately rhythmic music blasting out from the house above is essential to the efficiency of this process…

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Once crushed, the fruit is poured into baskets for pressing…

The pictures here are a montage of our annual vendimia (grape harvest and wine making). Although we appreciate help from our friends with all the annual farming tasks it’s only the wine-making that people actually return for. The work is hard, and depending upon the weather – which can vary from sunny and hot to chilly and damp (like this year), sweaty, monotonous at times, but always rewarding once the must (mosto in Spanish) is all safely in the barrels.

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When the press is full we use the ratchet and oak blocks to apply extra pressure. Typically we fill the press twice for the Moscatel and having applied the final turn of the ratchet leave it overnight to exude every last drop of must…

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The final precious stream of must is referred to as lagrima in Spain – alluding to the tears of Christ…

Over the years various rituals have developed around the process, the most enjoyable of which is Dido’s Mexican feast on the final night, when the work is over. We’re not quite certain how this particular tradition started, but somehow delicious treats like tamales, enchiladas and re-fried beans washed down with margaritas provide a uniquely festive climax to several days of hard labour.

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We make sure to feed and water our workers well, seen here for instance enjoying a light lunch of Dido’s delicious ajo blanco (cold almond and garlic soup) washed down with copitas of our own Malaga, with freshly picked figs for pudding…

On behalf of Dido and myself, I would like to take this opportunity to offer special thanks to all those friends, who have helped us over the past 25 years, with special mentions to Pepa for returning every year and Valentina for her technological innovations. We literally, couldn’t do it without you! Finally, all volunteers welcome for next year…

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Our barrels containing our Malaga solera (“super-blend”). Malaga, like its much younger cousin Sherry, is not released as a vintage but is re-racked and blended annually. Each new wine is evenly distributed into the previous years’ blends to ensure a consistent and hopefully, perfect wine.

VINTAGE VACATION

 

Apologies to my loyal followers but the wine making and other arduous – sometimes pleasant – farming tasks have left me little time to devote to this blog. Normal posting will resume next time. For now, here are a few striking images of the local environment around our small finca in the heart of the Axarquia in southern Spain.

Enjoy…we do.