THE FOLKS WHO WOULD LIVE ON THE HILL 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 installment to an earlier post called Walking over Almonds (https://adamhalevi777.com/2014/10/26/walking-over-almonds-2/) 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 and the photos of the build, being from (crudely ) digitally converted old film, are not up to my usual standards. Regardless, 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…

1-oily-dog
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…
2-our-new-driveway
Said driveway…
3-first-bricks
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…
4-tank-of-steel
The tank progressing. With all its steel it was the most expensive element of the build…
5-bye-bye-pig-stye
Here’s the JCB just about to demolish the old pigsty…
5-old-house-east-side
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 (I think that’s Dido getting lunch ready)…
6-watertank-nearing-completion
That’s me inspecting the completed water tank. With its 38,000 liter capacity (designed to capture rain water from the roof and terraces) its completion represented significant progress…
8-my-first-pick
It didn’t take long for us to realise that we would have to get involved physically in the building. This was my “first day” and I’m using a pickax to make a pipe channel for the 5,000 liter grey water tank…
10-cleaning-roof-tiles
Here’s Dido cleaning hundreds of roof tiles reclaimed from the old house…
11-cement-delivery
A cement delivery…
12-resurection
We had to remove the old wooden roof of the original cottage then rebuild the tops of half-meter thick walls. This entire process was hugely time consuming…
13-trussing-rods
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…
14-siesta
Southern Spanish builders work long and hard, but their one hour lunch and snooze siesta is sacrosanct. Here you can see Aura getting more into the siesta spirit than Dido…
15-sheltered-lunch
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…
16-leveling-off
Two thirds of the house beginning to take shape – looking across the main room (the restored old cottage) towards the library and main bedroom…
17-library-construction
The library and rods…
18-dido-hall-window
A beer break – Dido up an almond tree, as usual…
19-reinforced-skirt
The skirt on the restored walls being prepared for the rods…
20-trussing-rods-set-in-and-vigas
The east addition roof taking shape…
21-form-work-old-spanish-style
All our form work was done the old way, with wooden struts…
22-studio-roof-screed
The north addition – now our lounge and guest room – was a victim of our financial “rationalization” – hence the more typical Spanish style single sloped roof…
23-roof-tiling
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…
24-roof-interior
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…
25-library-living
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…
26-library-shelves
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…
27-main-room-floor
Aura loved lying on the cool sand, much to the annoyance of the builders trying to finish our floors…
28-kitchen-bar-construction
Our kitchen was constructed entirely from local materials including a fine wood-burning stove from Asturias, only cost us about £450 with labour!!
29-bar-building
We had to have a bar…
30-new-oven
Here’s the oven – does the best roast lamb (and cholent) ever…
31-cementing-over-the-bricks
Rendering the outside walls…
32-library-shaping
The restored south terrace redoubt wall and the new library…
33-new-with-old
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…
34-dining-section-and-bar-of-main-room
This is how the main room looks today…
34-library-with-new-shelves
And the library, now with modular wooden shelving…
35-south-outlook
The south terrace and garden a few years ago, with its summer shade…
36-december-2016
The house this December, gradually disappearing into the surrounding garden.

HEAVEN ON EARTH…

Spanish Idyl

I’m sitting on my south terrace of my house in the Sierra Tajeda foothills as I compose this piece. To the right hand side of my laptop is a Jim Beam marked glass filled to the brim with Moscow Vodka and tonic, with a thick chunk of our home grown sweet lime floating on the top.

Emanating from the open library window to my right are the divine strains of late great Victoria de los Angeles singing Chants d’Auvergne in her deliciously rounded mezzo soprano, so suited to those gently moody ancient lullabies.

Behind me, inside the main room of the house is a freshly caught sea bass patiently waiting in the fridge to form the substantial part of my imminent supper.

Before me, between the oleanders and cypresses, in the near-but-heat-hazy distance is the Mediterranean Sea, in which my bass was still swimming only this morning.

As the shadows begin to lengthen, and defined colours replace blinding monochrome, at last the excoriating heat of the day is giving way to the sensual caressing cool of the south-Spanish evening.

But for the fact I am missing my wife Dido, who is driving in heavy traffic from Oxford to London as I sit here typing these words, I really think I could almost be in heaven.

The picture above dates back to when we first moved here – with our Maremma sheepdog Aura – and the only available shade was under our old carob tree (in fact, the only mature tree we had). That was also heaven, albeit minus the laptops,  stereos and Russian Vodka, which all goes to show, that even heaven, like just about everything else, is merely a relative concept…

AN ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO MAKING – OXTAIL CHOLENT

This is presented with the presumption that people looking in are familiar with the concept of cholent. For those of you who may not know anything about this Sabbath staple of Ashkenazi Jewish winter cuisine (not to be confused with the Sephardic chamin) I would direct you to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cholent for a fairly concise explanation of its history and development.

In common with most traditional “family dishes” there are as many nuances of the basic recipe as there are people who cook it. The one I present here is based on the very plain cholent recipe my booba (my grandmother) used to cook and which we all loved, but with several embellishments which I’ll explain as we go along.

By using oxtail, rather than one of the normal cuts of beef – typically from the forequarters of the animal – I am going against all tradition, even my own! My reason for using oxtail though, was purely pragmatic in that I wanted to make a cholent, and oxtail was the only thing I had in the freezer. And although not traditional, oxtail has all the basic qualities required for this long, slow cooking process, in that it is a fat and sinuous meat.

Sadly, for most observant Jewish readers of this post – unless you reside in Israel and perhaps certain parts of the States, you probably won’t be able to get your hands on kosher oxtail. If that is the case, use a cut of fat beef on the bone; a meaty piece of shin would work well or a large top rib.

It also helps to have a wood burning stove such as I have here in Spain – perfect for slow cooking at low temperatures – but any real oven will do. Avoid however, electric slow cookers and dutch ovens as you’ll end up with all the flavour escaping from the ingredients into the liquid: Fantastic if you want a brilliant soup, but not if you want a rich, unctuous hotpot where each component is packed with flavour.

Anyhow, the proof of the cholent is in the cooking, and this turned out the best cholent I have tasted in years. Whether or not my booba would have approved of my embellishments is open to question…

INGREDIENTS (serves 4)

2 cups – butter beans – soaked overnight in several changes of spring water (or filter water – chlorinated tap water tends to toughen beans and impairs their flavour)

1 cup – pearl barley – rinsed thoroughly and soaked for 1 hour (again, in spring water)

4 – large carrots – pealed and left whole

1 – large onion – pealed and sliced thickly

1 – large oxtail – cut into 6 or 7 pieces

2 – bay leaves

12 – white and black pepper corns

4 – large potatoes – pealed and cut in half

1 – large head of garlic – with the outer “paper” removed

16 – small kneidlach (matzo meal dumplings) – with their cooking stock reserved

salt to taste

(Optional additions include a large stuffed chicken neck (helzel) and / or 4 shelled hard boiled eggs)

METHOD

Preheat the oven to  200°c

1) Choose a large deep cooking pot or casserole with a tight fitting lid(any cast-iron or heavy enameled pot will do)…

This is my grandmother's old cholent pot - and probably her grandmother's before her -perfect for the task.
This is my grandmother’s old cholent pot – and probably her grandmother’s before her -perfect for the task.

2) Place the butter beans at the base of the pot…

Spanish butter beans are wonderful - plump and sweet
Spanish butter beans are wonderful – plump and sweet

3) Place the pearl barley on the beans (my grandmother only used the beans)…

Always rinse barley thoroughly before using it
Always rinse barley thoroughly before using it

4) Next, put in the carrots and onion…

The larger the carrots the better and whole small onions can be substituted
The larger the carrots the better and whole small onions can be substituted

5) Place the meat on the “bed” of vegetables and pulses…

Oxtail (rabo de toro) is a big deal here in the south of Spain and is generally excellent quality. The darker and more aged the meat the better
Oxtail (rabo de toro) is a big deal here in the south of Spain and is generally excellent quality. The darker and more aged the meat the better it will cook

6) Add the spices (Booba never used bay leaves – just salt and ground white pepper)…

IMG_2126

7) Place the potatoes around the meat (remember – large pieces)…

It's essential to use waxy spuds which won't disintegrate during the long cooking
It’s essential to use waxy spuds which won’t disintegrate during the long cooking

8) Scorch the garlic and then place it on the meat (yup! You guessed it – Booba would never have used garlic!)…

This is a trick I learnt from the local cooks - only they would drop it into a white chicken broth - it adds a subtle smokey taste to the garlic.
This is a trick I learnt from the local cooks here in Spain – only they would drop it into a white chicken broth – it adds a subtle smokey taste to the garlic

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9) Remove the kneidlach from their cooking stock and place around the meat and potatoes (no – Booba didn’t put kneidlach in her cholent either)

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10) Pour a pint (or more if required) of the kneidlach cooking stock over the cholent (Booba used water – but whichever liquid you use, the more you use the wetter the cholent will be. I prefer it drier with all the juices absorbed into the ingredients)…

11) Finally, seal the lid of the pot with a piece of baking parchment or tinfoil….

IMG_2135

12) Put the pot into the preheated oven and cook at 200°c (180° fan) for two hours, then turn the heat down to about 110°c (90° fan) and cook for a further 6 hours – or longer if preferred.

At no time during the cooking be tempted to lift off the lid.

When you do finally open the pot you want to be confronted by something like this (note how the kneidlach and edges of the potatoes have become slightly caramelised …

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And finally you want to serve it with a good heavyweight red with plenty of complementary  “beef” of its own – betey avon!!

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