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.)
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.
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 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…
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…
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 here, 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 (so sadly prevalent now in Israel) 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 ofgarlic – 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)
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)…
2) Place the butter beans at the base of the pot…
3) Place the pearl barley on the beans (my grandmother only used the beans)…
4) Next, put in the carrots and onion…
5) Place the meat on the “bed” of vegetables and pulses…
6) Add the spices (Booba never used bay leaves – just salt and ground white pepper)…
7) Place the potatoes around the meat (remember – large pieces)…
8) Scorch the garlic and then place it on the meat (yup! You guessed it – Booba would never have used garlic!)…
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)
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….
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 …
And finally you want to serve it with a good heavyweight red with plenty of complementary “beef” of its own – betey avon!!