26 May, 2011

Going south.

Oh, life's so hard: this was the view from the breakfast table over the weekend.  A friend's house, on the Catalonian Costa Brava, due south of the border (three hours drive from Montpellier), well north of Barcelona.  Intensely restful, transparent waters, good times.  I won't even get into how juicy sweet this melon was.
I will say that now, while it's still spring, is really truly the best of times to visit this rugged bit of Spain.  Now, before you're crushed under the collective weight of the relentless sun--and summer visitors.  This said, even in the sardine can that Spanish tourist season often becomes, the northern end of the Costa Brava remains appealingly full of simple pleasures.  As the budget flight-enabling Girona airport was relatively recently built, the coast was never ruinously over-developed--nor was it converted into a teenage rendezvous for disco trance and debauchery.  That bit of extra distance between the northern bit and Barcelona helped as well...  
You can come to the Costa Brava to follow in the traces of Chagall, Picasso and native son Dali.  You can come for for the kiting, kayaking and golfing.  You can come for the secluded coves and nude beaches. Or you can come for the history.  
Minutiously restored, medieval Pals is an inland village that was once a port town, this before silting permanently altered the coastline, as also occurred in France's Aigues-Mortes.  While worth wandering in the off-season, I've been warned by the locals that Pals becomes tour-bus central come summertime.  It's not hard to see why.
I found this little shop in Pals, a brief paean to Spanish foods.  And don't even get me started on that bellota ham.
In the Gothic church, if you should so desire, you can get your prayer candle...from an automated dispenser. 
That was the first time I'd seen that anywhere, let alone someplace with medieval origins.
The cobblestone paths and steps are ideal for casual strolling, and the inhabitants make it look less mineral with heaps of plants, their flowers tumbleing from balconies and hanging deep and long from windows.
The zoning laws here are thankfully strict.  It remains all sunsoaked, golden and ageless as result.  If I had more than a weekend (darn educational system with its rules!), we would have done more exploring--at the very least in the nearby walled village of Peretallada, apparently just as exquisitely medieval and also built on and of stone.
But, really, a family weekend at a beach house on the coast really must involve a bit of beach, yes?
The summer sun seemed to have set up shop.
We wandered, we ate, the adults drank too many cortados, potent Spanish version of a noisette, or expresso with just a bit of milk. In my over-caffeinated, near ecstatic state, I decided my favorite beach (we explored three) was definitely ultra-cosy little Tamariu.
You come to Spain not only for nature or history or even food, but for the people themselves, who in some ways differ markedly from their (often cynical) French neighbors.  They are certainly distinct from the reticent, modest Protestant Cevenols.  This too was a breath of fresh air.
The rest of the weekend we played.
And there might have been some crema catalana-flavored ice cream at the farmer's market, too. What, you say you've never tried to make this flan, custard cousin to crème brulée?  Do something about this, pronto.  It'll help bring sunny Catalunya to your own table.
Traditional Crema Catalana

Serves four.

6 egg yolks
200g sugar
3/4 liter milk
1 cinnamon stick
1 large strip of fresh, organic lemon peel
3 tablespoons cornstarch

Beat egg yolks until light and smooth, then whisk in three-fourths of the sugar. Bring milk--with cinnamon stick and lemon peel--just to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Remove and strain into a bowl. Whisk most of the milk into egg mixture. Dissolve the cornflour in the remaining cold milk and add to egg mixture.  Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and return the pan to low heat, stirring constantly until it comes to a boil.  Remove from heat and pour equal measures into four small heat-proof dishes (ideally ceramic cazuelas) and allow to come to room temperature before refrigerating. Just before serving, preheat the broiler.  Sprinkle a bit of sugar on top each serving and caramelize by placing the dishes first in a ice and water-filled shallow pan and then briefly under a hot broiler.  Remove as soon as the sugar has browned nicely.  Enjoy...


  1. That candle machine is a hoot. I took one of my favorite photos of my husband standing in front of a holy water dispenser in a Catholic church. I guess they leave it there for people who want to bring some home? But the kick was that the water was in an ordinary metal drink dispenser that you might expect to contain lemonade or some such. Except it had a big sign on it that read "HOLY WATER." I just wonder how many people were tempted to just drink it.

  2. Hi,
    I've started to follow your blog recently and I love it!
    Now I love it even more because you visited and loved my region!!!
    I'm from Costa Brava, a bit further south from Pals sant Feliu the Guíxols although I'm livin in Edinburgh actually.
    The firs time I saw on of those candle machines I thought it was a "Holy Coke" dispenser machine.

  3. Dear Rose,
    That is really funny! I'd never anything quite like this, or what you describe. Perhaps on really hot days they may have run out of holy water more quickly? Makes me think of that iPhone confession app. Catholic church in the 21st century...

    Hi Irma,
    How nice to hear from you--and welcome! (Edinburgh must be a real change from Costa Brava, my goodness.) Your Holy Coke comment made me laugh out loud...I'm going back down to Catalunya again to meet some other friends. It'll be the first time I go in the middle of summer. Hope it isn't too crowded!


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