The build started a little inauspiciously – the crane/lorry delivering the massive bags of sand, cement and aggregate needed for the foundations put one of its outriggers just where our drain connected into the main sewer pipe and as the first tonne bag was lifted there was a massive CRACK. 10 minutes of frantic digging revealed that the pipe had not broken – and breathe!
At this point I started to really worry – I thought we were having a nice tasteful addition to our garden, but judging by the amount of raw materials we were building a small family home! Anyway…
Stage 1: The Foundations. Borrowing a cement mixer helped considerably, but there was still a lot of work digging, levelling and lining the foundations and reinforcing the concrete with steel rebar. The concrete was poured and we left our handprints a la Hollywood Boulevard!
Stage 2: The Support Structure. Over the last year of building work, we’ve salvaged a great deal of ‘stuff’, so it was really nice to be able to build the structure needed to support the oven dome with materials from our stash. So Chris set to work with rock, lime mortar, concrete I-beams and bricks and built that small family home I was worried about!
Stage 3: The Dome. Then the specialist stuff arrived, which was both exciting and worrying – how on earth were we going to lift the pre-formed dome up onto the support structure? Between us, Chris and I had no chance, so we unleashed the power of Spanish machismo! With a couple of neighbours, our electrician and a plumber or two, it was done! Now all it needed was about 8 different layers of insulation, a chimney and a door!
Stage 4: Time to Eat!
Almost there…! After a couple of weeks allowing the fireclay to dry, lighting progressively hotter fires, we were finally ready to cook stuff! Slow roast leg of lamb, barbecued pork ribs, but most of all, the pizza! It is amazing! I wasn’t sure about going to all the effort of building the wood oven, and saw it as Chris’s folly, but I’m totally sold now!
The Daruma doll now sits happily in his little niche scaring the children with both eyes now!
Calçots (not to be confused with Calçats, which are shoes!) are a mild allium, somewhere between a spring onion and a leek, and they are awaited here with the same anticipation that people in England reserve for the first asparagus of the season. Bundles of them are charred over flames – traditionally vine prunings, and as we were at a vineyard, we followed tradition!
The blackened calçots are then wrapped in newspaper to steam.
When it’s time for the feast (once the wine has been poured!) the bundles are unwrapped and you take a calçot, pinch it at the root end and slide the blackened layer off. You then drag the hot, sweet centre through a cupful of Romesco** sauce and then lower it into your open gob!
It’s a great way to endear yourself to new people – talking to them in rubbish Catalan with bits of onion between your teeth, hands covered in ash and red sauce down your front…!
* The Catalans seems to append –ada to any kind of food to indicate a feast of that food. Chris’s favourite word at the moment is ‘Butifarrada’ (said with rolling rrrrr, of course!) which is a sausage feast!
** Romesco sauce is a paste made from hazelnuts, almonds, peppers, tomatoes, stale bread, vinegar and olive oil. It is the traditional Calçotada condiment, but goes with anything – grilled meats, steamed fish or just as a dip for vegetables.
Anyway, to continue the ‘Now for something completely different’ theme with this building, we decided not to roof it with the traditional terracotta tiles, but to have part of it as a terrace (the views over the mountains are stunning) and the rest of it as a ‘Green Roof’. This was partly to get more greenery into the garden and also because of its cooling properties – the blue building is South-facing so gets hot in the summer and the water evaporating from the roof garden gives a cooling effect.
So… after much research, material-sourcing, a 2-month delay while the local planning department got their heads around what we were asking and more teeth-sucking from the architect/engineer, we have finally finished it!
First a protective carpet layer goes down to stop any sharp little stones piercing the all-important EPDM (sheet rubber) layer. The EPDM is all in one piece as this is what makes the roof waterproof, it weighed about 150kg while being huge and flexible – it was like trying to wrestle a dead body up onto the roof (not that I’ve ever done that…). The EPDM is glued to the ‘upstand’ walls and around the gutter outlets.
Next comes a layer of insulation, followed by a root-proof membrane, then a couple of layers for water-retention – little plastic ‘cups’ and a thick carpet of recycled fibres.
Now the challenge… How to get 7 tonnes of drainage gravel, crushed brick and organic matter up onto the roof?! We used to borrow odd things from our neighbours in England, maybe a hedge-trimmer, maybe a pint of milk. Well, here in rural, self-sufficient Spain we just had to mention our predicament and a neighbour turned up with his crane!
It was still a mammoth effort, but finally we were done, the capstones were cemented on and we were ready for planting.
Time to put the kids to work…
Now we just need to sit back (on the terrace with a glass of wine?!) and wait for them to grow!
The area is reknowned for its spectacular geology – oil companies, cartographers, paleontologists and geologists all come here to study the rock formations – but more exciting for our younger guests are the dinosaur footprints!
Starting from a village 10 minutes away from us, called Orcau, we took an early morning hike to a site where the fossilised footprints of Titanosaurus-es are preserved in layers of limestone.
[The footprints have been marked in black – otherwise they are quite difficult for the non-expert to see!]
In the more recent past, the foothills of the Pyrenees have been a frontier, first against the Moorish invasions 1000 years ago and then in the Spanish Civil War. 100 metres above Orcau stands the ruins of Castle Sauvella, which formed part of the chain of castles that defended the Tremp valley.
After lunch in Orcau (where you can see bullet holes in the walls from the Civil War fighting) we scrambled up to the castle and spent the afternoon looking for the lost treasure!
You can’t get anything like strawberries, raspberries or cherries up in the mountains at this time of year, but pomegranate makes an amazing substitute on top of a pavlova, with the slightly tart seeds perfectly complimenting the marshmallowy meringue and cream. (Though our kitchen worktops will never be the same again – the seeds are hard to get out without spraying juice everywhere!)
Taking inspiration from Thomasina Miers’s Mexican recipes, here’s our version of a Tequila Sunrise (or Sunset?) jelly with orange and pomegranate.
Finally, here’s some ‘Dulce de Membrillo’ (‘Dolç de Cordony’ in Catalan and ‘Quince Cheese’ in English). Basically a thick, thick jam made with equal quantities of quince puree and sugar, cooked until the fruit caramelises and the spoon can stand up in it. (We use Jenny Chandler’s recipe, you can find here: http://jennychandlerblog.com/tag/quince/). Cut it in slices and serve with cheese:
It’s also mushroom season here, but in the interests of health and safety, I think we’ll leave the foraging of those to the experts!]]>
So here’s the 30 second update:
We finally moved into the house in mid-July – 2 months later than planned and without hot water, windows, doors, a kitchen… (we did have a toilet, that was non-negociable!). There then followed the most knackering two weeks I think I’ve ever had (including A-levels, finals and newborn babies!) but we were just about ready for our first
guinea pigs guests!
The Summer was a non-stop rollercoaster of hard work, endless lists, early mornings and late nights – it was brilliant! My highlights were:
Laughing for 2 hours while rafting down the Noguera Pallaresa with the Family Mac.
Lying outside at 3am watching the Perseid meteor shower with Laura and Gavin.
Seeing 3-year-old Leo ride a bike with no stabilisers for the first time.
Watching the pro-cyclists come through our little bit of Catalonia on the Vuelta a España with Sarah and Andrew.
Suddenly, mornings are chilly and the kids are back at school – it’s Autumn and we have to get the wood-burning stove in before our next families come to play in October half term.
Hasta luego! (See you soon!)]]>
While looking for an area to move to we visited this part of Spain several times and tried to see it in different seasons – we came in the height of Summer, checked how cold it was in Winter and bought the house in the Autumn – but we had never been in Spring. Turns out it’s beautiful!
We’ve been watching the valley slowly coming to life again after the Winter, green shoots poking through the ploughed fields, swallows nesting under our entrance archway and rows of gnarled old vines suddenly bursting with leaves.
The people also seem to be coming out of hibernation – May is busy! We started the month with the local cycling sportive – the Pallaresa. It’s a bit of a killer, with nearly 200km with 3000m climbing – but the views were worth it! Loads of pictures here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/43857701@N02/sets/72157652311387561/ but my favourite is the one where a herd of cows decided to join in:
Then there was the Country Music Fair; the Lamb Feast; the Classic Car Rally; the Spring Fair… It’s all far too distracting – don’t they know we are trying to finish building our house?!]]>
Anyway, in the school holidays we did manage a couple of trips out, including one to the Terradets Gorge. This spectacular pass was formed by the Noguera Pallaresa river and is the only way out through the mountains at the Southern end of the Tremp valley. The cliff faces are almost vertical for 500m above the river and it’s a Mecca for climbers. We saw about 20 people at various heights (they didn’t show up on the photos!) it was incredible – just looking up to the top of the face made us feel dizzy!
We walked along by the river and crossed a beautiful Romanesque arched bridge to where the serious climbers start their ascent of the face. Even the first few metres we scrambled up had metal cables to help you up the slick rock and to stop you sliding down into the river!
We’re planning on going back next week to try out the trail up to the St Miquel monastery that starts from the same place, the views should be terrific!]]>
In the evening we went out for ‘Pinchos’. This is a Basque take on the more well-known Tapas, where various delicacies are popped on top of slices of bread and spread out along the bar for you to help yourself. Each pincho has a wooden cocktail stick in it (the longer the stick, the more expensive the pincho) and at the end of the night you present your empty plates and pile of sticks and they charge you accordingly.
We did have a couple of friends with us, but still, we racked up a pretty impressive tally (the forks are the most expensive, they were from some rather lovely foie gras – sorry, but it was gooood!)
Anyway, my (and Dan’s) favourite was a crab/tuna/egg mixture on fried bread, so this Friday we had a go at re-creating it. It was pretty good! Here’s the recipe if you want to give it a go:
Pincho de Cangrejo y Atún
Quarter of a small onion
2 hard boiled eggs
1 small can tuna (half a regular size)
1.5 tablespoons mayonnaise
8 slices of baguette
– Finely chop the onion and soak in water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients – this isn’t necessary but takes the harshness away.
– Finely chop the eggs and crabsticks and stir together with the tuna, mayonnaise and the drained onion. Season with pepper and salt if it needs it (our crabsticks were already salty).
– If your bread is fresh, just sprinkle it with olive oil and toast on both sides, if it’s a day old, fry it!
– Pile the topping on the bread (if you’re fancy, make quenelles) and serve!
Much of our property is built of big old chunks of local stone, but over the past 50 or so years, it’s been repaired and rendered. So one of the jobs we’ve taken on is to chase out the old mortar and re-point with traditional lime mix. It’s been really good to actually be building something up and feel like we’re learning a new skill (as opposed to using a lump hammer to knock shit down!), so here’s our ‘Re-pointing Masterclass’!
First, chase out all the old, loose mortar. The books say to remove as much as you dare – this can be quite scary as some areas we have gone in about 10 cm into the stone, and you start to wonder about how safe the roof is! We haven’t had any casualties yet – unless you count the two dead lizards we found!
(Health & Safety – always wear science goggles)
Next, brush loose material out of the joints:
(Health & Safety – always wear a hard hat even if it comes down over your eyes)
Then soak the stones so the mortar mix adheres:
(Health & Safety – how come my hard hat fits my 9-year-old kid?)
The lime mortar is good for three reasons: 1) it gives a lighter finish so matches our stone better, 2) it’s more environmentally friendly, and 3) it takes longer to cure, so for us amateur pointers, we have a bit more leeway to get it right! We tried various ways to get the mix into the joints including icing bags, but in the end we went with the traditional method of a big trowel (‘paleta’) to hold the mortar, and a small trowel (‘paleta pequeña’) to push the mortar into the cracks.
(Health & Safety – always wear your Mum’s gardening gloves)
Once it’s part-dried, a quick brush to remove excess mortar and to smooth the surface, and voila! Oh! What a lovely wall (with apologies to Richard Attenborough).
Hope you enjoyed this Masterclass from a couple of Journeymen!]]>