Thursday, July 5, 2012

Medieval Catalunya: Its Towns, Its Atmosphere and Its Food

Each late summer, Hans and I travelled to Spain's Costa Brava, hauling our caravan behind us.  We arrived there for about a month around the last week of August each year.  For all those years, we stayed in the vicinity of L'Escala.  The evenings were still short-sleeve warm and the days, hot.  We explored ancient ruins, sat in medieval squares over a pitcher of Sangria, watched fishermen come in to port in late afternoon with their catch and wandered through food, fish and pottery markets.  This was Catalonia, that self-governing region within Spain.  In the Catalan language, it is called Catalunya.

The picture below is of a painting we bought at a gallery in L'Escala one summer.  It depicts the countryside a few miles north of the coast.

During our many trips to that part of the Catalonian landscape, we covered hundreds of miles exploring the area.  Some of our favourite day-trip destinations were to the towns inland where time seemed to have stood still.  A few of them were only five kilometers or so from the Mediterranean Sea but seemed light years away.

The Spanish towns inland are very different from the coastal towns.  The latter were--and some still are--fishing towns with a life of their own, their white buildings beside the sea glistening in the sun under a deep blue sky.  Medieval towns in the hills--their buildings mostly in brown and golden hues--are working towns where little has changed since the 1700s or earlier--or so it appears.  In the mountains, it is rugged.  In the valley, farming and market gardening are main industries.

Over those years in Spain we drove into many wonderful towns and villages along the coast and into rustic medieval towns inland.  We discovered two beautiful towns that we visited many times each year.  Neither were well advertised in 1990 when we first vacationed in Calalunya, but within ten years the tourists had truly found them.  They were not far from the Mediterranean Sea but both were as different from those whitewashed coastal houses as though they belonged in another land.

The town above left and below right dates back to the 10th century.  This is Pals, only five kilometers inland. 

The other town we visited frequently was Peratallada.  Both these towns were walled with narrow alleyways, overhead arches and small placas or squares.  Bougainvillaea hung from stone walls with other flowers everywhere in urns and atop ledges.  They almost felt like secret gardens or--as one of my favourite childhood book titles--magic gardens.

The picture below is outside the fortified walled town of Paratallada with me admiring its timelessness.

The one underneath is inside the walls in Paratallada.

Here in the countryside we found small restaurants nestled between rocky walls and cafes that occasionally had only one or two tables in the heart of the town centre.  During those forays, we sampled food specialties of the area that we came to love.

Our favourite restaurant in Peratallada was El Pati (shown with Hans, above), one we visited many times over the years.  Its court yard was surrounded by natural rock walls and flowering bushes.  There we enjoyed garlic rabbit and chicken with eggplant as well as other dishes.  Frequently a Spanish family would come into the restaurant.  They didn't always order a meal as many still eat their main meal at noon hour.  We always ate ours in the evening and still do.  On one occasion, a family gathered around a table and ordered tuna salad and tomatoes.  Sliced tomatoes circled the plate with chopped onions scattered over them.  In the centre, a mound of tuna.  Olive oil was drizzled over the tomatoes and tuna and then seasoned to taste with salt and pepper.  A simple supper. 

A dish that Hans especially liked was white beans, served cold.  In Spain, at the restaurant, he would have the beans as a side dish.  He prepared them himself later at home.

Hans' White Beans - He used 2 jars (cooked) white beans with their juice, 2 large fresh tomatoes, Herbes de Provence, 1 or 2 cooked sausages cut into pieces, fresh basil, garlic, oregano and olive oil.  He gently stirred all together and served them from a bowl.  With them, a Catalan-style salad:  tomatoes, cucumber, onion, red or green peppers--all sliced--along with olives.  We seasoned it well with salt and pepper, then poured olive oil and a mild wine vinegar over the salad.

At many small restaurants the oil and vinegar are in jugs on the table for you to use yourself on the salad.  We enjoyed that and found it to work well.  The oil and vinegar jugs above right hold extra-virgin Italian olive oil (with the stopper) and a mild vinegar.

During our drives into the countryside we came upon small hamlets toasting in the sun, hardly a movement anywhere. Many looked as though they were from another era and, of course, they were. I felt we were in the land of Hemingway's stories about Spain. I could almost hear the sound of guns from those long-ago 1930s, the days of Spain's civil war.  Today quiet reigns, although some old stone buildings still bear the scars of gunfire.

Below, two old churches in the country. All the churches we saw had a bell tower.

Here are some of the towns and hamlets we wandered through.

La Bisbal:  Spain's pottery capital.  It didn't have the atmosphere of the smaller medieval towns but it was a thriving old city nonetheless, with its main street lined with ceramic and pottery stores.  Much of Spanish cooking is done in ceramic glazed pottery which can be used on top of the stove as well as in the oven.  Some of the pottery in the picture below.  On the right, urns we bought there.

Cruilles, below right, with Hans being the only guest at the cafe.  On the left, the Tower of
Santa Eulalia.

Cruilles:  This protected medieval town seems to have stood still.  It is a walled town not far from La Bisbal but a world away in atmosphere, a town scarcely mentioned in our travel literature.  It is a village where the women sit outside their rustic stone houses gossiping in the shade and where the men sit having a glass of wine at the  cafe in town.  We sat there ourselves, beside a Farmacia, to have a glass of Sangria and to watch the odd person come by.  Cruilles is a simple place with the typical tawny brown stone houses.  We never saw a grocery store, although one might have been tucked away.  And never did we see a tourist other than the occasional Spaniards passing through.

Besalu:  One of the most medieval looking of all the towns, its fortified bridge sits high above the Riu Fluvia.  In the middle of the bridge there is a fortified gatehouse.  A Romanesque monastery was founded there in 977 and consecrated in 1003.  The town also has a Jewish quarter from the 12th century with a Mikvah or Jewish bathhouse, which is situated at the far end of the bridge away from the town.

Banyoles is a busy little town centred around a large square and a picturesque lake.  The rowing events were held at this lake during the 1992 Olympic Games.


Monells: A medieval village, with a large square in its centre, it is a lovely place in which to wander or just to sit and enjoy the atmosphere.

Once back home from Spain, I looked for a good recipe for garlic chicken.  Although rabbit is often available, it isn't always obtainable.  They can be used interchangeably in many recipes.

During the last weeks I have cooked several different garlic chicken recipes, four of which I had made before.  I have eaten so much chicken that I am almost ready to say, "Never again!"  The following recipe is easy, fast to prepare and flavourful.  It is also one I hadn't previously tried.  There is lots of garlic taste and it would be great with just French bread (lots of sauce for the bread) and a salad.  Or, instead, have potatoes (which I did) and a simple vegetable such as fresh or frozen peas.  Or canned, for those who like them.  (My sister Paula cooks a lot and makes some wonderful dishes, including various vegetables, but canned peas are her favourite.)

The following recipe came originally from my Gourmet cookbook with some changes of mine.

All ready to go into the oven

Chicken with Garlic Sauce - Serves 4
3-1/2 lb chicken, cut into pieces ( I used wings)
Sprinkle the chicken well with salt and pepper.  It needs to be well seasoned.  Heat 1/4 cup butter in a large heat-proof casserole dish or iron fry pan.  Saute the chicken pieces until they are nicely browned.

In a bowl, cream 1/4 cup soft butter with 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley and 5 large garlic cloves (skins removed), crushed or minced.  Spoon the creamed mixture over the chicken pieces; cover tightly and cook over low heat for 30 to 40 minute or until tender.  To serve:  Place the cooked chicken on a platter and pour the sauce over it.  Decorate with more parsley if wished and some tomato wedges for colour and also because they go well with this dish.  Lemon wedges can be added as well.

The glazed pottery casserole dish we bought in Spain years ago.  It can be used on top of the stove or in the oven and can then be placed on the table for serving.

Just out of the oven. 

By error, I creamed a half cup of butter instead of a quarter cup. That meant a lot more sauce. You could use part of that for garlic French bread. It did mean slightly less garlic flavour because of the extra butter, but I found it to be very tasty. Next time, I'll just add more parsely and garlic if I make that same mistake, although it isn't necessary. The garlic and parsley butter would also be great with escargots.

Note:  I sauteed my chicken in an iron fry pan and then transferred it (including the butter remaining in the pan) to a Spanish glazed casserole, covered it well, and cooked it on top of the stove.  I did place it in the oven, uncovered, for about 10 to 15 minutes before serving.  I used large whole chicken wings as I could not find any other chicken with the skin on and I did not wish to buy a whole chicken.  The wings were tender and perfect.  (The skin adds flavour, but you can remove it if desired.)

Here is another recipe that uses an entire head of garlic.  It is quite different in taste because of the other ingredients.  I haven't decided which one I prefer.  It is a little more work but easy to prepare.  This came from the magazine Canadian Gardener some years ago.  I first made this recipe in 1998. 

Garlic Chicken - Serves 4
1 head of garlic, separated into unpeeled cloves
4 chicken breast halves, skinned and boned (I used chicken wings and left the skin on for flavour)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary (or at least 1 teaspoon dry if you have no fresh rosemary)
2 tablespoons olive oil (more if needed)
4 ounces (100g) ham, thickly sliced and diced (I used bacon)
1 red onion, thickly sliced
3 tablespoons brandy
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Lime or lemon wedges

Preheat oven to 375F/190C.  Add garlic to a pot of cold water and bring to a boil.  Boil 3 minutes, drain and peel garlic cloves.

Cut chicken breasts into 2 halves and then each into thirds.  Combine flour, salt and pepper (season well) and 1 teaspoon of the fresh rosemary.  (Fresh rosemary is best but dried works well, too.)  Coat the chicken pieces with this mixture.

Heat olive oil in a large fry pan on high heat.  Saute the chicken on each side until nicely browned.  Remove it to a casserole dish.  Turn heat down.  Add ham or bacon to the fry pan along with the onion, garlic and remaining fresh rosemary.  Saute ham mixture until the onion is golden, about 10 minutes or so.  Pour the brandy over it; bring to a boil, stirring it quickly.  Pour it over the chicken in the casserole dish, scraping the pan well.

Bake about 20 minutes or until the chicken is tender.  To serve:  Sprinkle with the parsley and place lime or lemon wedges in between the chicken pieces, squeezing some onto the chicken.

Note:  This is what I did back in 1998.  I substituted skinned and boneless turkey for the chicken.  I used dry rosemary but somewhat more than 1 teaspoon.  I used 2 to 3 tablespoons German Schinken for the ham (similar to bacon but thicker and with more smoke flavour).  I used 2 shallots instead of red onion, and a wee bit of water.  I followed the rest of the recipe, including the brandy.  It was excellent.

My dinner at home with both types of chicken

Spain wakes up after 5 p.m.  That is when the afternoon Siesta is over, the stores reopen for the evening and the Paseo begins:  Spanish families all strolling about town or along the boardwalk in those near the sea, the majority of them well dressed for the occasion.

We loved the Spanish cuisine with its inland dishes of chicken and rabbit, sausages and other good things and we loved the coastal seafood served.  You could, of course, have Paella--one of Spain's most renowned dishes--in both regions.  The Spaniards often make this dish at a picnic using a special burner.  We bought such a burner and cooked ours outside our trailer in Spain.  As I have posted many pictures and have already given a couple of recipes, Paella will have to wait for another time.  The picture at left is the cover of my Time-Life's The Cooking of Spain and Portugal.  There is a very good recipe inside it for Paella, its cover picture.   

The medieval towns have been restored in many instances but generally it has been done with care.  One feels that "old world atmosphere" and the sense of walking back into history.

Salud from Espana!

Note:  Next week I fly to Nova Scotia for the remainder of the summer.  I hope to write a blog post from there, but it will be sometime later as I shall be busy with family, friends and settling in.  All my pictures are from the '90s, including those of us. 


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