Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Addio Ceriana, until next time

For me the morning started at six-thirty as I counted the tolling of bells from the church that sits right above us. I counted fifty 'clangs', the last five tapering off to a very quiet ringing that helped me get back to sleep. Historically the bells rang to get people up to go to work on the land. Some will still do that while others go to work in San Remo and Imperia as well as other nearby towns. At one time it was decided to stop the bells, which can be annoying, but the townspeople wanted them back. Unlike most places the bells ring on the hour and half hour all night.

Eventually, we made our way up through the piazza outside the church where a few people and some cats were sunning themselves. Yes, finally the sun had returned to Ceriana. After buying some tomatoes and bread for our trip today, it was time for our last coffee with our friends at Pellegrin's. It was lovely to sit outside and see how the town is changing with little children and people from various places in Europe and America in evidence. There are still lots of people from Ceriana  living here. Many have spent their entire lives here, eighty- or ninety-year-olds are quite common.

After hugs and kisses with the owners of the coffee bar, it was back down to our lodgings to grab our suitcases and then to drag them up the hill and through the old tunnel to the car park on the far side of town. Old timers all remember when this tunnel was blown up by the retreating Germans in World War Two. It was time to say a reluctant good-bye to our friends, who we hope to see again in a few months. It is always lovely to visit Ceriana and to see the changes in the old medieval town.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Festa di Primavera in Ceriana

Sunday arrived, the day of the food festival, where local towns brought their food specialties for everyone to sample. This was the first time Ceriana had hosted the event in fifteen years making it a special day. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't totally cooperative but by eleven o'clock the sun managed to come out.

We wandered along the main street looking at the foods the various vendors were selling including some delicious Toma cheese and hand-made ricotta that we just had to buy. There were wonderful breads and the most delicious bread sticks. Aside from this the people selling plants were doing a brisk trade. Other than that there was lots of jewelry and crafty items for sale.

After several trips up and down the street we walked to the piazza, where long tables had appeared for our eating pleasure. Music was playing and a band was setting up. All the food vendors were getting ready with each town cooking the food that it was famous for. It wasn't time to eat yet so we just spent time in the square chatting with friends.

Then it dawned on us how the whole thing worked. You had to get in line to buy tickets but you had to know exactly what you wanted as you paid for and got that particular ticket. The prices were all different. The line was very slow because you told the lady what you wanted and she went to a little book for that particular town and dish and then wrote out what you were eating and the number of items. Since there were at least 15 or more vendors you can only imagine how long this took. As one friend commented, "We Italians can't organize anything." For us it was even more difficult as we had to know the names of the things we wanted to eat and although they may have looked familiar they often seemed to have different names like the bruschetta on lovely dark bread that was called something totally different.

Finally we had our tickets, a place with our San Remo and Ceriana friends at the long tables and wine for the table. There was tripe, snails, gnocchi that was very rich, sardinara, torte which is a Ligurian vegetable pie, delicious sausages from Ceriana made with a secret recipe handed down over the generations and wonderful swiss chard fritters. The potato pie looked really good. We didn't buy everything because the portions were huge. In fact back at the table we ended up sharing everything and then sending the leftovers to one friend with a hearty appetite. The desserts were very good and not at all sweet. I had a pie with raspberry filling and Seamus had apple flan.

The local jazz band played throughout our meal with a couple of stops when it looked like it was going to rain. It was hot, cold, hot and finally wet but we had finished our food by this time and now we needed a walk. As part of the festival there was a photographic display lower down in the town in one of the ancient churches.

We walked very carefully on the wet cobblestones through very narrow passageways. Every so often the passageways would become a little wider and opening up on lovely stone houses decked out with loads of bright flowers. Then we would move on looking down steep steps leading to dark passages and hidden doorways. More of the houses looked occupied than on our last trip down here. We passed the house, now abandoned, where one of our friends was born. Apparently, someone owns it but it still sits empty and unloved.

Finally, we reached the church that dates back to the 11th century. There behind the altar and in the vestry were the old pictures of life in Ceriana. We actually knew some of the people in the pictures but our friends who came from Ceriana were in seventh heaven looking at old school photos and identifying their friends. There was a beautiful picture of our young friend's great grandmother picking olives, while another friend was working at the olive factory. There were pictures of people harvesting grapes and olives and carrying the baskets on their heads. For me it was quite lovely to see the faces of the  elderly people in the town light up as they saw old pictures of themselves or their friends.

We were ready to leave the church but the weather was definitely not cooperating. It was bucketing down. This gave us a good opportunity to look around the old church that had always been under renovation on previous visits. There was a lovely blue fresco on the ceiling in one part and the remains of some frescos on the walls. The view through one of the long windows up to the town was magnificent. There was an ancient Baroque altar and the remains of the previous church have been unearthed in places. This church is actually in use a few times during the year.

We finally braved the elements and crossed the old Nocetta Bridge across a quick running river and past the ancient abandoned hospital and started up the path back to the main part of the town. We stopped where our young friend's grandmother lived and it was pointed out to her where her grandmother and grandfather had courted. Next we came to the Gate of Sorrow, that was closed each night to keep out marauders. There is a gap near the door above where boiling oil or water was poured on any Barbary pirates trying to break through the walls of the village.

Back in the piazza we said good-bye to our San Remo friends hoping to see them again soon. Later that evening we visited other friends from Ceriana, who had lots of wood for their wood-fed oven. We had a little to eat, some wine and much laughter with them. It was a lovely day with lots of friends, good food and wine. A perfect Sunday.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wet weather and window shopping in San Remo

Saturday morning and it was raining and cold making everything quite bleak. After warming up with our morning coffee at Pellegrin's we decided to head 13 kilometres down the mountain to San Remo for some shopping. It was still cold down at sea level but we made our way to the pedestrian shopping street where we window shopped. Always the shops in Italy are fascinating to look at because of their stylish fashion. We had just about had enough when Seamus spotted Jaked, the Italian swimsuit supplier to the Italian and some other Olympic swim teams. Now it was time to shop and I left the store with a new lime green bathing suit and some new goggles.

All of our walking in the rain had made us hungry so we stopped for lunch. Our first appetizer was a little salad with a tiny piece of smoked swordfish. Our entrees consisted of frito misto -- lightly battered seafood --, veal scaloppine, grilled swordfish and pasta with clams. All were lovely. By this time we had eaten our fill but of course the limoncello came to the table along with our espresso and a plate of different kinds of chocolates that just came with the coffee. The chocolate was my Achilles heel and I ate my fill. So good.

The rain continued but we decided that it was time to return to Ceriana. Shortly after we arrived, our friends discovered that the plug to their heater had blown. Now a heater is a necessity in this weather so we drove back to the big hypermarket LeClerc, something like a Walmart, where we picked up the pieces so that Seamus could repair their heater. It was something like visiting a Costco on a rainy Saturday. We couldn't get out of there fast enough.

Our day ended with us sitting by our friend's fireplace getting heated on one side by the fire and the other side by the now fixed heater. It's not what you expect of Italian weather but we know that it's the same all around the Med.

A trip into the Ligurian alps

Our morning habit in Ceriana is to meet at Pellegrin's for coffee and croissant and today was no exception. As a lovely bonus we were greeted with a warm reception from the owners. It was a much nicer day than yesterday, sunny and warm enough to sit outside. This is always fun as we meet people that we know as they pass by or see people we know about. Many of the town's residents have lived here all their lives so everyone knows everyone and since it is a small town everyone knows everything about everyone. It makes for delightful and intriguing coffee conversation.

This year there were more new faces in town with several Brits, Norwegians and Romanians  taking up residence full time or for part of the year. It's good to see the place being revitalized by the newcomers. Of course the Albanians and Moroccans have been here for awhile. The Albanians have been fixing up several of the old, abandoned stone apartments as well as working the land for people who can't do it themselves anymore.

There is one new bar in town but unfortunately it doesn't have Wifi yet. This is a problem since the only place to get it is the computer in the tobacconist. Certainly this caused me many withdrawal symptoms. The pastry shop on the main street has new owners and only the butcher has reopened.

It definitely wasn't a beach day so we decided to have a drive in the mountains. After driving for awhile through beautiful densely treed countryside in the Ligurian Alps we stopped for lunch at a lovely restaurant Vecchio Frantoia near Badalucco, where our friends knew the owner from Ceriana of course.

If you haven't figured it out yet Vechhio Frantoia was an old oil mill. Inside were the huge old stones that ground the olives. What a lovely setting. in Italian restaurants it is quite common to bring you the food, always freshly made, without ordering from a menu and this is exactly what we did. After being served wine and eating the local black tagascan olives we were served some sardinara, which is a Ligurian pizza, but it has a lovely crust topped with tomato sauce, anchovies, olives, oregano and capers. Next came some focaccia bread and some other cheesy bread. After this some very thinly sliced meat like bresaula but even tastier was served. This was followed by potato and porcini mushrooms. The next serving was a mushroom and egg flan followed by delicious risotto with porcini. Tagliatelle in a lovely light tomato sauce with olives completed the appetizers.

Although we were pretty full we were intrigued by the beef covered in a thick layer of salt and cooked for half an hour and decided to share this main course. We have cooked fish like this but didn't know you could do the same thing with beef. When we got the beef it was so tender. Excellent.

Our meal ended when three  bottles of homemade liqueurs were brought to the table. We had sips of each, the best limoncello I've ever tasted, a delicious black licorice drink and another herbal digestivo. My favourite was the licorice. After an espresso we were back on the road. Everything was hand made by different members of the family, who worked in the restaurant.

We drove up through beautiful treed mountains to the village of Triora, where we stopped at an Italian specialty shop, buying some dried porcini mushrooms and a round of Toma semi-hard cheese made from cow, goat and sheep's milk.

Now we continued up the mountain driving round blind hairpin bends passing rock faces oozing with water and streams flowing out of the rocks. We stopped to admire the 120-meter-high Loreto Bridge, one of the highest in the world, that crossed a deep gorge. There had been so much rain that on one bend we encountered a waterfall, cascading over the road and down into the valley below. What fun and a lovely sight.

Finally, we ended up in Verdeggia, 1100 meters high near the French border. Looking further up the mountain we could see remaining patches of snow. It was  pretty chilly up there and apparently  we had missed a huge hailstorm. A lady from the town told us about a special day in August, when the whole town goes up to the top of the mountain, 2200 meters, for a big picnic.

After walking around the narrow streets of the village we started our return trip to Ceriana. Back in our friend's house we opted to miss dinner but we did have a little taste of the Toma, very nice. It was quite cold in the house as we huddled close to the fire listening to the river below and the croaking of the frog prince outside.

As we left our friends we heard a roll of thunder and then there was a spit of rain. By the time we got back to our place we were in a fully fledged thunderstorm with the rain pelting down. Still, l we'd had a lovely day.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Friends, food and laughter in Ceriana

After an uneventful drive across France we arrived in Italy, 52€ lighter with the cost of tolls on the autoroute and autostrada. You could have easily closed your eyes and known that you were in a different country. First there were the vineyards on terraces reaching high up to the top of the mountains, then there were the tunnels painted in France and much grubbier in Italy. The vegetation at the sides of the roads hadn't been trimmed and in some cases it was difficult to see beyond them. But we were in Italy and the first Italian espresso on the autostrada was wonderful.

From San Remo with its beautiful manicured gardens, we started the climb up the twisty road full of hairpin bends towards Ceriana. This year there seemed to be even more abandoned and dismantled greenhouses. This is the Riera die Fiori, Floral Riviera but  cheap Chinese floral exports have decimated this industry in Liguria. It was lovely to still  see some roses popping their heads out through the broken glass. The scenery as we climbed, looking back over San Remo and the turquoise Mediterranean, was beautiful. What a lovely spot! As we continued on the drive passing olive groves and vineyards, we noticed everything was quite lush. There has been a lot of rain and it was running down the rocks on the mountains forming new streams, even causing rock falls in a few areas.

Finally, there was Ceriana, our destination, in the distance. The first view of the old medieval hillside town is always quite dramatic. Soon we were having a glass of vino with our friends, Penny and Dino in their house overlooking the valley with vineyards, olives, fruit and vegetables growing. Clarissa, another friend, was there as well. It is an indescribably beautiful spot. Eventually we got the key to our house, parked at one end of town and hauled our luggage down the cobbled pathways to our door. Our apartment looks out over an old bocce court and other old, old stone buildings. Some of the floors in these buildings have been long abandoned while people still live in other floors. Unpacked and with the bed made up with two yoga mats and two duvets on top of the mattress on my side we were ready to go for dinner at our friend's house.

After more vino and lots of bread and the creamiest Gorgonzola cheese, Walter and Rosella arrived for dinner. Now we don't speak Italian but we can understand if we concentrate hard. It didn't matter as English and Italian were flying around mixed with much laughter, miming and more dolcetto wine from the Piedmont. Italians always know how to have a good time.

Finally, it was time to walk back to town and down to our apartment, with me wondering would I be like the princess and the pea and feel the mattress springs? Would we sleep with the church bells from the church right above us ringing all night?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Site of closed dynamite factory now an idyllic park

It was another unplanned Monday. We decided to drive up the coast to Banyuls to buy some of the tiny vinegar balls for friends in Italy. It was a beautiful hot, sunny day adding to the beauty of the drive with the mountains completely dressed in yellow broom.

Arriving in Banyuls we discovered that the vinegar boutique, La Guinelle's boutique in town was closed on Mondays, so we would have to drive to the main site in the hills near Cosprons. Of course that spot closes at 12:30 and it was about that time. There was nothing more to do than have lunch in a restaurant on a side street that opened into a lovely big old stone courtyard. Grilled sardines, salad and a glass of the palest French rose, who could ask for anything more?

By the time we finished lunch we still had too much time on our hands before the vinaigerie would open. We decided to visit nearby Paulilles, a former industrial wasteland. This doesn't sound very appealing but the site is now a natural jewel along the Catalan coast. Prior to 1870 Paulilles was a rural setting but the debacle of the French army against Prussia pushed the French Minister of the Interior to find a site for a dynamite factory "as far as possible from the border with Germany." The Bay of Paulilles was selected and converted into a dynamite factory by an engineering officer working with Alfred Nobel

The plant employed several hundred people and five generations of Catalans worked there. A complete village sprang up with housing and a school. In 1960, 20 tons of dynamite were produced each day, supplying building projects all over the world, such as the Panama Canal. Over the years numerous fires and explosions occurred causing over 30 fatalities. As well there were many serious and fatal diseases caused by contact with the nitro-glycerine and it's by-products.

When the market for dynamite collapsed in the 1970s, the plant went into decline and eventually closed in 1984. In 2008, 17 acres of the site was reopened to the public. Inside the museum we enjoyed the display, "A Workers' Story, " which was compiled with the help of former factory workers. It was fascinating. The workers were happy to work at this dangerous site in order to avoid fishing or working on the land. Housing was provided but it depended on who you were. The manager had an eight-bedroom house with beautiful grounds. One story told of a 31-year-old woman who just suddenly dropped dead at work. One of the chemicals eventually sped up the heart so much that it caused sudden death. It wasn't all bad as the stories told of festivals and lots of fun times at the beautiful beach.

We wandered around the gardens with exotic banana and eucalyptus trees. The fig trees were loaded with nearly ripe figs. At the site of the original hamlet we visited the workshop that restores traditional Catalan boats. From the viewing space we looked down on a huge wooden barque with restored wood and new caulking between the planks.

It was a short walk to the beautiful beach on the Bay of Paulilles, where a few people were sunbathing, enjoying the hot day. What an idyllic spot. We continued on to the outdoor museum in the original dynamite factory. Here we walked through the four alcoves discovering four scale models showing the landscape of the Vermilion Coast, the factory before it closed, the voyages of dynamite around the world and a relief of the restored site. Nearby the old water tower offers panoramic views of the coastline.

Finally, we took a walk through fields that were a riot of colours from all the spring wild flowers, ending up at the Great Hall. l especially liked the stunning pyramidal orchids in different shades of pink. Today, the hall is used for storage of the barques that need repair. But right beside it  was a huge fenced off area, a refuge for Catalan donkeys. Unfortunately, we couldn't spot them in the high grass and wildflowers or perhaps they were having a siesta in their enclosure.

We will definitely come back to the Bay of Paulilles, a truly beautiful spot that belies its industrial past. Our mission was accomplished as we bought the vinegar balls for our Italian friends. We will soon find out if they like them as we will see them there in a few days time.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Cadaques always enchanting

We had no plans at all for today but we decided to travel over the mountain to Cadaques for our morning coffee. All the poppies lining the road along with wild French lavender and lots of yellow flowers combined with the yellow broom all over the hillside made for a very pleasant drive.

Once we parked we immediately noticed a market in the overflow channel that sometimes is a running river in the winter. It was quite big with clothing, lovely plants, meats, cheeses and fruits and vegetables. We bought some capers in bulk as we seem to go through a lot of them, as well as some fresh strawberries from the vendor we buy from at our market. I think he was a little surprised to see is in Cadaques.

By now we really needed our morning coffee, which we had sitting outside facing the beach, a great setting for a lovely cup of illy. Cadaques was really busy with people strolling around, a man sitting on the beach painting and some brave people wading in the water.

We returned home for lunch, just a grate up of beets, carrots and apples, sprinkled with a bit of lemon and olive oil accompanied by a glass of Basque apple cider. Perfect on a hot day. The rest of the afternoon was spent finishing my Peter May book, the Chessmen, a Hebridean mystery. By five-thirty we were just hot enough to go to the beach for a swim. Once there I walked in slowly gradually going deeper but the cold was definitely biting. Seamus had joined me by this time. There was only one other person in the water swimming, a German. That did it, I took a dive and popped right back up again. Freezing. But I did it a few more times and swam about 300 metres even though the cold made my head hurt. Seamus did the same. It was lovely even if the locals think we are mad.

After enjoying the food so much in Turkey, it was time to try a recipe from our new Turkish cookbook, eggplant piled with onion, tomatoes, basil, parsley and dill with a bit of olive oil, water and a drop of sugar cooked on top of the stove for over an hour conjuring up a delicious smell. After it had cooked for an hour I decided to throw in some peeled potatoes. What a fabulous meal, simple and tasty, finishing with our market strawberries for dessert. What a lovely unplanned day.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Terra de Vi great opportunity to sample local wines

Sunday was Terra de Vi in the Port, the day of the wine tasting in the square outside the Bodega. The sun was shining and what better setting to taste wine than right across from the beach. More tents were set up than usual for the owners and representatives of the local vineyards. What a turnout! We rented our glasses for 3€ each and bought our tickets for wine and food.

Our strategy was to walk around first and check out which vineyards were there. If we already knew the wine, we didn't need to taste it. However, we did manage to give Nuria from Mas Estela a big wave. Our goal was to sample as many wines as we could and still be standing up at the end of the day. Several wines Seamus had read about were represented and most of these reds were excellent. Our next door neighbour told us to try one from a vineyard further up the coast but I didn't find it very smooth. Part of the fun is that you start sharing what you like with other people, who go to sample your recommendations and vice versa.

After a plate of food prepared by the butcher, mainly cheeses, hams and sausage I tried the palest pink rosat from a local vineyard. It is quite unusual in Spain to find pale, pale rosat. This type of rose is usually found in France. It was excellent and a great find for warm weather.

We also tried several local olive oils with little pieces of bread. All of them were very good. They were even better because you really need to keep eating at these events. Our next door neighbour had cleverly brought a bag of potato chips that she generously shared.

Finally, with all our tickets exhausted, we returned our glasses and walked back to the Nautica for a lovely strong and much needed espresso.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Magical valley location for nearby winery

Continuing our grape theme we took our visitors to a local vineyard, Mas Estela. This was easier said than done, involving a winding drive through the narrow back streets of La Selva del Mar and then along an even narrower farm track to the vineyard. With steep drop-offs to one side and no where to pull over, we were glad not to encounter anyone coming the other way. But what an incredible location. Our first sight of the vines rising up the mountain and the old stone house took our breath away.

We were greeted by four Jack Russells spanning four generations, and Nuria the owner of the vineyard along with her husband. She explained that they had lived there for twenty-four years. Originally there were some old Grenache vines that they harvested before planting their own along with carignan, syrah and muscatel.

Habitation in the valley dates back to the 900s when it was owned by the Count of Empuries Gaufred. Nuria and her husband own fifty hectares of land. Sixteen acres are planted on fairly flat land and the newer grapes on the very steep hillsides. Fortunately, they were able to use existing stone terraces, which have probably been there for 300 years. They also have some olive trees to produce oil for their own use.

Nuria was very enthusiastic and passionate about Mas Estela's wine production utilizing biodynamic processes with no pesticides or fungicides. We saw the rectangular steel vats, the crusher, the bottling area and finally the oak barrels. Then we spotted two lovely donkeys grazing in the pasture.

Our Italian friend is always telling stories about how things were done in his home village but he had met his match in Nuria, who swapped story for story about similar events in Spain. One was how as children they would come home from school and get a piece of bread soaked in wine for their snack. We had lots of laughs in the almost three hours we were there. Dino was very happy to have found a soul mate.

We tasted the three reds Mas Estela produces and bought the second one. Then we had some of the Moscatell, which tasted like sherry. Lovely. It was interesting how this was produced from the original 24-year-old 'mother' wine. Each year the new wine is put in the 1700-litre barrels. 700 litres are transferred into the previous year's barrels with 700 litres being moved from each year's barrels ultimately aging the wine beautifully.

We had our pictures taken outside under the beautiful blue hanging wisteria as a reminder of the special day. By now Nuria's husband had returned from the port where he was exchanging some of his wine for some fresh fish. I think he was amazed that we were still there. What a hospitable and friendly couple who make wonderful wine in a perfect paradise.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Visit leads to new appreciation for vinegar

Having visitors is always a good excuse for going exploring. After a wonderful lunch at the beachside restaurant O Sole Mio just north of Banyuls, and a bottle of pale pink rose like only the French produce, we went in search of La Guinelle, the vinaigrerie artisanale.

After winding along the road up in the hills just north of the restaurant, we found our vinegar maker. What a beautiful setting, with vines coming down the mountainside to a little stream. After introductions, Nathalie, the owner and a lady who is passionate about what she does, showed us just how the different vinegars are produced.

The vinegars at La Guinelle, using only biological means, are made from aromatic, sweet wine that is produced without the addition of sulfites. The vinegar is first stored in French oak  barrels, which sit in the sun for 18 months. Each barrel has a hole cut in the top covered by a cloth. This lets natural bacteria cement the vinegar. After this time the vinegar sits it demijohns that are sealed so that the fermentation process does not continue - if it did the wine that turned into vinegar would eventually turn into water. I never really understood the wine to water analogy as well before today's visit.

The balsamic wines were aged in barrels for five years or longer. These vinegars were combined with the mother vinegar and eventually moved into smaller barrels before they were finally bottled. Each vinegar can be used with different foods.

And now it was time for us to taste the vinegars produced by Nathalie. First we tasted the little red vinegar pearls that explod in your mouth with a very pleasing taste. We now know that these are very good on smoked salmon. This was followed by the red wine vinegar that had a real hint of hazelnut. Next was the white vinegar made from grey granache grapes that had a citrusy flavour. Then we tried a vinegar that had cinnamon and cloves added to it and another that had saffron spikes added. The last vinegar we tasted was the balsamic, which really tasted of honey. This can be used on fruits as well as salads.

It was a lovely visit during which we learned a lot about vinegar. The fascinating thing was how the different vinegars did have really different tastes. Needless to say we bought some of La Guinelle's vinegars. What a lovely visit.