A Catalan break

I’ve been away all week in Catalunya, staying in Sant Feliu de Guixols on the Costa Brava near Girona. We like Sant Feliu because it’s a proper all-year-round town as well as a seaside resort in summer. Although some of the more touristy shops and restaurants were closed for the winter there were a lot open for the local people….and for us. The town is full of modernista (Catalan art nouveau) architecture dating from the end of the nineteenth century: the Casino, now a café that was expensive for coffee but more reasonable for a beer in the sun outside on the pavement tables.

The buildings in the two Ramblas, this one in the Rambla del Portalet:

some more contemporary buildings

and a renovated 1920s market hall with a daily fruit and vegetable market outside:

The next bay, Sant Pol, is where some of the more spectacular modernista houses were built by Sant Feliu people who had left to work in central and south America and returned, rich and wanting to show it. Sadly, this turreted building is now neglected, some of its shutters and windows open to the weather:

We ate some very good food in Sant Feliu de Guixols, following the local habit of having a menu del dia of three courses with wine and coffee at lunchtime and then eating tapas in a friendly bar in the evenings. The best lunches we had were at L’Infern (yes, it means Hell!) next door to our hotel. I don’t often review restaurants on this blog, but this one certainly deserves it. There’s no choice, you simply eat what is being cooked on the day and the menu del dia cost 12€ for tapas, paella marinera, dessert, a bottle of very good local rosat – rosé – wine and coffee. All served in a beautifully tiled dining room with Latin American jazz piano music on the CD player:

Each table’s paella was cooked individually to order and while we waited we were served a succession of delicious tapas including a wonderfully smooth tapenade

Anchovies and red peppers on toasted bread

and red peppers stuffed with salt cod

Then came the paella marinera, rice cooked in a rich fish stock with squid, small prawns, mussels, large gambas and langoustines:

And for dessert, crema catalana:

A very good small cup of cafe solo was a perfect end to our lunch. We intended to come back here during our stay. Next day we were walking back to our hotel and the patron of L’Infern stopped us in the street to tell us that he would be making arroz negre – black rice cooked with squid ink – the following day. We’ll be there, we said!  Friends were visiting us for the day and they came too. This time for the tapas course we had the tapenade and the anchovies with red peppers as before, but we were also served sautéed mixed mushrooms and steamed mussels. The arroz negre was a tasty mix of rice, squid, prawns and artichokes that we all enjoyed very much.

I didn’t take so many photos this time, but my dessert, a slice of pastel de santiago – almond tart – with a glass of the local herb-flavoured liqueur Ratafia, was the perfect ending to a wonderful lunch.

This restaurant was a real bonus for us in a quiet street and next door to our hotel, so not very far to go for that much-needed siesta! I can highly recommend it – Hotel del Mar – a very welcoming simple hotel just 100 metres from the sea with a friendly owner who speaks several languages including English, French and Spanish and provides the best breakfasts I’ve ever eaten in a hotel. If you’re on the Costa Brava it’s a great place to stay!

Fireworks and paella

This is how we celebrate the French fête nationale in our village, starting with a Spanish band, La Gata Negra, during apéritifs and then eating paella – perhaps not surprising in a village with a population about a third of whom are of Spanish origin and one that feels very long way from Paris, which of course it is, 800 kilometres away.

Sunny Sunday lunch

Indoors, but with the windows wide open to the blue sky and warm sun:


Bread from the boulangerie round the corner, wine and olive oil from the village, local Luques olives and chorizo from a bit further away in Spain.



Paella made with rice from Gerona, red peppers preserved last summer from our garden, prawns (many food miles there, I’m afraid) and squid.


The red threads of saffron from the Crocus Sativus Linnaeus are said to be worth more by weight than gold.  I’m not sure of the price of gold now but saffron costs about 500 euros per kilo.  Luckily it takes only a few threads to give a wonderful flavour to paellas or even desserts.  A group of people in Neffiès, including the owners of the village bar, have started to grow saffron crocuses at Les Roches Rouges, on a hill above the vineyards nearby. Each year at harvest time they organise walks through the vines and up to their fields, followed by lunch of paella cooked with their own saffron.  They also sell the saffron – I bought some last year and have used it in paellas throughout the year.

I posted pictures of the crocuses growing in the field last year (the photos have been slightly distorted by their move from blogger to wordpress, I’m afraid).  This year the weather wasn’t so good, as we’ve been suffering, or enjoying, much needed rain for the past two days, so the lunch was held in the village hall rather than out of doors.  It was still a wonderful day and this year we were able to see the flowers being poured onto a long table for a group of people who knew what they’re doing to remove the red threads.

saffron 1

saffron 2 

saffron 3

It’s the sort of work that must be done by hand.  I liked this woman’s colour coordinated saffron coloured jacket and scarf!

And then it was time to serve and eat the paella:


There were three of these huge pans, for over a hundred people.

paella 2

The dessert (which I forgot to photograph) was a poached pear with saffron cream custard and chocolate sauce.  We drank local wines, of course, a white primeur (the new wine, only just ready to drink and made from grapes harvested at the end of the summer, like the better-known Beaujolais nouveau) for the apéritif and a good red with the food.  Local eau de vie was offered with the coffee, but I can’t take anything as strong as that at lunch time!

Sunday in the garden


Paella with squid, prawns, mussels and green and red peppers from the garden.  Making paella out of doors over a vine wood fire is a treat for family get-togethers in our village, which has a large Spanish population. We’re very pleased to adopt the custom when our family is here, so we made an early trip to Pézenas market to buy the sea food on Saturday to be ready for Sunday lunch.


Vegetable paella

My first post for nearly a week because our daughter has been staying with us and we’ve been too busy having fun.  She eats fish but not meat and yesterday, since we needed a quiet day after a couple of long days and late nights out, we made paella in the garden using the vegetables that are growing there now.  Paella always tastes best, I think, when it’s made outdoors on a wood or charcoal fire and this is what we try to do, weather permitting, throughout the year.  As an omnivore, I also think it tastes best with meat (chicken, pork, rabbit) in it, but in this one the aubergine really did give it a ‘meaty’ flavour and it was very good.


We picked these vegetables, including one of our first red peppers and a couple that were supposed to be red but seem to have turned out to be orange, and a courgette that had grown rather large but was still tender and a sweet onion that isn’t in this picture.  Straight from the plants and into the pan:


We sautéed the vegetables in olive oil, the red and orange peppers in strips and the others in chunks, put the pepper strips to one side for later, added chopped garlic, a cheating paella spice mix that includes saffron and paprika, some sprigs of rosemary, rice, the juice of a lemon, a glass of white wine, salt and water, and simmered until the rice was cooked.  Then we added some mussels that we’d cooked earlier and the strips of pepper, covered the pan and left it to rest for 10 minutes or so.  And then it was ready to eat at a table in the shade.


We’ve picked the first few Turkish pink tomatoes, grown from seed sent to me by beste.  They tasted lovely in a simple salad with salt, garlic and olive oil.  I think you can see the difference in colour between them (the two on the right) and the red Languedocian tomatoes here – to the eye they were much more obviously pink than they look here.


>Tomatoes germinated


DSC05919 The tomato seeds we sowed last weekend had all germinated by Friday (except for the Marmande) and were ready to go in one of the mini-greenhouses that Lo Jardinièr made last year. In the mornings we keep them inside but next to a window that has sun, in the afternoons they go out on the balcony. The seedlings seem to be growing very quickly! Now that they no longer need seed-starter box we have sowed the pepper seeds.

Varieties of peppers sown from seed we have saved or been given by friends:

Kandil dolma – a Turkish bell pepper with a very distinctive flavour. Only one germinated last year so we’re hoping for more this year.

Red marconi

Corno di toro

Spanish long pepper – seeds given to us by our neighbour.

Long pepper – seeds given to us by our garden neighbours.


Piment d’Espelette – seed from paprika peppers bought in the village of Espelette in the French Basque country. As there is an appélation controlée for peppers grown in the area of that village I’m not sure whether the ones we grow here can be called Espelette.

Chorizo – another paprika variety. Seeds saved from peppers we grew last year from seed given to us by a friend in Navarra.

In the garden

The broad beans we sowed in autumn are flowering now and the second row we sowed a few weeks ago are coming up well, along with a few of the mangetout peas which always seem to be slower to germinate.

DSC05918 DSC05916

And two good meals from the weekend…

IMGP7159 IMGP7183

Above left, the cawl (Welsh stew or soup made with lamb, leeks, potatoes and carrots) we served for our soirée galloise on Friday, when we invited 14 French/Occitan friends to celebrate St David’s Day with us, and right, the paella I made for Sunday lunch with pork, rabbit and chorizo.