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!

A day out in the sun


These are the oyster beds in the Etang de Thau, a sea-water lagoon where shell fish production is the main activity.  The mussel and oyster frames support strings of shells which are glued on when the shell fish are young.  They are then lowered into the water to eat and grow.  These rows of frames stretch from Marseillan, past Mèze and on to Bouzigues (to the left of this picture) and across the unpolluted water towards Sète. The water really is unpolluted – it’s the only place in France where shell fish is produced that doesn’t have to go into purification tanks before sale, a status that is zealously guarded by the producers here. And best of all, this is a sustainable method of food production which doesn’t use up the sea’s resources as other fish and sea food can.  It’s a major industry in the area, rivalled only by the Picpoul vines which grow so well along the shores of the lagoon.  The name Picpoul means ‘sting the lips’ and this white wine does have a fresh, sharp quality. By some miracle of nature, Picpoul wine is an excellent accompaniment for sea food.  I’ve noticed this convenient marrying of flavours of local products with local wine in other areas, Cahors red wine and lamb from the Causse de Limogne, for example.




The industrial area of Mèze, with the shell fish frames and Sète in the background…and no, that’s not the remains of our lunch in that huge pile of oyster shells!

There’s a beach at Mèze, although you wouldn’t want to swim there….


the port is pretty, and full of pleasure boats even in winter:



It was hot in the sun and we found a table for lunch outside at one of our favourite restaurants, Le Sanboulou, with more or less the view in this picture.  The excellent menu du jour (only 13.50 euros) gave us tapas – mussels in chilli sauce, artichoke hearts, marinaded sardines and battered squid rings – followed by pasta with scallops and gambas (large prawns) in pistou (basil and garlic sauce), and homemade tiramisu for dessert.  Of course, I had a glass of Picpoul too!


st jaques   gambas


Celebrating shadows

At last we have a cloudless sky today, for the first time for over a month, and with a dry north wind and bright light we have the weather we expect during late autumn and winter in the Midi.  I feel as though I’m home again after a long stay somewhere very dark.





The market looked very lively in the sunlight and with people coming out after days indoors (because no one here likes going out in the rain).  I was too busy buying meat, fish and garlic and chatting to friends to remember to take photos there but some of the ingredients I bought went into my lunch:


Lo Jardinièr wanted a mackerel and I wanted prawns, so we each bought our own choice.  I made a small collection of tapas – my lazy, less hot version of gambas al pil pil, made with a chopped chorizo pepper which is spicy rather than hot and lots of garlic (Chica Andaluza has a more authentic version), some of the last green peppers of assorted varieties, that we’ve harvested at the very end of the season so they’re very small, fried in olive oil, and some slices of chorizo made not in Spain but in Lacaune where our market charcutier comes from.  And, of course, some crusty paillasse bread to mop up all the olive oily juices.   I did share the peppers and chorizo with Lo Jardinièr and he said his fried mackerel was excellent too.  It was a great way to celebrate the sunshine!