Monday, 26 June 2017

Coincidence and likely stories in the Southwest of Spain.

My sister, who lives in the Southwest of Spain posted something on Facebook today about coincidences.

Years ago, when I was still working as an A-Level Spanish teacher, students could choose a Spain-related topic to research and then write a piece of coursework in Spanish on that topic. A good choice of topic was always something related to El Coto Doñana, the nature reserve down in the Southwest corner of the peninsula with lots of environmental questions to answer, gaining good marks for students.

An area of natural wetlands, Doñana was always under threat from agricultural projects that wanted to make use of the water supply. Intensive polytunnel developments, growing those all-year-round strawberries and other soft fruit sold in supermarkets in the UK, were amongst the most guilty. The WWF and other environmental organisations have long fought to protect it but it's hard work. There is a National Park there with research facilities in the middle of what they refer to as the natural park. 

On the 26th of June this year fire broke out in the woodland areas of the natural park, near a development of polytunnel greenhouses. As the fires in Portugal have shown, fires of this kind are devastating. Fire fighters managed, I think, to prevent the fire from spreading to the National Park area. Some people, like my almost Andalusian sister, have been pointing out a series of coincidences: 

In 2014, a law was passed, the Ley de Montes, which says that woodland areas can be reclassified after a fire provided the government agrees that project requiring that reclassification can be declare to be "of public usefulness". (A fair number of forest fires have been suspected of being deliberately started as a result.)

In 2015 Gas Natural Fenosa came up with a project for gas storage tanks in the Doñana area.

In 2016 the government declared this project to be "de utilidad pública".

And in 2017 there is a forest fire in the Doñana natural park.

 It's rather a shame I no longer have students looking for interesting topics for coursework projects.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Hasta la vista, Sanxenxo.

And so we say goodbye to Sanxenxo for another year. And another tournament comes to an end. The final result later today.

We shall not be indulging in the latest insurance scam. I read this morning that the latest thing for the ambulance chasing insurance companies in the UK is to approach people on all-inclusive holidays in Spain, Greece, Turkey or wherever and persuade them to sue the hotel for food-poisoning!! They have no need of a medical certificate and the hotels end up paying. But the greedy tourists may be shooting themselves in the foot as some hoteliers on the Costa del Sol are talking of withdrawing the all-inclusive deals for British tourists. Whatever will they do when they can no longer eat and drink as much as they like?

But not us. We don't do that.

And so ...

goodbye to the fine views over the ria..

goodbye to La Madama de Silgar ...

and goodbye to sand dragons on the beach ...

See you next year!

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Food stories.

Beware of electronic kitchen itensils. "A popular French fitness blogger has died after a whipped cream dispenser exploded into her chest. Rebecca Burger, 33, who wrote about fitness and travel on social media, where she had 55,000 Facebook and 154,000 Instagram followers, died last weekend in what her family described as a “domestic accident” at her home at Mulhouse, eastern France." I read about this and, while sorry that she had died, found myself with a couple of questions. What was a fitness blogger doing using whipped cream? And what's wrong with just whipping it with a fork or a hand whisk? Far less dangerous!

Belgium is famous for chips. The French used to make jokes about it, rather like people used to make jokes about the Irish being potato eaters. I doubt if any of those jokes are acceptable these days. Whatever the truth of that might be, Belgian chips have been in the news because the European Commission is trying to tell the Belgians how to cook them. Apparently local politicians say this amounts to an attempt to ban the national dish, the frite – or frieten, as they say in the Flemish-speaking north of the country. "Whether eaten with mayonnaise or taken au naturel, the Belgian chip is up there with chocolate, beer and the national football team in the nation’s psyche." Or so they say.

"No public square is complete without a frietkot, or chip stand, where sellers swear by double frying bintje potatoes in beef or horse fat to achieve the ideal combination of a succulent centre and crispy exterior. In a move that appears to demonstrate a dazzling lack of common touch on the part of EU officials in Brussels – which is both the capital of Belgium and the home of the union – the commission is proposing that the potatoes should be blanched first to prevent the formation of acrylamide, an allegedly hazardous compound that can form in the frying process when certain foods are heated to a temperature above 120C."

There I was, prepared to be full of sympathy, until I read the bit about frying the chips in beef or horse fat. Quite gross! I know of a fish and chip shop near our home in Greater Manchester, a fish and chip shop of some renown, where they fry the chips in dripping. It's the same principle: animal fat! I am sure both lots of chips, Belgian and English, taste fine but the animal fat thing is rather off-putting to someone like me who rarely eats red meat!

Here's another quite gross food item, from Wednesday:

 "Police in Canada have launched an investigation after a patron at a Yukon bar allegedly stole the famed ingredient of their signature drink: a mummified human toe. For more than 40 years the Downtown hotel in Dawson City has served up the sourtoe cocktail, a shot of whisky with a blackened toe – nail and all – bobbing inside. Those who manage to touch the gnarled, severed toe to their lips earn a certificate.

On Saturday a customer took it one step further, allegedly making off with the wrinkled digit after swallowing his drink. “We are furious,” said Terry Lee of the hotel. “Toes are very hard to come by.”

The man had apparently boasted of his plans to steal the toe earlier in the evening. He later convinced a staff member to let him try the drink outside of the designated two-hour window known at the bar as toe time. “And this is how he pays her back,” Lee said in a news release. “What a lowlife.”

The  tradition claims to trace its roots to the 1920s, when a rum runner preserved his frostbitten, amputated big toe in a jar of alcohol in his cabin. Fifty years later, the pickled toe was discovered by a Yukon native who brought it to the Downtown, where it became a celebrated ingredient in its drinks. After Saturday’s theft, the hotel contacted the police and began offering a reward to anyone with information. “We fortunately have a couple of back-up toes, but we really need this one back,” said Lee. It was the newest addition to their collection, donated by a man who had had to have his toe surgically removed. After curing it for six months in salt, the staff had only begun adding it to drinks this week."

"Toes are hard to come by"!!! "Back-up toes"!!! Some things are just too disgusting to think about. Worms in drinks are quite enough, without human body parts.

 On a more cheerful note, this is part of what we had for our evening meal quite late yesterday.

Since it was "la noche de San Juan", there was a smell of bonfires on the air, and the delicious aroma of sardines grilling. We got a free sardine with our first drink but we did not leap over any bonfires.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Ritual meals and such like nonsense!

Last night we went to the annual special dinner organised for the chess tournament. Those chessplayers and accompanying family members who are staying in the hotel are invited every year. It's usually very fine. Last night was no exception.

We began with copious helpings of very nice "croquetas" together with pan a la catalana (ie bread rubbed with garlic and tomato) with rather fine serrano ham on top. After this came little empanadas, looking for all the world like tiny Cornish pasties. And then we were served so many plates of octopus (very nice, tender octopus too) that jokes were being made about how it could be recycled for today's lunch: a kind of sopa de pulpo for starters, an empanada de pulpo for the main course and a mus de pulpo (octopus mousse along the lines of chocolate mousse) for dessert.

Some guests were disappointed that there were no percebes (goose barnacles), a seriously over-rated and over-priced regional shellfish delicacy in my opinion. Much discussion ensued. According to one couple, it is still too early in the season. Another denied this, telling a tale of a goose barnacle caught/prized off a rock recently as big as a fist. Sceptics thought this might not taste as good as usual but were assured that it was tender and flavoursome.

Comments flew around about everyone's favourite shellfish. The local nécoras - razor clams - came in for much praise. I tried to think of how a similar conversation might go in England. Apart from black pudding in some parts of the north of England, it was rather hard to think what food items people would get quite so regionally patriotic about. Maybe certain kinds of cakes.

We were all of us trying to resist the temptation to eat too much in these early stages of the meal. We were saving ourselves for the main course: arroz con bogavante - a tasty rice dish with lobster. Some people regard it as paella but it is not really the same. It was delicious, as usual, although I am always left wondering whether dishes that involve cracking open the claws and bony shells of sea creatures to obtain a fairly small amount of meat are really, truly worth the effort involved. No doubt Galician friends would regard this as a kind of heresy.

Here comes another bit of heresy. At the end of the meal, during which we had all downed a fair amount of excellent Albariño wine, we were invited to go down into the deepest depths of the building for a "queimada". This is a drinking ritual where large quantities of orujo, Galician firewater, are mixed with sugar and chopped fruit and set alight. As it burns, the mixture is stirred, large ladlefuls are raised up, spouting blue and yellow flames, and then dropped back into the cauldron, by whoever is brave enough, daft enough, fireproof enough or paid enough to do so. In this case it was one of the waiters.

While this went on a recording told us all about it in respectful tones.

Whenever I have seen this done before it has involved people dressed up as witches and magicians, some walking around on stilts or doing wild dervish-like dances, and a general atmosphere of ritual magic. We had none of that this time but there was inevitably some gaita - Galician bagpipes - music.

Eventually the flames died down and we were all served a little glass of hot, fruity firewater.

All well and good but personally I would have preferred a little chupito of licor de café.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The solstice.

So yesterday was the summer solstice, which won't be celebrated here for a few days yet as they celebrate it with bonfires on the eve of St John's day. The longest day has been and gone. You might say thatvit's all down hill from now on and the days will start to get shorter. However I don't think we'll notice it just yet.

In the southern hemisphere, of course, it was the winter solstice. I read about a place in Australia where they celebrate the midwinter day by having a swim in the cold water of the ocean. SOme places do this on New Year's Day. Anyway this place in Australia had so many participants signed up for it this year, and so manybwho actually turned up on the date - as a rule more register than turn up -  that they ran out of towels and some people had to stand and shiver after they got out of the water. If only all the world's problems were so easily.

So here, to celebrate the summer solstice, are some pictures of our visit to Sanxenxo.


Wednesday, 21 June 2017

What to wear?

Fashion is a curious thing. It even finds its way into leisure pursuits and exercise routines. Long ago, when Jane Fonda's Workout was the go-to book for keeping yourself young and lithe and beautiful, I used to go to aerobics classes. I would turn up in my basic black leotard and basic black tights. Other ladies had a veritable rainbow collection of leisure wear. I swear some of them wore a different set each week. And I would hear the same question repeated again and again: "That's a lovely leotard; where did you get it?" As a rule I was astounded at how much some women were prepared to spend on stuff to get her hot and sweaty in!

Down at the pool I see a similar phenomenon. Some women must fill their suitcases with swimsuits and bikinis in a range of styles and colours. To do them justice, however, I think a lot of them buy extra swimwear from the Chinese shop across the road, where they have a fine selection of bikinis and cover-ups in many colours and all at reasonable prices. And you really need two swimsuits, of whatever style, just in case you swim in the morning and your suit is not yet dry when you want to swim again in the afternoon. Which often happens. Pulling on a wet swimsuit is not the most pleasant experience.

The other fashion trend this summer is probably a bit morepricey than Chinese shop swimsuits. Back in the 1960s there was a trend for baby-doll nightdresses: frothy and frilly, slightly off the shoulder and stopping midway between hip and knee. Well, the baby-doll look appears to have returned in the form of a dress. I keep seeing them around. They are fine on young women with a slender, model-girl figure. On anyone beyond a certain age, they just look silly. And any girl endowed with a large bust, no matter how slim the rest of her, looks as though she is pregnant. (Although nowadays women no longer where clothes which disguise their pregnancy or hide it behind a loose, drapey frock. The thing to do is wear something clingy which outlines the bump nicely, or even reveals an expanse of swelling baby-belly!) As ever, fashion trends are not meant for the woman in the street but for the skinny model on the catwalk!

Today it seemed likely that few would be showing off their bikinis at the pool. The day began overcast and rather cooler than yesterday. This should not prevent people from swimming but it probably will. And the sun worshippers would have to find another occupation. By lunchtime the sun had come out. So maybe the pool will fill up later. Before lunch there were only five of us down there.

Yesterday the temperatures reached silly heights. A friend told me that one of the girls cleaning and sorting rooms at her hotel collapsed with heat exhaustion and had to be taken to hospital. The UK had crazy temperatures as well. A school in Hull reportedly sent pupils home. Not all of them because of the excessive heat, which would have been quite sensible. No, a small group apparently rebelled at having to wear their blazers in the classroom in 30-degree heat and were suspended. The headteacher said "no students were sent home as a direct result of not wearing their blazer" but because of "rude behaviour". However, if the rude behaviour was provoked by having to wear blazers in hot clasrooms, what more is there to say?

Our two middle grandchildren, aged 14 and 12, attend a school where they have to wear their blazers all the time. The uniform is very smart, grey trousers, grey blazer for the boys, purple blazers for the girls. This is meant to give a good corporate image to school and make everyone feel great pride in the establishment. And the blazers stay on at all times, except for PE lessons. This must make writing awkward and practical lessons such as science and art and technology uncomfortable. Presumably there is also a dress code for staff as well. And presumably all of the staff have to agree to enforce the rules.

The whole idea that such insistence on uniform is good for discipline and makes everyone learn more effectively has always struck me as crazy. The Germans manage without it; in fact a German friend of ours once told us that they had had enough of uniforms in their past. In France and Spain uniform is the preserve if the private sector. I am pretty sure that Scandinavian countries don't impose uniform on their schoolchildren.

It's a particularly British madness!

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Here and there.

This morning we saw a strange sight: two young men wheeling bicycles along the pavement. They could not ride on the road because it was a one way street in the opposite direction. What the majority of people seem to do in such circumstances is simply ride at full speed down the pavement. Our friend Colin from Poio, Pontevedra, gets very agitated about cyclists on the pavement. Yesterday I came across spme statistics regarding cycling in Pontevedra. The Faro de Vigo newspaper reported on a survey by an assoc called Pedaladas, which found that in Ponters, despite a 30kph speed limit, which is not very fast, most cyclists, 71% of those surveyed, do not feel safe on the road and prefer the pavement!! 20% of the, never wear a helmet, and another 24% only occasionally use one. Perhaps if they took some safety precautions themselves - helmets, lights, bells, a bit of road safety training - they might manage to leave the pavements to the pedestrians.

Here's another bit of statistical information: in Galicia 10 accidents occur per day because of loose snimals - deer, wild boar, etc. This is 30% more than 5 years ago. Does this mean that there are more animals (in the case of wild boar, probably yes) or more cars on the road? Last year there were 400 injuries and 9 people died. Meanwhile, temperatures soar and forest fires rage in Portugal with huge loss of life and property.

 And in the UK they are still counting the cost of the tower block fire. Here is a link to fireman's account of his experience fighting that fire. And the stories keep coming in about people who still go around barefoot and in the clothes they managed to escape in; about people being told that if they refuse to be rehoused in places like Preston (only the other end of the country); about donations of food and other goods to the survivors being left to rot on the streets because the local council has not got organised to distribute it.

And Brexit negotiations are supposedly going on - how well remains to be seen.

The Queen's speech will finally take place tomorrow.

How long all of this will last remains to be seen.