As the family get ready for the New Year’s Eve celebration – the second main celebration of three over the festive season in Spain – Benjamin and I take a trip to the jetty where the fishing boats come in with their daily catch.
Benjamin’s mother has already been here earlier this morning to buy the seafood for the family evening meal on December 31st. There are twenty-two family members coming for dinner and Carmen (Benjamin’s mother) insisted on going to the muelle (port) to buy the galeras (mantis prawns) straight from her cousin’s fishing boat. She knows they will still be alive and even fresher than in the market place.
As we roll up at the wharf, there’s a buzz of activity. A man walks out with three large nets of mussels and my taste buds start to kick into action. We walk in and inspect the fish. It’s all in boxes on the floor. The floor is wet and people have their wellies on.
The fish is laid out in polystyrene boxes. It’s been weighed and each box has its label telling us the weight of the fish or seafood in the box, it’s origin and the name of the person who caught it.
We walk around examining the boxes. The fish has just come in off the boats and is so fresh it’s still alive. We find the galeras. They are wriggling around in the box.
Little black eyes like peppercorns on their transparent coating. People come in and marvel at the lubina (sea bass). It’s a good size and would easily feed a family of four on New Year’s Eve.
We wander out on to the harbour. A fishing boat is on its way out. They wave out to me as they see me taking a photo. They have a fantastic day for fishing. The sky is a beautiful blue, the sea is calm and there’s little wind. Another group of fishermen are unpacking their catch, they wash off the fish on board and throw it into a large plastic bucket ready to hand over to be sold.
Benjamin and I wander out of the building and over to the fisherman’s bar La Cantina Marinera. The sun is warm despite the temperature of 13 degrees and the terrace is busy. We walk through the terrace and make our way to the bar. At first, I think I am the only female in this busy bar. Something that years ago would have made me feel shy. On closer inspection, I notice there are more women and one of them I recognise from earlier when I saw her organising fishing nets.
I order some tapas and a couple of beers.
Everything on display is fish or seafood. The colours are amazing. Three generous tapas and two beers come to nine Euros. We sit at a table in the sunshine. The tapas are fresh and mouth-wateringly good. The bar starts to fill up with people coming for lunch. We sit back, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the tapas.
One of the three main celebrations over the Christmas period in Spain is the arrival of Los Reyes Magos, otherwise know as the Three Kings or Three Wise Men.
The Spanish barely have time to recover from the New Year’s Eve celebrations before they start all over again with the preparation for the visit from Los Reyes Magos (The Three Kings or Three Wise Men) on January 6th.
Traditionally, the Reyes Magos deliver presents overnight on January 5th ready to open on January 6th.
Children all over Spain are excited. They finish school around December 22nd and every year I wonder how they cope with the waiting. Spending the school holidays waiting for the Three Kings to arrive with their presents, must be quite a challenge.
By January 5th the levels of excitement have risen. There are last minute Christmas shoppers everywhere and in every city, town and village in Spain on January 5th the Three Kings will make an appearance in a procession.
Around 6.00pm the streets will be lined with people, old and young alike waiting for it all to happen.
The Three Kings and their helpers will throw out sweets and small presents to the onlookers as they go around. There’s a mad scramble to catch them. One year in Burriana, Castellon, they even threw out fresh artichokes, resulting in a tasty supper afterwards, although we had to dodge quite a few as they flew through the air.
Last year I wanted to see the processions in both Ubrique and Benaocaz as I hadn’t seen them there before. So, at around 5.30pm on January 5th, we drove down the mountain from Benaocaz to Ubrique, where people were starting to line the streets in anticipation.
At 6.00pm, the procession started with the Three Kings coming down the main street, each one on a separate float with their helpers. Generous handfuls of sweets came flying over our heads while we dodged them trying not to get hit.
Children and adults alike scramble around on the ground to pick them up. A lady behind me pulled out a carrier bag for her children to put them in. They had come prepared.
Each float was followed by a band playing music. I love this about Ubrique. There’s always a band in every procession. The musicians of the town played for the crowd and the excited children. The atmosphere was electric. When the floats had passed the through the main street and were making their way around the rest of the town, it was time for us to drive back up the mountain to Benaocaz to watch the procession there.
Traditionally, the Three Kings tour Benaocaz by donkey, but I had been told that they hadn’t done it for the last few years preferring to go around on more modern forms of transport. The atmosphere was buzzing when we arrived. I was worried that if they went around by car, I might miss them, so Benjamin dropped me off while he went to park.
“They’re up by the church,” I heard a man tell a passing family. “What? You mean this way?” I asked him pointing up the steps.
I raced up the steps feeling like a child. I heard the music before I got there.
And then, suddenly, there they were in full tradition.
Each King on a donkey.
Most of the processions I’ve seen over the years involve the Kings passing the crowds, but in Benaocaz just like any other procession in this village, the crowd is part of the procession. Those who weren’t dressed up to entertain the children, walked behind the Kings and their donkeys. The Kings carried sacks full of sweets and threw handfuls out as they went from one end of the village to the other.
Half way round King Baltasar lifted his sack up and the top half of the sack fell plop into the floor in a pile by the donkey’s feet. Baltasar was so convulsed by laughter that for a moment he doubled over and could hardly ride the donkey. He managed to recover and move on, leaving the children free to dive straight into the pile of sweets.
Finally, the procession got to the plaza where a stage had been set up with three thrones. By now, Benjamin had disappeared into the bar for a beer, but I was keen to see what happened next.
The Three Kings stood in front of their thrones on the stage. The children got themselves ready. The excitement was rising. They knew what was coming. First more sweets were thrown out, followed by plastic footballs. The kids scrambled around to catch them. Soft toys were lobbed out next. With a catch that would impress any cricket team, the man next to me caught one as it flew through the air for his toddler.
Eventually, the Kings took their seats on the thrones. The children were asked to line up in order of age. One by one, starting from the youngest baby in the village and working their way up through the age groups, the children of the village, were called up to the Three Kings to receive a present.
I felt emotional. It must be magical as a child in Spain to think that those people who deliver your presents overnight have come to your town or village to hand out presents and sweets before they even get to your house.
As I looked around, most of the villagers I know were there to watch the children receive their presents. It’s a special night all over Spain, but I have to admit that this was one of the loveliest and most fun processions I have seen so far.
So, after a wonderful evening of processions, it was time to go down to the coast to stay with family in Chipiona ready for January 6th.
It’s almost compulsory to get up at dawn on January 6th (luckily dawn is not until around 8.00am at that time of year in the south of Spain) and stuff your face with the traditional ‘Roscon de Reyes’ (The Kings’ Cake) while everyone opens their presents.
Traditionally, the Roscon, a round cake, is freshly made at the baker’s and delivered or collected ready to eat for breakfast on January 6th with coffee or hot chocolate.
Of course, we had been unable to resist taking with us a Roscon cooked in the wood-burning oven at La Panaderia San Anton in Benaocaz. So, there were two enormous cakes on the table, meaning there was no escape from eating cake. What a deliciously sweet start to the twelfth and last day of Christmas.
If you have ever been to Spain and wondered what type of coffee to ask for, then this guide to ordering coffee that I came across recently is just for you.
Spanish coffee is strong and down to earth. You won’t find a menu with lattes or cappuccinos. So, whether you choose to drink it hot, with ice, decaf, with or without milk or very sweet with condensed milk, this guide will hep you decipher the lingo when it comes to ordering coffee in Spain.
If you prefer not to drink caffeine, you can order all the coffees in the guide with decaf coffee (descafeinado). So, a decaf coffee with condensed milk becomes ‘un descafeinado bombon’.
While the guide refers to a café manchado as either an espresso with a splash of milk or a ‘glass of milk flavoured with coffee’, I have always known it as the latter – hot milk with a splash of coffee. Coffees do vary from region to region though, so it’s worth checking.
If you are visiting Spain in summer, a café bombon con hielo (coffee with condensed milk and ice) is a great way to drink something cool if you don’t fancy an ice cream or would prefer a cool, but sweet alternative to a dessert after a meal.
One thing that is still not common everywhere in Spain (although Madrid may be different) is soy or other alternatives to dairy milk. However, lactose-free milk is generally on offer in most coffee shops, restaurants and bars.
Don’t be surprised if your coffee served in a glass in Spain, but one thing you will rarely find (and let’s hope it stays that way) is coffee served in a plastic or polystyrene disposable cup therefore, making coffee drinking an environmentally-friendly affair as well as a sociable one. As the guide to ordering coffee says “the last thing to note is that most Spaniards do not take their coffees ‘to go’. Instead, they sit down to enjoy their drinks with friends or family”.
For book lovers and writers in Spain, April 23rd, World Book and Copyright Day, is characterised by an expression of love. A book and a rose are given as presents to loved ones to celebrate El Dia del Libro (Book Day) all over the country.
Originally started in Barcelona, in the 1920s, by the writer Vicente Clavel, Book Day later went on to become declared World Book and Copyright Day by UNESCO.
Clavel, who lived in Barcelona, came up with the idea of a day to celebrate books and reading. Since the 15th century people had given roses to their loved ones on April 23rd the day of the patron saint, San Jordi (St George), in Catalonia. Realising that April 23rd was also the anniversary of the death of both Miguel Cervantes and William Shakespeare, it was decided to celebrate Book Day in Spain on this day and encourage people to give books as presents.
At first, men gave a rose to women on this day and women gave a book to men. Nowadays, books and roses are given as presents to both men and women. Schools, bookshops, readers, writers and publishers celebrate this day all over Spain. Bookshops decorate their shop windows with roses and events take place with readings and authors signing books.
In Catalonia it’s a big event and you will find La Rambla in Barcelona lined with book and flower stalls. The area quickly fills with crowds of people buying books and roses as an expression of love for their families, friends and partners.
In the mid-1990s Book Day became a worldwide festival and was declared World Book and Copyright Day by UNESCO. Every year on April 23rd a city takes over the honour of being World Book Capital to promote books and reading for the following 12 months. This year, 2017, Conakry, the capital of Guinea has been designated World Book Capital. Conakry’s mission is “”to promote reading among youth and underprivileged sections of the population.” (Source: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/wbcd).
As books can be expensive in some parts of the world and libraries are scarce, UNESCO is encouraging the use of mobile telephones for reading as mobiles are cheap and widely available. Mobile devices are often used as a reading platform and can be accessed in areas where people can’t afford books or education is seen as a social stigma.
As a bookworm, or ratón de biblioteca (a library mouse), as they say in Spanish, I can´t imagine my life without books or reading. I am grateful for all the things I have learnt, the feelings I have felt, the places I have visited, the adventures I have lived and the people I have met in books. In the words of William Styron:
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”
Which book would you like to give as a present to a loved one to show you care?
Semana Santa, or Holy week, is a week of processions and traditional food leading up to Easter in Spain. If you have never seen a Semana Santa procession, it’s quite something. In the larger cities, people come out in their droves to watch the religious effigies passing by accompanied by sombre music. The procession goes on for hours at a time and consists of a paso – large wooden statues of Jesus and Mary on a float along with other representations of the Christian portrayal of Easter. It’s impressive, not only because of the decoration, fresh flowers and the robes and candles of the penitents that follow the effigies, but also because the representation is carried on the shoulders of people, generally men, who have been in training for weeks.
In the villages, it’s often a challenge as they move the ‘paso’ around tight corners and along narrow streets. Probably, the one that impressed me the most was in the smaller town of Salobreña in the province of Granada. The effect of the colours against the background of the white village was breath taking. This was also the first time I experienced La Saeta– a religious song sung a capella in which the singer shows his devotion to the statue in the procession. A band playing through the streets is always enough to make me want to watch any procession, but the saeta was something else. A powerful voice reaching out across the square was the only sound you could hear amongst the crowd.
Semana Santa is also a week for eating and dining out with friends and family. While there are various traditional sweet dishes during Holy Week, one of my favourites is Torrijas – a type of sweet French toast.
While the recipe varies slightly all over Spain, typically Torrijas are made from bread left to soak in milk or wine, dipped in egg, fried and covered in a sweet syrup.
Torrijas are widely available in Spanish cake shops during Lent and are often made at home too. It’s a simple process to make these delicious treats. You’ll find the Spanish either eating them for breakfast or with an afternoon coffee.
How to make Torrijas
I’ve been told the trick is to use day old bread and whole milk. In Chipiona the local sweet wine Moscatel is often used to soak the bread rather than milk. The Torrijas are fried and then bathed in syrup producing a rich, sweet and filling treat. While some people make the syrup with hot water and sugar, Benjamin’s mum, Carmen, uses hot water and honey with a pinch of salt creating a sweet syrup called meloja. The quantity of each ingredient depends on the amount you wish to prepare.
Soak the bread in milk with a pinch of salt or wine for at least 30 minutes
Beat some eggs with milk
Dip the bread soaked in milk or wine into the egg mixture
Fry the bread in hot oil
Remove each slice carefully from the frying pan and place on kitchen paper to cool and drain off any excess oil.
To prepare the syrup – heat a pan of water, add plenty of honey and a pinch of salt. Once the mixture has reached boiling point, lower the heat and keep stirring until the syrup thickens.
Once the bread has cooled, you can dip each slice into the hot syrup using a pair of tongs. It’s important that the bread has cooled otherwise it will disintegrate in the syrup. Put the bread slices onto a plate or a container and pour the rest of the syrup over the top so that the slices remain moist. Once they have cooled, they are ready to eat and will last for a few days if kept in an airtight container. I don’t know about other Spanish families, but here the Torrijas don’t usually make it to the air-tight container however many Carmen makes!
While this might sound overly sweet, the bread gives it a savoury touch. I’m not very sweet-toothed but I have to admit I love home-made Torrijas.
Variations on the recipe include adding cinnamon to the milk when soaking the bread and lemon peel to the oil when frying.
If you are looking for an energy boost Torrijas are ideal. Apparently, before they became associated with Semana Santa they were given to women in labour to recover their strength after giving birth.
If you have enjoyed reading this or make your own Torrijas, I’d love to hear about it in the comment box below.
At 5.00 pm the white hilltop town of Ubrique is just beginning to start all over again. During the mid-afternoon heat the locals shut shop and go indoors for lunch. Now, the town is getting ready for the evening. The shops open their doors again and the bars and cafes start to fill with people drinking coffee.
A tree-lined avenue provides shade and a home for the chattering birds. It takes you through the more modern part of town before winding up the hill into the old town. The hustle and bustle of Ubrique is a completely different atmosphere from the tranquillity of the white villages. I drive around trying to find a parking space. I’ve arranged to have coffee with Alicia, the local ceramist.
I first met Alicia some years ago, in Grazalema at a craft exhibition. She was giving demonstrations on her potter’s wheel. I had always had a desire to learn to throw clay and readily rolled up my sleeves to have a go. Alicia’s patience and never ending cheerfulness were amazing as I clumsily tried to hold my piece of clay in the centre of the wheel. Alicia sat next to me, propping up my lump of clay and rescuing it every time it fell, with her expert hands. It became evident that I would need much more practice when Benjamin sat down for his turn. Within a couple of minutes Alicia had let go of the clay and left him to it, commenting that he was a natural.
I finally park and meet Alicia. We sit down in the busy pedestrianised street. The streets are lined with tables and it takes us a minute to find a spare one.
After ordering our coffee, Alicia tells me her story. I strain to hear over the noise of clinking coffee cups, singing birds, children playing and people talking. It’s hot for the time of year. The heat rises from the pavement which is still warm from the day’s sunshine.
In the year 2000 at the age of 33, Alicia started her ceramic course in Cadiz. She’d decided to embark on a new life after a relationship broke up. She had always loved pottery and decided to pursue her passion. Alicia regards her potter’s wheel as active meditation. A connection with herself. She finds it therapeutic.
“I spend hours and hours in the workshop. Time goes by. It could be Saturday or Sunday, but I love it in there.”
Alicia now teaches her skill to others. Her pupils, she tells me, leave her classes feeling relaxed and having enjoyed themselves.
When we have finished our coffee, I accompany Alicia to her studio. She has a three-storey town house. The bottom floor serves as her workshop and display area for clients. She lives on the middle floor and has another apartment with a terrace leading out to a view of the mountains on the top floor. It’s great for anyone who wants to take a course in pottery and needs accommodation.
Miranda, an Australian lady, recently stayed in this apartment. Miranda combined a visit to Spain to learn about the language and the culture with a pottery course. A perfect way to learn the language without having to attend formal language classes. I met Miranda, when I popped in earlier in the week to pick up some bespoke gifts Alicia had designed for the writing retreat. Miranda was having a fantastic time and I was reminded how much fun learning a language is through another activity.
When we arrive at the studio, two of the students are waiting outside. We go inside and they settle down. Even though it’s an adult class, Alicia tries to contact the two that haven’t turned up yet. Her concern for her learners is evident. One of her pupils thinks that one of the ladies has a mother who isn’t well and won’t be coming today. There is clearly a feeling of companionship in this special space. These ladies care about each other. They chat, they share news and offload their problems. They worry about each other, they empathise and they make each other laugh.
When I ask why they come to the class, a lady called Inma tells me it’s “Because I love arts and crafts”.
She backs this up with a huge smile before starting work on the tile that she is decorating.
“Which colours would you like?” asks Alicia showing her a tile with a selection of colours.
Inma decides on her colours and sets to work painting the tile she has designed.
While Alicia is showing Marta how to make the handle on her mug, the door opens and Teresa bursts in. She chats to everyone as if they were long lost friends, including me. She comes to “get away from the stress in her life” as she finds the classes distract her from the daily tasks of looking after family members. The ladies talk to each other and ask me questions. It’s clear that these classes are a social event as well as a learning opportunity.
I make my way out of the door amongst cries of “come back soon.”
I smile to myself as I walk down the road. I haven’t even picked up a piece of clay and the feeling of wellbeing has been contagious. I make a mental note to do one of Alicia’s courses one day. I just hope she has enough patience.
In case you are wondering, for the handmade gifts on the writing retreat I ordered a bookmark.
I collect them wrapped up individually in small paper bags ready to go and I generally leave them with the welcome pack for my guests to open when they arrive. For this year’s gift, I have another idea, but that’s a surprise waiting to be revealed.
Normally, on a weekday morning, I’d wake up to the sounds of daily life in the village. A car revving up and reversing down the street. The neighbours shouting buenos dias as they go off to do their early morning chores. The bread van pulling up on the corner of the plaza.
But, today is different. It’s a public holiday in the village in honour of the patron saint, San Blas (Saint Blaise) and it’s quiet all around. The first time I saw this festival it was barely daylight and I was sleepily making my first cup of tea when I heard a loud noise outside.
‘That sounds like the cymbal from a brass band,’ says my brain trying to figure out what it is.
It is definitely music and it is certainly lively for the time of day. I slide open the window and stick my head out. To my surprise, there is a brass band on the corner of the street. It’s not a big brass band, there are just five musicians (known locally as a ‘charanga’). They are playing up-to-date tunes that get me tapping my foot along as I watch them. I run back into the bedroom to tell Benjamin who pulls the pillow over his head and goes back to sleep. I go back to the kitchen and start to dance around to the rhythm. If only every day started off this jolly. I am reminded of the times I have been called a ‘morning person’ and realise that this jolliness might not be everyone’s morning cup of tea. Despite this, I stick my head out of the window and clap along to the rhythm. It’s drizzling and the clouds look menacing.
An umbrella with legs comes along the street from the direction of the church.
“Morning” shouts out a female voice in English from underneath. I realise it is Susie, the lady who makes the costumes for film sets and has a house in the village.
“I think I am the only one mad enough to follow them round in the rain,” she laughs.
The band finish their tune and Suzie and I give them a large round of applause. Benjamin has stuck his head out of the window by now and the three of us appear to be the only ones interested in the music. The band shout out their thanks to their mini audience and move on to the next corner with Susie trailing behind.
Later, we hear the villagers making their way to mass. At 12.00 the church bells start to ring. When they have finished we hear the same brass band blaring out from inside the church walls. The party tunes can be heard all down our street. Benjamin and I look at each other in surprise. We run along the road to the church and push open the heavy church door to find ourselves in the middle of a full-on celebration. Mass is normally a sombre service and this burst of lively activity gets us staring in amazement.
Today, February 3rd, it’s San Blas Day in Benaocaz. San Blas is a special saint in Benaocaz and not just because he is co-patron of this small village. He shares that honour with San Anton.
Most Spanish processions and Saint’s days I have witnessed tend to be a serious affair. The Patron Saint or Virgin are usually decorated with flowers. They are then carried around accompanied by a band playing sombre music that fills the atmosphere with an air of religious respect.
Not so for San Blas.
He must be the liveliest saint I have ever seen in Spain.
Four young men are holding San Blas on their shoulders and dancing around the church to the rhythm of the band. The whole village appears to be here and the atmosphere is electric.
“Venga! Come on in,” shouts our neighbour, who has spotted us in the doorway.
If I hadn’t walked in through the wooden door, I would never have believed that I was in church. San Blas comes dancing past us. He bobs up and down as the rhythm gets faster. The guys holding him up dance a few steps backwards and then swirl around with him. Everyone is clapping and dancing too. The elderly people start to form a queue and before I know it they are all weaving their way under the Saint and out on the other side. The children follow suit. And next, the band, instruments included and still playing, dance their way underneath him. San Blas then moves off at a fast pace down the church and back up again.
More people weave in and out underneath. I wave across the church at a friend who is busy taking photos. She dances her way across to me. “Isn’t it fun?” she laughs in between taking photos. I spot the lady from the bakery and ask her, shouting above the music, how they decide who will carry the Saint. I know in other towns there’s often a waiting list for this honour. She explains that it is always the young people who are 21 that year.
“It used to always be the males, but now the girls get a go too. It’s my turn in a minute,” she smiles proudly.
Five minutes later, true to her word, the band pauses and there’s a quick change over. The females of the village, who are 21 this year, take hold of San Blas. It’s no easy feat, as although he is small for an effigy (designed especially for these narrow streets), he must still weigh a ton.
The ladies dance around with him before handing him back to the men. Suddenly, they stop somewhere near the altar and the latest new parents approach with their babies. Babies are held up to San Blas’ robe for good luck.
Traditionally, San Blas is carried around the streets and the party and dancing take place outside. The weather has meant that he remained indoors. The robes he wears are delicate antiques and would get spoilt in the rain. The weather doesn’t appear to have dampened his spirits though, or those of the villagers. The party goes on for a while and the music is infectious. When San Blas’ dancing sequence is finally over, he is placed carefully at the back of the church and everyone dances out onto the street. The brass band are still playing and head for the main square where a marquee has been set up for the afternoon and evening’s entertainment.
The party goes on well into the evening, despite the fact that San Blas retires hours before. I imagine he was exhausted after all that exercise. San Blas is the protector of throats, and after all the singing and dancing that takes place in Plaza, he might well be called upon more than once.
As I sit here writing this I am looking out at the mountain range. A cool breeze is blowing in through the open window. The fig tree below is slowly growing up towards the second floor of the house. I hear the background noise of people on their way home for lunch, a car stopping to drop someone off, a door closing, a voice across the road. And then, it’s back to silence.
This quiet village is where Isabel Garcia and Jose Luis Bazan, otherwise known as Pepe, make magic out of leather. From the narrow, cobbled street you would never know that behind the big wooden door of the white washed building two artists are busy creating works of art with leather. Their taste for something a little different is obvious in the pieces they produce. Their eye for quality is reflected in their designs. A lamp, a wall hanging, a colourful bowl; elegantly designed products that any table or shelf would be proud to display.
I love to take guests here during the writing retreats. The element of surprise as they walk into the entrance to find a leather workshop reminds of the first time I visited the May Patios in El Puerto de Santa Maria. You would just never expect a workshop to be here. There’s no sign post, no neon advertising light, not even a name outside the door. The surprise as you cross the threshold into a world you’d never expect was there.
There’s also the pleasure the guests experience as they pick up the leather goods, run their hands over a beautifully crafted bowl that looks like it could be made out of wood, and communicate with Isabel. They ask questions, warming immediately to Isabel’s lovely nature. Isabel has English lessons twice a week in the village and each time we visit her, she understands more. She looks at me for clarification when she hasn’t understood something. And then the communication is like a tennis match with each side looking from me to the person who has spoken and back to the person who receives the message as I translate.
Pepe sits in the background tapping away on his next creation, always ready to answer a question about the leather or how he has made something. Apart from the fact that the products are designed and handmade locally by this husband and wife team, there’s something special about their work. Yes, each one is unique, beautiful and of high quality but it’s more than that. They have a love of nature which is reflected in their work but their work also carries their personality. It holds their passion for their art.
Last time we visited with guests, Sheryl brought her own bag as it needed repairing. She discussed it with Isabel.
“This part needs stitching. Can you do it?” she asked.
Isabel ran her expert eye over it. She pulled it this way and that way examining it carefully.
“Yes, of course. It won’t take long.”
Isabel didn’t want to charge Sheryl for the repair. “It’s nothing,” she said. “It will take me five minutes.”
Sheryl attempted to convince Isabel of the value of her time and experience. Isabel shook her head dismissing Sheryl’s protests. These small acts of generosity are a natural part of Spanish business.
Whenever we bring guests here, inevitably, someone leaves with something. It’s difficult not to. A unique, handmade leather bracelet as a present for someone special, an eye glass case or an exclusive handbag in a colour bold enough to brighten up the winter days back in the U.K. Often the writers buy something as a thank you present to themselves. Time has been well spent in coming on the retreat.
Isabel looked around for a box to put the goods in. Soon they will be going to the Christmas Fair in Sevilla with their leather goods and most of their work has already been individually boxed ready to sell. Despite the protests she insisted that each item has its own box. I smile. It’s a sign of their dedication to quality. She then carefully wraps the gifts up in paper. Another delight of Spanish shopping, having your parcels individually wrapped as part of the service.
Over the years Pepe and Isabel’s company, Artenazari (now renamed Jose Luis Bazan), has won many awards for their work and prizes for their unique pieces. Recently they were awarded the opportunity to work with the prestigious company Loewe who make luxury leather goods. As a result, their work has been displayed in many places including Paris, Milan and Tokyo. You can see more of their beautiful handmade leather goods here.
In the afternoon I got a message from Isabel to say Sheryl’s bag has been repaired and I can collect it after her English class. If only I’d managed to get a photo of the look of delight on Sheryl’s face as I returned her bag to her. Isabel would have loved to have seen it.
As a retreat host in Spain, I provide a welcome pack for my guests. In reality, it’s not just a welcome pack. It’s a lovingly thought-out and carefully planned display of fresh and scrumptious goodies waiting to be tucked into. It adds a wow factor for the guest and provides me with an inadvertent opportunity to build relationships.
Of course, I could just pop into a large supermarket, saving myself time and effort. I’d do the shop all in one go, picking up things off the shelf and throwing it heartlessly into a trolley. I’d walk around under the artificial lighting, feeling tired, while I breathe in the particles from the air-con. I’d rummage around in the fruit section trying to find stuff that’s not rock hard and won’t go off as soon as I leave the store. I’d maybe exchange a word or two with the checkout staff, jump into my car and be on my way. Easy.
But would I enjoy it? Would I build relationships?
The answer to that is no. My clients would miss out on the best possible fresh food, thus dampening the wow factor. And, I would miss out on the local shopping experience.
Shopping Local – Pain or Pleasure?
For me, one of the pleasures of food shopping for the retreats in Spain is the effect it has on the senses. Going to the fruit market is a feast of colour, smell, taste and entertainment. Smelling the fruit and selecting the fresh pieces you want is just no comparison to picking up a plastic-wrapped product that will go off in your fridge not long after you get it home. In the market apples smell of apples. Freshly picked oranges and lemons get sold by the kilo
When we get to our favourite stall, Bella and her brother give us a hearty welcome. They ask us how we are getting on as they haven’t seen us for a while. When I explain about the retreats, they tell me about a company in their village who do cycling tours. I immediately see a connection. They promise to get the name and phone number. When it’s my turn, I check my list and Bella starts to fill up our bags. Local plums, soft and juicy, get passed out to us to taste.
I ask for some watermelon.
Bella quickly picks one up from the table behind the stall. She chops it up and offers us a taster. She moves onto the other variety, slices it and offers it to us to compare with the first one. By now, my mouth is watering with the fresh goodness.
I choose the one I think my guests will like. It’s a lovely red colour and refreshing in the heat.
I’m inspired by the display and warm to the array of colour. A lot of work and thought goes into setting up each day. I’m under no pressure to buy any of the things I’ve tried. I’ve been asked to enjoy the fruit, to taste how good it is. And, then the decision to buy or not is mine.
I can’t see the type of lettuce I’m looking for.
“Don’t worry, we have some in the store room.” Bella asks her brother to get some.
“This is from Ubrique and these are organic,” she tells me.
I’m touched that she remembers my taste for organic. She hasn’t forgotten I like to buy local products and that I appreciate organic food. I ask her how much the tomatoes are. The organic ones are better value than the mass-produced ones. I’m pleasantly surprised and order two kilos. A kilo of lemons goes into my bag next. They are fresh off the tree and smell incredible. No wax in sight.
Someone new arrives in the queue and asks about the plums.
“Are they ripe? Do they taste sweet like the ones I bought last week?”
I tell her that I’ve just tried one and it was wonderful. Bella passes one out for the client to try. The lady smiles at me and nods in agreement as she savours the sweetness. She asks me where I come from and then tells me her nephew works in London. We have a short conversation. She’s interested in what I do. Bella joins in.
I have so many bags by now that even with the help of the other half, it’s going to be hard work carrying them back to the car. Bella asks me where we’ve parked.
“That’s too far to walk. Bring your car to the door and when you arrive we’ll come out with the bags.”
I shower ‘gracias’ on her. She waves me away with a cheery ‘de nada’ (you’re welcome).
She has customers who shop there every day. She treats me like one of them. In all fairness, I might have been asked if I needed help packing my bags in the supermarket, but nothing quite beats this personal touch, taking my car to the door and having the bags loaded into the boot.
Bella’s brother has been talking on the phone whilst Bella was serving me. He hangs up and passes me a slip of paper with a name and number. It’s the cycling company. He has called a friend to find out the name for me. Fruit shopping-cum-networking.
I have spent a large chunk of the morning getting to the market, parking and talking to people. But, I wouldn’t swop it for the world. I have been served by a person who has taken an interest in me and not tried to rush me through the queue as quickly as possible. I’ve eaten fruit and had five-star treatment. They have even worried about how I would get my shopping to the car. I have some pesticide and wax free fruit. I have built relationships without even realising. These people are a generous source of information. They have passed on a name and number to me with no strings attached. Who knows? Perhaps one day they’ll pass mine on to someone else. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done business whilst out shopping in the community. Last time that happened, I was at the butcher’s. But, that’s another story.