Five reasons to choose Backwell House as a venue for your retreat

This summer I was invited to spend an evening at Backwell House boutique hotel near Bristol with the Bristol Bloggers group.  I was keen to visit this nine-bedroom country house hotel, featured in the magazine Great British and Irish hotels 2017-18, as clients ask me to recommend retreat venues. My first impression, after spotting Backwell House from the woodland driveway, was that I was in for a treat. We had an amazing evening at the event and here are five reasons why I liked it.

  1. Attention to detail

When looking for a retreat venue, for me there must be a wow factor, something that your guests may not have expected, or even if they were expecting it, it still makes them say wow”.  While Backwell House has all the style of a Georgian house set in beautiful countryside, what really makes it special as a venue are the important little touches that give added value and comfort to your guests. It’s about making the experience special and the team at Backwell House know just how to do this.  For me, Backwell House is a lifestyle choice in a venue setting.

Hospitality tray with Fairtrade tea and ground coffee
Hospitality tray with Fairtrade tea and ground coffee

From the coffee pot and Fairtrade sustainable ground coffee in the bedroom, the fresh wild flowers on the dining table, the organic kitchen garden, local products and free-range eggs from their own chickens, it’s all about giving you the quality treatment that you and your retreat guests deserve.

2. Fine dining experience

As far as possible the food is raised or grown on the land surrounding the hotel. While this adds to the postcard image, you can also be assured that if you choose a meat dish, the herds had once been happily grazing freely in the surrounding woodlands and hills. Seafood is sourced from Devon and any other food supplies are obtained locally from farmers in North Somerset. The delicious bread that was served with our meal comes from a local baker and the butter is homemade.

Brixham crab bisque with beetroot, apple and nori seaweed.
Brixham crab bisque with beetroot, apple and nori seaweed.

The stunning Victorian kitchen garden provides chef, Ross Hunter, with the organic herbs, and vegetables he needs for his dishes. Ross is an experienced chef and brings a unique combination of fresh local ingredients, flavours and style to the table.

My three -course dinner started with Brixham Crab with beetroot, apple and nori seaweed. The combination of colour and texture were amazing.

60 day Hereford Sirloin
60 day Hereford Sirloin

This was followed by a tasty 60-day Hereford Sirloin, Alliums, King Oyster Mushroom, Beef Jus with ox cheek which was cooked to perfection. Ross had obviously taken his time preparing this dish. While the ox cheek, a difficult dish to cook, was a perfect melt-in-your-mouth texture, I felt that it would have benefitted from more sauce. However, that maybe due to the fact that my experience of ox cheek is in rich Spanish sauces.

choc & raspberry
Raspberry and chocolate parfait

The meal ended with some delicious freshly made desserts, which were much appreciated by the group, and the cheeseboard with local cheese, which was a perfect choice to finish off the meal with a glass of red wine.

3. Space

Rooms

Each room is unique and decorated differently, adding charm to the visit and making guests feel special.  The rooms are named after someone who had either lived at the Georgian House or was in some way related to it.  An extra touch of charm and luxury can be found in some of the rooms as a free-standing bath allows you to take a dip while admiring the view through the French windows. The rooms are imaginative; the headboards are upcycled from the wooden floorboards, and luxurious at the same time.

Imaginative headboards from reclaimed wood
Imaginative headboards from reclaimed wood

Rooms are clean, comfortable and well provided with tea and coffee making facilities and have an impressive view of the surrounding area. Natural toiletries are provided by local ethical company Bramley.

Outdoor space

The woodland area is ideal for walking while the back of the house leads you out to the flower and organic kitchen garden. There’s plenty of space for outdoor activities, a marquee or tepees.

Indoor space

If space is needed for workshops, activities or therapies, the dining room is available as well as a small cinema room in the old cellar. The breakfast room is a bright, airy and spacious room that could easily be converted into a space for workshops. There are plenty of tables, comfy chairs and seating areas making it ideal for a writing retreat where participants might need individual space.

Local coach Sarah Clark, from Mariposa Coaching, has participated in one of Backwell House’s events. Sarah said,

Backwell house is a beautiful venue steeped in history. Mariposa Coaching has been lucky enough to have a stand there on a regular basis at The Art of Wellbeing, a pop up wellness event. I have offered coaching tasters at a stand in their beautiful dining area with Georgian charm. Plus, talks on sustainable wellbeing, positive thinking and harmonious relationships in their cinema area which provides a relaxing and cosy event space. They even have a walled garden with doves in the dovecote.

Backwell House dining room
Backwell House dining room

4. Location / Easy access

Looking out over the countryside, you would have no idea that Backwell House is so well connected by road and air and is only 15 minutes’ drive from the bustling city of Bristol. Tucked away on the A370 in North Somerset, it’s easy to miss the beautiful wooded driveway that winds up into the grounds, taking you away from the main road.

The M5 and the M4 are both within easy reach and there is ample parking space. While Bristol International airport is only three miles away, making it easy for guests to arrive from many destinations, the venue is not on the flight path, meaning you can enjoy time here without aeroplanes flying overhead.  It’s a ten-minute walk to the local pub and shops and a bus to Bristol stops on the main road if you’d like to visit Bristol, but don’t fancy driving.

Relax in the bath with a view of the gardens
Relax in the bath with a view of the gardens

5. Labour of love

The story of this hotel is an interesting one as director Guy Williams spent three years living in a caravan in the grounds of the Georgian house as the project developed. His love for the hotel and grounds shines through as he talks about how it was restored. Where possible, things have been upcycled and reused in the project. Very little has gone to waste. The bar contains reclaimed wood from the floorboards and the mosaic pattern was carefully put together by Guy. It seems he has got everyone involved  – his mother made the curtains for the venue –  and his passion has infected the rest of his team.

Guy has chosen his team well. He wants the best when it comes to providing a homely and comfortable, yet sophisticated and luxurious ambience.  Guy has plans to make Backwell House bigger and add more rooms. I just hope that the expansion doesn’t mean losing the quality that he’s built up so far.

Treat yourself to a cocktail in the beautiful Backwell House bar
Treat yourself to a cocktail in the beautiful Backwell House bar

Would I hold a retreat here?

The answer to this question is yes. All in all, I loved the way the team looked after the personal touches at this boutique hotel. At the time of writing this post, the hotel has only nine rooms and there’s definitely an air of relaxed sophistication here.  Local products always score a high for me and the chef is more than capable of catering for all requirements.

I feel like it’s the sort of venue where you could leave your walking boots by the front door and change into your indoor shoes as if it were your own home, while enjoying the luxury of being looked after. The team would like you to feel at home and will happily provide drinks on the lawn on long summer evenings or cocktails around the fireplace in the winter.

Summer time Pimm’s on the lawn
Summer time Pimm’s on the lawn

If you decide to hold a retreat here, bear in mind that unless you book the whole venue, you may come across other guests either staying or dining at the hotel. I recommend that you, or your retreat event manager, visit any venue before booking to get a feel for the place to make sure that it’s right for you and your guests.

What you need to know

Room prices from £95 to £245 per night B&B

Menus start at £29 for 2 courses. £35 for 3 courses

Free parking

Website:  www.backwellhouse.co.uk

Contact details:   enquiries@backwellhouse.co.uk / 0117 325 110

Address: Backwell House, Farleigh Road, Bristol. BS48 3QA

 

I enjoyed a complimentary evening meal at Backwell House as a guest at the Bristol Bloggers event. All opinions, as always, are my own.

 

This post was first published on www.europeancoachingretreats.com

 

Five reasons to choose Apartamentos Sierra Alta as your retreat venue

Five reasons to choose Apartamentos Sierra Alta as a venue for your retreat

Perfect for a writing retreat
Perfect for a writing retrea

Nestled in the beautiful backdrop of the Sierra de Cadiz mountain range in Andalucia, our friends and family have been staying in these wonderful apartments since 2013. Since 2014 we have been hosting our annual writing retreat here. We really love these apartments and not just for the quality of the accommodation – there’s something special about the surroundings too.

Here are five reasons why I think these apartments are special:

  1. Location

If you have read my article about Backwell House, then you will know that when I’m looking for a retreat venue, for me, there must be a wow factor. Something that your guests may not have expected, or even if they were expecting it, it still makes them say “WOW!”.

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Sunset in Benaocaz

Here, the location really is a wow factor in itself. Sierra Alta is on the edge of the little village of Benaocaz at almost 800m above sea level. It’s surrounded by mountains and there are amazing views. Some stunning sunsets can be seen from the apartments as the sun goes down behind the mountain known as ‘La Silla’ (The Saddle).

‘This place is magical’  Martine Louis, Money Coach

2. The Apartments

There are six apartments in total making this a small and cosy place to stay.

Sierra Alta Apartments
Sierra Alta Apartments

Each apartment has either a balcony or a terrace giving you a great view and some outdoor space. There are two two-bedroom apartments and two one-bedroom apartments which would comfortably fit ten people on a retreat (if participants share a bedroom, you could take up to 14).

Each apartment has a lounge area with a kitchen and a bathroom with a walk-in shower. There’s air-con if all gets a bit too hot in summer and they are centrally heated for cosy winter stays, which, believe me, you will appreciate in the evening if you stay here from November to March.  There’s also a fireplace and logs are on sale in the village if you fancy a cosy fire.  My experience with log fires here depends very much on the way the wind is blowing!   And, unless you are an expert at lighting fires, I would recommend popping up to the restaurant Posada El Parral to enjoy their log fire instead!

Inside an apartment
Inside an apartment

The apartments are clean, comfy and equipped with basic cooking equipment. While there’s only a two-ring electric cooker, it’s fine for cooking a simple meal or breakfast when you don’t feel like eating out. If you go away on retreat or holiday to cook like a pro, this probably won’t suit you. As an extra bonus if you are travelling light, a washing machine and ironing facilities are also available if you wish to wash your clothes and dry them off in the sunshine before you go home!

3. Carlos and Maria

This is point number three, but actually, hosts Carlos and Maria are one of the main reasons why your stay at Sierra Alta is so special.  Not only are they friendly and welcoming, but they have also put a lot of thought into making your stay comfortable. Their thoughtfulness and personal service shines through and is one of the things I love most about them. If they haven’t got what you need, they’ll do their best to sort it out for you. And while they are never in your way, they are always on hand if you need anything and are quick to spot a way to improve their service. Nothing is ever too much trouble, making this ideal as a retreat venue as you can be sure your guests will be cared for. They pay attention to the little touches that, for me, are so important, yet so often get overlooked.

Carlos and Maria are always making improvements. Last year we arrived to find hairdryers in the bathroom and two newly built barbecues in the garden area. This year we discovered that they now provide pool towels for guests (at no extra cost). After realising that many visitors (particularly those who arrive in Spain by plane with hand luggage only) weren’t bringing pool towels with them, they decided to invest in some for guests’ use. These are the little touches that I believe give added value and comfort to your guests.

4. The Pool and Outdoor area

The natural backdrop in the area is amazing and Carlos and Maria have created an outdoor space that is relaxing and laid back. Sun loungers around a salt water pool, sun shades and a seating area where you can admire the view, use the space for a workshop or watch the sunset with a glass of wine if your not watching it from your balcony.

Helens view edited

Carlos maintains the pool and keeps it clean all year round meaning that if you are brave enough to swim in December you can, – the pool is unheated and even in summer, it can sometimes be a challenge to get in – but more importantly it means that it’s aesthetically pleasing all year round. It always looks beautiful whether you are sitting around it or admiring it from your balcony.

We generally go in September to enjoy the good weather (and the pool), but if you are here in December or January the pine tree is light up for Christmas and New Year. At the end of January or beginning of February you might even get to see some snow!

5. The ambience

Thanks to the beauty of the natural surroundings and Carlos and Maria’s efforts and good taste, there’s a very special atmosphere here that’s difficult to beat. It’s not just your normal apartment block. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a sort of magic to the surroundings. It’s generally peaceful although you will probably hear the donkey braying, cockerels crowing and perhaps the church bells, along with the tinker of goats’ bells if they happen to pass by. A few dogs might be barking in the distance, but it all adds to the atmosphere and won’t disturb the peacefulness.

Will we carry on holding retreats here?

We most certainly will! Our guests love it and so do we.

Our lovely guests from the writing retreat 2015
Our lovely guests from the writing retreat 2015

In September 2018, we will be running our fifth retreat here and every year the venue holds its magic. It’s a beautiful location and ideal for taking time out. The mountains are a big wow factor for our guests. Apart from the natural surroundings, one of the other wow factors for me here is that I always feel like I am the first one to use the apartment.

If you decide to hold a retreat here, bear in mind that unless you book the whole venue, you may come across other guests staying at the apartments. This has never bothered us as the type of guests who come here tend to be looking for peace and quiet or are off hiking all day. However, that said, during the school summer holidays it is likely to be a bit nosier (in Spain that includes the whole of July and August).

I think it’s always a good idea for you, or your retreat or event coordinator, to visit any venue before booking to get a feel for the place to make sure that it’s right for you and your guests.

What you need to know

Prices:  start from 60 Euros per night for a 1-bed apartment for 2 people

Parking: free

Nearest airport: 1 hour 20 minutes from Jerez airport / 2 hours from Malaga airport / approximately 1.5 hour from Seville airport / 2.5 hours from Gibraltar

Public transport: a bus runs twice a day to Ronda, Malaga and nearby Ubrique

Website:  http://www.sierra-alta.com/

Contact details:   You can email Carlos and Maria at: apartamentosalta@gmail.com  (Remember to let them know you read about the apartments on Rebecca’s blog!) or contact me to make a booking for you.

 

Amazing places to eat tapas in Andalusia: Bar El Cura, Trebujena

Tapas in Trebujena    Follow my blog with Bloglovin

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Delicious tapas in Andalusia at Bar El Cura, Trebujena

The white village of Trebujena is perched on the top of a hill overlooking the estuary and surrounded by marshes. It’s not generally on the tourist path, but if, like me, you enjoy excellent tapas, then I recommend adding Trebujena to your go-to-list when eating out in the province of Cadiz.

About 30 minutes from Jerez de la Frontera and 20 minutes’ drive from Sanlucar de Barrameda, Trebujena is a quiet, unassuming and friendly village. If you are in the area in the summer, it’s best to go in the evening as it can get incredibly hot here during the day.

So, where should you go when you get there?

One of the great things about Trebujena is that each bar has its own range of tapas and by that, I mean you won’t find the same standard menu in each one. They all have their own charm and delicious tapas. Whether you choose Bar El Litri, La Escalerita de Ana or Bar El Cura, you won’t be disappointed. While I  recommend all three for their excellent tapas and service, in this post I’m going to tell you about my latest experience in Bar El Cura, which you’ll find in the plaza Antonio Cañada.

What we chose

We came here on the Sunday evening of a busy weekend during the Trebufest; Trebujena’s annual music festival. Knowing how busy they had been all weekend, I was half expecting the kitchen to be closed and the tapas to be of a lower standard than normal. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

gmabas
Seafood salad

The selection of tapas in Bar El Cura is varied and elegant. Whilst most bars in and around Cadiz serve the traditional pescaito frito, (fried fish) El Cura has a menu of original tapas at very reasonable prices. We started the evening with a cold tapa of ‘salpicon’ a seafood salad with tomatoes, pepper, onion and a dressing. Salpicon varies from place to place and the amount of seafood you get can sometimes be outweighed by the salad, but fortunately, El Cura is generous with the seafood.

taleguitas de alcauciles y pata negra
Artichoke parcels with cured ham

Next came the exquisite Taleguitas de alcauciles y patanegra; beautifully wrapped parcels with artichokes and cured ham wrapped in filo pastry and deep fried. Artichokes are commonly known as ‘alcafchofas’ in most parts of Spain, but here in Cadiz they are known by their other name ‘alcauciles’. A deliciously warm mixture of textures and flavours, this tapa won my vote immediately.

We followed this with a dish that still makes my mouth water every time I see the photo. Milhojas de mango, queso de cabra y jamon from the specials board was a tapa I had never tried before. Filo pastry topped with a layer of mango and goats cheese, a slice of cured ham and a tiny drizzle of olive oil on the top. Biting into this was like disappearing into food paradise.

mango, goat's cheese and serrano ham
mango, goat’s cheese and serrano ham

Next came the other half’s choice which, of course, being the more carnivore of the two had to include meat. He ordered magret de pato sobre timbal de patata – duck on a bed of potato. The duck was moist, and the potato melted in my mouth bringing out the wonderful flavour of the duck.

We finished the savoury dishes with another one from the specials board ‘pulpo al horno’ – oven baked octopus. I am not exaggerating when I say that every mouthful of this dish was accompanied by an ‘ooh’ or an ‘mmm’. The dish was served hot and with papas panaderas (potatoes fried and then baked in the oven)and roast peppers.

El Cura also has a great selection of wines and local sherries to choose from. It was impossible to leave without a homemade chocolate dessert, a café bombon (coffee with condensed milk) and a peppermint tea.

Two of us ate and drank for around 22 Euros. This bar gets a sobresaliente (ten out of ten) from me for its original selection of tapas, taste and excellent value for money. The service is great and the professional dedication from the owner is amazing. As a family run business Bar El Cura closes on a Tuesday, so remember to choose another day if you want to go here.

Top tip  A tapa will give you a saucer size dish while a racion will give you a larger portion. Tapas vary in size from restaurant to restaurant. If you have never been to a particular restaurant before and you aren’t sure whether to order a tapa or a racion, start with a tapa to judge the size of their portions. Some tapas are extremely generous and are great for sharing, whilst in other places you will need to order a racion (a large portion roughly about a plateful) or media racion (half a portion ) for sharing. As tapas and raciones can be ordered as you go and don’t need to be ordered all at once, you can judge the size on your first order and take it from there.  Buen provecho – enjoy your meal!

* I have been to this restaurant more than once and I love it.  Every time both the food and service has been excellent. Bar El Cura had no idea that I am reviewing them and all opinions are my own (and of those who shared the meal with me!).

How to order a coffee in Spain

How to drink coffee in Spain

20161228_105112If 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”.

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Love and literacy: Book Day in Spain

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For book lovers and writers in Spain, April 23rdroses outside bookshop, 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.

Books and flowers outside the bookshop in Chipiona
Books and flowers outside the bookshop in Chipiona, Andalucia

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?

Sweet treats in Spain: Torrijas at Easter

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.

Sweet Treats

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.

  1. Soak the bread in milk with a pinch of salt or wine for at least 30 minutes
  2. Beat some eggs with milk
  3. Dip the bread soaked in milk or wine into the egg mixture  torrija in egg
  4. Fry the bread in hot oil  frying pan and torrijas
  5. Remove each slice carefully from the frying pan and place on kitchen paper to cool and drain off any excess oil.

The syrup

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. meloja simmering

Once the bread has cooled, you can dip each slice into the hot syrup using a pair of tongs. It’s torrijas banadas en melojaimportant 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.

 

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Alicia in the land of ceramics

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.

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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.

Alicia working on aplate
Alicia at work

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.

selection of pots

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.
group 3 edad

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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.

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Hand painted celebration plate and personalised thimbles
weding day plate
Bespoke gifts

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.
bookmarks Alicia
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.

To see more of what Alicia does, click here:

Alicia’s pottery

pots

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When the saint comes dancing in

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.benaocaz clouds

“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. cartel San Blas 2017

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.

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Saint Blas being carried around the church

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.

Saint Blas making his way through the crowd
Saint Blas making his way through the crowd

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.

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San Blas is held up high for the brass band to go underneath

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.

Feliz dia de San Blas, Benaocaz!

When leather meets the art of Pepe and Isabel

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.

cuencos-color autumn-leaf-cuenco

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.

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A visit to the workshop

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.

josa-luis-bazan-en-el-taller rematando-cuenco-de-cuero-con-seda

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.”

“How much?”

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.

fundas-monederos pulseras patchwork-bag

 

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.cuencos

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.

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Isabel and Pepe when they featured in Oficio y Arte magazine

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.