Friday, June 26, 2009

Don't Let Them Eat Cake

Do you remember ‘the Twinkie Defence’? This was the story of some mad bastard who ran into the mayor of San Francisco’s office many years ago and shot several people to death, including Hizzonor. The Californian police, failing for once to shoot the ‘alleged perpetrator of this heinous and unprovoked attack', carted him off to clink where, no doubt, he was treated to ‘advanced interrogation techniques’. All correctly administrated and in the nicest possible way.
Well, the pesky defence lawyers got hold of him and discovered that he had ingested a couple of cup cakes before bursting through the doors of City Hall. Their defence was based on this simple meal – the sugar in the cup cakes (or ‘Twinkies’ as the Americans call them) had gone to his head.
Imagine what he might have done if he had eaten an entire box of them.
Here in Spain, cakes are to be seen and admired, but never, ever eaten. They vary from the ones made out of (some white stuff that looks like) confectioner’s cream, with sugar added, some extra squirty stuff from a can, some more sugar, and some sugar. The better ones have a glass of sticky rum splashed over them to make them scrumptious (I’m beginning to sound like the Sol Times). No, I’m kidding. They’re horrible.
We had to buy one the other day for a child’s birthday. ‘Hapy Birhtday to Jonhathon’ was lovingly picked out in vermillion paste across the top of this monster. Luckily Jonhathon isn’t much of a reader and failed to notice the errata. He nevertheless picked up a valuable lesson after finishing his second piece of the confection.
Always sit near the door.
At home, we disagree about cakes. I like a fruit cake prepared several months before, stuffed with cherries and whatever else it is they put in those things and covered with marzipan and icing; while my wife prefers something dry and chocolaty with a wisp of sickly ‘frosting’ dabbed on top. She’s American of course.
But the Andalucians. OMG. The best place to start with local cakes is at the Bédar fiesta where you can admire a range of er, sweet things usually covered in enthusiastic if incautious wasps. These marvels of the cakemakers' art are usually designed more for show than for tell. They will be old, hard and stuffed with ‘angel hair’, also known as sugared pumpkin mush. The icing will remind the gourmet of the stuff the Turre barber uses after finishing your haircut – sets like cement, crackly at first but later turning into powder. The entire cake, built to both look good and to last, should never be eaten on an empty stomach.
There is a local version of a Christmas cake; it’s made with bread-flower and small chewy bits which turn out to be chicharrón – pig’s crackling. These are mixed in with some other bits of angelica and other dried fruit. Which leads to a question for the ‘Ask the Reader’ page. What does fresh angelica look like? The Christmas cakes also follow the dangerous British custom with the sixpence by putting a small metal virgin somewhere in the mix. A fashion no doubt invented by dentists.


Andalucía, under the control of the Moors for many centuries, enjoys something a bit heavier than a sponge cake covered with silver crunchy things. The usual fillings (which in Morocco or the Middle East can be quite delicious) include dates, nuts, dried fruit and lashings of honey. One of those babies and the Twinkie Murderer would have settled for a good sleep.
But the most likely place to find a cake is with one’s breakfast. We have ‘Napolitanos’ which are buns filled (or rather ‘spray-painted’) with ‘cream’ or ‘chocolate’. They vary from warm and good to dry, old and rancid. You can dip them in your coffee – sometimes, indeed, you are obliged to. The most popular bun is the ‘Madalena’ which is a simple and rather tasteless sponge scone. Well, spongy anyway. It comes in a plastic sack. The ‘Cruasán’ is the Spanish croissant, made with pork fat rather than butter. Not very good as a rule, especially when it’s been on the cake-shelf for a couple of days. There are a few brand-name cakes in plastic packets, chocolate Swiss-roll types of things, including an frightening looking pink one called a ‘Pantera Rosa’ which I both imagine and hope is banned in the Greater San Francisco area. Lastly, the ever-popular and industrial doughnut, the ‘Donut’, which comes in assorted flavours and a truly alarming collection of chemicals, food additives, colourings, flavourings, preservatives and conservatives. Personally, I love ‘em.
As our area has enthusiastically grasped the nettle of the Twenty-first Century, where you can no longer find a simple salad on the menu, or pig n’ chips without an endless complication of sauce and adornment (I had slices of strawberry surrounding my lamb chops the other evening in a Mojácar hostelry), so, too, our coffee shops have improved in the cake department. We have Italian, French and British cakes, scones, pies and doughnuts which are a far cry from the Bédar fiestas. Places where these are served are usually heavily patrolled by diabetic sparrows, anxious to die at an early age in a blissful sugar-rush.
Many alcoholics, when they give up the demon drink, are said to turn to sweets. Cakes, ice cream (delicious in Spain), chocolates and sticky things in plastic cups. I wonder if they have an effect. Did George Bush turn from booze to Twinkies – and was the War on Terror the unhappy result?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Club Taurino Mojácar

The other day, the British Bullfight Club, more properly the ‘Club Taurino Mojácar’, gave a talk at the Vera Bullring. I was joining in to see the building, which stands sentinel on the edge of the city. A rather large crowd was inside playing with the wheelbarrow/bull’s head thingy as I arrived. Shrieks and photographs. It turned out to be a busload from the Imserso old people’s club. From Barcelona or somewhere. The Spanish are great believers in having a jolly time when on their hols. Waiting round the corner near the statue of Juan Belmonte, a bullfighter who gave his last fight before retirement here in Vera (apparently amongst other places), was the rump of the Club Taurino, decked out in shorts and sunhats. The president of the Vera bullfight appreciation club - where there’s a bullring there’s a peña - wearing a wondrous expression on his face (the Vera club is easily eclipsed in numbers by the Mojácar CT), said a few words about how we were all invited for a glass of fino, just as soon as the builders were out of his club, which was undergoing repairs. Mike Hathaway, head, and with his wife Audrey, organisers of the various activities of the club, took over the microphone as we trooped in. Here is where the main gate is, that’s the infirmary and the chapel and so on. There’s a capote (yellow and purple cloak used for bullfights) – see how heavy it is. We all paused to try and lift it. Those matadors have strong arms!
Inside as you enter through the main gate through the gloom and up some stairs passing under one of two arches into the stands of the main arena, as your eyes suddenly adjust to the bright light, you find yourself in a piece of emotion and history. Mike knows a lot about his subject and, by now sat on a cement bench overlooking the plaza, continued with his talk
I’ve always liked bullrings, even the Vera one which is apparently ‘third class’ (to do with its size, not its character). The Vera plaza de toros starred in the final scenes of Antonioni’s ‘The Passenger’ when Jack Nicholson, who has taken the passport of a dead man, lies dying in his room in a grotty hostal, ‘built’ for the occasion just outside the bullring.
I left Mike and his group of aficcionados and disappeared into a nearby bar. It was getting very hot in the bullring, where the primary colours of blue and yellow were waiting to be joined by the red. Sometime in September.
The CTM has an event every Thursday, which is to be commended. There are around 140 members which is quite astonishing, and the club is apparently the only ‘English’ taurine peña in the business, apart from one in London – the Club Taurino de Londres and another in New York

Trip to Huescar

Several weeks after the visit to the Vera bullring, Ángel Medina – the councillor for tourism in Mojácar, organised a trip to Huescar, a small town in Granada, for a tour around the pueblo, lunch, local product-tasting, some serious boozing and a bullfight.
Around 55 of us took the early morning coach-trip and, by 11.30, we had arrived in the town and had wandered into the nearest bar for a coffee. A guide from the tourist office called Juan would take us around the sites, the new and old parts of the town (Christian and Moorish, you could say), through some exotic town-gardens, down narrow touch-both-walls streets and into some impressive buildings, including the ‘Little Cathedral of Toledo, in Granada’, the Iglesia Colegiata de Santa María la Mayor – a church which until recently, was under the tutelage of the Bishop of Toledo. It had taken 250 years to build, starting in 1600 as a gothic church and ending up with renaissance influences. The tour through this church was given by Brother Carlos, a missionary from the ‘Heraldos del Evangelio’, dressed magnificently and supremely knowledgeable on the church and who appeared to be fortuitously between trips to the heathen.
Lunch followed in a large restaurant on the edge of the town, a joint clearly prepared for coach-parties. Most of us had the local speciality – a haunch of lamb. Delicious. We were taken by bus to the tourist office to try and buy local produce, including mead (well, it’s been a while for me. Not since school, I think). Then to the bullring, a modern but arrestingly beautiful plaza de toros in the middle of a quiet street, with just a small entrance to mark its position.
The bulls were ‘novilladas’ – two and three year olds – and the matadors were young fellows, between sixteen and eighteen. We had a large sign announcing our club which we had tied to the rail, opposite the Canal Sur cameras. Well, it’s not every day a party of slightly pink Britons descends on a small-town bullfight.

To find out more about the club, go to

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Who needs to employ some foreign SOB when we've got those clever programs on the Internet to help with translations, or better still, Young Bertín, who once spent two weeks in Bristol?
Whaddya mean, we look like stupid rubes? We're the Guardia Civil!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Hot Spain

Man it’s hot. The soaring temperatures here in Spain have made it almost impossible to move, yet impossible to sleep either. The bed is soaked and I’ve wrapped a towel around the pillow. I’ve got the fan on – which wobbles alarmingly and blows dust and a noisy breeze over my recumbent figure.
Parts of the country are in ‘orange alert’, which essentially means 40ºC and up. Seville, Cordoba and Jaén are always the hottest bits, with the appropriately named Extremadura and indeed most of the rest of the country not far behind. Madrid in the summer, with the added heat from the breathless streets and avenues, is almost impossible. By August, everyone has left and the city belongs to the tourists.
Right here, just a few kilometres from the Mediterranean, it’s still relatively cool according to the experts. We are probably just hovering in a laughably unimpressive ‘yellow alert’ or something.
There’s no air/con in the car, but the window works. I drive with as much of me sticking out of that window as I can manage, pulling myself back inside on blind corners like a careful turtle in a pool full of ecologists.
The answer is to buy a cave. They are more or less the same temperature all the year round. That is to say, warm in the winter, cool in the summer. The old ones have fleas, but the modern ones are spiffy enough, as long as you don’t mind narrow rooms and no windows. You also apparently don’t pay ‘rates’ on them as they occupy no surface ground. Better yet, if another child or a long-lost relative suddenly joins the family, you just get out the spade and start digging. When Global Warming really begins to bite, I’m away to a cueva.
But right now, it’s a cold shower and a nice cup of tea. Piping hot, two sugars.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Four Wheels on my Wagon

Have you seen the latest offer from the government to get that smile back on your face while the economy lurches forward into the famous if somewhat clichéed Land of the Green Shoots? Simple. You take yourself along to the dealership and choose a new coche. I’d take the blue one, but each to his own. Just say to the chap with the huge smile and the gentle smell of too-much Brylcreem that you’d like to buy that one over there and watch his smile falter slightly as you toss him the keys to your old rattletrap. As long as it’s ten years old or more (apparently the average age of cars in Almería is an impressive fourteen), he’ll have to take it in part exchange, knocking, between one thing and another, two thousand euros off the price of the new one.
Now there’s a deal.
A deal I shan’t be picking up on, personally. You see, I don’t think much to new cars. They lose a third of their value the moment you get them out of the showroom, and somebody is sure to put a ding in it within a few days. Which won’t help the resale value either. However, if you intend to keep it for the next fourteen years, then a ding or two won’t matter much. My current transport is covered in them, together with a small and rather curious type of purple moss growing out of the rubber around the windscreen.
I’ve only ever once bought a new car here. It was a SEAT 1450 Whizzer which retailed at the magic price of 500,004 pesetas. I learnt that day that our friends the local businesses aren’t always great salesmen. I went in and pointed at the car, waved a check-book and said gimme. A man with a flared suit and half a pint of Varón Dandy dabbed behind his ears sauntered over and, to my surprise, told me I’d be much happier with a Renault 4 which, by a happy coincidence, their competitor sold just across the street. I had never seen this kind of salesmanship before and insisted, even making a joke about the extra four pesetas. I should have listened; the car was a lemon of the first order. I eventually gave it to an ex girlfriend. Come to think of it, they went rather well together.
Normally, I’ll buy old crocks. They are usually overpriced and the ashtrays are always full, but they’ll do nicely around here. No one steals them and they won’t have heated seats, swivelling headlights or navigation systems – so useful when you are driving to Garrucha – but they will generally do the trick and if the dog is sick on the back seat, hey, well who’s gonna care?
One car I bought off a dealer was an old Mercedes, like the one that Lady Di was in on her fateful drive through the Paris tunnel. That thing weighed several tons and I am sure that, at 120 kph, if a Fiat Uno were to hit it going the other way, there wouldn’t be anything left of the Italian car bigger than a piece of dust. So much for conspiracies. I had bought the car sight unseen – it was during the days when I ran a newspaper and this was a reputable advertiser from Alicante – and, to be frank, I had expected something a bit smaller (and, after the number plate fell off one time) a bit less imported. Still, it went pretty well for a few years.
And it did have those all-important heated seats, which tended to switch themselves on at odd moments.
The fastest car I ever owned – or ever drove for that matter - was an old Italian car fitted with a six litre Chrysler engine that I saw in a shop window in Madrid and immediately bought. It was in reasonably good condition even if it didn’t have much in the way of brakes. I drove it down to Mojácar scoring several speed records. This car was very fast and could beat the limit while still in first gear. Not much use, but fun to own. A young neighbour tried to fix the brakes and ended up trashing the speedometer – which rather took the pleasure out of driving it around. I eventually sold it for a song to some collector and it’s apparently now all fixed up and worth a fortune. But can you drive it down the playa for a beer? You see? Useless!
The finest cars ever made were the Citröens. The old ‘dos caballos’ 2CV was a splendid car made out of bits from a sewing machine. It would do 0-60 in about twenty minutes and, instead of interior-sprung seats (to say nothing of heated ones) it would have two deck chairs in the front held on by rubber bands. Between them and the suspension (more rubber bands) going round a corner in one was always going to be fun. It also had the push/pull gear stick which disappeared into the dashboard and changing gear was rather like stirring soup with somebody else’s arm. The Guardia Civil were kitted out with a special police version of the 2CV – it had a spare engine in the boot. I’m not kidding, there’s still one in Cuevas.
The best Citröen that I had was the GS. It had the clever suspension which rose up and down at the touch of a lever, useful when on ‘high’ for crossing rocky streams; and for settling firmly on the ground when parked on a yellow line, making it impossible to tow. Once I was thundering along the beach in this one that I had been given by somebody who had left for a better life in Canada. Playing with the knob and bouncing up and down. I was just overtaking another car when – bang – the bonnet of mine suddenly sprang open from the lock on the front and, caught by the wind, it curved over the windscreen and roof with a crunch. Blinded at 80kph! I stuck my head out of the side-window and kept on going. Anything else might have been dangerous. The other driver’s jaw fell open in horror as he contemplated this scene in the left lane alongside him and he ended up in the sand. It didn’t seem like the moment to stop and offer to lend a hand.
I later bought another bonnet from the desguace – in a different colour, just in case – and kept the car for another year. Now who would want to swap a thing like that for a new Veedub, that doesn’t even have an ashtray?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

How to Vote

If you are living in Spain, over 18, non-Spanish European and have asked for the right to vote (that's around 350,000 people) and were wondering how to - then this one's for you.

The European Elections are this Sunday 7th June and the polling station is nearby. If you live in Mojácar, it's at the school (up in the Campo de Fútbol behind the pueblo). Indeed, in most other villages it'll be in the school as well. In Mojácar, there are four polling stations, A - M and N - Z, 'pueblo' and 'playa' kind of thing, so check with the lists outside to be sure which room to use.

To vote, you go into your room and go behind the curtain to choose the ticket from one of the 36 different parties running in Spain and you fold one of the 'papeletas', unmarked, inside the envelope. Spain is just one constuency for the European elections, so you have the same choice of papeletas as someone in Bilbao (although, of course, the Bilbao ones will be written in two different languages, Spanish and Basque).
Take the completed vote to the table and show your (photographic) ID. Your Residents Card or passport and silly unfoldable green A4 letter from the ministry will do nicely.
Go and have a beer at the bar round the corner - Ramón's in Mojácar - and feel justifiably proud to have participated.