The bookseller from Damascus in Old Tel Aviv

There are three used bookshops not far from the Carmel Market in the old part of Tel Aviv. They are all within a few steps of each other at one end of Allenby, clustered around the side street of Geulah. One had a hand-written sign saying it was closed for the Passover holidays, and the other, rather disappointingly, had a “For Rent” sign across its glass door. I did not hold much hope that we’d be in luck with the last one. Perhaps it had closed down? To our immense relief, it was open.

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Bibliophile is aptly named — it is a book hunter’s paradise, in particular a polyglot one, with its teetering towers of volumes in Russian, German (and its medieval relative Yiddish), Spanish and Ladino (the Spanish counterpart of Yiddish), Romanian, Ukrainian, French, Ethiopian, Portuguese, besides English, Hebrew, and Arabic of course, and more besides. Within its cramped space of perhaps no more than 30 square meters, Bibliophile holds an unbelievable repository of the world’s literature in so many languages, reflecting the polyglot nature of the country itself.

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With my dust allergy, I didn’t venture too far to squeeze myself along the narrow aisles, once I’d found a couple of English books by female authors that I’d not read before. They would do me for the return trip home. As I stood outside, waiting for M to explore to his heart’s content, a German tourist on a bike rode by and peered curiously into the shop’s narrow confines.

“Antiquariat?” he asked.

“Not exactly,” I replied. It’s mostly second-hand books.”

“Where can I find an antiquariat?”

“Perhaps in Jaffa,” I said.

“You mean only the Arabs read?”

“I didn’t mean that. I thought you meant you were looking for antiques. Would you like to go in and see what it’s like?”

“No, I’m afraid the books will fall on me,” he said.

“I doubt it. Look, my husband is in there, and so far no book has fallen on him yet.”

And strangely, apropos of nothing, he asked if my native language was English, as we had been conversing in German. I said yes, and then he left, unimpressed by the precariously leaning stacks. Clearly he was no bibliophile.

Pinchas Mash’aniah (משעניה פנחס) the owner, has had this shop for over 50 years, perhaps ever since he came over from Damascus, Syria. In three months, he announced proudly, he turns 80 years old (he made us guess his age. He also made us guess where he was originally from. M guessed either Lebanon or Syria. M guessed correctly on both counts.)

“You’re the champion!” Pinchas chuckled, beaming at M.

Tacked on one pillar of the shop is an article about Pinchas in the Jerusalem Post, written decades ago (the black document posted to Pinchas’s left in the photo below). The article’s photo shows Pinchas in his late 30s, possibly early 40s. I cannot get near enough to read it nor to take a closer photograph of it. He looks younger than his years though, as I guessed he was about 75.

“Everyone in my family keeps telling me to stop,” he said. “But why should I? I love this shop. I love these books. What would I do at home? And I love to come here every day and meet all kinds of people. Just recently a very interesting thing happened to me.”

And he proceeded with all relish to tell me. “Just before Passover eve, a woman buys 200 shekels worth of books. Just then, a friend of hers walks by and invites her to have coffee. And off they go.

“It’s not until some time later when I was closing down that I notice she’s left her handbag. I try to see if there is a name or contact number inside, but there’s nothing, just her purse. It’s early closing time, because of the holiday, so reluctantly, I close the shop and put her handbag safely locked away.

“Two days later she comes into the shop, looking very anxious. “Did I leave my handbag here, by any chance?” she says.

“I produce the handbag, and tell her to look inside and check that everything is intact inside. She takes out 200 shekels (about 50 Euros). “You’ve already paid for the books,” I say.

“Oh no, this is for keeping the handbag safe,” she says.

“I’m sorry, but I cannot accept that.”

She insists, but eventually realizes that I’m not about to relent. “Very well then. Thank you again with all my heart,” she says.

The following day she brings a bag with bottles of champagne and wine. “These you certainly cannot refuse,” she says.

“What can I say? Of course I accepted, but I was only doing what comes naturally.”

They don’t make booksellers like Pinchas Mash’aniah anymore. Nor do they make bookshops like Bibliophile with teetering stacks in narrow, dimly lit aisles anymore. And we bibliophiles are left all the poorer. How long will Bibliophile survive? As long as Pinchas Mash’aniah is alive and well, I pray. And as long as there are bibliophiles who like nothing better than to poke into dim, dusty Aladdin’s caves for undiscovered readable treasures. Long and well may Pinchas continue to live and thrive. And that goes for his beloved shop, Bibliophile, too. (I forgot to ask him how he feels about the ongoing tragedy in his hometown.)

(Interestingly and unintentionally, the books I bought were both about islands. Victoria Hislop’s The Island, on Crete, and Daína Chaviano’s Isla de los Amores Infinitos, translated as The Island of Eternal Love, on Cuba.)

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Pinchas Mash’aniah, proprietor of Bibliophile, Tel Aviv

Bibliophile (ביבליופיל) is on 44 Geulah Street, corner Allenby, Tel Aviv. Bibliophile also buys books — bring back books and get 50% of the purchase price.

Bibliophile is on the ground floor of a classic building from the early 20th century. There’s a trendy cafe next door, but we went to the unpretentious one across the street to have wonderful freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.

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Irohazaka in the Vall de Gallinera

Autumn is my favourite season, and has been ever since my very first encounter with the brilliant autumn colours of deciduous trees in Nikko, Japan over four decades ago. Since then I’ve always looked forward to this yearly spectacle wherever I lived — the US, Canada, UK, and Germany.

Now that I live in southern Valencia, I’ve come to accept that this is one natural phenomenon that I’ve foregone. Although the gingkos and poplars do turn an eye-catching yellow, it’s autumn’s fiery reds and oranges that delight my eyes. To experience such blazing colours, I assumed one would have to travel to Spain’s colder regions, to Asturias and Galicia perhaps, or Cantabria, Navarra, and the Basque country, and even as far afield as northern France.

All the more astonishing then to come across such a spectacular show, just a short drive away — minutes really — down to the Vall de Gallinera in Alicante. I’ve now baptized this area Irohazaka, after the renowned attraction of coloured foliage blanketing the mountain slopes in Nikko during autumn. And, were this Nikko, the whole valley would be packed with tourist buses inching their way all along these winding mountain roads. We were there on a Sunday, and no one else regarded the metamorphosis of leaves from green to red and orange and purple as anything worth marvelling at, or even meriting a second glance. All the other cars sped by. How fortuitous for us then to have these gorgeously coloured fields and slopes to ourselves 🙂

The Vall de Gallinera is famous for its black cherries in May — reputed to be the earliest to ripen in the region. And the best tasting as well — they are juicy and luscious with a nice balance of sweetness and tartness, with a dense, chewy texture. In spring, the entire valley is a joy to drive and walk through, with the cherries and almonds, peaches and apples clothed in white and pink blossom. I should have known, from my own experience with our cherry tree in the UK, that these trees would be equally spectacular in their autumn garb. For this momentary lapse of forgetfulness over how cherry trees behave in autumn, I can perhaps be forgiven, as our own cherry tree and those of our neighbours in our mountain hamlet, have not displayed flaming colours before falling.

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And after our eyes had feasted on foliage, it was time for another kind of feast — steaks grilled over the embers of a woodfire at the restaurant La Font in Benitaia. The tarta de queso (cheese cake) was topped with the region’s famous cherry preserves.

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Colours of the New Year in the Galilee

We were in the Galilee and Jerusalem for just over a fortnight last month for Rosh Hashana. It was a bit early for most of the wild flowers, but there were enough blooms to brighten the verges and the sea coast. We had wanted to take the cable car to see the sea grotto in Rosh Hanikra, but there was a long snaking queue of other holidaymakers with the same idea. So we gave up and just walked along the beach which was relatively empty. Only a few families had set up tents for the day. (No overnight camping or walking at night on this coast, as it is close to the border with Lebanon.) Yellow-flowered succulents were blooming among the rocks all along the coast at Rosh Hanikra.

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I was overjoyed to come upon sea lavender (Limonium latifolium) in bloom. It was growing in pure sand.

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Further south along the same coast, sea lilies (Pancratium maritimum) were also in full bloom.

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More Pancratium maritimum growing from a fissure in a boulder, south of Rosh Hanikra.

Rosh Hanikra Pancratium maritimum2.jpegA related Pancratium species has the most curious large seed heads. These were growing in the Sde Yaacov nursery of Mediterranean bulb specialist Oron Peri. I hoped to buy seeds of some rare endemic bulbs, but was daunted that they would take 3 or as much as 10 years to flower.

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Cyclamen in bloom in Oron Peri´s nursery. These are among the earliest to bloom — in a few more weeks, all the other autumn bloomers will be out.

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Exquisite leaves of a cyclamen species at Oron Peri´s nursery.

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All along the coast, sea squill bloomed in crowded groups. I wish I could have taken photos of them, but couldn´t as we were on the expressway, with no pedestrian access to the flowers. Here are photos from Oron Peri´s nursery. The surrounding beds will be crowded with blooms in a few more weeks.

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The Israeli species of sea squill is taller and with a fatter stem than its Spanish relative that I have growing in my garden in Valencia.

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A group of Israeli sea squills in the Zippori archaeological park. The hill behind is Nazareth.

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Just for comparison, here is a group of Spanish sea squills in my hamlet. These are shorter and with more slender stems than the Israeli species.

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More photos of my New Year holiday to come in my next post.



Walking in the midst of olives and almonds

It’s been over two months since my last post. Now back from Bonn and loads of physiotherapy, I am elated to be able to walk long distances again. My favourite walks at any time of year in our hamlet are those taken deep within the surrounding olive groves and almond orchards. It is now the beginning of summer, and the grasses and wildflowers that had been blooming since late winter and spring beneath the trees are now waist-high. Soon they will be mown down, not only to remove competition for water, but also more importantly to deter grass fires. There are enough remaining blooms though in the almond groves, mostly dainty pink thistles and yellow cat’s ears, plus here and there a rare bell flower (a campanula perhaps), in amongst the sere grass seedheads, giving a somewhat pointillistic effect.Olive grove grasses wild flora _6246.jpg

A blue bell flower.

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Between six and seven in the evening, the sun is still high. There is still a good hour, and perhaps more, till the sun sets, and for a brief respite from the heat, we duck under the long-spreading branches of olives, and enjoy the lemon-tinted light under the leaves.

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Further along our walk, in the low late afternoon light, olive trees’ leaf tips are burnished silver.

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Just as we head back home, I notice a solitary conifer, its leaves a rusty red. I hope it’s not due to some disease.


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Cherry blossom viewing in Spain

Te traeré de las montañas flores alegres, copihues,
avellanas oscuras, y cestas silvestres de besos.
Quiero hacer contigo
lo que la primavera hace con los cerezos.

I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,
dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.
I want to do with you
what spring does with the cherry trees.

– Pablo Neruda

Not far from Villalonga, just a few kilometers up and over the ridge overlooking the magnificent semi-circular mountain range that is aptly called the Cirque de la Safor, is the Vall de Gallinera. ‘Vall’ is pronounced ‘Vai’, and I just realized recently that I had been mispronouncing it lo these many months. 😉  The Vall de Gallinera, partly in Valencia and partly in Alicante, is famous for its luscious dark-red sweet cherries that ripen in May. And right about now is when the cherry trees are in bloom. Although the online news mentioned that the best time for cherry blossom viewing is the end of March, spring this year has come rather early, and even the cherry tree in our garden is beginning to bloom. As we are a few hundred meters higher than the Vall de Gallinera, perhaps, just perhaps, I thought the cherry blossoms might be at their peak. If the online news pages turn out to be right, we can always go again, having seen for ourselves at which stage of bloom the trees are in.

And so off we went last Sunday. And what a splendid show of cherries in bloom [els cerrers en flor (Valenciano), los cerezos en flor (Castellano)] awaited us, from Benisilli through to Alpatro and beyond. So, best to go now if you wish to see this spectacle at its peak. The blossoms last about fifteen days, depending on the weather and temperature, naturally. Some orchards even had their trees starting to leaf out. I’m so glad we did get to do hanami (blossom viewing). And, unlike Japan, there were no tourist buses or parties of slightly tipsy revellers picnicking under the trees. No traffic, no crowds. Just us and the dogs. A few cars passed us by, but none stopped to take in the spectacular blossoms and admire them. I have to admit I rather prefer it this way. And, unlike the purely ornamental Japanese cherry blossom, there will be gorgeous fruit to look forward to in a couple of months’ time.

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Asparagus in Japan’s Snow Country

Asparagus is not the first vegetable that comes to mind when people think of Japan. Yet whenever I see or eat asparagus, I cannot help but think of that year that I lived on a surfeit – and oh, such a surfeit it was – of fresh asparagus. And it was all thanks to Okuyama-san.

Okuyama-san had an asparagus patch of his own, in a field just on the outskirts of town. Every morning and late afternoon, just before and after work at his printing shop, he trudged there with old Pochi (then barely able to see, his eyes clouded with cataracts). Of all the plants he grew there — a medley of stalwarts like giant radish (daikon) and Chinese cabbage (hakusai) and chrysanthemums — his favourite, and obviously his pride and joy too, was the asparagus. And he lavished it with attention and generous feeding with well-composted leaf mould and compost all mounded up into a soft and fluffy brown futon. And the asparagus in turn repaid his solicitous care with the fattest and most succulent spears.

The year we lived there he was gifted with another patch nearby – a larger one – that had belonged to the old woman whose field abutted his. She could no longer give it the attention it needed, she’d said, and so passed it on to him where she knew it would be in the best of hands. And with so much to spare, Okuyama-san had a bundle for me every few days, enclosed in a large leaf of giant fuki to keep them moist, left at my doorstep to greet me first thing in the morning.

When we had a group of science fiction translator friends come to stay with us one weekend in spring, a feast of Okuyama-san’s asparagus awaited them. Aspara tempura nante, shinjirarenai! (‘Asparagus tempura! Unbelievable!’) was their delighted response. There was so much asparagus, I’d made some into salad as well, with a dressing of miso (made by our neighbours across the road), walnuts, and mirin – from a local recipe (kurumi miso-ae) shared by another neighbour.

With the next batch that I hope to glean from my wild asparagus patch, I know exactly what I’m going to make with them. And if I find some sake (I may need to go to Valencia for this), it will be a fitting meal with which to remember Okuyama-san and our days in Yuzawa, Akita — in the heart of Japan’s snow country —  by.

As I write this, fog has come in from the sea and completely covered the mountain ahead, which was, just minutes ago, nice and clear.

I leave you with a photo of lovely wild orchids growing in a nearby olive grove. March came in like a lamb, behaved like a lion some days ago, and although it’s not roaring at the moment, it’s still far from its mild manner at the start. I’m not complaining — the plants that I’ve sown need the additional coolth to mature. Happy spring everyone!

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Blat picat – a Villalonga specialty

Recently I came across a list of culinary specialities of Villalonga town, and I wondered how and when and, more importantly, where among the eating places in town one could sample them. On that list was Blat Picat. Serendipitously, that was precisely what was on offer for lunch at La Llacuna’s Hotel Bonestar the other day. What exactly is Blat Picat?

Blat Picat is literally ‘pounded wheat’ (pounded = Valenciano picat, Castellano picado; wheat = Valenciano blat, Castellano trigo). Rather unusual for Spain, this dish from the La Safor region of Valencia and northern Alicante features cracked wheat instead of rice. Blat Picat is a hearty stew cooked long and slowly over very low heat, and as with all stews, the longer it cooks, the better it gets. As with all traditional country dishes that for centuries have sustained poor, hard-working folk, preparing it is rather laborious. Whole wheat grains with their hulls intact are soaked overnight to hydrate, then pounded in a mortar the following day to be dehulled, leaving just the cracked wheat berries. (How curious — to call wheat grain a berry.) The grains then undergo long, slow cooking until they are soft, about 2 hours.

Blat Picat, Northern Alicante style. Photo:

What else goes into Blat Picat? The version served at Hotel Bonestar (in La Llacuna, near Villalonga) is one that has been made in the proprietress’s family over generations. It is a simple and unsophisticated dish, she explained, but it needs cooking over several days. Other people add all sorts of fancy elaborations, she continued, waving a hand to denote neighbouring Alicante. But the authentic original dish, as cooked in my family, she said, was of the humblest, simplest ingredients. Whatever one had on hand or stored from the home garden’s harvest went into it. Of course besides the wheat grains, in go an onion, a handful or two of chickpeas, a cardoon or two, carrots, a tomato, a pig’s trotter or tail, saffron, salt, and olive oil. Her preference when cooking traditional dishes is to remain faithful to the way her mother and grandmother prepared them.  Hotel Bonestar’s Blat Picat is a very thick  stew — as thick as porridge — and the grains have the satisfying texture and flavour of pearl barley. It is very much a dish that a grandmother would have prepared — hearty, nourishing, wholesome. Just the ticket for a cold day.

Blat Picat, Villalonga style

Blat Picat is rarely to be found in the well-known coastal cities, such as Denia or Benidorm, Gandia or Oliva. Nothing in it comes from the sea, besides salt. Blat Picat hails from the mountains of the interior, where winters are harsh and often snowy, a fact which comes as a surprise to many. This winter has seen weeks of torrential rain and freezing winds, hailstorms, thunderstorms, and more than 10 centimeters of snow in the mountains. But all these are considered blessings after several continuous years of drought in the La Safor region.

In northern Alicante, just a few meters beyond the mountain range that divides it from the La Safor region of Valencia province, the essential elements of Blat Picat are (besides cracked wheat) — chickpeas, white (navy) beans, cardoon stalks, carrots, turnips, tomatoes, blanquet (clove- and fennel-flavoured sausage or white bottifarra), and saffron. With its diverse charcuterie, Alicante-style Blat Picat is decidedly upscale, a far cry from the plebeian version I sampled. And rather than being simply called Blat Picat, it is referred to as Olleta de Blat Picat (‘Little Pot of Pounded Wheat’).

It is not inconceivable that Blat Picat is a throwback to a dish made centuries ago by moriscos or marranos (Moorish or Jewish converts to Christianity) dish. As Claudia Roden mentions in her book, The Food of Spain, many dishes regarded as traditionally Spanish are in fact Jewish or Moorish in origin. The small amount of pork added to a dish is a telling factor. To allay suspicious neighbours, marranos and moriscos would often serve their food with a small but visible amount of pork, later to be retrieved untouched. By 1609 however, most moriscos, as had the marranos before them in 1492, had been expelled (according to the official historical record, that is. But could there have been a possibility of not a few who had evaded expulsion?).

Blat picat is remarkably similar to contemporary slow- and lovingly cooked stews made elsewhere based on local grains and legumes, such as hamin or adafina for Sephardic Jews, prepared on the day prior to the Sabbath, and Moroccan hergma (chickpeas with lamb or calf or goat trotters), or even French cassoulet and Portuguese/Brazilian feijoada. When I mentioned to Hotel Bonestar’s proprietress that there seemed to be an influence of morisco cuisine in the cumin used to flavour Blat Picat, she agreed most readily. (Historically, Villalonga was a morisco village, as are neighbouring villages whose names begin with the syllables ‘al’ or ‘ben’.)

If you’d like to taste Blat Picat and other Villalonga specialty dishes such as Arros al Forn (Baked Rice) and Coques Escaldades (literally ‘scalded cakes’, but more like griddle-made flat breads), come to the 9th annual Villalonga Blat Picat Gastronomic Festival (Fira Gastronomica) on 4 – 5 March. The official opening is at 11 am on Saturday the 4th, with lunch from 1 pm  (purchase tickets beforehand). Lots of related events are on throughout Saturday and Sunday: a competition for the best Blat Picat; local foodstuffs on sale; games and activities for children; displays of local crafts, and live music. Check out the schedule (in Valenciano) of what’s on here. The Gastronomic Festival closes on Sunday evening. Below is a recipe for Blat Picat.

Blat Picat

Like all humble dishes, Blat Picat develops its full flavour not through costly ingredients but with the expenditure of time  — lots of it — and effort. It needs to be prepared at the very least 24 hours before serving. The principal cast, as it were, of grains, chickpeas, and meat can be made way in advance, frozen, and thawed when needed. The supporting cast of vegetables can then be added an hour or so before serving. Ingredients marked ‘optional’ are those found in Alicante recipes. The dish I ate at Hotel Bonestar did not include these. There is really no hard and fast rule as to what goes into a Blat Picat. Each cook makes do with what is in the pantry or home garden, or follows what his or her family has always done. As long as the base of cracked wheat and chickpeas are present, you may add whatever winter vegetable is in season.

Ingredients (To serve 4)

250 grams unhulled wheat grains (alternatively  wheatberries or cracked wheat), soaked in cold water overnight, drained, and rinsed.

150 grams dried chickpeas (garbanzos), soaked in cold water overnight, drained, and rinsed (alternatively 150 grams of prepared bottled, canned, or frozen chickpeas)

100 grams white (navy) beans, soaked in cold water overnight, drained, and rinsed (optional). (Alternatively 100 grams prepared bottled or canned white beans.)

4 (or more) tablespoons virgin olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

250 grams pig’s trotter, tail, or ribs

150 grams white sausage (blanquet, a clove-flavoured sausage; or onion-flavoured white bottifarra, sliced (optional); or 5  cloves (optional)

4 rashers smoked country bacon (pancetta), diced (optional)

2 dried sweet peppers (ñoras, stems and seeds removed), sautéed in oil and pureed, or 1 teaspoon unsmoked paprika

200 grams winter squash, cubed (optional)

2 carrots, peeled and cubed

1 large tomato, diced

1 cardoon stalk, rubbed with lemon juice and salt, washed, and sliced into bite-size lengths

2 small white radishes or turnips, peeled and cubed

12 strands saffron, soaked in 2 tablespoons hot water (or white wine, if preferred)

1 – 2 tablespoons (or to taste) ground cumin

1 teaspoon fennel seeds (optional)

salt to taste

2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced

¼ head small cabbage or 6 chard leaves, sliced in bite-sized pieces (optional)


Pound the wheat grains in a mortar to separate the hulls, rinse, and put in a heavy-bottomed pot with enough water to cover the grains. (Wheatberries and cracked wheat are ready to as is, simply rinse.)

Bring the grains to a boil then lower the heat to simmer for 1.5 to 2 hours, or until the grains are tender. Set aside, reserving the cooking liquid.

In a separate pot, put chickpeas with enough water to cover, bring to a boil, and simmer until tender. Drain but reserve the cooking liquid, let cool, then remove the seed coatings. Set aside. Do the same with the white beans, if using.

In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil and sweat the onions until softened.

Add the pork, preserved meats if using, and the pureed ñora peppers or paprika, and the rest of the vegetables (except for the potatoes and cabbage or chard), the saffron with its soaking water (or wine), and spices.

Add the grains and chickpeas, stirring gently with a wooden spoon to prevent mashing the ingredients.

Add just enough of the cooking liquid from the wheat to come approximately two-thirds up the ingredients. (The consistency of this dish, in the style of Villalonga, is more like a porridge. It should not be soupy. You can adjust the consistency later by adding some of the cooking liquid from the grains or chickpeas, or water, if you find that it is too thick. You can always add more liquid, but it will be difficult to make it thicker without resorting to using additional ingredients.)

Bring all to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, until the vegetables are tender.

Taste, then add more salt or spices if needed. The preserved meats (if used) may be sufficiently salty.

Half an hour before serving, add the potatoes and cook until tender.

Add the cabbage or chard, if using, and cook for 10 – 15 minutes or until tender.

Serve piping hot in a large bowl, making sure that the meat and vegetables are distributed evenly among the servings.

Another way of serving this is puchero-style: that is, the grains and chickpeas as a first course, followed by the meat and vegetables as the main course.

As it is rather heavy, no accompanying side dish is served with Blat Picat.

The first botanical garden in La Safor

Last Saturday, we made a long-anticipated visit to the first ever botanical garden established in the comarca (region) of La Safor. An initiative of the municipality of La Font d’En Carros together with the Valencia provincial government’s tourism agency, it was inaugurated in mid-January. It was opened this past weekend as part of a guided walk through the town to celebrate the feast day of Saint Anthony. The garden, planted to diverse species of herbs and other native shrubs and trees, is set within the ancient walls of Barrio Rafalí (Muralla de Rafalí).

It took some time to find the garden. I had assumed there would be signs directing attention to this brand-new garden. There was no address given in the two announcements that I’d read. Two local residents we asked had no idea there was even such a place. “You mean the botanical garden in Valencia, don’t you?” A woman about my age replied. “A botanical garden here? Never heard of it!” Luckily, friend T spotted a friend who knew where it was.

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It is wonderful to have this new botanical garden close by. The garden is stocked with aromatic, culinary, and therapeutic herbs, numbering 54 species native to this region. They include, among others, herbs such as rosemary, lavender, sage, rue, santolina, several varieties of thyme and mint, as well as flowering shrubs such as geranium, Viburnum tinus, and Gaura lindheimeri. The herbs have been planted in generous groups along winding paved paths.


This lovely garden is still in its infancy, but nevertheless, one can already imagine how much lovelier it will be once the new plants get going. The backbone of garden — and what give it something of the air of having been a lost, secret garden now found and restored — are several centenarian olives with picturesque gnarled trunks as well as an ancient fig. These venerable trees have been given rejuvenative pruning. At the lower level of the garden, reached through wide steps with safety rails over boulders, is a grove of old pines that provide cool shade.

The botanic garden is set high above the town, enclosed within ancient stone walls. From here, there are views of the belfry of the Parish Church of Saint Antonin the Martyr and parts of the town below. The stone ramparts (Muralla de Rafalí ) that enclose the garden have been declared of cultural interest (‘bien de interes cultural’) — they date from the 14th century and mark part of the fort that protected the first settlement in La Font.

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The garden was created by the La Font d’En Carros municipality with several aims — to restore and preserve the historic ramparts, parts of which have already deteriorated; to conserve and promote appreciation of local flora; and to provide an attractive site for visitors which will link up to another local attraction, the Castle of La Rebollet, just over a kilometer away. The garden will only be open occasionally, which is a pity — as the La Font municipality’s website notes, this is to prevent vandalism. Opening times can be confirmed with the municipality’s website or telephone  96 283 30 00.

How to get there: From the La Font Oil service station on the CV-638, it is less than 10 minutes’ walk across the roundabout, through Carrer Industria, right on Carrer Rebollet, and left on Carrer Calvari. Entrance to the garden is on Carrer Calvari (see map below). Best to find parking nearby, as the steep streets leading up to the garden are extremely narrow.


Our hamlet is white

Yesterday’s grey skies and rain gave way to snow that sprinkled the northern flanks of the mountains framing our hamlet on three sides. I’d thought that if the low temperatures held overnight, the garden would perhaps get a sprinkling of snow. Well… it wasn’t just a sprinkling but 5 centimeters of snow had fallen and was still falling when I got up this morning. We had breakfast in the veranda looking out over our Mediterranean garden transformed into a polar landscape. The sun is still trying to make up its mind whether to come out.

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There is something rather incongruous about a palm tree’s fronds weighed down with snow. There is something incongruous, to me anyhow, about a palm tree among olives and pines, to begin with. Though there is an endemic palm quite common here — Chamaerops humilis — of which there are three long established in the garden and many more growing wild outside. Because it is winter-hardy, it is often used in English gardens to lend an exotic touch. It has fruits which turn dark red when ripe, and one of the workmen told me that as a child he and his friends used to snack on them on mountain hikes. There wasn’t much to taste of it: it was rather astringent with very little sweetness or any flesh at all. “No hay mucho carne,” he said, but he obviously enjoyed this nostalgic taste of childhood and went on to eat a few more. But I digress as usual.

Lady Brown and Hunter refuse to go out on their own. I wonder what they make of all this cold white stuff. Apparently it’s been years since they’ve had snow here, though it must’ve been a frequent occurrence in times long past, regular enough for people to establish a nevera — an underground storage chamber for packed snow to serve as ice over the summer months. No one relies on this nowadays of course with modern refrigeration. Hunter definitely and Lady B most likely has not experienced snow at all. M had to walk with them out to the back garden so they could do their business. Only Hunter was brave enough to come with me later to walk around the garden. He’s still feeling a little tender, since his snip yesterday. We’re hoping that this will deter his frequent escapades whenever there’s a female in heat in the neighbourhood. It remains to be seen whether this will calm his hyperactivity as well. Lady B was extremely upset when M and Hunter set off to the vet’s early yesterday morning, leaving her behind with me. She refused to look at her breakfast bowl, and did not touch her food at all, even when Hunter and M had come back. All day long she kept giving me sad, baleful looks.

One of our garden’s resident red squirrels came down from his perch up in the pines, going down gingerly along the trunk trying to avoid the patches of snow on it. He was obviously not pleased and he scolded the largest patch, shaking his tail at it furiously. But of course despite the scolding it refused to budge, so he was forced to circle around the trunk to find drier, warmer footing. Once down, he started merrily skipping along his usual path along the stone terraces but turned directly back after the first shockingly cold steps and ran up into the nearest snowless surface — one of the spiny yuccas. Ouch! From there he bounded off onto the tops of the reed fence. Poor Paleface. He’s got a white patch that runs from his head down to his belly, hence his name. I don’t know whether he made it to his usual breakfast nook somewhere in the pine forest behind the house, as I had to put another log on the fire.

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I give thanks again for the veranda, glassed in just in time. In it, with the fire blazing, we feel as if we are outside yet warm and protected from chill winds. Lady B spends most of her days here as well, lying in the sun on her favourite sofa. The sun appears in fits and starts as I write, still not quite sure this is a day for it to be out.  For me it’s a day for staying in and writing while looking out onto the snowy landscape, enjoying views of red-breasted robins and the occasional female blackbird foraging on snowless ground. And to think just a few days ago, we enjoyed daytime temperatures of 20ºC and took the dogs to the lovely Sant Antoni beach in Cullera, a short drive away. What a contrast, eh? Keep warm, my friends.

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The enchanting castle town of Adsubia-Forna

Like a simple sketch for a fairy tale, there’s a castle that we always glimpse driving down towards Villalonga. It is a plain pale-coloured rectangle. No whimsical turrets mar its stark geometry. An equally pale winding road leads up to it, the edges sharply defined against the dark green mountain side as if drawn by hand. It is in a dramatic setting —  atop a low green mountain, in the midst of taller ones rising in gradual slopes a good distance from it, as in an ampitheatre. Beyond the castle itself, from our viewpoint, is a vast open space extending far out to the distant sea. And the vapour that rises from the surrounding pine and oak forests often casts a misty blue haze, flattening all depth and definition between the castle and a viewer from afar, so that it all looks rather unreal — like a gigantic billboard illustrated with a simple castle and its winding road.

Every time we see it, M says, I really want to climb up and see that castle. As a matter of fact, every castle we see — and just about every strategically sited mountain peak in southern Valencia has one — tempts M to scale it. I am just as enchanted with these medieval castles, mostly in ruins, but I am not tempted to clamber up rocks over prickly cactus- and bramble-overgrown slopes to see them up close. It’s become quite an obsession with M, climbing these romantic castles. I am content admiring them from afar.

We discover that this one is called Castell Forna. It’s walkable from Villalonga, M says. Ah, I say, but how high up is it? (I am mindful of my right heel which has been bothering me for months and which I’ve been ignoring in the hope that the pain will go away of its own accord. It’s rather like the needles that the little mermaid walks on.)

It’s not that high, he says. It’s just a tallish hill. (It is not. It’s a proper mountain.) We can take the dogs with us. It looks nice and lush, he continues. Not rocky or cactus-strewn at all.

We’ve only ever seen it from afar and often shimmering with a misty haze, so it’s hard to tell. Hunter, perhaps, but Lady Brown and I? We’re not quite up to it. Lady B could barely run when we took her in. Years of living rough, all exposed to the cold and wet have made her quite arthritic. She could hardly climb up the steps of the veranda at first. Perhaps we can drive up there, I say wistfully. I’m a romantic but not that romantic.

Just after Christmas we go for a drive through the stunning Vall de Gallinera and its countless cherry trees, some of them surprisingly still holding on to their coppery leaves. On the way home we come upon the turn-off to Castell Forna. Shall we take it, M asks. We’ve passed it several times before. This time we take it. Nothing prepares us for the unexpected beauty of the secret valley that gradually unfolds before our eyes.

We take the winding road and it leads straight to a car park just below the castle. There’s a paved path up to the entrance. From there, I manage to make my way up the remaining few meters along a gravel path to the castle gate. There are helpful metal rails to hold on to beside the few broad steps carved from rock as you climb up. And M lends his arm where there are none. The paved path is wheelchair-friendly. The rocky steps are not, however.



Up close, the castle walls are darker than when viewed from afar. To M’s disappointment, it is closed until October. But the unobstructed view from the castle grounds  — all the way to the azure blue sea on one side and inland to neatly terraced orange groves on dark green mountain slopes on the other — is so satisfying and so splendid, that I do not feel in any way deprived. Through the cracks in the wooden castle gate, if you wish, it is possible to peep through to catch a glimpse of the interior courtyard.

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The town below, called Adsubia-Forna (from the union of the two towns of Adsubia and Forna) is exceedingly charming, with narrow streets and well-preserved traditional houses with whitewashed walls and red tiled roofs. It looks a lovely place to explore on foot, with several cafes and restaurants, as well as inns (casas rurales).

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We ask at the diner called Xiringuito de Forna (pronounced ‘Chiringito’) below the castle if there’s a direct road back to Villalonga.  Only a footpath, one of the diners replies helpfully. If you’re driving, you’ll have to take the road back to Oliva, he continues. (By the way, the Xiringuito is reputed to serve good food.) We make our leisurely way home through lush orange groves, their ripening fruit set aglow by the low winter sun.

Adsubia-Forna is certainly one of Alicante province’s hidden treasures. It has the magical air of having been frozen in time, and it is all the more enchanting to us, who discovered it quite unwittingly. I would like to return and savour it slowly. I am even tempted to hike all the way there from Villalonga. Lady B and I can bring up the rear, pacing ourselves gently. Did I just say I wasn’t that romantic? I take it all back.