Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wedensdays at St Cosme


Driving towards Gigondas at midday on a Wedensday in September, the reek of grape juice is overpowering. A black line runs down the middle of the road like a secret way marking. Tinny trucks crouch like toys in the vineyards, their trailers bulging with the deep purple cargo. Heads bob up and down between the rows as the last of the pickers deliver their fruit. Some of the workers are already lying on the roadside, hats tipped over brows, baguettes torn open at their sides, exhausted. At the Co-op, the trucks form patient queues waiting to disgorge their morning load, whilst on the other side of the building pipes are filling customers’ vats and bidons with wine. What goes in must come out. And all of this bathed in autumnal light.

I am on my way to Chateau St Cosme where I am teaching cello to both father and daughter. When I arrive, I ask Louis how his crop survived the recent downpours. He says that the grapes were too hard with the drought and that the rain has softened them perfectly.

He sits down with his cello and lays his hands on the ribs of the instrument. He plays me some Bach. Deeply felt and full of fantasy. We start with some breathing exercises and I see the toil start to leave his body and gradually his sound begins to open up a little. Grapes seem to be embedded in his very skin and lodged under his nails.

Louis' daughter is five. When it comes to her lesson, we find phrases and tap their rhythms out with the bow. We explore fairy harmonics as we draw our fingers up and down the string. We try to find elephants and mice in the sounds we make. We giggle. When I am given a tour of the cellars, however, Alix becomes serious and professional about being papa's assistant. She clearly knows her stuff and may well be the one on whom the wine making mantel falls.

It is awe inspiring, and touching, to be with a man and his daughter whose family has been making wine since 1570, a century before Bach was born, and to whom, for some reason, the cello means so much.

I am paid, and compensated heavily for my ‘kilometrage’ with too many bottles of Côtes du Rhone.

‘I like to do things properly’ says Louis. ‘You have travelled so many kilometres and that equals a certain sum of money. Some weeks you may have four bottles of Little James, others you may have one bottle of Côte Rotie, but do not worry, it will equal the correct sum.’

We part and agree to meet at the same time next week. I drive the exquisite drive back through the vineyards of Gigondas, deliriously happy with my new Wedensday gig. Later, sipping the wine I have been gifted, I pray that I may bring something equal to the pleasure of this taste into their lives through our musical explorations.

Monday, September 14, 2009



It was our final day in Asturias. The sun was shining. the cow bells were ringing and we were excited about LUNCH!

On our arrival at Casa Marcial, we were encouraged to have the traditional menu. I wasn’t sure how much better fabada or rice pudding could come than those dishes we had eaten in the simple places along the way, and I noticed there was neither fish or a single vegetable on the menu, but I always follow other people's advice. To a fault.

That night Julian was sick as a dog and the twelve hour drive home the next day was punctuated with far too many motorway stops. We had been poisoned by the michelin starred restaurant! Then, to boot, we arrived home to find that the pump in our own waste water purification system had ceased to function.

‘Histoire de merde’, said Julian, having spent a third morning mopping and scooping the poop and rushing once more for the small room.

We are better now, and beginning not only to love the memory of the bean stew from Asturias but to want to recreate it as we contemplete the winter nights that will soon draw in. Meanwhile, the tourists have left Provence and the ceps have arrived along with the breeze, and a precious season of glowing is upon us.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Picu Uriellu


Our budget lunch at Casa Moran in Benia finally happened on the next, a very tired and rainy day. After a refreshing stroll along the river at La Molina we enjoyed another fabada, served with almost spooky intention by a Spanish version of Mrs Danvers. I was learning to leave the chips that came with everything. Julian, meanwhile, was learning to finish them for me.

Having rested and lunched, and planning a final day of more of the same (this time on the beach and at Casa Marcial) before we left on Monday, we were up early for our final big walk on Saturday. By that time we had sussed that you could get great coffee at eight, and the best breakfast in the world of a ham tortilla bocadillo for the price of a pee in Euston station in the walkers Café Cares in Arenas. There you could also whet your appetite by admiring the impressive array of photographs from climbers of the Picos de Europa that hung on the walls and were dedicated to the owner who had clearly provided them with much of their fuel. Julian’s bocadillo filled smile that morning was, I think, his biggest yet!

We started off, well supplied, at Canares, after a steep and stunning ascent in the car past Tielve. Red roofs and green pastures were caught in the morning rays and cheesemakers went about their early cheesemaking tasks. We parked and tried to decide between raingear and fleece, long and short trousers as the cloudless sky mocked our wavering.

The walk to the refuge at Picu Uriellu was on a good path over grassy slopes, through heather, past cows and goats and horses and remote farm buildings. We didn't talk much except for a few tips from the mountaineering maestro to his mistress. 'Straighten your knees. Try taking bigger steps.' I took Julian's advice, adding the advice I give to my cello students (and indeed myself). 'As soon as you arrive on a finger you are leaving it. Use every joint as a spring board. The impulse comes from your middle. It's all about throwing yourself off balance and the limb swinging effortlessly forward to try and recreate the balance.....' As the path became steeper, snake like and on scree, I found I was less puffed out. The square peak loomed tall and silver in the distance. Meanwhile I couldn't help being just a litle pissed off that Julian could walk up a mountain having not moved for two years (since our holiday in Skye I believe) whilst I, having jogged all year round and swam an hour a day all summer, still lagged behind.


By the time we got to the refuge and dug into our country bread and the blue cheese from the valley we had just left, we were both feeling strong, joyous, slim and fit!

That evening we joined the weekend throngs in Llanes for grilled squid and baby eels sizzling with hot peppers. We had a velvety Rioja. We saw a wedding and heard bagpipes and retired to the sound of waves and the cowbells, the sound that was beginning to feel like home.


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Cares Gorge


Coffee in Asturias was becoming a problem. We had forgotten our espresso maker and besides the coffee in Spain was good, right? Trouble was we couldn't seem to get any before ten. Thus we were making later starts than intended. And then there was the temptation of that swim first thing, and those wave-induced smiles of Julian's as he bobbed and ducked...

Anyway, for our second attempt at a Short Walk Before Lunch (we had our eye on the place mentioned in the Guardian as serving highly calorific simple fare) we were on the mountain road by eleven. We chose not to have our coffee in either of the places called Poo (little did we know how symbolic these places would become)but instead in a small market town. In Arenas de Cabrales we replenished our walking sock supply in a shop that sold everything that you could possibly want and in which there there was not a single bar code. (Gold medallion souvenir blue cheese? Sure. Skip in back to brown box. Waterproof trousers? Sure. Skip in back to another brown box etc) Then, at my insistence, we bought a litre of water, a hunk of bread and a block of the cheese for which the region was famous. We were ready for our morning walk. In fact we were ready for anything. Almost. 'Just a quick visit to the tourist office' I said.

Julian hates tourist offices. He is the kind of guy that, rather than go to the information centre right in front of him to find out where the map shop is, he will walk round the entire town trying to find it. He is not a tourist office kind of guy. He is the kind of guy who eats the picnic while his wife is in the tourist office.

'The Cares gorge from Poncebos to Cain is only three hours each way' I said, emerging to find teeth marks in the cheese. 'Surely we can do it?'


Needless to say, our budget fabada (the highly calorific simple Asturian bean stew with chorizo and black pudding) at Casa Moran in Benia did not happen that day either. However, we did have a very tasty Magnum (a highly calorific simple chocolate covered ice cream popsicle thing) in Cain with our feet plunged in icy river water and the sun beating on our shoulders.


Tuesday, September 08, 2009


asturias 1

It all started one sweaty afternoon in June. We were facing the increasing heat and crowds of a Provençal canicule and the relentless production of postcard sized paintings. Julian had a frozen shoulder and his face was already engraved with exhaustion lines. It was time to plan a cool escape. As always Monsieur wanted mountains and I wanted sea. We both wanted folk music and good peasant food, fish, and a Michelin starred restaurant. Skye, we agreed with misty eyes, had been perfect. We were looking in to Ireland when up on the Guardian popped this article . It was settled. Asturias it would be, and the holiday would peak (I suspected secretly as I researched and Julian rushed to the finishing line) at Casa Marcial. At the end of August we would pack walking boots, our cute blue tent and the red bible, we would drive nine hours and we would be there. On holiday at last.


Two months later, we crossed the border in to Spain. We pitched our tent above the sea, walked the rugged walk into the scrappy port and found the perfect tapas, sweet salt cod on roasted green peppers, and a tumbler of rioja. We breathed deeply. We were in for a treat.

Once in Asturias, after a cider in Llanes' Bar Colon, and a hearty lunch of fabada and other traditional fare, we found a home for our tent looking over the Playa de Troenzo. The sound of cowbells mingled with the crash of the waves and the wake up smell of eucalyptus as we explored the nearby coves and beaches of Borizo and Torimbia. We ventured in to the cool water. The dark creases under Julian’s eyes began to melt into the spume. I hadn’t seen my love smile that child-like smile in months.

The next day we planned a short walk around the mountain lakes. We were both tired from the journey and since the Spanish don’t start eating till two or three we had time to take it easy and still be down in time for lunch. However the Sunday bussing service to Lake Enol put in place to cope with the weight of tourists seemed suddenly daunting, especially for a hermit just emerging from his cave, so we turned back. Instead we headed towards a remote place called Gamoneu.

Within the hour, true to form, Julian had us off the trail, onto a cow trail, then an ant trail and then, as far as I could see, a no ****ing trail at all. We had eaten a croissant and in our bag we had 25cl of water. Up up up we clambered. I was almost in tears. Up more hundreds of feet. We really didn’t have enough supplies. I insisted. Through mud and over scree, through bracken and gorse, our calves and arms were being scratched and our feet pummelled. Only another six hours, he said.....This was not what I came prepared for I whined inwardly. Just around this col and we're on the pass, he said. Then it's all downhill on a good path. The good path had been ravaged by cows and no longer existed. We stumbled and fell. Ouch. This was not within the goalposts we had set out at the start, I thought. But this was, I realised gradually as I began to win the struggle with myself, GLORIOUS! Wild, lonesome, rugged and above all lush. We found more water from a spring and at the end there were blackberries, and there again was that smile which was the best landscape of all. After seven and a half hours we made the last ascent. Something blue glimmered in the hamlet where we had parked the car. We watched it come closer. Was it a bar? Yes!!!!asturias24 That evening we sat huddled in our fleeces and released from our boots on the bar’s terrace, looking at the full moon rise over the mountain we had just climbed, eating anything and everything that came to us – chorizo in cider, creamy blue cheese, some filet of something with chips, and lots of beer. It was one of the best meals we have ever had! All for the price of two coffees in Paris.


More to come!