Thursday, 18 December 2014


Traveller's food, mouth-burningly comforting and solid.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Catalan breakfast

Whether this is an authentic term for what you see below I do not know: but it is what I use. The components are light pieces of toast, olive oil, tomatoes well-salted and peppered and Serrano ham. You squash the tomatoes into the oil with the toast and then alternate between eating tomato, ham on the toast - or even both. It is a good plan to leave enough toast at the end to mop up the juices at the end...or make more toast.

Sunday, 23 November 2014


There is something magical about watching popcorn being made. I remember it happening in the kitchen with the cork floor and the stable doors at our house in South London. A saucepan with the lid on so you could not see what was going on, followed by the first pop followed by a cacophony. It is the way those unpromising hard brown pellets turn, under the saucepan lid,  into something soft, white and fluffy. Yet still they retain a remnant of shell that betrays their origin. Salty or sweet? I rather approve of Julia's trick in the cinema foyer. Using her scoop, she created layers of salty and sweet so each mouthful was a surprise.

Saturday, 22 November 2014


I have been thinking about what factors make recipes more or less difficult to follow. What, to put it a little more pretentiously, are the dynamics of dishes? Here are some thoughts:

Unusual/rarely used equipment
Physically demanding
Delicacy of touch
Careful timing/measuring/temperature

I may add to this list.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Wonderful Soup Stone

"I swear you could taste
The Chicken and Tomato
And the Noodle and the Marrow bone.
But it really wasn't nothing
But some water and potatoes
And the wonderful, wonderful soup stone."

A song I recall from my childhood, by Dr Hook: simple, evocative and telling a story. The song goes on to reminisce about the singer's own childhood ("back in the hard time days") and his mama and, "whenever things got tight", production of the magical soup stone:

"Mama boiled up some water, put in the stone and said "Let's have some soup tonight!""

It is a somewhat less cynical version of the "Stone Soup" fairy tale which I also first read as a child. It concerns a wanderer who arrives at the hut of a man who, rather ungraciously, agrees to offer the traveller lodging for the night. The traveller has seen through a window that the hut owner has a larder full of food. But all he is offered is some dry bread. So he offers to make soup with his magic "soup stone". Delighted at the prospect of a free dinner, the man agrees and the traveller begins cooking. Presently, he suggests that some potatoes would be a good addition; and how about some chicken; and if the man happens to have any herbs, that really would make it not just a good soup but a superb soup. Eagerly, the man empties his cupboard and the soup is made. The following day, the traveller reluctantly agrees to sell his stone to the man in return for his gold hoard. There is another version of the story called "Nail broth".

Sunday, 16 November 2014


Both exotic (the one piece of fruit in the fruit bowl no one touches without permission) and as ordinary as tinned fruit (pineapple chunks or pineapple rings) it is my favourite of all tropical fruit. And it can be so variable.

I used to have one blue packet of pineapple juice with a crude yellow and green shape delivered at school on Monday mornings for about five years. On reflection, it tasted a little woody.

One year, I was living in lodgings within the cathedral precincts but some distance away from where my juice was delivered. Having collected it, I had taken it up to the library and left it with my other stuff while I chose some books.

When I returned, Anthony Michael, a curly headed Greek boy, had pierced a hole in its side and drunk about half its contents. He admitted his guilt with a wink. Exasperated as much at the thought of having to carry a leaking carton of juice through the cathedral precincts as at the naked theft, I picked up the carton and squirted pineapple juice over the essay he had been writing. 

Revenge was sweet but it led to cold fury. "Would you like to step outside?" in dangerous tones. I remained in the library, my sanctuary. He did not forget my crime, complaining how I had ruined his work, forcing him to rewrite it. A few days later, I felt a kick from behind.  One of the girls in the same French set admonished me for failing to retaliate.

Simple roast chicken

I love chicken with all the trimmings - and at some point I must find out why the word "trimmings" is used to refer collectively to things like bread sauce, sage stuffing and pigs in blankets. But the apparent effort of producing these extra things, delicious though they are, I think puts us off having roast chicken on a week night.

Here, then, are my views about three essential ingredients to add to your plump raw chicken: plenty of salt rubbed into the skin; butter ditto; and a lemon stuffed inside. If I were allowed a fourth ingredient, it would be twigs of thyme, tarragon or rosemary, tucked all over the bird. (I am wondering while I write this whether an onion could also be fitted inside, and black pepper ground over the skin: enough!)

After five minutes' preparation, the chicken can then be put in the oven. Mashed potato and green peas to accompany the bird. A quick gravy can be made from the buttery, lemony juices.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Egyptian food

What would you say to roast meat and roast chicken, peppered rice, sausage and stuffed marrow, stuffed lamb and stuffed ribs, kunafah swimming in bees' honey, fritters and almond cakes?

Monday, 10 November 2014

French onion soup

I have heard that this soup is also known as "Soupe de Paris". Certainly it is referred to in a book by Judith Kerr about a Jewish family fleeing Hitler's Germany as a dish that everyone in Paris tucks into in the early hours of the morning after a night spent on the town. Patrick Leigh Fermor writes somewhere about doing the same thing in "Les Halles".

What is it that makes this soup so special? I even go for the crouton topped with melted cheese soaked in the soup. Stringy. The whole dish should be blisteringly hot. Intensely savoury. The liquid slightly fatty but not greasy. The lines of onions, pale, bland and soft, camouflaged by the liquid. A soup to eat while it is too hot.

Sunday, 9 November 2014


Butter is a good word. Does its sound resemble its meaning: a smack of the lips, the tongue bouncing off the teeth? Or is that, as my English teacher used to write in red ink at the bottom of some of my essays, "a little fanciful"?

I like my butter fridge-cold, solid enough for a knife to struggle to break through; brittle enough to break. Or in melted form, sizzling, bubbling, foaming,  on the point of burning. Clear yellow liquid and white residue. Never "spreadable" or "mixed with vegetable oil" or "slightly soft".  In a restaurant, like the salt or the pepper on the table, the butter is an early test.

At nursery school, we made butter. In a jar containing cream and two shiny screws. We all took turns to shake the jar. We ended up with a white solid. The headmistress, Mrs Hancock, added a little salt (unnecessary) and we all tasted some on bread at lunchtime. Delicious.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Airport food

I find it bizarre that the food you find in airports is of such variable quality. And even more bizarre that some of the countries with a well-deserved reputation for the quality of their cooking - I refer, for example, to France and Italy - can allow such a reputation to be diminished by the food available at the very point of arrival into or departure from that country.

Of course, it might be said that the marketplace is prevailing: why bother to provide decent food when all passengers want is fast food? Or the lack of a marketplace. With a captive audience, there is no harm in serving expensive badly-cooked food because there is nowhere else for the passengers to go, particularly past security. My rejoinders to these hypothetical defences are simple. First, decent food and fast food are not mutually exclusive, as Nigel Slater has demonstrated repeatedly in his various books with "Fast" in the title. Second, the ludicrous time an airline requires its passengers to check in to the flight in advance of its departure usually gives ample time for a decent meal. I reckon that holidaying passengers will often be willing to splash out for a decent meal on the first day of the holiday. Finally, there are those who, faced with a lousy choice of food, will choose simply to go without. I am one of them.

Let me name and shame, and name and congratulate. Pisa Airport: plasticky mozzarella and tomato rolls were all on offer; and my companions and I nearly caused a diplomatic incident in our response to correspondingly rude staff. By contrast, the airport in Naples offered good though expensive buffalo mozzarella: sadly we only ran into it after we had run the gauntlet of nasty sliced bread sandwiches and bought them with regret, thinking there would be nothing else.

As for France, at Nice Airport there was nothing of interest. Yet this from the city that named an internationally renowned salad. The Spanish airports fare better in my estimation. I do not know what lies beyond customs at Madrid, having only transferred flights there. But within the wood between the worlds there was a reasonable selection of raw ham rolls and chorizo rolls.

The airport on Crete possibly comes bottom of the pile: the only thing that was edible - term used loosely - was a hot dog. So poor was its quality that we returned it and demanded our money back.

Far more impressive was Warsaw Airport. Beyond security, a cafeteria selling an array of interesting and tasty dishes: comfort food such as Beef Stroganoff. And Tokyo Airport, where I have just eaten my way through a plate of exceptional Sushi. One of my fellow diners had just landed - I was leaving Japan - from France and had been so missing Sushi that he had immediately headed for this restaurant. I could have eaten perfectly adequately for less than a fiver. Instead I went for a pricier set. There were sushi chefs behind the counter making up the plates. Green tea was complimentary.

This place, I confess, was before security. I was more fearful that there would be nothing beyond that I ignored the signs to head for my gate. And, as a result, no sooner had I gone through all the formalities than it was time to board my flight: so no sitting around fruitlessly. And I noticed, on my hasty journey to the gate, that there was at least one perfectly good looking Sushi restaurant here as well. But at double the prices, I wondered?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Long haul flights

These musings occur to me on a flight from Tokyo to Vienna - both excellent places but the parts in between, certainly on the current flight path, seem to me to be a little barren.

First, I am convinced that one of the two outer seats in the bank of four is the best to aim for. There is always a chance that the passenger next to you will choose to clamber out on the other side if you are asleep. The other two passengers are almost bound to do so.

Airline food is almost always disgusting: Victoria Wood once summed it up well when she described the passenger next to her who ate everything: "He ate the salt and pepper. He ate the little towelette thing for wiping your hands on. He even ate the thing I thought they only put there for a joke, you know the tinned pear and the dream topping." When comedians make you realise how we've always thought something but never dared to say it out loud.

The meal just served by Austrian Airlines fell, I am afraid, into the disgusting category. There was a choice between "Asian Chicken" and "Western Pork". I plumped for the chicken, on the grounds that we were in Asia and the food was likely to have been made there by people more experienced in putting together Asian food than Western food. The chicken had been so finely minced that it was indistinguishable from the insipid sauce surrounding it. Remind me, on another occasion, to write an entry on the western style sliced bread they give you in India.

The only exceptions to the rule about poor food are, in my view, when snacks are purveyed. Air France provided a perfectly good baguette filled with Mountain Ham on a flight from Paris to London once. Fortunately there was no time to heat up any food. A different kind of ham but none the worse for it was given to me by the staff on a USAir internal flight. I recall a particular awkwardness: I wanted a tomato juice to go with it. How, though, should I say tomato?

Sunday, 19 October 2014


On our first night in Tokyo, we had been told that we were going to a "Japanese style pub" mainly known for its "grilled chicken". My expectations were not high: I thought of a pub abroad; I thought of KFC.

We were running late and a little lost on one of the walkways high above Tokyo where we could see the lights from the lifts rushing up the skyscrapers at extraordinary speeds. Someone speculated about what would happen if the lift failed to stop. We were saved from these morbid thoughts by one of the hosts of the place we were trying to find, who had managed to find us huddled together and wondering which way to go next.

He escorted us to "Hinaiya" where it was not merely coats off but shoes off and into lockers. Then we had to work out the most dignified way of sitting on the low benches at our table. Around us was an array of pots, jugs and plates. Soy sauce and red powder in a pot. Wet towels.

Then a series of delicacies arrived starting with a little bowl with tiny mushrooms in salad. Then a bowl with what looked like flash fried tuna with seaweed on top. But no. Someone realised it was in fact chicken, seared on the outside but raw within. Raw fish, raw steak: no problem. But raw chicken? Someone muttered something about Salmonella. We each tried some, tentatively at first but before long the bowl was empty. The chicken had been marinated in Wasabi.

Never before had I imagined how many ways it was possible to serve chicken. But there then arrived bowl after bowl of chicken: on skewers, steamed, fried pieces of skin, flash fried wings, chicken livers, chicken heart... More salad. Our waiter told us to stack the skewers into a tall pot for the purpose. Minced chicken on a skewer with a raw egg. And vegetables on skewers, including Gingko nuts - tiny and green, tasting like roasted chestnuts.

Time to hit the night life of Tokyo...

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Chilled soup

I recently received a marketing e-mail from Waitrose which included the headline "An exclusive 25% off chilled soups". Below, it read: "Soup is the perfect comfort food to cheer up a chilly autumn day. That's why we're offering myWaitrose members 25% off all chilled soups until 7 October". Apart from the flawed logic, it is the misuse of "chilled" to which I object. Presumably, they are referring to soup which is served hot but sold from their refrigerators rather than in a tin or a packet. But to me "chilled soup" conjures up Gazpacho and Vichyssoise - perfect Summer soups but not, I suspect, what the marketeers had in mind. As a matter of fact, I'll happily eat Gazpacho all year round: and, in fairness to Waitrose, having criticised their use of language, they are the only supermarket in the land which sell Gazpacho (Alvalle is the brand) that bears any resemblance to what you can get in Spain.

My uncle Alex has a novel way if Gazpacho is ever on the menu at any dinner party he attends. He asks for it to be put in the microwave. Cold soup, in his view, is unacceptable.

In my mother's recipe book is a recipe for "Strawberry Gazpacho". I reproduce it below:

1/2 lb strawberries
1 teaspoon tabasco
1 tin beef consommé
1/4 pint orange juice
2 cucumbers
Salt and pepper
Blend in food processor.

I have not tried it, and must confess I would feel slightly wary about doing so. Beef consommé and orange juice? Hmmm.

There is a further recipe for another chilled soup on the same page:

Beetroot consommé

Boil pieces of raw beetroot, carrots, onions, potato and stock cube. Make up with one packet of Madeira aspic. Serve chilled with sour cream.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Mushrooms on toast

I was once contemplating making this for a late evening meal when Granny rang. I told her, rather smugly, of my plan for supper and she was most impressed. Whether I then made it that evening I am not sure.

It is based on a Nigel Slater idea in "Fast Food" - although I suspect he would be the first to deny that it is a recipe.

Sliced mushrooms
Finely chopped onion
Olive oil - for frying
Double cream
Some fresh parsley
Possibly a scrap of bacon

Heat the oil and gently fry the onions. Add the mushrooms; I think they should be slightly crisp. Add the bacon if you're adding it. Then the cream and let it all bubble and reduce. Pour on to the toast and eat immediately.

Monday, 11 August 2014


I agree with Elizabeth David on this one: this is an overrated dish. Perfectly pleasant but never spectacular in the way that a perfectly cooked risotto can be. It sounds almost insulting to say it is good street food because that is to imply that good street food can never be spectacular. Nevertheless, a good paella, served out of one of those colossal, slightly pretentious, pans: yellow rice, chorizo, chicken, mussels and prawns, to be gobbled in a market.

The village in Southern France where we spent summers in the nineteen eighties had a café (the "Café de la Paix"). When we moved there, it was known by some of the ex-patriots as Lenin's Tomb, so dour was the service; the first time I went in with my parents, nervously, wanting to practise my French, the man behind the bar affected not to understand my request for "Deux cafés et deux Oranginas". Later the place was taken over by a younger couple who offered food in the evenings, advertised on a blackboard outside. But it never seemed to change. Every evening as we drove past the "Café de la Paix", the cry would ring up: "Plat du Jour? Paella!" We never tried it.

Saturday, 12 July 2014


I feel the same way about these as Goldilocks felt about the three bears' porridge. The green ones are too cold, the black ones are too hot, and the red ones are just right. The purple ones are just disgusting.

Monday, 19 May 2014

One of the worst meals ever

It all started so well. We had had drinks elsewhere on the harbour in the tiny village in Crete where we were staying, and decided that the sunset was so splendid, like something out of "Oklahoma!", that we wanted to prolong the experience and have dinner. The waitress greeted us warmly and ushered us to a table right by the sea.

Things started to go wrong when we inspected the menu and noticed that ALL the fish dishes - this, I remind the reader, was a restaurant right next to the sea - had an asterisk beside them, indicating they were frozen. It has to be said: were we from this moment on setting the place up to fail? I do not think so.

Bread came, entirely properly, with oil and vinegar. There was nothing wrong with the oil. The vinegar looked like Malt. It was foul with a curious sickly-sweet taste. The wine was even worse. It had, I said, a "very curious perfume" and the perfume stayed even after we had gulped a whole glass in the hope that it would taste slightly better. When the waitress came over and asked whether the wine was good, with British aplomb, my girlfriend said, "Er....yes..." How British.

When ordering, my girlfriend commented on the fact that all the fish were frozen. The waitress told us, "We have lots of other lovely traditional dishes - all home made". When my girlfriend chose Moussaka, the waitress went into raptures at her choice. I, foolishly, chose something called Chicken Gyros. My girlfriend tried to warn me that it was essentially a Donner Kebab but I ignored her.

We waited for our food, in slight trepidation. My girlfriend's Moussaka arrived, a square slab in a round dish. She stuck a fork into it and managed to lift it out of the dish intact. She then managed to excavate a chunk of solidified bechamel. At this point, fairly convinced this was all a terrible mistake, I took a mouthful of my Chicken Gyros. It was dry and flavourless. My girlfriend and I agreed that we would leave. I went to ask for the bill, and there followed an embarrassing diplomatic incident, involving the waitress scurrying backwards and forwards, refusing to accept that we just wanted to leave. Eventually, the proprietess arrived, clearly angry. "I made it with my own nails", she assured us. This did not provide us with any reassurance and we paid the bill (not waiting for change) and left. We felt vindicated when we saw the kitchen on the way out, which contained a bank of three microwaves...

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Sunday lunch conversation

There are occasions when someone says something at lunch and it turns into a highly entertaining, extended conversation, to which everyone round the table can make a meaningful contribution.

It happened to me on Sunday last, beginning with an unpromising remark about oven space. Someone then said the following: "Mum had a dinner party once and announced that she had to get the salmon out of the dishwasher".

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Scotch Eggs

Scotch Eggs range in quality: there is the type found as part of a depressing cold buffet, wrapped in bright orange slightly moist bread crumbs, sometimes quartered or filled with chopped egg and salad cream rather than whole egg. At the other end of the scale are freshly-cooked ones where the egg yolks are runny. There are even the divine miniature versions made with quails' eggs, handed round as canapés if you're lucky.

My pupilmaster, Robert Leonard, once told me that he considered Scotch Eggs to be of "no interest whatsoever", but I wondered at the time whether it was due to the fact that I had bought one to have over lunch with one of his clients. They are not elegant things to eat, and, I suppose, a bit like the Cadbury's cream egg, the question "How do you eat yours?" springs to mind. I like mine with a dab of mayonnaise (on the egg) and a dab of Dijon mustard (on the sausage meat). The important thing is for the sausage meat to be of exceptionally good quality: neither too dry, nor too wet. Then they are worthy accompaniments for a stiff walk.

I once had something called a Welsh Egg, which turned out to be foul: wrapped in mashed potato rather than sausage meat.


I was so used to seeing this come out of a jar, a little slimily (and usually served with grey rather than red beef), that I never realised there was an actual vegetable called a horseradish, until I saw a pile of them in Fortnum & Mason's one Christmas Eve. As we were planning to have roast beef on Christmas Day, it was the perfect find. So the horseradish was bought, and when it was bought it was wrapped and went into my brother's stocking. As I expected him to do, he made an obscene remark on discovering it. On Christmas morning, I allocated to myself the task of turning it into horseradish sauce. And very quickly, I realised why it was that most people acquired their horseradish sauce from a jar rather than making it from scratch. Grating it was worse than chopping an onion. But, having finished making it, I very quickly realised why it was WORTH making it from scratch. It actually tastes fresh and alive. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is responsible for this recipe, which comes in his River Cottage Meat Book: the best book on the subject that I know.

100 g horseradish
125 g creme fraiche
1 teaspoon English mustard
2 teaspoons wine vinegar
Pinch sugar
Salt and pepper

Peel and grate horseradish. This is the toughest bit. Then steep the horseradish in the vinegar, mustard and sugar for ten minutes. Stir again. Add the creme fraiche and mix it together well. Add salt and pepper if and as necessary.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Chocolate eclairs

These, to my mind, are like Crème Brûlée: properly made, they are unbeatable. But crusty, stale, soggy, or filled with fake cream, chocolate cream or slightly sour cream, I would rather eat a bowl of bread and butter. The chocolate on top, in my view, needs to be a fondant, not hard; the cream should be double. Eclairs should burst their contents into your mouth, like the streak of lightning after which they are named.
My great great aunt, Sadie Bonnell, lived to 105 and I last saw her on her hundredth birthday. But it is her ninetieth birthday that I have in mind, and it is that day which the photograph below, taken in June 1978, shows. My mother made ninety miniature chocolate eclairs for her birthday tea. Years later, she wondered, half-jokingly, why she had bothered: the two did not enjoy a warm relationship. “Auntie Da” she was known as: short, apparently, for “Sadie Darling”. A real misnomer, said my mother, who told the story of a Boxing Day lunch to which Auntie Da had been invited: “She looked at my lovely cold collation and said there was nothing there that she could eat. I offered to make her some soup and she said I wouldn’t be able to make anything acceptable so quickly. I nipped into the kitchen and knocked up some turkey and vegetable broth, which she guzzled, and then went to the cold collation, previously rejected, and stuffed her face there too!”
I recall another occasion when I must have been aged about nine or ten. We were staying with my grandparents and Auntie Da had come to stay. I did not fully comprehend at the time just how much tension her presence caused – although I enjoyed observing the ructions. They usually came accompanied with soft rumbling from my grandfather - “Auntie!” - when she went too far. One came over supper, when Granny brought in pudding: sliced peaches. Auntie wasn’t happy with her helping as it came with cream, and she demanded one without. Granny whipped the rejected bowl off Auntie’s table mat and stalked back into the kitchen muttering something like, “Well that’s great!” The next evening there were more sliced peaches available and Auntie was asked whether she would like any. She would, “but it’s really just an excuse to have some cream”, she said. I found it hard not to giggle.
The most infamous story of all comes from the nineteen sixties when she was living with her niece, Irene, and Irene’s husband, Bill. The final straw was at a meal when Irene served up Brussels sprouts and Auntie leaned over, grabbed one, and squeezed it over the serving dish, commenting that it hadn’t been properly drained. That was the last straw and she went to live in a home in Droitwich, where she lived out her remaining thirty or so years.

Saturday, 18 January 2014


It has just occurred to me that a significant number of simple and versatile foods end with the letters -on, namely: lemon, salmon, bacon, melon, onion, cinnamon and, if I am allowed it, maccaroon. And, even less allowed, capon. And tarragon. For a recipe which uses three of the above ingredients, see warm chicken and bacon salad.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Spanish bus station

Dining at a table with crisp white linen, candlelight and hushed voices is one of life's pleasures. A tasting menu, say, with seemingly endless plates of delicious morsels. Companionship while you eat through such a meal is not essential but, I think, desirable. I will leave to another entry the topic of solitary fine dining.

Instead, let me deal with another subject altogether: the thrill of finding good food in the most unlikely of surroundings. Elizabeth David has written some wonderful essays on the topic. Here is my own story which comes from Catalunya in Spain.

It began with a plan. I would get a bus from Besalu, where I had been staying, to Olot, at the end of the line. I would spend the day there before heading to Figueres and catching a train across the border to France.

Olot, the guidebook told me, was in the heart of Garotxa, a volcanic region near Girona. My map showed a number of (extinct) volcanoes within the bounds of the town itself. The guidebook had warned me that the approach to Olot by bus was unpromising: and so it proved. Although the landscape on the way had grown more rugged as we had wound into the hills, the outskirts of Olot were nondescript. The grey bus station itself did nothing even to hint of the natural wonders which, apparently, lay so close by.

I had no intention of dawdling in the bus station anyway: I wanted to go to one of the various restaurants in the town which offered "Cucina Vulcanica" - Volcanic Cooking. The restaurants which used this brand apparently served dishes containing some or all of nine regional specialities, including wild mushrooms and boar. Marketing ploy it may have been, but it appealed.

An enquiry at the ticket office scuppered my plans. The next bus to Figueres, I was told, was not until the evening: long after my train to France would have left. The only solution was to head south, back to Girona, which I had left several days before, never expecting to return, and pick up the train there. I hated the thought of turning back.

Perhaps it was a combination of my surroundings, my nearly missed train and the wrecked plan which persuaded me to leave Olot immediately. And a heavy rucksack. At all events, I decided to get some lunch to take with me on the bus to Girona.

In the bus station was a cafeteria, which promisingly displayed a menu from one of the "Cucina Vulcanica" restaurants in Olot. For a wild moment, I wondered if I was standing in the very restaurant.

But no. There was little on display in the cafeteria, but what was there looked good. I saw bread rolls where a paste made of tomatoes had been used instead of butter. The rolls were stuffed with Serrano ham. There was also a plate of tortilla - potato omelette. I decided to have both a Serrano ham roll AND a tortilla which caused a little confusion, as did my wish to take my lunch away. Did I want my tortilla in bread? That, too, caused confusion on both sides. A bystander helped to interpret my attempts at Spanish. No, I would have it without bread. The woman behind the counter wrapped up my purchases in foil, a reassuring touch.

About to leave, I saw a modest sign on a blackboard: Gazpacho. I asked about it tentatively and the woman reached into a fridge immediately and pulled out a half-full bottle with a murky label. In the presence of good food, my negative thoughts about Olot had shifted. This was clearly home made soup. The woman poured some into a glass: obviously I was expected to drink it there and then rather than take it away. It tasted just as Gazpacho should taste.

I sat at the back of the bus and unwrapped my lunch a little guiltily, with a feeling that eating food on board was not really allowed. As we headed towards Girona on the bus, the rain started to descend heavily. But my spirits rose with every mouthful. It was the best of picnic food.