Thursday, January 22, 2009

Starlings and Olives

As a child I grew up learnig to hate starlings as vermin and was given carte blanche to shoot as many of them as I was able with my fathers air rifle. I think over all the years that I shot at starlings on a regular and sustained basis I shot only one and even then I cant be sure I got it.

Some time later, about 2½ - 3 decades more or less, I changed my mind and started loving them. Why? Cos they’re beautiful and cos I have seen them close up and I like what they do. Around autumn time, sometimes early, sometimes late, they arrive in large numbers on their way to Africa or somewhere nice and warm. They stop in Ibiza cos Ibiza got lovely olive trees, innit? We have 4 olive trees in our almost sheer rock garden. God knows how they manage to flourish but they do. Each year the starlings arrive and descend on the trees one after another leaving them completely stripped of olives. I walk out onto the terrace and there is rapid flapping sound like a thousand old spanish señoras flicking open theire fans at Sunday mass and fanning themselves as one. But it aint them señoras, no. Its them starlings, shooting out of the trees, checking whether there really is any danger and alighting again to continue the gourge. Every once in a while you get to see them doing that excellent balling thing like what sardines do. It really is a sight to behold.

Two years ago I had a fight with them over the olives cos I wanted to harvest and press them just to see what I got. Unfortunatety, out of about 40 kilos of olives collected over what seemed like as many hours of tree whacking, and pressed but a man no taller than 4ft 2 and no younger than 90, we got 6 litres of murky oil that tasted like the starlings had pressed them internally if you know what I mean. I reckon that we had the misfortune of turning up at the old man’s farm at the wrong time - couple of weeks since the year’s olive harvest had been pressed and some time before the old man had decided to clean the enormous straw washers that are placed above and below the olives in the gigantic vice that is an olive press. Shame but it really was unpleasant and I had to chuck the lot. The old man charged me €14 for no less than 5 hours of his time and the use of his equipment. He also got me pissed on his very very very strong home made wine. How the Ibicencos love their homemade wine and how it gets one pissed.

I was never really under any illusion that home produced olive oil would be an ongoing thing as it is so reasonalby priced anyway and I get through an AWFUL LOT of it. You can of course go stratospheric with prices (google tells me €200 a litre is the most expensive) but I find the common or garden cold pressed olive oil excellent - Carbonell in the tetrabriks being my favourite general purpose oil. Even though we are always told not to cook with it I use cold pressed extra virgin olive oil for frying. I wouldn’t dream of using any other vegetable oil for frying an egg so therefore why not use it in most intances?

Estornell is probably in the bracket above (see photo). This is the sort of oil you really should use only on salads. It is made in Lerida by by a family who have been blending oils for centuries. using almost exclusively the delicious Arbequina olive that has become so popular lately. Arbequina are the small green olives about the size of Nicioises. The oil is strong in flavour but has no back bite, it is smooth. There is a depth that standard EVOOs don’t have. Estornell is the Catalan for starling (now look at phot again) . Isnt that nice?

Anyway, after all that, now I know why starlings have such shiney coats.

Monday, January 12, 2009

pasta and potato soup

I have just made the most amazing soup. I am recently arrived in Norfolk for to cooking enormous casserole for Granny’s 90th. I’m giving her beef. Anyway, that’s beside the point. That’s on Saturday. The point is the soup I just made.

Butter, olive oil, thyme, bay leaf, onion, garlic, smoked bacon, celery, stock, water, pasta & potatoes. Simplicity itself but wicked. I sweated the onion and garlic in the fats with the herbs, then I put in the celery and bacon and sweated some more. Then went in the carbs and liquids. Then I stirred and stirred at full boil til everything was cooked good. The constant stirring is the trick. All them starches come flooding out into the liquid leaving you with a beautiful, thick and chunky soup. I ate it with parsley and basil pesto and a bruscetta made of sadly rubbish bread.