Thursday, 8 April 2010

Saint´s Week on the Sil

Semana Santa is a big deal here in Spain. Whilst some cities come to a stand still for holy processions, most people simply see it as a good excuse for a holiday. Like many others in the country, I headed for the hills, finding a rather fitting base for Saint's Week in an old church rectory, the Reitoral de Chandrexa, which sits perched on the slopes of the breath taking canyon of the Rio Sil.

The Sil carves it's way across Galicia's inland province of Ourense. This rugged, mountainous area is known as the Ribeira Sacra - one of the country´s best wine regions. As it twists and turns through the province, it creates a series of micro climates, which are perfect for Galicia's hardy and aromatic grape varietals, notably the godello and mencia. Grapes have been grown in the region for more than two thousand years, and when you consider the treacherous lengths that are gone to tend to the vnyards along the canyon, it's not hard to understand why wine making is looked upon here with divine significance.

Whilst there has been some time to visit the wineries (more on that to come), really I came here to work... The vicar has long since left the building, but the rectory is still in good use, now as a small farm and rural guest house. I arrived last week to a healthy measure of wine from the Reitoral's own vinyard, and hot empenada de cerdo – pig pasty – fresh from the oven. Each day is punctuated by the almost-regular chiming of the church bells, which ran 50-odd minutes fast, making their inaccuracy known roughly every fifteen minutes. Still, when the bells tolled three times, meaning it was sometime just after two, it was time to down tools and head to the house for a long lunch.

The cooking is distinctly Galego, but with many inventive twists. Chorizo con castañas, a dish that is typical of these particular hills, because of the abundance of chestnut trees. Lentijas con algas, lentils stewed with seaweed farmed in the shallow rias on the atlantic coast. Filloas – Galicia's version of pancakes – served with queso de pais – soft and creamy cow's milk cheese, made in the next village. Bread baked in the communal stone oven, which is shared with the surrounding households. Home-made jams, honey and juices. Cake made from a traditional recipe, served for breakfast every morning.

Pastel de Ourense

This most traditional of cakes is native to this particular corner of the Ourense province. Interestingly, it's made using a sour dough starter, meaning there's no baking soda or other rising agent. Served at breakfast time and after lunch, it's delicious as it is, but really comes into it's own when dipped into very hot coffee.

The recipe here may seem a bit loose, but that's because the landlord here at the Reitoral de Chandrexa has made it so many times, he just kind of throws it together as he goes about his other business. Be aware this is definitely one for the patient cook however, the sour dough means it takes a good half day to make.

Enough for a huge baking tray full

Make a sour dough leavan starter.

Mix with warm water.

Add half kilogram of plain flour. Form into a dough, cover, and leave to rise for five hours.

Cream half a kilogram of butter with twice that volume of sugar (about a kilogram).

Add twelve eggs, and another half kilogram of plain flour to the butter and sugar, and mix well.

Mix the butter / egg mixture together with the dough, and transfer into rectangular cake tins.

Bake in hot oven for 45 mins – an hour. At the Reitoral, they use a old fashioned wood burning stove, with a couple of large chunks of oak in the burner. If you don't have one of them, turn the dial to 180 degrees.

Remove from the oven when the top has turned golden brown and a skewer comes out clean after piercing.

Sprinkle with more sugar and leave to cool.

Serve for breakfast and after lunch with hot coffee for dipping.

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