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Society & Culture
Gourmet cookery in Barx
By Tabitha Potts
Nov 10, 2003, 02:41

La Casona de Ferrando
I can remember vividly my first visit to the mountain town of Barx in Valencia province. My husband and I had recently moved from California to Spain and were still slightly suffering from culture shock as we switched from a latte-to-go, "I want it yesterday" society to the more leisurely pace and less intense lifestyle of Spain. Our Spanish friend Angeles suggested a visit to a wonderful restaurant in the mountains, one where you had to telephone and arrange a visit in advance. Eagerly, we piled into our cars and arrived in a beautiful mountain village and finally at La Piscina, our destination. As it was out of season we were the only customers that night but the friendly waiter made us feel completely at home and the food was simply wonderful, comparable to the best food I have eaten in San Francisco or in London. One dish that I remember particularly well was a soup made of green beans with a delicate, frothy coating, which was based on the traditional Valencian dish "hervido", as well as a wonderful salad with edible flowers. The Chef doesn't bother advertising and relies on word of mouth for his clientele, so I felt privileged to have been introduced to this wonderful place.

Shortly afterwards, we moved to a villa in La Drova, Barx, and when I heard that the local Associaçon de Amas Des Casa was holding a cookery course of "Elaborate Dishes for Special Occasions" taught by Chef Ricardo Camerena Ivars of La Piscina, I joined up immediately. The Associaçon de Amas de Casa is, for those who do not know it, a venerable institution for "housewives": perhaps a neglected or patronised group in other countries but in Spain, the lynchpins of the home, the family and - dare I say it - society as a whole. The legendary friendliness and relaxed pace of Spanish life is, I'm sure, due to the way that Spanish society revolves around the family and has not sacrificed, for example, its traditional mid-day meal and siesta to the demands of commerce and industry. As a recent arrival I found this group immensely welcoming, tolerant of my halting Castilian and immediately offering to help with finding the best butcher, the nicest villa to rent, where to buy local honey and the loveliest places to walk (the region is full of prehistoric caves, old villages and serene mountain and coastal paths where you can pick thyme and rosemary). La Drova, Barx, named for the old stone cattle road, is a mixed community of many Spanish families and incoming "extranjeros" (foreigners) and this was where the course was to be held.

The venue was "La Casona de Ferrando", a beautiful old house I had spotted from the Carrer de Gandia with a distinctive tower or 'torre'. The "Casona" has been in the Ferrando (now Minana) family for generations, first used as a summer-house by their grandfather, Manuel Ferrando de Ferrando, who had it built in 1949. The family, originally from Gandia, started the first local bus service from Barx to Gandia (previously, it was only accessible by horse and cart, or a long journey on foot) and in doing so jump-started the local economy. Mercedes, who with her husband Vicente and two daughters Beatriz and Rocio, recently moved permanently to La Drova from Gandia, has renovated the house while preserving the facade in order to create a 'Casa Rural" with three well-appointed bedrooms, perfect for visitors from abroad or from nearby cities seeking peace, clean air and sunshine. She showed me idyllic photographs of her long childhood summers in La Drova, when small bullfights were held opposite La Casona. The bulls would be brought from Gandia and let into the "corrida" where Manuel and his friends would be playing at cards and compete to see who was last to leave the game, in the best macho tradition. Family fiestas were also held in summer. Grandmother ("Abuela"), tall and strikingly beautiful in fancy dress, presided over these gatherings, where music, dancing and feasting were the order of the day. Recently these fiestas have been revived and now happen in La Drova every August, complementing the more traditional fiestas in Barx to celebrate the Fiesta de la Divina Pastora (the Divine Shepherdess) the guardian of Barx whose statue presides over the village.

We piled into the long sala under the tower where an open plan kitchen, used by the Casona's guests, was the venue for Chef Ricardo and his sous-chef to work their culinary magic. Chef Ricardo teaches cooking frequently as part of his work but this course was especially for the Amas de Casa and charged only the cost of cooking materials. The first three hour session was given over to preparation and we watched in astonishment as the Chef deftly created the basis for six dishes, each with special garnishes and accompaniments, that would form a menu for a special occasion. As a local resident and native Valencian, Chef Ricardo clearly knew his audience - mostly Spanish women with a scattering of English women like myself- very well. When he sliced asparagus in half, intending to use only the succulent spears for his Rollos de Rabo de Toro y bacon con trigueros y patatas risoladas (Rolls of oxtail and bacon with asparagus and potatoes), and heard the gasp of horror from his audience, he suggested using the stalks in a tortilla, and indeed made thrifty use of parsnip shavings as a garnish for his delicious Crema de Calabaza con brandada de Bacalao y crujientes de chirivia (pumpkin puree with cod croquettes). Another suggestion was, instead of buying expensive 'pimiento rosa', or pink pepper, to take it from the local priest's tree (a theft to which I'm sure the Church would turn a blind eye). As a Brit, I was pleased to see that the Chef only used Maldon Sea Salt (liberally) and there was another nod to our great culinary tradition: a "Créma Ingles" which turned out to be custard ("but not as we know it, Captain").

The Chef uses a great many traditional ingredients and recipes for his creations, giving them a modern spin which does not rely on unrelated sauces ("fatal", he said) but on depth of flavour, unexpected combinations and beautiful presentation. Bacalao, a traditional cod puree, was made into croquettes and used as a garnish. Tocino, a local fatty bacon, was sliced whisper-thin and used as a wrapping for sea bass fillets with a caramelised onion filling. The Chef used some ingredients available only in Valencia: fresh vanilla sticks, which I had never seen before, for his White Chocolate and Cream Mousse (a secret recipe he was kind enough to share with us) and arope, a sweet made from melon skin which is sold with its own sauce, as a garnish for the pumpkin puree. But one of the best dishes was the simplest, tomatoes sliced into quarters and brushed with garlic, olive oil and pebrilla (a mountain herb similar to thyme) and roasted slowly in the oven. As I closed in with my camera, the other ladies stopped me with a cry of "Don't photograph it! Just smell it" and indeed the smell was amazing, completely evocative of a Spanish summer in the sunshine. In the next three hour session, the chef showed us how to assemble and put the finishing touches to his dishes, with many different methods of presentation: a platter, a cocktail glass, different garnishes... After all this work, we closed in and demolished the food in a few minutes with cries of delight and applause for Chef Ricardo and his team. It had taken a lot of work to convince these Spanish ladies, who have been using their own recipes for generations, that a man could teach them anything about cooking: but a visit to the local butcher's a few days later, as I looked for oxtail for my own attempt at Rollos de Rabo de Toro, proved that the Chef had succeeded. The oxtail had completely sold out.

Tabitha Potts & Enkasa


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