Thursday, 9 April 2015


Celebration in the Plaza

 “Fay was a Giri – a Giri is our Andaluz word for a foreigner” – said the Alcaldesa Rafi Crespin – our local Lady Mayor – in her eulogy to my late wife Fay in the memorial service held in Fay’s memory at Las Pinedas village church. “But Fay was the kind of Giri we would like to have more of!” To make the point, the Alcaldesa said, she intended to name a street after Fay.


 Streets are not so easy to name – or rather to re-name - in Spain with its Civil War history. Plaza Andalucia, the central square in Las Pinedas where Casa Uno now stands, was once, like every other streetwise village square in Spain, Plaza del Caudillo. The Caudillo – the Leader – was Spain’s Dictator for some 35 years, Generalissimo Franco (note 1). The two main streets in Las Pinedas are nowadays named after two great poets of the pre-Civil War period: Federico Garcia Lorca and Antonio Machado – the one executed by the Nationalists early in the War, the other driven out of war-torn Spain to die of physical frailty and mortal grief on the escape-route to France. These were not names to be replaced. The names of the shorter cross-streets in the micro-Manhattan grid of Las Pinedas turned out to be equally deeply embedded in history.

In the end the decision was made to place a plaque in memory of Fay on Casa Uno in Plaza Andalucia, the village farm-house Fay and I had bought, taken down and rebuilt for Fay herself to run as an international rental house – since when more than 1000 visitors young and old from a dozen or so different nations have made Casa Uno their holiday home. Now a plaque is an object which by definition needs unveiling. And in Spain above all, an unveiling calls for a party.


 No-one likes a party like the Spanish. Our village Las Pinedas annually hosts three major celebrations.

 On Easter Sunday morning, the Risen Christ, mounted on a heavy wooden float with the white and gold flowers of spring, is carried out of the church on the shoulders of the young men and women of the village. His emergence is greeted by the singing of the Saeta – a centuries old flamenco paean of welcome – performed each year with wild, heart-stopping passion by Maribel Diaz, a great artist and long-standing family friend, whom many visitors to Las Pinedas from around the world will also know as house-keeper of Casa Uno.

His return to the world of the living thus recognized, the Christ-figure is carried through the streets in solemn procession, most of the rest of the village following in its train, many of the younger children arrayed in Las Pinedas’ particular penitential house-style - cloaks and pointed hats in a shimmering Cambridge blue. The whole column advances, chattering peaceably, to the threatening musical thumps, groans and shrieks of a Spanish marching band, sounding as though on its way to an auto-da-fe – a ceremonial burning of heretics by the Spanish Inquisition.

 By the time the procession returns to the central square, the lines of chairs for the earlier Mass have been broken up, the chairs regrouped round tables, the bar has opened and paella is being ladled out for free from an immense gas-fired paella pan behind the bar.


The Romeria

 In the month of May comes the Romeria: the annual festival of San Isidro, patron Saint of farmers. The local San Isidro comes all the way from La Carlota where he winters in the town church. Placed on cart packed with an elaborate arrangement of flowers and drawn by an immense green tractor, he leads a parade of decorated floats and smartly dressed horsemen across the fields to Las Pinedas, and then onwards to the festival ground that Las Pinedas shares with La Carlota – a hectare of rough grass, scattered with holm oaks for shade, and concrete picnic tables, which has been filling up with families since the evening before, headlights streaming through the night, bent on staking a claim for some shade the next day, chairs, tables and cooking implements towed in carts or crammed into cars. As the sun rises, gypsies are putting up stalls and soon afterwards the beer tent opens. It is outside the open door of the beer tent that San Isidro is positioned when he arrives in mid-morning. His treat is to snuffle the beery odours coming from the tent, and later the heavy saffron scents of scores of family paellas bubbling in their pans. By the time the day is over and the return journey to La Carlota begins, even San Isidro is looking quite woozy, his halo slipped to a more cheerful angle.

The first week-end in August comes the village Feria. Three continuous days and nights of music, dancing and feasting, interspersed with competitions for villagers of all genders and ages – last year the Women’s team beat the Men in the tug-of-war –an omen for a new female empowerment in a future Spain? Feria ends around 4am on its final morning with music in the square, alternately starting and stopping – as children dazed with sleep rub their eyes and wait to go to bed the grown-ups are playing - of all things – their own derivative of musical chairs –musical brooms – the winner was the last adult left holding the broom.


So Las Pinedas is well used to parties. That said, the party thrown to celebrate the unveiling of the memorial plaque to my late wife Fay was of the best vintage. In the course of one day, chairs and tables suddenly materialised in the Plaza Andalucia. A stage sprang up at one end of the paved central area, a bar at the other – and behind it the familiar giant gas-fired paella pan. Cheerful banners advertising the local beer fluttered above the tables. A small curtain protected the plaque from prying eyes. By the time dusk fell and the lights of the square came on augmented by floodlights, the Plaza was packed with people. From old men in well-worn cloth-caps to the tiniest children tottering between the tables, the entire village had come out to play. In addition there was a visiting contingent of Tresilian family, including our three children, all three of Fay’s sisters, a young cousin and some cherished friends.

Darkness had fully fallen by the time the Alcaldesa, raven-haired, smiling and looking thoroughly electable in a silver frock, arrived with her official police escort. The village had employed a professional presenter for the evening. The presenter introduced the Alcaldesa. She spoke most beautifully of Fay’s contribution to village life – the dedication on the plaque was for Fay’s ‘sympathy, love and dedication to the people and village of Las Pinedas’. I responded in less elegant but grateful Spanish. The Alcaldesa unveiled the plaque. And straightway the party began.

The presenter, it turned out, was also a professional flamenco dancer and gave a bravura display on the stage. The leading local flamenco group – Maribel, her husband Lolo and a group of their superbly talented friends under the resonant title El Makis de la Duende (untranslatably: ‘the resistance movement of poetic grief’) performed with all the Duende that Fay herself would have so enjoyed. The beer as advertised and the local fino wine from Montilla flowed. Paella on paper plates was distributed to all and sundry. Later our two soprano daughters, Arabella and Susannah joined by their baritone cousin Philip, took to the stage and sang Lloyd-Webber’s Pie Jesu and other gems as a threnody for Fay. Our son Alexander, in impeccable Spanish, made a speech of thanks on behalf of us all. The rest of the family party – for that night a true part of the local community – mingled and merged with the people of the village. The music and dancing, the drinking and talking, went on past midnight.

 Yet the next morning when we family and friends came out blinking into the sunlight to find Fay’s commemorative plaque shining on the wall of Casa Uno, the square was already empty of chairs, tables, stage, paella-pan and other impedimenta. It had also been left immaculately clean. The cloud-capped palaces of the night before had been swept away – that broom had found a real purpose after all. And the ancient rural village which Fay had so loved had worked its special Spanish magic for her one final time.


(1) The Caudillo was an enthusiastic huntsman. One of his many hunting boxes – still owned by the Franco family - stands only 20km away from Las Pinedas - a palatial country house set in many hectares of prime wood-land with its own secluded railway station. In the year 1940 when for the only time in their respective violent lives Franco and Hitler met face-to-face at the station of La Hendaye on the border of France and Spain, the Caudillo’s slow and leaky private train was much sneered at by the Fuhrer’s glittering black-clad entourage. But some 30 years after Hitler died by his own hand, Franco, now a very old man, was still potting the occasional partridge, the odd wild boar.

NT 2015

Sunday, 15 March 2015


Some years ago I planted a young lemon tree in a sunny spot in the garden of my ancient house in Andalusia. For a couple of years the tree grew rather diffidently, yielding two modest lemons the first year and three the second. Then, suddenly, this hitherto bashful little tree began to grow with almost indecent haste: an explosion of shiny evergreen leaves hiding wickedly spiky branches, in a state of run-away inflation reminiscent of the Argentine economy.

The following spring our once maidenly tree was positively matronly with seductive-scented white blossom busy with bees. That winter the matriarch bore fruit. Such fruit! Big fat brilliant yellow lemons which when cut and squeezed yielded whole cups-full of sharply fragrant silver juice. Organic fruit with unwaxed skin and natural zest that made a mockery of dull, diminutive, pesticide-laden shop and supermarket lemons. Fruit gleaming with natural health. Body-builder lemons exciting genuine admiration when displayed to visitors - but also a certain ironic underlay of prurience about their exceptional physical development.

A single lemon may have a hundred uses. Did you know that a halved lemon is used as a finger moistener for those counting large amounts of bills, such as tellers and cashiers? (Wikipedia). Two electrodes implanted in the same lemon will generate an electric current – admittedly a very small one. Lemons marinate, macerate, deodorize and sanitise. On Shrove Tuesday their juice brings limp pancakes back to life. In the garden it may be sprayed in diluation as a non-toxic pesticide. Lemons can drizzle flavour into a cake, add sparkle to a salad dressing or dry out a dry martini. All these things lemons can do – as well as lending their name to a best-seller about life in Spain, Chris Stewart’s Driving over Lemons.

In my part of Spain, Andalusia, lemons are not left lying in the street, If I wanted to emulate Chris Stewart, I would have to carry my lemons out into the street, line them up carefully with the wheels of my car… and suffer a terrible sense of waste as I drove forward crushing the fruit. In frugal Andalusia we are not much in the habit of driving over our lemons. What we do successfully with lemons, on the other hand, is pickle them – Moroccan-style.

Pickled lemons – lemons deeply but asymmetrically cut to remain whole, bodily packed with salt, crammed tightly into preserving jars and topped up with further quantities of lemon juice – are one of the Mediterranean diet’s great life-enhancers. They add a fourth dimension of strong but subtle flavours to any three-dimensional assemblage of chicken, pork, lamb, kid or even fish. Purists retain the zesty lemon skins only – discarding the flesh and the juice – garnishing the meat to be cooked with delicate lemon crescents inserted in sensitive places.

As a dedicated non-purist myself, and frugal to boot, I put all three elements to use – skin, flesh and juice – though not always on the same occasion. The flesh of pickled lemons combines meltingly with black or green olives in any rich stew. The juice lends a hint of orientalist barbarity to the plainest dish of boiled or steamed or saffron-infused rice.

Packed in a well-sterilised glass jar and kept in the fridge, pickled lemons will last a year at least. In January 2015, while we were in Spain to preserve this year’s crop, we roasted a chicken with pickled lemons from the 2014 crop. They were as succulent as ever.

Don’t worry if you haven’t home-grown lemons of your own to brag about. Despite what I said about them, shop and supermarket lemons will really do the job just as well!. Buy a big bag – you’ll need up to a couple lemons for topping-up juice for every lemon you pickle. Take a sharp knife, have ready plenty of rock salt and have a go yourself.


Wednesday, 18 February 2015


Good Friday in Córdoba
In the past 50 years the Anglican Church has been desperately taking itself down-market in order to hold onto an ever-diminishing national congregation. The original 1662 Prayer Book with its rolling phrases and mind-bending metaphors has been replaced by the flat literalism of Series 3. The King James Bible has been successively re-versioned in language deemed more intelligible to the modern ear. Hymns Ancient and Modern have given way to the la-la-bump of evangelical pop. The effect of these sacrificial changes on older clerics who had been drawn into the Church by the beauty of the language could be catastrophic. The amazingly well educated Dean of one of our greatest cathedrals, I remember being reassured by a senior Canon, had gone completely mad – and so indeed in a hyper-civilised way, he turned out to be. The Rector of my own rural village many years ago could not restrain himself at Matins on Christmas and Easter Day – the only times the church was filled with parents and children – from discoursing vehemently on the evils of the times, with frequent references to Fornication and (may he rest in peace) the broadcaster David Frost.

The Catholic Church in Andalusia may suffer similar anxieties in its private moments. But no such reservations are permitted to cloud the clerical mind during Santa Semana – the Spanish Holy week – the week of the great religious processions. And nowhere are those processions more numerous and more powerful in their imagery than in the former great Moorish cities of Córdoba, Seville, and Granada – the latter only seized back and recolonised by the Christians in 1492.

Day by day and night by night during Holy Week, huge candlelit floats carried by dozens of men rock and roll majestically through the city streets, depicting the the events of the Holy Week story from Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday through to the deepest depths of grief on Good Friday evening, and then to the brief ecstasy of the Resurrection on Sunday morning – followed by that final sacrament of the Spanish Easter Sunday – in heavily over-crowded bars, cafes and restaurants throughout the city, the long, long, lingering Easter lunch.

But the floats are only one part of the spectacle. Each float heads a long parade of clerics, who in their turn are followed by a much longer train of penitents in black gowns their features masked within tall pointed hats, the whole charivari driven along from behind by a marching band, their instruments thumping, groaning and screeching as though on their way, not to a religious celebration, but to an auto-da-fe – the ceremonial burning of heretics once so favoured by the Spanish Inquisition. As many as eight of these huge processions may be in circulation through the city of Córdoba on a single night, each passing through the city’s central Plaza de Tendillas at a precise time, obedient to a chronology fixed in its final form many centuries earlier.

In Córdoba the climacatic moment comes just as night is falling in the courtyard of the immense Mezquita-Catedral – a former Moorish mosque with room for 8000 of the faithful at prayer in its arched and pillared arcades – into which a Christian Bishop inexcusably inserted a large baroque cathedral during the 17th century. On Good Friday evening a giant moon-faced Virgin Mary in 10-metres of deep blue velvet cloak flashed with gold (the gift of the great bullfighter Manolete of Córdoba) appears outside the gate of the outer courtyard of the Mezquita, a courtyard planted a thousand years ago with orange trees in vessels of raised brick – a configuration still unchanged today. The Virgin peeps through the onion-profiled gateway into the courtyard , bobbing almost coyly at the crowds assembled beneath her, then dozens of invisible feet within the shrouded float propel her swaying down the steps and way off past the crowds to where the doors of the Cathedral are flung open to receive her onto suitably consecrated ground.

Andalusia’s original Celto-Iberians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians have all in turn laid claim to this ancient site of religious worship. Today it remains contested ground. Not long ago the Mezquita was the object of an organised raid from young Muslims equipped with walkie-talkies, apparently bent on claiming the right to recite their Friday prayers within the sacred space. Latterly a zealous new Bishop of Córdoba has sought to de-Islamise the site completely by removing the word ‘Mezquita’ from its official designation, leaving only ‘Catedral’ on the street signs directing tourists to it. This threat to the smooth running of the city’s tourist industry by eliminating the familiar name of the city’s one world-famous monument has generated a furious counter attack from Córdoba City Council, which is now legislating to remove the tourism business of the Mezquita-Catedral from the governance of the Church. Watch this space…

© Nicholas Treslian 2015