By Valerie Collins
You know the scenario. Summer in the city. The temperature hits 35ºC and humidity 99%. You lie around in your underwear, watching adverts on TV for canned iced tea and coffee, indefinably pornographic ice creams, fly sprays, deodorants and air-con. It’s time for the Catalan Picnic Experience, a highly elaborate ritual that bears no resemblance to the consumption, in the car in a layby in the pouring rain, of the soggy affairs we used to call British Rail sandwiches.
The Catalan Picnic takes place in a special, immaculately kept picnic area in a clearing on a pine-clad mountainside or by a river. Tables and benches hewn out of logs are well spaced out under the trees, and at a safe distance from each table, in the open, is a special individual square stone hearth with a gridiron for barbecuing. These picnic areas also have an important purpose: to provide a controlled environment for making fires. Huge tracts of Catalonia have been devastated by forest fires in recent years, although by no means all of them were caused by picnickers. The picnic area we go to from our house in the Val de Lord is high on a ridge over the Coll de Jou pass; you can walk up to the mirador for really stunning views of the surrounding countryside. And right at the top, under a parasol, listening to a radio, sits a warden. His job? To check for smoke, for fire.
Last summer a friend came up from Barcelona to stay with us for a few days. In fact she hadn’t lived here for long. She’d never had the Catalan Picnic Experience? Shock horror. She hadn’t lived. I’ve got it down to a fine, fast art, with oil and vinegar ready in plastic bottles, sugar and salt in small containers, plastic cups and plates, and the checklist on the fridge door: matches, kitchen roll, tin of olives, insect repellent, Swiss Army Knife, plastic bags, fruit. Bread and meat are bought in the village on the way.
“This is nothing,” I tell our friend.“Just wait.”
We have our modest picnic, surrounded by clouds of wasps, with stones in our paper cups to stop them blowing away, and watch the other families go through the ritual. The hillside is dotted with ice boxes in bright neon colours, and old ladies squeezed into folding chairs, fanning themselves.
From their cars parked outside the area, the large families heave baskets, iceboxes, radios, folding chairs, washing-up gear, footballs, toys, pots and pans, plates and cutlery, cruets, bottles of wine and beer, Coca Cola and lemonade, coffee pots and bottles of brandy, gigantic two-kilo loaves of bread, and claim their tables. The women lug the enormous melons and watermelons and bottles of Coke and beer to cool down in the font, the spring that pours out of a little pipe in the hillside and in and out of a series of troughs. The men and children traipse off into the forest with baskets and boxes to collect kindling and pine cones. The women cover the knotted wood table with a red and white checked tablecloth. They then proceed to hack doorsteps off the huge loaf, rub them with tomato and dribble them with olive oil. The air becomes fragrant with woodsmoke as the men get the fires going. They all have large paunches bulging out over baggy bermudas, and they cook butifarra, the long, fat Catalan sausage, and costelles, lamb cutlets, over the embers (brases), and stand around in groups shouting and waving kitchen tongs and long forks. This is the costellada. A variant is the sardinada which, as its name suggests, consists of sardines cooked a la brasa. The paella (l’arrós) is a particularly complex form of Picnic Experience, since here the women start early in the morning at home, preparing the squid and prawns, scraping and steaming open the mussels and clams, making the fish stock from the prawn heads and then getting it all into plastic containers and not forgetting onions, garlic, parsley, tomato, saffron, the rice itself of course and the big flat paella pan and…
“They’ve got everything but the kitchen sink,” gasps our friend.
And after the coffee and brandy, when all over the hillside men snore on tartan rugs under the trees, children play and women chatter and wash dishes in the font, the couple just across from us oblige with the perfect finale. The woman sets up a camp bed in the shade of an umbrella pine, and the man clambers onto it, lies down and falls fast asleep.
© Valerie Collins 2000