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guitar

In my new book, Legacy, the male protagonist Ruy is of mixed heritage – he is part gentleman, part gypsy. His gypsy roots are very important to him, and one of the ways in which he connects to these roots and participates in the gypsy community is through music: he is a flamenco musician.

Here is the heroine’s first glimpse of Ruy:

The gypsy stood up, came forward and murmured an announcement of the next song, making a fresh thrill ripple up Luna’s spine at the husky, masculine sound of his voice. He started the rhythmic clapping of a toca de mano, and the waiter went round refilling glasses while the audience joined in, working up to a crescendo of hand-claps until the whole tavern shook with cries of ‘olé’ and ‘anda’.

The muscles of his arms flexed as this time he picked up a guitar and strummed a rapid cascade of chords. He gazed down into her eyes. The dazzling white smile he gave her almost stopped her heart and she lowered her head to hide her confusion.

As the rhythmic clapping subsided, he began to sing. His voice was rich and mellow, warm with vibrant tones and tingling with emotion, beguiling and beckoning like a filtre d’amour that scram-bled her thoughts and stirred primitive and alarming desires within her. The music was plaintive and feverish, and as Luna watched his long fingers alternately strum and flick across the strings of his guitar, first lightly and then harder at lightning speed, she found herself wondering how those hands would feel on her skin. His songs were in Caló so she could not understand the words, but she could sense the intensity of feeling that went into the full, vigorous notes and although he sang to the audience, she knew from the sensuous intimacy in his eyes that he was singing for her alone.

Ruy’s instrument here is a guitar, but not just any guitar: he is a flamenco musician. Today, I thought I would share with you what is so special about that emblem of passionate, fiery Spain: the flamenco guitar.

The history

Flamenco dates back around two hundred years in Andalucía. Originally, flamenco was song – the distinctive raw and primal cry – and rhythm created by pounding on the floor (the palo seco or dry style). Over the years, as the art form gained popularity, it evolved to include four parts: the voice, the dance, the guitar and the jaleo (clapping, stamping, shouting – it translates to raising hell).

During the café cantante period, from 1850 to 1910, flamenco clubs were opened in major cities, and out of this was born the solo flamenco guitarist.

The instrument

Traditionally, the flamenco guitar is crafted from Spanish woods: spruce or cedar on top and cypress, sycamore or rosewood on the back. It is a lot like the classical guitar (indeed, luthiers – those who make guitars – did not always differentiate between the two), but it is lighter with a thinner top, which makes the sound produced bright and punchy and percussive, and loud enough to be heard over stamping feet and clapping. It also has a golpeador, a laminated plate that protects the instrument from the tapping fingers (called golpes) that are part of flamenco guitar playing.

The techniques

A flamenco guitarist (a tocaor) plays differently to a classical guitarist:

* He plays in the apoyando style, which means striking, rather than pulling, the strings (apoyar is the verb for support, and the next string supports the finger that strikes, causing vibrations to the fret and a percussive tone).

* Often, he holds the guitar parallel to the floor, giving him a wide range of motion in his arms.

* He uses a capo, which attaches to the neck, to sharpen the sound and heighten the pitch.

* He employs a range of flamenco-specific playing techniques. My favourite is the rasgueado, which is strumming with outward flicks of the fingers that is meant to echo the sound of the dancer’s feet and her castanets.

The music

Flamenco is a style of music that comes from the heart. Improvisation is common, and traditional music is rarely transposed into music books and learned by rote, but is passed from player to player. In this way, a piece can alter subtly with each passing, so that it is always changing, growing; a work in progress. Toque gitano o flamenco is a soulful, expressive style of Spanish music; it is incredibly stirring.

I will leave you with this video of one the greatest and most influential flamenco guitarists, Paco de Lucia, and the hope that you can find time to watch even just a minute of this and be transported to the world of my characters in the Andalucían Nights trilogy.

As a young woman – after my university degree and before I met my husband and settled down in England – I travelled extensively through Europe. I was something of a nomad, moving from country to country in my eagerness to see new places, meet new people and experience new cultures. The impassioned need to explore stemmed, I think, from my childhood in Egypt, during which my family were put under a sequestration order and banned from leaving the country. As a young woman I was determined to beat my wings and fly free.

Of the countries I explored, Spain left a lasting impression on me, and that is how I have come to write not just one but three novels set in this beautiful land of tradition and passion: my Andalucían Nights series, of which the final book, Legacy, is publishing on Thursday!

Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy are set in Andalucía, in the south of Spain, but during my travels, and as part of the research for my novels, I visited other regions of the country as well. I loved the cosmopolitan city of Barcelona in Catalonia so much that I opened the action in Legacy there, but the other region that really captivated me is Galicia, in the northwest. Some years ago, I was lucky enough to visit on this very day, 25 July, which is a national holiday in honour of Saint James, and was at the hub of the festivities in Santiago de Compostela.

No doubt you’ve heard of this historic city, the capital of Galicia. It is home to the shrine of Saint James the Great, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, and the first to be martyred, often known as Santiago. Legend tells that the remains of the apostle were brought to Galicia (in a miraculously stone ship) and buried, whereupon they were discovered by a shepherd guided to Santiago de Compostela by a heavenly light (Compostela derives from Campus Stellae, ‘Field of Stars’). The shepherd reported his experience to a bishop, who declared the remains to be those of James, and a beautiful cathedral was built on the burial site.

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Many believe that the legend is grounded in fact, and that Saint James preached across the Iberian Peninsula. For more than a thousand years, pilgrims have followed what is known as ‘the way of Saint James’ (Camino de Santiago) from places all over the world to the shrine at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. (For a wonderful modern depiction of this pilgrimage, I can recommend the film The Way written by Emilio Estevez and starring Martin Sheen; it’s very powerful and moving).

On 25th July each year, Galicia celebrates Saint James’ Day, which dates back as far as the ninth century. I arrived a few days before, and was amazed at the buzz in the city; it seemed that in every square at the heart of the city there was something to see, from dramatic productions to musical concerts, and on the eve of the special day, what a firework display!

I found that on the Saint’s Day itself the atmosphere in the city was electric. Along with so many others I stood in the street and watched the carnival procession – the Galician pipers were particularly memorable – and then I ate a delicious meal from a scallop shell, which is deeply symbolic in the city: the grooves on the shell meeting at a focal point represent the paths to Santiago de Compostela, and all along the Camino de Santiago one can find scallop carvings as directional markers.

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What struck me most about St James’ Day was not, however, the fun and festivities: it was the moving poignancy of it all. So many years of historical legacy shape this day; it was a real honour to be a part of it. As I stood outside the cathedral, all I could smell was the incense from the botafumeiro (a great, ornate burner that swings from the ceiling, guided by tiraboleiros), and it triggered my sense so; all I could think of was how many people had stood on these old stones and breathed in the heady scent and been humbled and thankful for their lives.

My visit to Santiago de Compostela was short, but it has echoed with me since, and I am sure it played a part in inspiring my Andalucían Nights series, in which tradition and legacy are so integral.

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My latest fiction series is set in Andalucía, Spain. It is a region I know well, having travelled there several times. Whenever I visit, I try to practise my Spanish (I am far more fluent speaking in French and English), which requires that I listen carefully to the language and read as much native material as possible: from signs and menus to newspapers and tourist guides. In doing so, I invariably notice Spanish words that look very familiar: they have been adopted in English.

Today, for your interest, I am sharing some of the many English words that are of Spanish origin. I think some may just surprise you!

Aficionado: from the verb aficionar, meaning to inspire affection

Alcatraz: means gannet.

Alligator: from el lagarto, meaning the lizard

Armadillo: means little armored one

Bonanza: means prosperity

Breeze: from brisa, meaning a cold wind

Cafeteria: from cafetería, meaning coffee store

Canyon: from cañón, meaning a gorge

Cargo: from the verb cargar, meaning to load

Chocolate: from Nahuatl xocolatl meaning hot water

Cockroach: from cucaracha

Cocoa: from cacao

Comrade: from camarada, meaning mate

Crimson: from Old Spanish cremesín

Crusade: from cruzada

Galleon: galeón, meaning a large sailing ship

Guerrilla: means small war

Hacienda: from Old Spanish facienda, meaning estate

Hurricane: from huracán

Lasso: means tie

Maroon: from cimarrón

Matador: means killer

Mosquito: means little fly

Oregano: from orégano

Patio: from patio, meaning inner courtyard

Platinum: from platina, meaning little silver

Potato: from patata

Ranch: from rancho, meaning a tiny rural community

Renegade: from renegado, meaning heretic or disowned

Salsa: from salsa, meaning sauce

Savvy: from sabe, meaning knows

Stampede: from estampida

Suave: means charming and confident

Tobacco: from tabaco, meaning snuff

Tomato: from tomate

Tornado: from tronada, meaning thunderstorm

Tuna: from atún

Tourist: from turista

Vamoose: from vamos, meaning let’s go

Vanilla: from vainilla

Vigilante: means watchman

How many of these have you been using in everyday conversation without knowing their origins? Do let me know if you have any to add to the list.

I am a keen follower of https://www.ted.com/: the website devoted to ‘ideas worth spreading’. Recently, the following video, entitled ‘My year reading a book from every country in the world’, caught my eye:

From the description:

Ann Morgan considered herself well read — until she discovered the “massive blindspot” on her bookshelf. Amid a multitude of English and American authors, there were very few books from beyond the English-speaking world. So she set an ambitious goal: to read one book from every country in the world over the course of a year. Now she’s urging other Anglophiles to read translated works so that publishers will work harder to bring foreign literary gems back to their shores.

I am very fortunate to speak several languages, which allows me to read books from a range of countries in their original language. But I do also read translated works. From my armchair in Kent, England, or my patio overlooking the Med in the South of France, I can travel the world and learn about its peoples, and I am certain that doing so makes me not only a better writer but also a better person.

Would you follow Ann’s challenge? What world literatures most interest you? I would love to hear your thoughts.

‘Gastronomy has been the joy of all peoples through the ages. It produces beauty and wit and goes hand in hand with goodness of heart and a consideration of others.’

So wrote Charles Pierre Monselet, a French author, in the 19th century. He was right, don’t you think? Trying new foods is one of my favourite aspects of travel; I love to add to my repertoire whenever I can and then cook for friends and family.

Writing a new novel is a wonderful excuse to delve into the cuisine that is typical for the setting. For my Andalusian Nights trilogy, I was within my comfort zone of Mediterranean cooking, with its emphasis on delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, fish and cheeses. The action in Indiscretion and Masquerade is largely set in Andalusia, with a small deviation to Valencia, and so I sampled plenty of foods from those regions – but as is the case in all countries, specialties of particular regions are also embraced elsewhere, so I toured all of Spain from my humble kitchen.

Today I have cooked up for you a simple dinner party menu that will give you the perfect taste of Spain. The recipes are from Andalusia, Valencia and Catalonia, but if you would like to tour other regions, why not draw up a wine list to accompany your meal? A Rioja, perhaps?

Starter: Gazpacho

Gazpacho is served throughout Spain, in different varieties, but the original and true gazpacho is from Andalusian. It’s a cold soup, which to the uninitiated perhaps sounds odd, but in the hot climbs of Andalusia it’s wonderfully refreshing, and healthy too.

The soup dates back a long time, to the Romans, and it originated as a meal for peasants and shepherds.

The core ingredients are tomatoes, cucumber, red and yellow pepper, onions and garlic, blended together. Olive oil, vinegar and salt and pepper are added, to taste, and then stale bread, broken into bite-sized chunks, is stirred through. I like to make the gazpacho the day before; the flavor matures when the soup is refrigerated for several hours. Serve a little chilled, but not too cold, for the best taste.

Typical Andalusian garnishes include slices of pepper, chopped tomatoes and cucumber, herbs, orange segments, sliced almonds and, served on the side, hard-boiled eggs and the local ham. If preferred, the gazpacho can be served as a tapa or a main meal.

Main course: Paella

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No doubt you’ve heard of – even sampled – paella, and recognise it as an iconic Spanish dish. In fact, it is not the national dish, but a regional one, pertaining to Valencia.

The ingredients of the original Valencian paella may surprise you: rice, of course, seasoned with saffron and paprika and cooked in olive oil, but also white and green beans, artichoke, chicken and even, if you’re lucky, snails or duck. Seafood paella developed as a variant dish; its distinguishing feature is seafood still in its shell.

Traditionally, paella is cooked in the great outdoors over an open fire on which burn orange and pine branches whose flavour is unfused into the dish. But in our modern times most of us cook in a kitchen, of course.

When cooking paella at home, I recommend using the best-quality olive oil you can find; it makes a difference to the flavor. Really take your time in the cooking, and aim to build a socarrat at the bottom of the pan, a layer of toasted rice, by using a high flame on the hob. Once the paella is cooked, cover it with a tea towel and leave it to settle for five to ten minutes; when you serve it the juices will be perfectly absorbed. I like to serve lemon on the side as a garnish and some extra olive oil for drizzling.

Dessert: Catalan cream

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As a resident of France for half of the year, I am well acquainted with the delicious dessert crème brûlée, the classic dessert comprising a creamy custard topped with a layer of hard caramel.

Did you know that the Catalans have their own variation of this dish? They call it crema catalana. The custard is made from egg yolk, milk and sugar, and is flavoured with cinnamon and the zest from an orange and lemon. The cook sprinkles sugar over the top, and this is then caramelised. Traditionally, for the Catalan cream you don’t use a chef’s torch for the caramelising, but a specialist iron: a round disk with a handle that you heat on the hob and then apply to the surface of the custard as a sort of brand.

You can make these desserts up to three hours in advance, but I advise doing the caramelising right before serving, so that the sugar is fragrant and warm. Delicious!

I hope you have enjoyed your gastronomic visit to Spain. Are there other Spanish recipes you’ve enjoyed? What other countries’ cuisines would you like to try?

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