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Though ‘by invitation’ makes them sound highly exclusive, Antje’s pizza picnics are hardly that. Angelica and I wouldn’t get invited if they were. We’re not the inviting sort. As that can mean several things, I’m not sure I meant the thing you’re thinking.
It was more than a year ago, over a winter Sunday lunch, Antje told us her plans. She wanted to make pizzas. At least, she wanted Tiziano, her Italian husband, to make pizzas. He had just finished building an outdoor oven for that very purpose. In traditional Andalucian style it stands proudly on their smallholding near the cosy, little shack they call home.
Hidden in a plot of dense vegetation, to shield it from El Levante, a few interesting bits have been added to their home over the years, enhancing the general higgeldy-piggedly nature the couple have gifted their tiny corner of Spain. El Levante is the name given to the strong wind that blows out of North Africa. Often howling for days, it is said by locals to drive people insane. Another small dwelling stands nearer the entrance to the smallholding. Available for holiday lets, it remains empty most of the year. Antje ran an organic food shop in Conil up until a few years ago. Not the easiest thing to do during a crisis, as she quickly found out. Undeterred by setbacks, she’s very enterprising, raising free-range chickens, turkeys and ducks, as well as growing organic produce, these days.
Our neighbour, Chari drove us in her ageing Toyota. Young Angelo sat alongside her in the front; their little dog Linda on his lap. Pepi, Chari’s sister, sat in the rear with Angelica and I.
The smallholding stands on one of the higher hills in the locality, offering magnificent, wraparound views of the surrounding countryside. More than one hundred and fifty degrees sweep majestically up from the southeast, through the west, and on towards the northwest. Wind turbines gently scythed the virtually motionless air the day we were there. We can see the same turbines from our street, but much nearer, and from another angle. Flanked by a horseshoe of hills, they sprout up from the valley the River Salado has been etching into the landscape over tens of thousands of years on the final leg of its meandering journey to the sea. A narrow strip of Atlantic Ocean separates land from sky along much of the horizon. When it does get windy, exposed, hilly areas, such as these, bear the brunt. The end of summer rains are late this year leaving the land looking tired and parched after a particularly long and hot season. But in a few weeks it will be green and studded with wild flowers. By spring, there will so many, it will have transformed into a garden of Eden once more.
Nowadays, most Sundays, Antje and her Italian husband, Tiziano, play host to fifty or more invited picnickers, weather permitting. And the weather is very permitting in Andalucia, even over winter. We were among the first to arrive. Preparations still in progress, Antje and a couple of helpers buzzed around each other, as Tiziano fired up the oven, and made his work station ready.
Several long refectory-style tables, fashioned from trestles and planks just wide enough for plates on each side, were already set up under trees. As a couple of much larger parties had reserved their spots, we were shown to one of the smaller tables beneath the dappling shade of a sparsely-leafed fig tree.
At the start, none of our small party were hungry. But then two men asked to join our table. An Italian and a German gay couple on holiday from Rome, they got their orders in first, while we sat waffling and waxing over the menu, not able to decide. If the combined scent of pizza and wood smoke wafting from the oven set our stomachs rumbling, the sight of the Italian and German tucking in, had saliva almost dribbling from our mouths. The menu only said the pizzas were organic, but, by the smell of ’em, it seemed they were orgasmic. Finally, firming up our choices, we ordered just as the main body of picnickers turned up. Phew! got something right for a change.
As our pizzas arrived so did even more people. Angelica and I had settled on sharing a mushroom pizza, followed by an Andalucian, which was basically a Margareta with garlic on one half. Both were delicious, as was the small slice of vegetarian pizza Chari ordered that I sampled. Soon, all the tables were crowded, as yet more people arrived. The gathering must have numbered almost fifty. Many were ex-pat German friends of Antje’s, supplemented by some Italian friends of Tiziano. I heard a few English voices, but most were Spanish. With many picnickers wanting more than just one pizza, Antje and her helpers were rushing about like crazy. Despite the heat of oven and sun, Tiziano remained relatively cool throughout, shovelling pizzas in and out of the oven, whenever he wasn’t spreading toppings.
As the afternoon drew on, lazing dogs searched out shade from the searing midday sun in which to stretch out. A brown, and a white puppy, rolled as a writhing heap beneath table after table, sending chickens, pecking at the dirt, skedaddling. A pair of turkeys gazed through the wire netting of their run near our table. Meanwhile, a tribe of grumpy-looking ducks were having none of it. Maintaining a marked distance, they had retreated to their hideout beneath some shrubbery, a little way off. Stretching my own legs after eating, I wandered about the several acres. A couple of stalls had been set up. Antje hopes the picnics will attract artists and artisans to a craft market she has planned, as the venue gains in popularity. Christina, a single mother with two small children to feed and fend for, was selling Moroccan handicrafts; mostly straw hats, baskets and beaded jewellery. The only other stall sold cups of frothy coffee and homemade dessert. On the north side of the smallholding, through an orchard of small, scattered trees, I encountered a friendly horse hanging its head over the hedge of an adjoining field for a stroke. I obliged, brushing away the flies plaguing its eyes.
As well as tending her stall, Christina was also providing the afternoon’s entertainment. While we were eating, she had belly-danced from table to table, before coming to ours for the two pizzas I had sliced up for her and her toddlers. No sooner had they eaten than Christina began preparing a puppet theatre for all the children to watch at the end of the afternoon. Once it was ready, Angelo plonked himself down on the ground at the front with the others. The rest of us strolled over to take a peek. With all the goings on, and what with the makeshift theatre erected in front of the grumpy-looking ducks’ hideout, a few took umbrage and waddled off in protest.
Judging by their gleeful laughter, the children enjoyed the comic exchange between a homemade crocodile, and a somewhat biblical old man puppet, immensely. They all joined in the song Christina sang to a record, as did most over-excited parents. The finale took the form of a shawl dance, in which the entire audience of a dozen, or so, were invited to participate. Almost everybody did.
Too soon, the afternoon was drawing to a close. Knots of replete diners took their goodbyes of each other, till the next time, as did we, before piling back into cars and heading home.
Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming
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