Saturday, 9 May 2009

Rugby League changed my life

I like Rugby League. No, it isn't my favourite sport, but it's one I enjoy – and I've certainly got a lot to be grateful to it for.

It was three years ago Easter just gone that St Helens and Castleford Tigers played their first Super League matches against the then newcomers to the competition, the Catalans Dragons. And since there was barely more than a week between those two visits to the south of France, The Other Half and I decided to arrange our main holiday of the year around the games.

Travel on the Friday, watch the Dragons v Cas in Carcassonne on the Saturday, then travel to Barcelona for a week on the Sunday and back to Perpignan on the Easter Sunday for Saints' visit on the Monday, followed by a TGV journey to Paris and then home 36 hours later via the Eurostar.

It was to be a revelation of a trip – possibly even a trip that was life-changing.

Rugby League is, in essence, a working class sport. It split from 'rugby' in 1895, after the powers that be, based in the south of England, created a by-law to stop northern clubs in working-class districts paying their players 'broken-time' money, to compensate them for the wages that they lost when they took breaks from their jobs in the mills and mines to play.

Outside the north, players came from a different background and didn't suffer financially through playing. Thus was born Rugby League – the other code is Rugby Union, which only became openly professional around 15 years ago. They found plenty of ways to pay players via the back door over the years – thus it was known as 'shamateurism'.

But it's also an illustration, generally, of why amateurism in sport is elistist.

In France, the sport suffered miserably at the hands of the ruling elite – not least during the war years, when the Vichy government actually banned it and stripped clubs of all their assets. The French RL is still campaigning for official recognition of the wrongs done to the sport – and for some sort of compensation.

The introduction of the Dragons into Super League was not without controversy – plenty of fans in England didn't want them. But it was a major chance to help build RL in the part of France that had once been the heartland of the country's game.

And so we made our first trip to southern Europe.

Downside? Having to fly out by Ryan Air. Which I hate. But Perpignan airport is a small one and you have that wonderful experience of walking across the tarmac to the airport buildings themselves. Heat welcomed us, together with the sight of the Pyrenees, rearing up on the horizon.

That night, we joined other fans in a short bus trip to nearby St Esteve. A small town, we'd been invited to visit the Rugby League clubhouse, where a barbeque had been arranged. It was a most convivial evening.

Saturday's match was an evening one, to which we would travel by coach. In the morning, therefore, we joined a minibus to take a tour of the coast. As we headed down the motorway, toward the mountains, the conversation from our fellow explorers was most illuminating.

"We got to the hotel yesterday," said a male Yorkshire voice. "And the receptionist said: 'Bonjour'. And I said: 'Hello'. And she said: 'Bonjour'. And I said: 'Hello'. And eventually she got the idea and said: 'Hello'."

Oh, what a victory for perfidious Albion.

Then one of the women traveling in their little group: "I mean, it's very nice, but it's not a real Rugby League town."

No – it's not in the bleak industrial north of England, where manufacturing is all but dead and the towns are dying dumps.

Our first stop, winding down a hairpin road, was Collioure. We had an hour – and in that time, we were well on the way to falling in love, wandering along the seafront, gaping at the menus of all the restaurants and at the view in general.

Our fellow travelers, it should be noted, didn't bother looking around, but simply headed to the first bar that was open.

Then on to Argelès sur Mer, slightly further back up the coast. We had a little longer and, while the others headed straight for another bar, we ambled to the seafront, dipped our feet in the Mediterranean for the first time and basked in the spring sunshine. A couple of the seafront restaurants were already open for business and, while looking at the menu of one, the waiter drew us in. Not that there was much "in". The tables were set out on a deck, but the canopy overhead had been drawn back and we sat with the sun burnishing our skin and penetrating to cold, northern bones, drinking sangrias that came compliments of the restaurant for being two of the very first customers of the new season.

The Other Half had a spaghetti carbonara. I had huge gambas, shells blackened on the fire and served in warmed olive oil, infused with garlic. Within seconds, I'd given up any remote efforts to be 'ladylike', getting my fingers as greasy as possible as I tore off the shells and relished the firm, tasty meat of the vast prawns, and the flavour of the oil. TV chef Rick Stein, on a culinary trip through France, once commented that, in England, he'd seen people try to eat such food with a knife and fork. You can't. It demands to be handled – and such an earthy approach is wonderfully sensual.

The third and final stop on our little tour was Canet. It took us only a very few moments to decide that we won't bother going back there: an artificial creation of high-rise, concrete hotels and 'trendy' bars, it was far from the sort of place that we like. The others thought it brilliant – and found a bar straight away.

The next day, after a match that had seen Cas lose, we caught a train south. It was a long, slow journey in a very basic train, and by the time we reached Barcelona, it was evening and we didn't feel like venturing far from the hotel.

The next day, however, was a peach, with visits to Sagrada Família and then on to Las Ramblas, where we peeked just inside La Boqueria, one of the most famous markets in the world, and then relished a sumptuous lunch in a restaurant right next to the market. I had deep fried squid to start, followed by bacalao, cooked in a an unbelievable amount of olive oil, with peppers and garlic by the ton, and all served in the pan. Wonderful. And accompanied by a gutsy Tempranillo – The Other Half asked for the house red and the waiter brought a bottle and poured us each a little, with his towel obscuring the label.

"Tempranillo, si?" I managed. He was impressed. The Other Half was even more impressed. It's possibly the only wine in the world that I can recognise. I felt chuffed.

But that gives you an idea of what was to become one of the dominant features of that week – the food. A wonderful restaurant down the road from our hotel, Els Barrils, specialised in Galacian-style fish. I had padron peppers as a starter – lovely little jewels of green peppers, around 4.5cm long; they're fried very quickly and then served with a garnish of course sea salt. You pick them up by the stem to eat, and about one in 10 packs a serious pepper punch. They're delicious. I followed that with my very first lobster, and then a lovely chocolate and orange icecream for dessert.

Moon became a regular late-evening venue after walking off dinner, with good beers and tapas for the really hungry.

There was another restaurant where the young waiter was trying to open our bottle of wine and the cork broke inside the bottle. The maître d came over, and in a dumb show of pure comic genius, rolled his eyes, gave us complimentary tapas as a starter (little black puddings) and then, when he'd produced a new bottle of wine, rolled it slowly and with great drama on our table to help him ease the cork out. Later, he insisted on my having a complimentary dessert too – as though they had anything to apologise for. And the food itself ...

I had bacalao again, but this time in a sauce of honey and pine nuts. Fabulous.

At yet another restaurant – a very smart and modern one – I had the mesclun salad, with strawberries and nuts, followed by caramcitas – baby squid, perfectly cooked, the ivory pockets arranged like a star on my plate, and dressed with warmed olive oil, infused with garlic.

A few days later, in Paris for the first time, I had a wonderful pave of salmon, served with a small ratatouille and new potatoes, and followed by a dreamy crème brûlée that had me oozing 'tres bons' to the waiter.

Just over three years have since that expedition, but I remember those meals as though it were yesterday. I don't have to think hard to recall them or even refer to the diary in which I noted them in detail at the time. In Barcelona in particular, I found the most wonderful food that I had ever eaten.

Food that was full of colour, bursting with freshness and flavour. Perfect ingredients, wonderful simplicity. Meals that were so balanced and perfectly proportioned that even I – who normally can hardly manage two courses in the UK – could eat a full three. Eating had drama about it, and pleasure and pride for those who cooked and served it as well as the pleasure of those who ate.

We've spent a further week in Barcelona since, and visited at least three of those eateries again (Els Barrils twice more, while I ate exactly the same salad and squid at that restaurant as 18 months earlier). And then last year, in desperate need of a total break, we spent 10 days in Collioure. The food, again, was bliss.

We will return this September for a fortnight, staying not in a hotel this time, but in a cottage. I have always derided self-catering – my mother could turn it into a nightmare. But now – now, I am going to be able to shop and to cook in France. I'm already excited.

So no, given my tastes and how they've developed even since then, I don't think it's too much to say that that trip was a life changer.

So thank you Rugby League.

1 comment:

  1. Great story. Certainly beats the food served in my day at after playing at places like Batley or Dewsbury - dripping butties and the like.
    Basil Fawlty was right afterall regarding these waiters from Barcelona.