Cheers for Spanish Food

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in: Book Reviews

Two new books about Spanish food raise more questions than they answer, the principal one being why Spain is such a hard sell in the United States. Spanish cuisine, after all, is not so different from that of Provençe or Italy. Spain, Provençe and Italy all rely on that celebrated triad of olive oil, bread and wine, along with lots of fresh vegetables, lots of seafood and a seasoning palate that includes garlic, basil, bay leaves, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Admittedly there are huge differences, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to define them. But in the larger perspective, the similarities are compelling.

Why, then, do we rush to buy cookbooks and frequent restaurants touting the food of Provençe, Sicily, Tuscany, Naples and the Riviera, while we ignore the cuisine of Spain? As far as I’m concerned it’s our loss.

That said, I’m not convinced that the books under review help repair the problem. Roden’s The Food of Spain” is not, alas, her finest, not compared to her magisterial first effort, “The Book of Middle Eastern Food,” (1974) or the equally great “Book of Jewish Food” (1996). Her latest effort is steeped in the melancholy fragrance of a committee effort, initiated by a publisher who saw a market and filled it with a prestigious author, an enormous number of handsome photographs (not one of which is identified by a caption), a large 609-page format with loads of white space, and precious few recipes (about 180) for the size and price: $45.

More gazpacho, please

Little in this book suggests Roden has a personal passion for the food of Spain. Instead, we are presented with a pristine, well-mannered, bloodless production, like a proper bread-and-butter note written to acknowledge a hostess for each thing that happened on a long and rather boring weekend. In a work that purports to be about all the food of Spain, why is there just one recipe for the iconic and multi-variant gazpacho? (The index of Janet Mendel’s “My Kitchen in Spain” lists seven.)

Roden’s lengthy introduction gives an overview of Spanish food history, with plenty of romance about Jews and Arabs (called by the dated term “Moors”) and their impact. But what happened in Spain in the past century is more compelling and better speaks to the state of food in the country today. The 35 years since Franco’s death have seen a major increase in the production of fine wine and olive oil, whether premium extra virgins or the current ocean of industrial quality — Spain now makes one-third of all the world’s olive oil. Along with a revival of regional breads, cheeses and sausages, much of it for export, there has been a troubling deterioration of regional and local traditions, replaced by what we might call supra-national foodways, MacDonald’s and the like — now that’s a story worth telling. But it’s not told here and, while I may be accused of targeting Roden because she didn’t write the book I would like, I still think she misses the mark.

Well-conceived recipes

That said, I will give credit for good recipes that work well. I tried a hearty and deeply satisfying lentil soup and delicious empañaditas, savory turnovers made of olive oil pastry filled with a mix of tuna, onions and red peppers. Both performed exactly as promised, though I added spicing to the empañaditas — saffron and smoky pimentón de la Vera which online sources included for this treat.

In the end I’m not sure for whom this book is intended. Surely not home cooks: Would you want to dribble olive oil and egg yolk over the pages of such a handsome production? I’m guessing “The Food of Spain” is intended as a gift book, one that makes a statement with its hefty look and price.

Down Under Take on Spain’s Food

Australian chef Frank Camorra’s “Rustica: A Return to Spanish Home Cooking” was written with Richard Cornish, a television producer. The text is sprinkled with anecdotes of characters encountered during journeys around Camorra’s ancestral Spain and, along with photographs presumably taken by the author, these are the most delightful part of the book.

As a cookbook, “Rustica” suffers from some serious defects, so much so that I hardly know what to make of it. The publisher seems to have bought it, as is, from Australia because recipes require difficult to find and even mysterious ingredients — a fish called trevally, a cockerel (rooster), fresh, young lemon leaves. Chapter subjects are inconsistent — some deal with types of service (tapas), others with regions (the Basque country) and others with ingredients (sherry, salt, fish). Seafood recipes are scattered throughout so it’s hard to know, if you’re thinking of fish for dinner, where to begin.

Again, I tried two recipes, one of which was for that cockerel cooked in red wine, just like a coq au vin but flavored with cinnamon and black peppercorns. It was delicious, even made with an ordinary free-range chicken instead of the rooster. But the second recipe, for Tortas de Aceite, or Crunchy Anise Cookies was, quite simply, a disaster. I had to add about three times the amount of liquid called for, olive oil and anise liqueur, to get a dough that I could form into a log. In the end, after my “improvements,” the cookies were tasty, but the dough certainly didn’t perform the way the recipe predicted.

So what should a person do who wants to learn more about the rich and varied cuisine of this fascinating country? You can’t go wrong with any books from Mendel, who has lived in southern Spain most of her adult life. For a more chef-like perspective, Jose Andrés, the ebullient Washington chef, erstwhile Ferran Adrià acolyte and tireless promoter of Spanish food, writes engagingly about the dishes of his homeland with recipes geared to American cooks. You’ll learn far more from these writers.


Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”  Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines.  She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”  She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon.  A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications.  She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised.  She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.

Top photo composite:

Book jacket for “Rustica.” Credit: Courtesy of Chronicle Books

Book jacket for “The Food of Spain.” Credit: Courtesy of Ecco

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