Cooking in SpainCooking in Spain by Janet Mendel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are few places a New Yorker can go—especially in Europe—to find truly exotic food. Whether the cuisine is from Italy or Germany, China or Korea, Ecuador or El Salvador, chances are we have tried it—or some Americanized version of it—at least once. But, like many Americans, I was totally taken aback when I moved to Spain. The eating culture struck me as radically different; and the cuisine, if not exotic, was animated by a very divergent approach to cooking.

For a long time, I admit I was not very taken with what I discovered. Like many Americans, I am used to heavy meals with intense flavors, dishes that scorch your tongue and sit in your stomach like an iron weight, and I don’t feel satisfied unless I feel sick and slightly overwhelmed at the end of a meal. Spanish food very seldom produces that sensation. It is generally mild and relatively light. I don’t think I have ever had a dish from a Spanish restaurant I could call properly spicy, and Spanish portions are not usually large enough to produce the semi-comatose post-prandial mood that I was used to.

There are also many things that are simply not to my taste. I am not fond of tuna or hard-boiled eggs, yet nearly every sandwich in the cafeteria in my school has one—or both!—of those ingredients. And in general I cannot stomach as many carbs as the Spanish seem able to do. I am still baffled by bocadillos de tortilla—potatoes on a baguette?—even if I find them delicious; and many times I have been served a heaping plate of rice or potatoes with a side of bread (no meal in Spain is complete without bread), and wondered how Spanish people manage to stay so thin.

I am not the only American to have this reaction. Friends and family have expressed disappointment to me several times regarding the state of Spanish cookery. It is not that Spanish cuisine is bad, of course, only that Americans and Spaniards look for quite different things from food.

One major difference is that Spanish people like to be able to taste the ingredients, to savor the freshness and the quality of the individual elements of the dish, which is why Spanish cooking is often astoundingly simple and mild: both the form and the flavor of the original ingredient are preserved. Americans, on the other hand, like to transform and process ingredients beyond recognition. Another difference is that Spaniards are not so passionately fond of excess, and usually eat until they’re satisfied, not at death’s door. And this is putting aside the difference in Spanish meal times—lunch at two or three p.m., dinner at nine or ten—which I still have trouble adapting to.

Now, I should warn my American readers at this point that Spanish people are extremely proud of their food. Indeed, it seems to be the only thing about their country that Spaniards are unanimously proud of. They will freely denigrate nearly everything else—their government, their universities, their economy—but Spanish cooking is sacrosanct—¡se come bien en España!—and the quickest way to achieve good rapport is to praise the food vigorously. I would also like to mention, in self-defense, that despite some initial misgivings, I have grown to be extremely fond of Spanish cuisine—I swear!

Most cookbooks I’ve looked at—admittedly not many—don’t give an accurate idea of the food you actually encounter in Spain, presenting instead a fusion or haute-cuisine version, but this book is different. Janet Mendel is an American journalist who has been living in the south of Spain for many years now. Her cookbook is the most “authentic” book on Spanish cooking that I have come across. It begins with an overview of the different regions of Spain, moves on to Spanish ingredients, and contains over 400 recipes, as well as a glossary for food terms. The glossary is especially useful, since I’ve found that menus are more difficult to translate than poetry. (In Spanish, food words are particularly variable from country to country, or even region to region, making a Spanish-English dictionary of limited utility when faced with a menu.)

The regional overview is also valuable, for, like everything else in Spain, food can be quite specific to a location. Each major city has its own distinctive dishes; and particular cities—Seville, Logroño, San Sebastian—are famous for their food. The major axis of difference, I’ve found, is between the north and the south. Typically I prefer eating in the north—Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia, and the Basque Country—though there is excellent food to be found all over. In the south, mainly Andalusia, they tend to fry nearly everything, with the exception of the two famous liquid salads, gazpacho and salmorejo, both of which are delicious and refreshing under the brutal southern sun.

The north is far more verdant than the south, and the northern coast is at least equally as good for fishing, which means they generally have fresher ingredients. The Basque Country is the province most famous for its cuisine, and deservedly so, but I am particular to the food of Galicia. If you get a chance, perhaps when hiking the Camino de Santiago, find a pulpería, order some of the Galician octopus—seasoned with the distinctively intense local paprika—and drink the local Ribeiro wine, young and sharp red wine often served in a ceramic bowl. It is an exquisite meal.

Recipes for all these, and more—including all the Spanish classics, like my favorites, cocido, paella, cochinillo, fabadas, croquetas, and tortilla—can be found in this book, in simple and easy-to-follow recipes, along with extensive information on Spanish wines, cheeses, and produce of all kinds. Admittedly, I have not had great luck in my attempts to cook Spanish food, but this was entirely my fault. (My croquettes and my tortilla turned into mush; I am not a good chef.)

My failures notwithstanding, Mendel’s book is excellent, and almost encyclopedic in its coverage of different ingredients and types of dishes, methodically going through every type of meat and fish, including sections on snacks and desserts, with charming little vignettes along the way. She clearly knows Spanish cooking thoroughly, both the typical dishes and the meals for festive holidays, and does not dilute it or change it to cater to foreign palates.

Unfortunately, however authentic the recipe, the dish will not taste exactly right unless you buy the ingredients locally. To pick just one example, pork products play an integral role in Spanish cooking (they say it’s because eating pork differentiated the Catholics from the Jews and Muslims), and you will have a very difficult time finding true Spanish pork in New York. And this is a shame, considering that Spanish jamón is far better than prosciutto, and Spanish chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage) are wonderful flavoring agents for stews. Indeed, for my part I think Spain has the best pork products in the world, not that I would know.

As a parting piece of advice, if you go to Spain try to avoid those omnipresent tourists traps in the city center, with big yellow billboards advertising their paella. I had one of the worst meals of my life at one of these in the Plaza Mayor. You can find many excellent fine-dining establishments in Madrid. But to find more typical food, done well, look for the cheaper, less ritzy places. I can recommend the Café Melo’s—the menu has about six things, and they’re all good—and the Casa Mingo, an Asturian restaurant with famous roast chicken and Spanish cider, that’s right next to the chapel that contains Goya’s remains. And if you’re in Madrid in winter, try La Cruz Blanca de Vallecas for its famous cocido madrileño, a heavy stew of meat and garbanzos.

Well, I’m afraid that’s the best I can offer. I can only add that Spanish food may seem unpromising at first; but once you develop a taste for it and you know what to look for, it is a fascination and a delight.

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