Spain has a remarkably varied food heritage, but its cooks snare a passion for seasonality and local produce – we bring you four authentic recipes that each embody a region’s cuisine
To a casual observer, there might seem something of a disconnect between the outward face of Spanish gastronomy – the futuristic revolution curated by El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià and his ardent, blue-sky disciples – and the largely unchanged way in which the ordinary Spaniard shops, cooks and eats. The countless dishes that can be traced back to the pastoral tradition of carrying bread, oil, vinegar and garlic as sustenance on the long days and weeks of driving sheep to pastures new; the citrus fruits, saffron, cumin and almonds that came with the Moorish invasion; and the fascination with the tomatoes, peppers, corn and potatoes that arrived from the New World in the 16th-century Columbian Exchange. These were the great seismic shifts in Spanish home-cooking, not the advent of foams, freeze-drying and cooking sous-vide.
Change is afoot, yes, but only insofar as it builds on the love and respect for what has gone before. Phrases such as ‘slow food’ and ‘food miles’ are all but redundant here, where the ready meal is an unknown concept and produce is only available for as long as it is in season. Almost every town has its weekly market, where herbs are sold in bouquets, where rice and flour come in hessian sacks, where your cut of meat is sliced from the animal before your eyes, where potatoes are muddy and apples misshapen, where chickens have heads.
The rituals, too, continue to be sacred. Families come together on Sundays for animated afternoons centred around paella. An intrinsic part of any neighbourhood fiesta is the setting up of long trestle tables for communally cooked and eaten dinners that go on late into the night. The matanza, the annual slaughtering of pigs, followed by days of feasting, is still a reality in hundreds of Spanish villages and towns.
It is exactly these deeply entrenched traditions that provide the springboard for what is happening in restaurant kitchens around the country. Something I hear over and over is: ‘What we’re aiming to do is resurrect old recipes, but bring them into the present day.’ Some of the recipes here reflect that philosophy, in which the spirits of long-passed grandmothers (and it is always grandmothers) provide the guiding hand at the stove, and inform the fundamental combinations and techniques at the heart of every innovation. You’ll find dishes that have passed down through generations of a chef s family, but in his or her hands are given a twist. We’re not pretending these recipes are simple, but with a little dedication these are creations set to impress at a dinner party.
Of course you’ll also find good, honest peasant food, of a type that anyone could make with whatever happens to be in the larder – which is exactly the attitude with which it is approached in Spain.