There are some writers and authors who have been associated with Spanish food for decades. Claudia Roden is one such person.
She is a prolific author of Spanish and Jewish food based cookbooks. Her latest is a well researched gem, tracing the regional history of Spanish food.
Claudia writes with passion about her family background which played a big part in her interest in Spanish food.
She says: “My grandmother, Eugénie Alphandary, spoke an old Judeo-Spanish language called Ladino with her friends and relatives in Egypt. They were descended from Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492. Their names – Toledano, Cuenca, Carmona, Leon, Burgos – were a record of the cities their ancestors had come from. Their songs about lovers in Seville and proverbs about meat stews and almond cakes were for me, as I was growing up in Cairo, a mysterious lost paradise, a world of romance and glorious chivalry.
“When I travelled to research The Food of Spain, traces of the old Muslim presence – Arabesque carvings, blue and white tiles, a fountain spouting cool water in a scented garden – evoked memories of the Arab and Jewish world I was born in.
“It took me five years to finish the book. It was pure joy to eat seafood paella on the Valencia coast, cocido in a little restaurant in Madrid, suckling pig in Segovia, cuttlefish in their ink in the Basque country, and duck with pears in Barcelona.
“It was a good time to be researching traditional home cooking. While the Spanish restaurant trade was transforming itself into the world’s great centre of gastronomic creativity, there was throughout the country a sense of nostalgia for the old rural life.
“When the autonomous communities gained recognition in 1978, people felt free to celebrate their regional heritage and began valuing their local cuisines and products that were sometimes almost lost.
“Organisations were formed to preserve their culinary heritage by recording recipes from home cooks and professionals. They toured fishing villages and mountain hamlets. Nine hundred recipes were collected in Catalonia, 600 in the Balearic Islands of Mallorca and Menorca, 900 in Galicia. Producers rushed to obtain Denominaciónes de Origen (DOs) for their wines, their olive oils, their hams, their charcuterie and their cheeses, their beans and honeys, their cows, their pigs, their capons.
“I asked everyone I met for their favourite recipes, what their parents and grandparents cooked, how they lived and what region they were from. Their recipes mostly belonged to a rural world. They ate what they grew, kept goats for cheese, chickens for their eggs, and pigs to make jamón and chorizos. They had cooked in the fireplace and in outdoor stone ovens, made chickpea stews and dishes with breadcrumbs and with salt cod. They had caught game birds and rabbits.
“I went in search of those memories and emotions that dishes evoke in Spaniards, and on the way I discovered what they meant to me. It is surprising how dishes can appeal directly to the emotions. They say that with gastronomy, as with music, you can touch people and make them cry.
“When I cook at home in London it is the people who gave me recipes and those with whom I shared meals that I think of. It is images of the flamenco concert in Córdoba, the convent where I stayed in Seville, and the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela that I conjure up. They represent an old civilisation with a fabulous cuisine – delicious and exciting.”
As with all of Roden’s book, this one is as sumptuous as the very food she writes about.
* Claudia’s latest book, The Food of Spain, is published by Michael Joseph