As the year comes to an end I have been taking part in a debate about how Spanish food has changed in the past decade.
The questions posed included:-
is there any such thing as a new recipe?
Is the late arriving nouvelle cuisine of Spain finally a thing of the past?
Have Spanish culinary tastes changed greatly?
Will Spanish chefs ever stop using too much salt in their cooking?
In brief, the answers are:- no, possibly, no and… unlikely!
But my opinion counts for little. I am merely a diner. Someone who, like you, enjoys Spanish food at its best and is always on the lookout for a bar or restaurant that makes an effort and cares about its cooking.
I spoke to three culinary aficionados and asked them of their own opinions about Spanish food today.
Sofia comes from Seville but now runs a small Spanish restaurant in England. How, I wonder, do tastes differ overseas when it comes to Spanish food?
Sofia tells me: “Because of the choice of Spanish restaurants and bars in big cities like London, the customers are much more educated now about what they want than they were ten years ago. Even two or three years ago.
“Where my mother lives in the countryside you can go to places where the people will eat any old rubbish just so long as it fills their stomachs. If I did that here I would have been out of business long ago.
“I do not try to compete with the big chains that serve the usual popular tapas dishes, some of which I have never seen served in Spain!
“My menu mixes traditional classics such as paella and gazpacho with my own variation on recipes that my grandmother cooked involving greens and vegetables that are a bit different from the usual. That is the benefit of cooking in London. There are more vegetables available here than in Spain. I use okra in at least three recipes and the customers cannot get enough of it.
“The ability to walk out of my door and buy any ingredient I want is a real bonus compared to cooking in a provincial town in Spain where the customers only want what their mother or late wife served them. I say that when it comes to trying new food, the mind of a Spanish man is closed.”
Can this be true? I thought I had better ask one.
My friend Rafa says: “Yes, I see what she is saying. My father and his father wanted the same food, served at the same time, every day. So my mum had to make the same food each Saturday, Sunday etc. For decades.
My father’s idea of trying something new would have been to have a different chorizo once a month, or to have a rabbit stew instead of chicken.
“But for my generation, certainly those working in big cities, that is no longer how it is. Along with friends I do try different food. There is no such thing as a new recipe, there is only variation. I see on the internet, or in modern cookbooks, recipes some TV chef will claim is new and yet they are just a modern version of what my grandmother served me when I went to her house for lovely home cooked food.
“But we do not go to some of these new restaurants where you see more of the plate than the food that is on it. They can serve that up in Barcelona if they want, but when we go to eat out in Andalucia; we do want to eat well and know that we have eaten when we leave the restaurant. In that way my friends and I are just like our parents.”
Kevin Richardson is one of the more inventive chefs I have come across in Spain and he cooks in Andalucia. By inventive I do not mean in a manner whereby you are served tapas size portions as a main course. I have eaten far better food in unheralded Spanish restaurants than in those which have received so much press coverage over recent years.
But I wouldn’t want to be a chef in certain parts of Spain. Catering for customers who are not interested in hearing about, let alone tasting, your latest creation.
Kevin told me: “Too many restaurants are scared of change, and I understand why. When fewer and fewer customers are coming out to eat, they don’t want to scare away any regulars by changing the menu.
“Trying to get Spanish customers to try something new is difficult. We still have many customers who never ask to see the menu. They want the same thing every time, which is fine. But I don’t know how Spanish cooking is to move on if the tastes of the customers do not progress.
“Being in Nerja on the Costa Tropical I effectively have to cook for two different sets of customers. The tourists or residents from northern Europe, whose taste buds often want more spice, and the middle aged or elderly locals who want good but plain food. And they like it more if it contains more salt than is in the Mediterranean!”
There may indeed be no such thing as a new recipe. But there is a new, younger generation of Spanish diner, and exciting chefs working worldwide, who want nothing more than to serve or be served the best of the old style Spanish cooking while also experimenting with new tastes.