This site is a small sampling of Vicky Hayward’s work as a freelance writer, food historian, book editor and arts consultant. The projects are grouped around topics and live issues to give an overview of subject areas.
Vicky grew up in England, where she learned to cook professionally before studying history at the University of Cambridge, specialising in social and cultural history viewed through different methodologies. Her interest in history shaped her early work as a senior book editor at Weidenfeld & Nicolson and at Booth-Clibborn Editions, the London-based publisher of cutting-edge visual books. She also lived and worked in Vanuatu, working on a research project and later as an interpreter, translator and editor. As a features writer in London from 1986 she covered popular culture, social issues, food, the arts and women’s issues for the British press. She first got to know Spain as a child on family holidays and her writing brought her to Madrid in 1990. Features for international media since then have covered social issues and visual arts. Her work on food and gastronomy has included regular essays for Spain Gourmetour (1992-2005) and her features on flamenco led on to her collaborations with live flamenco programming, film and audio. She has written three pocket guide-books, many essays for regional and city guides, and she contributed to the relaunched Michelin Spain Green Guide (2011). In recent years her writings on food, culture and history have converged. She revised essays on Spain for the Oxford Companion to Food’s second edition, and in 2016 she finished her modern retelling of New Art of Cookery, a seminal 1745 Spanish cookbook in which she contextualised her English translation of the book against a longer narrated social history, accompanied by modern versions of the dishes. The Spanish edition, which followed four months later, is published under the title Nuevo arte de la cocina española. In 2017 she was honoured to receive the Jane Grigson Trust Award and the Aragonese Academy of Gastronomy’s Award for Best Gastronomic Research for the original English book. In 2018, following publication of the Spanish edition, she received the Premio Nacional de Gastronomía for Best Publication from the Royal Academy of Gastronomy, and in 2019 the newly created Juan Altamiras award. In 2020 a new essay on Altamiras was highly commended in the Sophie Coe Prize for Food History. She has spoken internationally on Spanish food and culture, giving talks and papers at a number of food history symposiums, and she has also given workshops and classes in Spain.
She is represented by Andrew Nurnberg Associates, London.
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A todo el mundo no le gusten los homenajes, pero sus mensajes pueden encender chispas inesperadas. Sucedió hace un mes….
Dear Sempel: We met many moons ago in Ambrym, your home island in Vanuatu.
“Mi no lukum yu longtaem,” as you’d say in the islands’ language, bislama. Do you remember teaching me how to make coconut milk? Don’t hurry, you said, as I shaved the coconut flesh, and you sang gently while you worked deftly, quickly, beside me…. Here, belatedly, I want to say thank you. Tangkyu. How often your advice has anchored me. It sounds simple, but it’s not always easy: don’t hurry….
This weekend I listened to some recorded songs from Vanuatu. Unaccompanied, almost whispered, they remain as powerful as ever. One of the songs, from Ambrym, calms the ocean, seeking safety for those who journey to and from the island. Was this your fisherman’s song when we made coconut milk so long ago?
Twenty-five years after I landed in downtown Madrid I still find myself surprised by the quality of the city’s everyday eating. Visitors tell me they find the leisurely pace of meals a luxury, even in budget restaurants: snap-sharp service coincides with easygoing hospitality, and customers are free to linger long over coffee.
Municipal food markets inspire much of my home cooking. Altogether nearly fifty covered municipal markets, large and small, each with its own character, are scattered around the city’s barrios. Four years ago, Barceló, my local market, for example, reopened as an expanded three-storey building complete with a slick white façade and food graffiti in the passageways, but it remains a genuine neighbourhood hub with old-fashioned values of service, remarkably remaining open to the public every single working day during the pandemic. Other markets have reoriented themselves to seven-day-weeks and gastronomy: they are packed with small kitchens serving bargain to upmarket Michelin-starred food. At the weekend I like to pause at a market bar or café serving sticky tortilla and coffee before setting off on a slow wander around the stalls. Here you can catch glimpses of the produce from which home and avant garde cookery grow. Each market has its specialities: Mercado Anton Martín, half barrio and half hipster, launched the city’s supply of fresh seaweeds.
Recently advertisers have begun capitalising on the markets’ success, which has grown from the dedication of so many small stallholders. Often a weekend wander needs to avoid flashy promotions, but you can ignore them: walk on by to the small, fixed stalls where specialist care of produce practised every week and every month of the year, in heatwaves and snowstorms, has slowly built the foundations of the city’s food culture….
To read more: https://revistapan.com
To read more: www.nuevoartedelacocina.com
Winner of the Jane Grigson Trust Award, 2017
To read more: www.nuevoartedelacocina.com
Winner of the Jane Grigson Trust Award, 2017
Spanish edition: winner of the Premio Nacional de Gastronomía a la Mejor Publicación de 2017 (Real Academía de Gastronomía) and the Premio al mejor labor gastronómica en el ámbito de investigación, 2017 Academía Aragonesa de Gastronomía).
To read more: www.prospectbooks.co.uk
To read more: www.sophiecoeprize.wordpress.com
Here is the video, courtesy of and with thanks to Madrid Fusion: Youtube link
To read more: www.newartofcookery.com – blog, Amsterdam symposium
I don’t move forward in flamenco, I go backwards,” says Antonio Gades decisively. “Where there is a flamenco singer and a guitar, you kill their power by adding an orchestral arrangement. On the other hand I like flamenco dance set in a different context ….
Gades has always cut an unusual figure in flamenco. Born into a communist family – “but not a Gypsy one” – he moved from Elda, a shoemaking town in Alicante, to Madrid as a young child following his father’s imprisonment for his politics. At the age of eleven, he went to work to support the family and, five years later, turned to dance in the hope that it might bring in a decent income ….
Gades’s company, which he set up in 1963, has flourished, growing from three to thirty-one dancers, and received many accolades, but it has remained unsubsidised and unsponsored. “Freedom is expensive, it’s not given to you,” he comments curtly. He has now been creating choreography freely for over three decades and many would say his most recent work, “Fuenteovejuna”, is his masterpiece ….“Yes, it’s true there’s a real afición for genuine flamenco today and it’s seen differently – now it’s in opera houses and universities. But beyond that I don’t see anything that has changed significantly.
Perhaps what is most surprising for onlookers is that the Andalusians take their Japanese counterparts very seriously. In the late 1980s the Seville Bienale hosted a three-day festival of their flamenco, and today the work of artists like Shoji Kojima and Yoko Komatsubara remains influential.
Those who have lived within both Spanish and Japanese cultures are not as surprised by the phenomenon. “I think there are good cultural reasons for the fascination,” says María Dolores Rodriguez, a teacher at Madrid’s official language school. She lived in Japan for ten years. “Flamenco expresses intense emotions in a highly disciplined form. It shares the Japanese ideas of freeing ki, or energy, and of kata, the body-sculptured fixed positions struck in kabuki and noh theatre, in mijomboyu dancing and martial arts. At the same time, in flamenco performers have more freedom.”
Atsuko, aged 22, who came to study dance in Jerez, agrees. “In flamenco the technique is nothing unless you have feeling. You have to be yourself. That’s what I like. When I’m angry I dance best. It’s the exact opposite of what we’re used to in Tokyo.
The workshop’s and contest’s success are rooted in the hidden cultural wealth of Spain’s prison communities and the commitment of those who created the project. Prison director Francisco Velasco raises its scanty local funding. Guitarist and maestro Rafael Treñas teaches for just 40,000 pesetas (£200.00) a month, less than his fees for a single performance. Prison educator Antonio Estévez has often dipped into his own pocket to cover costs when the budget hasn’t covered them. No coincidence, perhaps, that all three grew up in or near Gitano barrios of the Andalusian cities where flamenco, as intertwined song, guitar and dance, have evolved over at least three centuries and are a daily element of life, often binding communities.
For Estévez, who had the original idea for the workshop, its success is rooted in the strength of the prison’s Gitano culture. “It works because it’s based on the prisoners’ real world. You won’t persuade most Gitanos to do a class on computing or gardening, but flamenco can inspire them to dedícate long hours to studying. By 1995, when I first visited the workshop, it had reached such a high standard that some students were being coached for public performance.
When my grandfather sung at night, my grandmother would open her arms and dance,” recalls María Soleá, aged 63, from Cádiz. “How she danced with her arms! And if somebody we didn’t know appeared at the door, my grandfather would say, “Close the door, girl, for I don’t want strangers watching my wife and children sing and dance.”
While María’s family all sang and dance at fiestas, she was the first of their women to perform for money. “I didn’t have special dresses or anything like that, and I danced in my everyday rope-soled shoes.”
(Flamenco International magazine, 2002-2007)
V: Eva, you’re often quoted as saying that just one flamenco performance you saw with your father made you decide to dance. I think Manuela Carrasco and Concha Vargas were performing?
Eva: Yes, but it wasn’t the baile (dance) that impressed me as much as the cante (singing). I’ve always felt song is the mother of all flamenco. Take Paco de Lucía’s work. You listen to his music and say, “Madre mía”, how blessed he is by the gift of knowing how to listen. I don’t think I’d be a dancer if I could sing.
Paco: It may not be immediately clear, but we build our performances around the palos – the soleá, seguiriya and so on. Infact, we try to pick forgotten song forms for dance … the trilla, the mirabrás and so on. Every songform is its own world. There are rhythm, harmonies, melodies, but also colours and landscape, light, perhaps those of Cádiz or Triana. A songform’s lyrics also emerge from a particular situation, but it’s up to us as performers to reveal that if we want to.
Eva: But I also feel, as a dancer, the form of a seguiriya or indeed any palo, must also come from a personal search. Not everyone wants to do that, but you need to share a personal search and what you have lived within your dance.
V: What was recording like when you were younger?
Sordera: We’d have two days to make an LP. That is, two days with a guitarist and a couple of palmeros. That was it. I would write the cantes for the album on a piece of paper and order them as we went along. Vicente would come along and do palmas. He was just a boy. We’d go to the studio in the afternoon, open our throats, perhaps with the help of a whisky, and start. We didn’t rehearse. The labels worked that way to save money. The artists took it for granted and worked around it.
V: Flamenco’s so difficult to capture well on record, isn’t it?
Vicente: It’s very hard to keep the warmth alive in a recording studio. A lot of people say it’s a thing of the past. There’s a record called “Así Canta Jerez”, recorded thirty years ago, which is wonderful. My father, Terremoto, Sernita and four other cantaores sing on it.
Sordera: Nobody believes it when I tell them it was recorded in four hours!
Sordera Chico: But of course that’s when it works … when people are enjoying themselves.
The first English-language flamenco magazine, Flamenco International, founded by Juan Teijeiro, guitarist and director of the London Guitar Studio, was read in over 20 countries. Back issues are still in demand!
At the one-person Madrid office, the aim was to publish Spanish writers on flamenco who were little read or unknown in English. The work was twofold: commissioning or selecting existing texts and creating English-language versions, linguistically and culturally translated, and, of course, always carefully checked with the authors. They included Ángel Álvarez Caballero, Pedro Ceballos, José Manuel Gamboa, Alberto García Reyes, Félix Grande, Miguel Ríos Ruiz, Joaquín San Juan and José Manuel Velázquez Gaztelu. Contributors in other languages included Pierre Lefranc and David Oancia Prieto.
We also created head-to-head dialogues between flamenco artists: see, for example, the conversation between Paco Jarana and Eva Yerbabuena in this section. For photography we commissioned unpublished aficianados, young professional journalists and students.
Two highlights were special supplements created in Madrid: one looked at the diversity of new music and dance in flamenco (covering source and path), and the other captured key insiders’ views of Jérez. For me work on the magazine was one amazing learning curve, listening to artists and writers who I’d admired for years.
Here’s a clip from the video: Youtube link
To view the clip: PULSE: A Stomp Odyssey
Artists included Jose Maya, Alfonso Losa, Rocío Bazán with Francisco Javier Jimeno, Paco Cruz, and José Anillo.
Spain Gourmetour, Madrid, 1999
I’d long cherished the idea of writing on Spanish organic farming and in 1999 Spain Gourmetour green-lighted my proposal. By then organics were enjoying exponential growth and I was commissioned to write three essays celebrating and informing on the state-of-play: one on fresh produce, a second one on preserves, and a third one on wines. The full title of this first 3,000 word piece was Alternative Agriculture I: A Journey Round Spanish Farming. By keeping my ideas open one of the key features of the younger organic farmers’ success emerged very clearly. It can be summarised in two lines.
When Pedro took over the family’s rice smallholding in 1991 he switched to organic production, yet he hardly changed his father’s growing methods.
Spain Gourmetour, Madrid, 1997
In the 1990s academics had a field-day delving into the early 20th-century development of Spain’s gastronomic societies, but I was more interested in their recent history, especially in the 1970s, when Euskadi’s chefs had pioneered nueva cocina. It seemed logical, although little had been written on the subject, that renewal had also taken place inside gastronomic societies, or txokos, but was less publicised.
This gastronomic society has seventy members. The town where it is found, Tolosa, has two dozen societies. The region to which it belongs, Euskadi (the Basque Country), boasts two thousand. Since the Civil War the societies have spread right around the Basque Country’s three provinces – Gipuzkoa, Alava and Vizcaya – and spilled over into Navarre and French Basqueland. Donostia (San Sebastian), however, remains the mecca, with nearly 400 societies up and running today. For many years during Franco’s time they ticked over quietly, justifying their existence as ‘recreational’ rather than gastronomic, and hence they were among the few institutions designed for meeting and talking that survived those years.
Then, come the 1970s, they hit boom years. Nearly 150 societies were set up in Gipuzkoa province alone. Rising standards of living, shorter working hours and a growing sense of cultural identity in food pulled in younger members. So did value for money, with prices of meals around a quarter to third of those in a restaurant.
In the 1990s new societies have occasionally made a second generational leap. A Basque journalist wrote this cryptic account of his visit to one society in Donostia (San Sebastian) in 1988, «Radical Basque rock music is blaring. There is a certain sense of disorder. And there are both male and female members.” But on the whole, the txokos remain remarkably unchanged. Only the ovens have been updated; these days most societies boast stainless steel professional stoves with double doors. By contrast the decoration remains deliberately plain. There are long wooden tables, cooling basins for cider, simple chairs or benches, maybe a billiard table. Many societies refuse to have a clock.
And women. The txokos’ members’ wary attitude, which sociologists put down to their matriarchal home life, was summed up by Basque gastronome Juan Mari Busca Isusi in a 1975 newspaper article. «It would be very agreeable if the first women’s txokos formed and then we could finally see who cooks better, Adam or Eve. Eve began by peeling an apple and look at the argument she started ….
Spain Gourmetour, Madrid, 1999-2000
When I turned from researching fresh to preserved produce, I discovered that “going organic” had a different meaning for processed or preserved food producers who faced complex export requirements. As good as their product might be, even when demand constantly outstripped supply, they had to learn to jump the hurdle of export bureaucracy to win commercial viabiity.
Today, ten years after Spain´s first certified organic olive oils were made, over 40% of all organically registered land in Spain is dedicated to olive growing: 15,000 Ha in Andalucia, 1,100 Ha in Catalunya and 41,000 Ha in Extremadura. These and two other regions – Aragon and Levante – offer a total of some 18 brands of extra-virgin oil, Spain´s leading organic food product.
“Organic olive growing is natural, easy and can be very productive,” comments Antonio Rey of Oliflix. He produces organic extra-virgin olive oil from Arbequina and Empeltre olives grown in 200 hectares of groves scattered around Flix, high in the Catalan hills behind Tarragona. “Ideally one needs large parcels of land surrounded by wild land, and a good altitude to keep down pests. In the 1940s all the production here was organic. It´s a question of respect for the land.”
Rey supplements olives from his family´s groves, some of which are several hundred years old, with the harvests of four local organic growers and a handful of abandoned farms he has brought back into production since 1989. His olive-mill is inherited and barely modernised. The olives are stone-milled and cold-pressed: the oil is then slowly decanted in tiled tanks, and filtered for excess damp. The result is a light, sweet, golden oil with 0.5º acidity and a peppery aftertaste. “The final oil is only 20% of the pressed olives’ volume,” he explains. Bottled in black glass to protect the oil from light, much of the annual production – averaging around 25-30,000 litres a year – is exported to long-standing German, French and American clients. Rey considers many of them as friends.
Some 800 km/500 m further south, growers in the mountainous Sierra de Segura, in northern Andalusia, switched to organic methods in the late 1980s as part of a European project, Éclair, which was set up to foster viable agriculture in natural parks. “We did not make many changes in the groves. Pesticides hadn’t arrived here” explains Concepción Arias, president of the Cooperativa Sierra de Genave. But they did invest in continuous steel pressing machinery imported from Germany. “The trickiest thing has been paying for the mill.”
Meanwhile their oil, Oro de Genave, has gone from strength to strength. Pungent, green, thickly viscous and highly aromatic (0.4 acidity), pressed from Picual olives under Sierra de Segura PDO controls, it is now made by 85 growers and exported around Europe, the United States and the Far East. In coming years, production will rise from 500,000 to a million litres of oil.
Departures, London, 1988
An open brief for a 400-word piece on dining in Andalusia allowed me to write on fighting bull, or toro de lidia, a meat I’d noticed on sale at butchers during a visit to Seville’s Triana market. I went in search of it in the city’s restaurants close to the bullring, and then returned to that barrio for lunch at the one restaurant everyone recommended.
There – after the soups and before the fish, between the stuffed peppers and the clams from Conil – came the restaurant’s two specialities: rabo de toro, bull’s tail, and estofado de toro de lidia, bluntly described on the menu in English as “fighting bull stewed”. Andalusians appear to react little to the emotive associations involved in cooking and eating an animal so symbolically respected in their culture, or at least they leave their misgivings unspoken, for toro de lidia is popular with male diners during the bullfighting season, when vets and butchers set to work backstage in bullrings immediately after the fights. Fattened bull, or toro de engorde, is also popular in parts of Valencia and León where it can be found made into very expensive jamón or mixed with pork in chorizo.
Foods from Spain, New York, 2001
This article was commissioned after the New York Times made a worldwide splash with a cover feature on Ferran Adrià’s cooking. It gave me the chance to reflect: where were things heading in Spain’s avant-garde kitchens? To answer that I reflected on earlier research and emailed Andoni Luis Aduriz, a chef for whom I have great admiration. His prophetic reply helped give me impetus to start work on a book that would, I knew, take years to write. (Adapted and updated 2013)
The Adrià effect (aka the El Bulli effect) hit Madrid just before the turn of the century. It wasn´t an elitist thing, more the subject of coffee-bar chats. Was it worth investing in a foam-making siphon and how could you use it at home? Alberto, the owner of one local coffee-bar, was the first to get a siphon and make it look easy to use. He invited some of us over for supper. I still remember his foam made with tropical fruit from the local market. We fell silent as our taste-buds woke up.
A couple of years later I was asked to write up personal impressions of the young Spanish chefs for Foods from Spain, published in New York. Flicking through notes taken during a long work day, I found that in a pause I had jotted down three impressions: ‘1. Amazingly modest. 2. Rootsy – but sophisticated techniques. 3. Universal Adrià effect.’
For the young chefs, aged, say, twenty to forty, Adrià’s work was a serious matter. Technique was part of it. Elements of Adrià’s early ‘sea and mountain’ cooking and his 1990s ‘deconstruction’ were influential: the focus was on mutable textures, forms, temperatures and intensified taste in curdled olive oil sauces, hot gelatine-set foams, deconstructed tortilla and vanilla ravioli, to name but a few of his most famous creations. Such risky experiments inspired shared excitement. It helped, too, that Adrià glossed new dishes the season following their arrival.
More important, though, was the spirit of the thing: the whacky wit, kitchen discipline and the idea of a team project with everyone pitching in ideas. The chef-proprietor principle now merged with a ‘let’s-get-down’ style of funky hard work. But Adrià also represented commitment. He had gone off on his own path, risking all for a phrase he picked up from French chef Jacques Maximin in the late 1980s. ‘Crear es no copiar.’ ‘Creating is not copying.’
One cannot hear it too often.
On two whistle-stop tours interviewing young chefs for a long feature on the “Adrià effect” I was particularly struck by Andoni Aduriz, who cooks in the countryside in his restaurant Mugaritz, near Donostia (San Sebastian), in Euskadi (the Basque Country). It was not just his cooking, but everything around it, offbeat and self-critical, which intrigued.
I emailed him to ask him to reflect on the future. He asked for a day’s thinking time and replied in a midnight email.
Here’s his key paragraph. ‘In the end, what we need to keep alive is the interest, the hopes and strength generated by cooking at the moment. But I think more generally cooking still needs a small revolution. We need to spread a sense of values. I see values as more important than particular figures or personalities. We need to ask ourselves questions. In truth, I think that’s hardly begun.’
The Guardian, London, 1991
I met Antonio Escribà by chance while I was doing a feature on Barcelona for Insight Guides. His talent was blinding and on my next visit to Spain I returned to interview him for this piece. Over a decade later, just before his death, Ferran Adrià was to call him “the first avant-garde figure in modern Spanish cookery”. Today, his shop still ticks over as an elegant but committed local business run by his three sons, who have their own specialities, like boiled-sugar jewellery.
Antoní Escribà’s fame spread from his native Barcelona from the late 1950s after he demonstrated his chocolate sculpting techniques in Switzerland. His unorthodox methods, literally bending chocolate on paper, left colleagues from other countries impresed, as did his modernist style and speed. After three hours he had turned 60 kilos of chocolate into a dozen or so abstract compositions, caricatures, and miniature scenarios.
“The Swiss were a bit sceptical at first,” he says, grinning behind his moustache. “You can understand it. Imagine if they had come to Spain with revolutionary bullfighting theories.”
Escribà’s apparently simple chocolate-bending technique relied on an extremely precise tempering process: that is, heating and cooling the chocolate through a controlled temperature curve to alter the crystalline structure of the five oils whose molecular structure gives cocoa butter its texture. This leaves the chocolate temporarily malleable while it hardens.
“To be frank with you, I developed the method very quickly with a geologist friend and from then on it was just a matter of practice.”
Today, Escribà is acknowledged as one of the world’s masters of the craft. He has sculpted everything from a full-size Michaelangelo’s David to miniatures of Gaudi’s buildings in chocolate. He has worked in marzipan, bread and ice. He has undertaken commissions for the Pope and Picasso, who sent back a painting as a thank you. He has taught blind children how to work with chocolate. Along the way, he has written a book, won numerous awards, taught in three continents and seen his techniques adopted around the world. These days the Swiss pay him $5,000 per demonstration. But his priority has always been the family business, inherited from his parents, and now increasingly run by his sons.
Lookin, Malaga, 1991
When I arrived to live in Spain, cured jamón inevitably fascinated me. In 1990 it was still a luxury rather than a supermarket food, only just being discovered by gourmets elsewhere, especially in Paris and Milan. But the skills of free-range pig-rearing and the curing of pata negra jamóns were little explained so I drove west from Madrid to visit the jamón producers and holm-oak grazing areas to learn what was really involved.
Hams didn’t achieve the status of “delicacy” till the 18th century and, even then, they generally remained a family product sold within easy reach of horse and cart. Of the main curing areas, Jabugo is both the most famous – to the extent that it is sometimes mistakenly considered the source of all Iberian ham – and the most picturesque. Deep lanes run between old whitewashed villages in green rolling countryside. Hams have been made here since time immemorial. Today production remains small-scale with the notable exception of Sánchez Romero Carvajal, a high-profile export company.
The two other areas, Dehesa de Extremadura and Guijuelo, now operate with PDO quality controls. In Extremadura hams from Montánchez in the Sierra de Caceres have been prized since at least the 17th century. One of their claims to fame was that the pigs from which they were made chased and ate lizards and snakes, which supposedly gave their flesh a special flavour. Saint Simon, the French diarist, noted in his memoirs of a visit to 18th-century Madrid, “Pig hams fed with vipers. Singularly excellent.” The pigs probably had hunted snakes and lizards, but the flavour came from holm-oak acorns, eaten from the ground or the branches of the oak trees. Although today Montánchez’s name is not as widely known as Jabugo, jamón experts sometimes cite it as a favourite for its woody sweetness.
In Guijuelo, the most northerly PDO area, curing started in the 1860s and in the last twenty years production has grown faster than anywhere else…..
Foods from Spain, New York, 2004
When I was commissioned to look at the gastronomic potential of Jerez’s acidic vinegar I found that it often laced soups, pulse stews, and salads in the town’s home kitchens. Commercially, however it had a low profile until the jerezanos began to write a new chapter for vinegars, realising they were hiding a light under a bushel. (3,750 words)
Stand close to the fermenting barrels in a vinegar bodega and you can breathe in gloriously rich, winy, slightly fierce aromas. Not all of the vinegars in the barrels are new. Sherry vinegar has a long-standing word-of-mouth local reputation. Originally made in tiny quantities in each bodega, vinegars were kept for family use and given to the friends and the families of bodega workers, strictly on a spoken grapevine. On this network they were a byword for refinement. “A sublimation of wine that some prosaic people reduce to ‘acetic fermentation’,” was how José Briz, the Andalusian author of Brevario del Gazpacho (1989), chose to sum it up.
But however fine these vinegars, the fact remained that their origins lay in wine picao – that is, sour wine – and, in Jerez, that spelled desprestigio . So, for generations, they remained discreetly unpublicised.
Then, in the 1940s, Antonio Páez Lobato, the son of the owner of a small wine-shop in the barrio of Santiago, began to make Sherry vinegar for sale.
“It was easy then,” he remembers. Now in his eighties, he keeps a twinkle in his eye. “Desprestigio! Nobody else wanted to know.”
This made it easy for him to buy up several hundred barrels of mature Sherry vinegar. Some came from an abandoned wine bodega in Puerto de Santa María, and others from a craft-based fish-canning factory on the Cádiz coast. At the same time he invested in young oxidised wines to feed the mothers-of-vinegar. In this way he laid down a large future production stock within a year. At first he sold his vinegars locally, filling customer’s bottles or flasks from his vinegar barrels, then he sold tankerfuls to French mustard makers and finally, by the 1970s, he began to export the vinegar as he felt it deserved – bottled and branded.
At the same time the old bodega vinegars developed in quiet corners. At González Byass there is a vinegar-making system, La Tanger, which has been maturing for eighty years. At Sanchez Romate, the main production system was put together in 1945, using barrels previously used for maturing sweet, raisiny PX wines and brandy, two of the bodega’s specialities.
But it took another fifty years for the separate worlds of the wine-makers, or bodegueros, and specialist vinegar-makers, or vinagreros, to come together. Finally, in 1995, united by widespread imitation, they formed today’s Sherry vinegar Protected Designation of Origin, tied at the hip to the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry and Manzanilla-Sanlúcar de Barramada wine PDO.
Spain Gourmetour, Madrid, 2003
Why is the Liébana valley so little known? It has everything visitors look for in
undiscovered rural “paradises”: dramatic peaks, history etched in stone, miniature farming landscapes where prize-winning cheese dairies flourish, and small towns where people have time for kindness. Nor is it very far from Cantabria’s regional capital, Santander. Yet it remains somewhere to explore in relative peace, away from the crowds.
“Everything here is good, though small,” wrote Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdos, describing the food he ate on a trip to Liébana in 1879. That La Liébana’s long unbroken history of little cheeses, or quesucos, has survived intact is somewhat miraculous given that elsewhere in Cantabria cheesemakers pioneered 19th-century industrial techniques for making cheese, butter, powdered milk, condensed milk and ice cream. By 1870 Dutch pressed-cheese techniques were being imported into the nearby Valle del Pas; pasteurised-milk cheesemaking was launched by a mountain farmers’ union in 1932; and the widespread purchase of high-yield Fresian cattle after the 1936-39 Civil War paved the way for turning farmhouse queso de nata – a deliciously camembert-like flat pancake of a cheese – into a semi-industrial version now called Queso de Cantabria (PDO).
La Liébana, though, kept to seasonally produced craft cheeses. Why? “In Cantabria there are three types of cheese – industrial, artisanal and domestic,” explains Manuel Arroyo, chemist and cheese scientist, now aged 84, who has dedicated his life to teaching cheesemaking in his home region. “La Liébana’s cheeses are domestic. The idea of making them to sell came very late in the day.”
Quesucos are, indeed, cheeses made with domestic techniques already described in Latin agricultural treatises. La Liébana’s first documented references, under the Latin name casius, appeared in a 10th-century monastic charter listing cheeses as part-payment for a plot of land belonging to San Toribio de Liébana, the valley’s largest monastery. Earlier the Romans had spent eight centuries colonizing the valley, leaving behind peacefully settled fortified hillside villages that were dedicated to shepherding, vegetable-growing and hunting. They were followed by Spanish hermits and later Benedictine monks who built dozens of small hermitages and monasteries, encouraged to do so by Alfonso I, the Cantabrian born 8th-century king who wanted to repopulate the area. The monasteries grew into wealthy centres of learning with large libraries, huge estates and the right to tithe the villages they protected. Their cheese, or casius, was made with milk from their own herds, probably following the methods for Roman fresh, semi-soft and smoked unpressed cheeses. They would also have known blue cheesemaking, first documented in the 8th century in France, when Charlemagne was supposedly served it in a monastery, probably near Roquefort.
The medieval habit of using cheese as a form of currency persisted in La Liébana. In more accessible valleys, like the Valle del Pas, cheeses were already being sold to pilgrims and merchants, but here the isolated valley remained away from commerce until well into this century. Made mainly in spring and summer, the cheeses were eaten sparingly at home, or paid as tithes to landlords, or bartered in exchange for goods or services. Only occasionally, when there was a surplus in spring and summer, were they taken down to the weekly Monday market at Potes for sale. It is a mindset that continues today.
Spain Gourmetour, 2002
For thousands of years Spaniards have been expert sea harvesters. The Celts collected limpets off the rocks and the Basques became legendary cod fishermen in the Faroes and New World. Closer to home, Mediterranean fishermen have netted eel in Valencia’s lagoons, sea-bream in Murcia’s inland Mar Menor and bluefin tuna in Cadiz, while the Cantabrian inshore fleet has landed prime sea bass, sardines and crabs. Most famous, perhaps, are the Galician shellfish collectors who work on rocky headlands and in deeply cut inlets. After Gabriel García Marquez visited Galicia to see his grandmother’s homeland in the early 1980s, he wrote: “We walked through the rain as if through a state of grace, eating shellfish galore, the only live shellfish left in this devastated world….”
Today García Marquez’s words seem so prescient that they must have been informed by news on the ground. But it was to be another two decades before a 1999 government white paper reflected on the way forward for Spain in the face of depleted sea and ocean stocks. Three years later, in 2002, I was asked to research the big picture and join up the dots between the work of researchers on breeding processes, sea-farmers, chefs, fishmongers, and conservationists.
Various things were unexpected, but caught my eye.
One was the difference between Spanish fish-farming and that of other countries for historical and geographical reasons. Research and production in Spain have not focussed on breeding one or two kinds of fish on a large scale, as has happened elsewhere. Rather, the researchers who learn to reproduce a species from egg to final fish have played into local and national demand for variety and regional specialities. This, in turn, has created a huge potential for future growth along a 4,000-km (2,500-mile) coastline with a unique European range of water temperatures. At the same time it has raised a future issue for fulfilling that potential: the research needed to maintain the food-chains involved since the current dependence on fish-meal and fish-oils threatens the sustainability of the principal source, Latin American fisheries in the Pacific.
Secondly, chefs and cooks have been learning to adapt their menus to farmed fish with a realistic approach, which has been encouraging raw sushis and carpaccios and the like. However, in creative gourmet kitchens, where the Spanish shine, the tendency is instead towards a new generation of dishes left simple to showcase the supreme personality and exceptional quality of wild fish, now, more than ever, appreciated as a luxury.
Finally, I was struck by the rarely publicised achievements in creating nature reserves in coastal waters. By 2002 there were already thirteen such areas in the Spanish Mediterranean alone. The first, Tabarca island, close to the Alicante coast, was created in 1988 to protect the local sea-turtle population, the island’s flora and fauna, and its fish breeding stocks. A large underwater wall was built to protect the area from deep fishing nets and old wooden boat hulls were deposited on the seabed to stimulate underwater life. Only two years later fishermen’s catches began to show a marked improvement.
As a result the Islas Columbretes reserve was created in 1990 just off Castellón, north of Valencia, in an area once famed for its spiny lobster catches. Eight years later, when a team of biologists began to study the “reserve effect”, as it is called, they discovered that breeding and the colony-size had already stabilised. Not only this, but the catch of the small-scale inshore fleet allowed to fish around the reserve’s edges had improved, as had that of sedentary larger species like grouper.
In this way, from early small-scale studies on the ground came an important long-term finding: biologists concluded that ideally 10-20% of the coastline needed to be protected from fishing to optimise ecological benefits and artisanal catches
Spain’s cheese terroirs owe their strength of character to geography, accident, pasture, livestock breed and the cheesemakers’ hands. I wanted to emphasize these different aspects in a brief article delving into the cheese world for Spain Gourmetour. (Madrid, 2003-04)
“There is barbecho, or fallow pasture, in spring, then, in summer, comes rastrojo, or wheat stubble,” comments Santiago Altares, of Mancho PDO, describing La Mancha’s seasonal dryland grazing. “Some flocks move to summer uplands and in autumn, after the first rain, new shoots grow through rizia, or barley stubble. By November come the bellotas, or holm-oak acorns, like chocolates or toffees for the sheep: they literally run after them, from tree to tree.”
This is the seasonal cycle of high-fibre dryland grazing, supplemented by cereal, which gives the fatty milk for making Manchego cheese.
But behind the milk lies the livestock producing it: native breeds may define the character of a denomination cheese or small-scale farmhouse-dairy cheeses made by individual producers.
“Livestock breed can be compared to grape variety in wine-making,” says Enric Canut, the Catalan cheese guru. The milk for Manchego comes from Manchega sheep, for Zamora’s hard cheeses from Churras and Castellanas, and for soft and sticky Torta de Casar from Entrefinos and Medinas. Among Spain’s milk goats, there are – to name just a few – Murciano-Granaino, Retinta, Verata, Serrana, Majorero and Palmero. Breed determines not only milk yield, but also chemical characteristics such as protein levels.
Then comes the human hand. The most famous example in our own time is probably thistle-rennet sheep’s-milk torta cheese from westerly Extremadura, which was regarded as a mistake – a cheese gone wrong – until a few decades ago.
“Until the 1980s the shepherds’ families would eat tortas at home,” says Paco Sanchez of La Serena PDO. “They were seen as mistakes.” Today, they are a cult gourmet delicacy and the cheesemakers know exactly how to encourage the protoleic bacteria, once seasonal, which give such a gooey, creamy cheese.
Originally made in La Serena, these tortas are now also found in the Tierra de Barros (Extremadura), Toledo (Castile La Mancha) and Los Pedroches (Andalucia), as producers find markets for what is considered elsewhere as a great European cheese.”
Spain Gourmetour UK / London & Dublin, 2003
When researching this piece on Spanish new-wave chocolate-making I found the largely unwritten Mediterranean chocolate history of the 18th and 19th centuries fascinating. Commerce with the New World had opened gradually from Seville to include first Cadiz and, by 1798, Barcelona, Valencia and six other Spanish ports. There, I found, lay the roots of today’s modern chocolate scene. Researching contemporary chocolate making brought with it a great privilege: interviewing Paco Torreblanca, Spain’s most inspirational cocoa maestro, based in Elda, his home-town in Alicante.
Most Spanish chocolateros continued working by hand long after Coenraad Johannes van Houten patented the Dutch cocoa press in 1828 and Swiss maker Rodolphe Lindt announced in 1879 that he had discovered the conching of chocolate – that is, how to beat it between heavy rollers, so developing the flavour and emulsifying the texture.
The Spanish technology generally remained far simpler: a heavy curved granite stone on legs similar in design to the original Mayan metate. This was heated from below by hot coals while the nibs, or shelled cacao beans, were laboriously ground with a stone roller to a soft paste on top.
Mixed with pounded cane sugar (later, beet sugar), cinnamon and rice flour, the rustic product was named after the stone on which it was made, chocolate a la piedra, and was sold in small cakes or bars designed for dissolving in hot water. Village-to-village muleteeers, called chocolateros or xocolateros, journeyed around large areas of inland Spain selling it. As it became more popular, chocolate was drunk not only at wealthy private parties, but also at public fiestas and as an energy drink during harvesting, sometimes made by the chocolateros.
One craft-making centre, Villajoyosa, a small almond-growing port in Alicante province, grew into a chocolate mecca. Here cocoa was imported, chocolate was produced in craft workshops and sent inland by mule. Later production was mechanized. In one of Barcelona’s most elegant chocolate shops in the old town, Farga, founded in 1827, you can still see a first-generation mill, called a malacata, in working order. Now powered by electricity, it was originally turned by a donkey in the basement.
Dark but sweet in taste, granular and hard in texture, unsoftened by added cocoa butter and undiluted by milk powder, this chocolate a la piedra remained many Spaniards’ first taste of the stuff until well into the 1960s. It is still made by a few Mediterranean Spanish artesans and lingers long in gourmet memories.
“We’d eat it for tea after school with bread and olive oil or sometimes with wine and sugar,” says one of Spain’s great chocolate masters, Alicante-based master pâtissier Paco Torreblanca. “Unforgettable!”
Lookin, Malaga, 1994
Galician friends took me to lunch in Lugo, the region’s Roman-walled provincial capital, to try the percebe at its best, served within a day of harvesting accompanied by a bib to catch spurts of juices, a basket of bread and a glass of Albariño wine. Intriguing for its smooth flesh and intensely flavoured juices, this little black goose-neck barnacle isn’t well known around Europe, but in Spain it’s the most highly prized seafood on the market. I made the journey to the Rías Baixas to meet the perceiberos, or harvesters.
Only since the 1970s, and only in Spain, have percebes become such a prized delicacy, largely due to the growing conditions off the rocky coasts of north-western Galicia, where colonies of percebes flourish in cold, open Atlantic seas. They like the hard-beating, highly oxygenated, iodised waves and wealth of phytoplankton produced by the tidal drop.
Until the 20th century percebes were gathered mainly for fertilizer or as poor man’s food, in some areas being cooked with potatoes. They were sold for a song in the smaller Galician fishing ports. But as shellfish was flown to Madrid every day in the 1970s, demand and prices rose to giddy levels, making harvesting a full-time occupation for those daring enough to do the job. Today, away from the high season at Christmas, percebes cost round 55 euros a kilo.
Working in twos and threes, the percebeiros abseil down cliffs, boat to rocky islets in offshore waters and swim round headlands of one of Europe’s most dangerous coastlines. When they find a barnacle colony ready to harvest they lower one another, tied by safety ropes, to gather the percebes just below the tideline. Around one wave in six is powerful enough to crash the percebeiro against the rocks: at those moments, and with a word of warning, the percebeiro at sea level is lifted above the water’s reach, before being lowered again shortly afterwards.
This is supremely buddy work, demanding agility, physical fitness, courage and loyalty. Inevitably there are deaths. As one Galician put it, “To hunt percebes, you cast your life to the winds like a coin.”
Sunday Telegraph Magazine, London, 1984
Elizabeth Russell taught me to cook. While we students chopped, sliced, made consommés, bread, emulsions and ice-creams, she talked of the food culture of her French childhood, of the years of the Second World War – her husband was a hero of the Resistance – and of post-war England. Her views have influenced not only what I cook but also what I write.
Russell’s cookery school breaks every business rule in the book. She won’t advertise. She refuses to expand. She keeps a strict distance from the press and celebrity food world. But via a steady, slow trickle-down effect in the years before food was fashionable in England, indeed before the word foodie existed, she was a powerfully strong spirit in influential kitchens.
Her classes are built around a carefully considered personal philosophy. As she explains it, “When you are teaching cooking you are not showing skills but a personal approach to food.” In her eyes practical ability must be allied with an understanding of the way people choose to eat, something which may be learned only by much broader study. She reads few cookery books, but many memoirs, biographies, newspapers and novels.
“Take Agatha Christie, for example. Poirot eats one thing with Inspector Japp and something very different with his friend Hastings. That is revealing.” It is an approach resting on an assumption of emotional importance for cooking that many English find hard to acknowledge.
“A good cook can never be considered stupid,” says Russell, “Possibly uneducated in the formal sense of the word, but always intelligent.”
Last of the Independents, London, 2014
Irene Ochando cuts an unusual figure among Castile’s asadores or master-roasters. At Botín, Spain’s most famous asador in Madrid’s old-town, you can watch the broad-backed male roasters shift clay dishes of roast suckling pig in the beehive wood-fired oven. Rarely, however, do you find women roasters, even at gas-fired ovens, which make the work lighter. Irene is a notable exception as she is also a rare example of a roaster whose skills were inherited in a family restaurant.
My grandfather Teodomiro thought this wasn’t a job for women,” says Irene. Dressed in urban black, petite, she wears her long blonde hair in a ponytail for work. It is Sunday morning, the family’s busiest day of the week, and she is seasoning joints of lamb and kid for roasting.
Vicente, Irene’s father, a stonecutter, built today’s restaurant, a squat granite house in the centre of La Cabrera. On the ground floor, behind the dining room, bar and kitchen, is the roasting house. Upstairs is the family home shared by Irene, her Galician husband Sabi and their two children.
“Nobody comments on me being a woman,” says Irene, “although it is true that nobody expects it. The question everyone asks now is why does your meat taste so different?”
The answers lie in earlier rural poverty. Shaggy goats were the only livestock here and their offspring, kid, became the local fiesta dish. Teodomiro bought his roasting kid, or cabrito, from friends and goatherds. Irene still follows his example, buying on a private grapevine from trusted local butchers and farmers. It is the only way she can find mature kid with the right balance of meat to bone.
The slopes behind town provide her second key ingredient, the cistus for firing the oven. Typically here families cooked and heated their homes with brush or scrub. In La Cabrera that meant fragrant cistus (rockrose). Sabi harvests it during two months each year, digging up strips of plants individually by the root to create firebreaks and to allow the rockrose to reseed the following spring.
The third invisible element of Irene’s roasts comes from family skills. Back in the 1930s, when Teodomiro began journeying by mule between sierra villages with clay dishes, lard and garlic stuffed into esparto saddle bags, and the kids to roast for a wedding or fiesta trotting along behind him, he learned every aspect of his multiskilled craft. Today Irene still practices his skills.
“Listen to that…”, she says, beckoning me to the oven. There is a soft, singing hiss and buzz. “That tells me the temperature of the oven and the state of the meat.”
Last of the Independents, London, 2013
Rocío Tapas and Sushi, a restaurant in Málaga, the capital of Andalusia’s Costa del Sol, looks like any tapas bar as you approach it. But once inside, a one-off Asian-Mediterranean gastro-bistro style reveals itself as an example of creativity born from economic crisis.
“It’s not a fusion menu,” says Juan Bautista García Martín emphatically. “That would feel irreverent to me. It’s a double menu.”
Rocio’s Asian-Mediterranean cuisine took shape in 2010. Juan Bautista and his wife María José had met while working at the Gran Gualadpin, a luxury Marbella hotel. While Juan Bautista headed up the Michelin-starred Spanish dining room, Masao Kikuchi, a sushi master who’d originally come from Emperor Hirohito’s palace kitchen, ran the Japanese restaurant. Then came the economic crisis.
By late 2009 María José found herself unemployed so she set up her own tapas bar in tiny premises in an affordable Málaga barrio. Juan Bautista, redundant a few months later, joined her. Masao quickly followed them.
At first they worked 18 hours a day with “very, very economic produce”. An early duckburger paid the rent. “If I say we’ve sold 100,000 of them it’s an understatement,” says JB. This allowed them to move around the corner to a café-style 40-seater dining room and to open evenings only.
“I want to see my children grow up,” explains Juan Bautista. This, then, is a family business.
But it is also one that is generous with its clients. “We want everybody to be able to afford to eat here,” says JB. “It’s for the kind of client who doesn’t mind hard seats.”
Juan Bautista’s style, shaped by an apprenticeship in the kitchen of revered Basque chef Hilario Arbelaitz of Zuberoa, emphasises local produce – surf clams, butter fish, kid, goat’s cheeses and bull’s tail – but also carries ideas from further afield, as in, for example, autumn sacchetti filled with pheasant and wild mushrooms, and served with sweet potato purée.
As Juan Bautista and I talk Masao works silently. He is assembling a Hijaki salad of shredded algae tossed in warm sesame oil. At the heart of the business lies the chefs’ ease in each others’ company, a complete trust. Masao has had problems with his eyes, and Juan Bautista and María José helped him find the surgery he needed. Beyond that they share a food philosophy.
“Japanese cookery, like Basque food,” comments Yumi Amaya, culinary guide in San Sebastián, “reflects reverence for nature, and within that, economy with produce is very important.”
In his rare interviews Masao likes to undo western marketing for sushi invoking the swish of the samurai’s sword. He does so with a simple phrase. “The hand is more important than the knife.”
At the heart of the Rocío’s kitchen there are, then, knives, but more importantly, four hands and a meeting of minds.”
Spain Gourmetour, Madrid, 2002
This project, designed to bring younger Spanish chefs to international attention, involved an unexpected challenge: who to pick? Even with the support of the magazine, and generous space, I couldn’t come close to half of the candidates shining with potential. Once the choice was made, I tried to let the pieces write themselves in both the cameos and introductions. All have remained cooks except for Aitor Elizegi, now chairman of Athletic de Bilbao football club, and Jordi Parramón, who moved sideways into food education.
(with, among others, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Sergi Arola, Elena Arzak, Quique Dacosta, Aitor Elizegi, Ramón Freixa, José Carlos García Ortiz, Isaac Salaberria, Jordi Parramón, Pepe Rodríguez Rey, Marcelo Tejedor, José Antonio Campoviejo, Francis Paniego, Aizpea Ohiander and Xavier Diaz.)
Herbs (Journal of the Herb Society), London, 1997
The Romans are said to have prepared the earliest Andalusian ajos blancos, nutritional white gazpachos punchy with their pounded raw garlic, almonds, vinegar and bread. Later, however, in al-Andalus’s more refined cookery, garlic’s flavours were softened, often by lemon juice and almond milk, and raw garlic was avoided, especially in urban life. As I researched this article I discovered Muslim culinary values predominating over Roman ones in Spanish court cookery till early modern times. They may also help explain the very varied garlic techniques that play with its subtle, as opposed to its louder, flavours.
Medieval caution with “the stinking rose”, as the Greeks called it, was enshrined in the peninsula’s courtly etiquette. In 1368 Alfonso XI, king of Castile and Leon, founded a knight’s order forbidding garlic-eating at pain of a month’s banishment from court. Indicatively the order survived until the 18th century when it was dissolved by French-born Philip V, the first of the Bourbon dynasty. Earlier Isabel of Castile is also said to have refused garlic, and certainly, from the 14th to the 17th centuries, Catalan and Castilian courtly manuscripts and cookbooks, from the Libre de Sent Sovi to Martinez Montiño’s baroque Arte de cocina, pastelería, bizcochería y conservería (1611), limited garlic’s use to specific dishes, advising caution, and even that cooks should seek permission before adding it to dishes. Garlicky breath was badly seen, but probably not so much for its smell as its evidence of low-status eating.
Only when Juan Altamiras, the Franciscan friary cook, defended popular gastronomy’s flavours in his 1745 anthology did garlic really earn its place in Spanish cookbooks. Altamiras used it cleverly, whole and sliced, showing knowledge of half a dozen different techniques allowing cooks to tweak its flavour from subtle to soft to loud.
Spain Gourmetour, Madrid, 1993
If you were to explore Spanish rice culture in worldwide delis and gourmet restaurants, you wouldn’t be blamed for believing the story offered: short-grain rice and paella. By paella I mean the large, round flat cooking pan, the recipe and the rice dish cooked in it. Yet paella is in reality the catch-all favourite modern set-piece sitting atop a complex culture of hundreds of dishes stimulated by hunger and improvisation. In this essay I wanted to open up those hidden complexities, developed by everyday creative cooks, and I wanted to profile the long continuities underlying Spanish rice cooks’ expertise. This is a short excerpt from the essay.
Spanish rice dishes, with few exceptions, take their cue from one idea: the rice grain as a sponge for the flavours of accompanying ingredients, liquid or solid.
From this piece of wisdom, planted by Arabs in kitchens alongside the short-grain (japónica) rices in their paddies, medieval and early modern rice cookery developed in two different areas of life. Court recipes used fine white rice to suck up sweet flavours in menjar blanc, a sweetened milk and stock cream thickened by rice flour, and in arroz con leche, the milky sweet rice similar to that found in many medieval European culinary cultures. Their whiteness, as in other cultures, made them sacred dishes.
On the other hand, the eastern Mediterranean’s – Levante’s – popular rice cuisine grew from hand-to-mouth Muslim and morisco cooking based on partially husked – that is, semi-wholegrain – rice flavoured with whatever was hunted, fished or turned up by chance near the paddies: originally, small bits of water-rat, snails, eels, duck and rabbit. Two rice types were planted in these centuries, one upland in river valleys, for example, around Xátiva, Orihuela and Calasparra in the Segura valley, and Córdoba and Sevilla in the Guadalquivir; the other in coastal wetlands in Mallorca, near Gerona, Denia, and Valencia.
With an 18th-century splurge in rice cultivation in coastal wetlands, the lowland varieties predominated, and dishes multiplied to become uncountable in number. “Be it for the climate or complexion of the inhabitants,” wrote an astonished Ministry of Finance official in the 18C, following a visit to Valencia, “neither the workers nor the artistans can suffer the fatigue of their labours unless they have this food. A family of five persons maintains itself with a pound of rice, which costs them from four to five quartos: it is condimented in half an hour. The poor man using four garlics and a little oyle, those of middle income with lard and scraps of pork, and those of means with kid, hare or chicken, all are equally fed.”
From such everyday family improvisations – not only then but right through the 20th century – rice recipes grew to fill the seasons, to mark secular and religious feastdays, and to prevent boredom settling in when rice was eaten every day.
There are still rices for winter and summer, for Lent and Christmas, for the top of the stove and the oven, and varying in flavouring ingredients from one geographical pocket to another, but when Spaniards talk of rice dishes, they tend to emphasize two key underlying characteristics of a dish: the pot or pan it’s cooked in, and the finished consistency of the rice: seco (dry), often with a socorrat or browned crunchy base, caldoso (wet or soupy), or meloso (syrupy, with a thickened liquid clinging to the grains). Behind the fame of paella, on the ground these families of rice dishes remain as alive as ever, thanks to chefs, home cooks and growers who have spearheaded the revival of the old, highly absorbent upland varieties, like Bomba, which allow tricky older dishes to be made at their best.
Once you’ve sampled a few of these dishes, various dozen in number, it’s hard to see how and why people haven’t ventured beyond paella, which emerged as we know it today in the 19th century, initially as a symbol of regional pride to be celebrated in plays and even poetry. “A liberal dish in which a grain is a grain, as each man is a vote” wrote José María Pemán in the 20th century. From there it became a dish made all round Spain, one of a small group that could genuinely be called “national”, in the opinion of masterly food historian Eloy Terrón.
Much later, from the 1960s, paella became a financial asset for colour-loving tourists, one of supreme marketing power and decades of promotional use, often institutional. This is not, in any way to deny the local and protective enthusiasm for the real article, a subject on which purists take issue with new-wave provocateurs. The furious email debate triggered by Jamie Oliver’s version of paella in 2016 is perhaps the best evidence. So, too, is the fascination with scale. Valencians have looked keenly to set world-records: for example in March 1992, the year of celebrations for entering the EU, Antonio Galbis set the record with a paella for 100,000 cooked in Valencia. To ensure this could not be dismissed, he repeated his feat in Madrid in 2001 with a paella for 110,000 people./span>
Sunday Telegraph Magazine, London, 1986
French chefs were beginning to play with seaweed in 1986 when I wrote this article, my first one published in a colour supplement, but it was to be another decade before agar agar became the basis for Adrià’s hot gelatines and foams, and even today, thirty years later, there is much still to be discoverd in algae in the kitchen: who, for example, will capture the full aromas of the sea’s greenery?
Eating seaweed is not new. Its potential has long been evident in the Far East where the seaweed industry has an annual turnover of more than $600 million and kombu, or kelp, is a staple of Japanese and Korean cuisines.
Sold fresh, piled high in frondy mountains in the markets, kombu may be bought as strips, sheets or shreds cut from compressed dried blocks. In China, where 2 million tons of seaweed are harvested every year, it’s a standard flavouring for all kinds of food from rice to crisps.
Seaweed’s also had its brief moments in Britain, of course: for example in Regency Bath where the rich ate it as a medicinal food.
But habits are slow to change and in modern times it has hovered in that curious no man’s land dividing worthy from desirable foods. It’s a curiously tough no man’s land, and very hard for any ingredient to cross.
El Exportador, ICEX, March 2006
In 2005 El Exportador magazine asked me to make a whistle-stop tour of Europe’s food capitals – Milan, Paris, Stockholm, Zurich, London – then analyse guru food buyers’ opinions in a piece useful to Spanish producers. I found the buyers fascinating as a breed of makers and shakers. Nearly all had been social floaters, culture vultures and food lovers before turning their observant skills and taste-buds into a (risky) source of livelihood. This short excerpt from the essay, later reprinted as a supplement for Barcelona’s food fair, Alimentaria, in 2006, focusses on the buyers’ views of Italy. Their universal respect for Italian food culture initially surprised me, but their reasons illuminated all kinds of cross-cultural engagement and, even today, give an encouraging view of the market’s workings. Why not follow good practice?
In the potential success of any newly exported food product or produce, gastronomic cultural backdrop is a key factor. All the economists involved in the sector know this. As Michel Budai, advisor in the Parisian Spanish Embassy’s team [in 2014] put it to me, Spanish producers needed to think where their products sit between Italy’s gourmet pastas and Himalayan salt.
This is a tough message since gastronomic backdrops cannot be created overnight. Writing in Le Goût du Nouveau, Origines de la modernité alimentaire (1989) Alberto Capatti described France’s success this way. “They sell a style perfected during centuries of research and now made financially viable thanks to restaurant menus.” One can apply a similar argument to Japanese and Thai cooking: their products, little known in Europe decades ago, fresh or preserved, emerge from cuisines with a centuries-old reverence for nature and they have reached consumers by well-coordinated restaurant experiences.
Spain does not yet fit into that category, as various chefs and buyers emphatically explained to me during my journeys. While the 2003 New York Times cover story on Ferran Adrià was a marketing stroke of genius, it did not mean many people had access to modern Spanish cookery at its best, as developed on home ground since 1976. Michelin-starred Swedish chef Matthias Dahlgren, who has spent time cooking in Spain, told me that he found remarkably few of his gourmet clients knew of its signs of identity, products and flavours and even fewer had sampled them.
In this context buyers everywhere agree they look to the Italian gastronomic model. “Around 90% of our Mediterranean products are Italian,” affirms Jim Wadhagen, buyer for Martin Olsson, a Stockholm-based business providing foods to Swedish restaurants since the early 20th century, with a 210 million euro annual turnover in 2016. [In 2011 they successfully merged with a complementary services company, Servera.]
“Italian gastronomy is recognised, it has natural forms of cultural branding and is well protected by the Italian PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) labels,” he comments.
In 2006, Italy had 153 such quality labels, France 147, Spain 92 and Greece 84. In 2022 Italy’s lead has further advanced: it has 324 such quality labels and next in line comes France, with 271.
“The Italians have done the work that matters,” he explains, adding detail. High-profile PDOs like Parmigiano Reggiano and Modena vinegar have incorporated additional quality criteria based on tastings and maturity or vintage, and successfully defended themselves from fraudulent products. Providing these kind of credible guarantees and go-to information, they pick up extensive support, not only in Europe, but also in the USA.
“It isn’t just the Italian products’ immaculate cvs”, agrees Tim Taylor, once buyer for Terence Conran’s Bluebird store and in 2006 adviser for Sainsbury supermarkets’ inner-city pilot projects in London. “They also have authentic local heroes like Antonio Carlucci, who’ve worked away for decades independent from national branding. Young chefs respect those kind of cooks and the products they endorse.” Various buyers also nod to the resonance of the Slow Food movement, founded by Carlos Petrini in Bra in 1989. Working in a worldwide context, it avoids regional, country or continental closed-shop mentalities.
Overlaying those foundations, Italian products’ eye-appeal wins affections. If Spaniards lean towards economic and industrial simplicity, sticking to home-market aesthetics, Italians express bella figura to the world via handmade chemical-free papers, natural strings, cloth ribbons, canvas covers, and hand-blown glass, materials coherent with artesanal foods’ values. If Italian nougat and Spanish turrón wrappings are compared, for example, one sees immediately why Italian design earns so much eye-level-buy-level space on delicatessen shelves. Even for consumers who don’t buy, they light up a visit to the shops, and for those who do, it’s economic kitchen decor.
The final intangible in Italy’s winning hand is business style. “The Italian food producers are very communicative and welcoming. They invite buyers and journalists to visit them, the invitations are flexible, they have others’ expenses in mind, they design interesting events and they offer sensational printed catalogues and digitalised information. In general they make things a pleasure,” says Anne Lamaing of Lafayette Gourmet, Paris. She is a strong supporter of Spanish cuisine. Nearly all buyers comment on this fluidity and directness of Italian communication. Allowances were made for cultural insecurity in the early years of the democracy, but Spain’s loud national branding is not always helpful to producers alongside the spontaneous humility of other gourmet cultures.
One example. “You don’t always need to be well-financed, have a large advertising budget or export team,” says Lionel Pasquer, of Hédiard, the Parisian gourmet sanctuary par excellence. “For example, a producer came by here one day on his motorbike and left us a bottle of wonderful olive oil as a promotional present. Now we sell it.
The Balearics, Insight Guide London 1989
At the time of my 1988 visit to Mallorca, Palma’s restaurants were as cosmopolitan as those of Madrid. One could sample French or Thai cooking and there was plenty of choice from regional Spain, especially Galicia and the Basque Country. Burger joints also abounded, but there were no restaurants specialising in local food: Mallorcans had to drive me to villages to sample the wonderful bread soups, almost disappeared elsewhere in Spain. However, digging around in shops and markets allowed me to try a few local specialities.
One way of eating local food cheaply and well in Palma is to buy and feast on local products. The most famous of these, sobrasada, a finely chopped, mixed sausage of seasoned pure pork tinted red by pimentón pepper, mild or spicy, is at its best as a soft spread made from prime cuts of black pigs fattened for flavour on beans, barley, figs and prickly pears and turned into sausages during a family matanza, or pig killing. Sometimes family sausage-making may be done for sale of the final product, and it is worth searching for this hand-crafted sobrasada. If you are lucky you may also find it in tapas and snacks with honey, a favourite local flavour combination.
A second Mallorcan speciality beloved by Spaniards is the ensaimada, a puffy spiral of lard-enriched yeastbread dusted by icing sugar, as small as a croissant or as large as a lifebelt. Larger versions are carried respectfully in purpose-made boxes like those for wide-brimmed hats. According to locals, the secret of a good ensaimada’s feathery light, meltingly soft textures rests in the combination of the island’s very pure pork fat, the slightly hard local water with a natural touch of salt, and the humid climate. The dough’s fatty blandness is an acquired taste, especially good when dunked in coffee or drinking chocolate. If you fly from Palma airport you’re likely to see Spanish ensaimada fans flying home with string-tied stacks of the boxed version as hand-luggage.
More info coming soon.
The Broadsheet, Madrid, 2002
A children’s hard-ball lollipop may not seem a likely starting point for a global brand. But Chupa Chups’ growth shows how a canny eye for product design, an ability to surf sociological trends and watchful family management can be worth more than a marketing strategy.
When the first Chups – so-called from the Spanish chupar, to lick or suck – was launched in 1958 it had little glamour, but it offered everything a child might want. It was a 13-gram lolly, small enough for comfortable sucking, double-wrapped in robust cellophane and anchored on an unbreakable polypropolene stick. In 1969 came the Salvador Dali daisy logo, which ushered in a twenty-year export drive and worldwide manufacturing from China to Mexico.
None of that, however, suggested the leap into the adult market which came in the 1990s.
“That repositioning was a question of spotting sociological trends,” says Xavier Bernat, president of the company today. “The falling birthrate, the breakdown of stereotyped generational behaviour, the search for cigarette substitutes, and the phenomenon of young adults setting market-wide trends all pointed us in the right direction.”
On the one hand the group launched Smints fresh-breath mini-mints, with an anti-dental caries agent.
At the same time Chupa “celebrity suckers”, lollipop in mouth, began to appear in press images worldwide. Mariah Carey followed Madonna and Leonardo di Caprio; soccer-stars from Barcelona’s and France’s dream-teams joined in; top models on the Paris and Milan runways used them as a fun accessory, and even the cosmonauts had them on board the Russian spaceship Mir. Very few of the celebrities were paid and the logo rarely, if ever showed, but the pop’s unique shape and stick were enough to identify the product as a cigarette-substitute, so sidestepping candy’s anti-health image.
Chupa Chups even came to be sold in gyms as well as dance-clubs and by 1999 around 23% of them were bought by “big kids”: teens and young adults.
(Epilogue: Chupa Chups was bought by confectionery giant Perfetti Van Melle in 2006.)
To read the article in full go to: Nadal: Galician Christmas.
The Guardian, London, 1989
Some of my earliest food features were written for The Guardian at a time when the erudite and witty Christopher Driver edited the food pages with a forward-looking, very wide definition of food culture. This article, provoked by a government watchdog report on food additives, looked at the blurred line between natural and artificial foods. Here is a brief excerpt.
On more familiar territory, the committee has tried to deal with the thorny problem of confusion regarding food labelling. A recent Presto supermarket survey, for example, showed that 40 per cent of housewives identified “natural” foods as those with no additives although infact nature-identical flavourings and colourings can be included. Meanwhile, consumer groups have been so successful in lobbying against artificial additives that the average consumer has come to think “natural” on a packet means pure and healthy while “artificial” means blacklisted.
In reality, food manufacturers have been switching to nature-identical colours and flavourings which still allow them to flash up the word “natural” on packaging. The Food Advisory Committee’s concern here is not simply that the public is being misled, but, far more important, that buyers are not aware of health risks in nature-identical colours. They are relatively untested and often used in far larger quantities than the artificial colours of which we are wary, so the Commitee has recommended the need for them to be fully tested and for their labelling to be looked at….
Despite the report challenging our image of “natural” and “artificial”, and highlighting the double standards in the way the terms are bandied around, it reflects some conservatism given today’s consumer preferences.
“Along with taste, aroma and texture, appearance and especially colour do play an important part in our enjoyment of food,” said the Committee’s chairman.
Few would feel differently, but is the answer necessarily added colour?
Journal of the International Wine and Food Society London, 1988
In the mid-1980s, when I began to write on Spanish food, Euskadi’s experimental contemporary cookery, and its backstory, were barely on London gourmets’ radar. This in itself was a good reason to delve into their present and past, inspired by Basque friends in London and Donostia (San Sebastian).
Looked at in its places of origin, Basque cooking is an amalgam of many cuisines, just as today’s Euskera, the region’s language, is a standardised mix of its dialects. Centuries ago, when poor roads made for slow journeying through mountainous terrain, dishes varied from one caserío (or farmhouse) to the next. Now divisions are, curiously, often described by gastronomic writers as those of the region’s old bishoprics: the coast of the Spanish provinces, the Laburdan or French coast, the Spanish tierras medias with good farming soil but within reach of the sea, the mountains, and the fertile warmer region of Navarre.
You often hear or read that dishes here are age-old – “lo hacemos desde siempre” – but historians’ research suggests many Basque techniques and recipes evolved in the last four hundred years. A good example would be kokotxas al pil-pil, hake’s cheeks in juices bound by the fish’s gelatine. An everyday fisherman’s dish, which moved from the boats to kitchens on land early in the 20th century, its earlier timeline, like much oral food history, is not entirely clear.
This continual evolution is the reality behind false notions of “tradition”. Hence the rich, varied, rolling repertoire. There are few features shared with French-Basque cooking: a preference for butter and a wide range of herbs may be compared with the Spanish Basque preference for olive oil, for sauces developed from cooking juices, and for gentle use of garlic, parsley, salt and pepper – plus cinnamon in sweet dishes. Butter and cream were largely alien until nueva cocina arrived at an opening dinner in December 1976, conceived as a planned movement following in the footsteps of Paul Bocuse. From 1977 a group of chefs from Guipuzkoa, later dubbed “los once magnificos” by food writer Luis Bettonica, met regularly to talk and try their new dishes. In retrospect this may be directly identified as the starting point of Spanish avant-garde cuisine and its steady development and growing influence ever since. It is not coincidental that the Nordic Food Movement, which in 2004 launched a world-leading cluster of pioneering restaurants, also launched with a small gathering of chefs and a formal ten-point manifesto not dissimilar in structure to those of nouvelle cuisine, nueva cocina vasca and Ferran’s Adrià’s decalogue.
Spain Gourmetour, Madrid, 1999
How did Spanish olive-oil makers learn to make the most of the exceptional range of olive varieties growing around the country? Scientists, tasters, producers and chefs were all involved, as I discovered while researching and writing this piece.
The quickest short-hand for understanding varietal oils is via wine tasting. Recently, for example, Sam Gugino of The Wine Spectator suggested a likeness between Jaen’s “assertively grassy” Picual oils and the Loire Valley’s Sauvignon Blanc wines.
Scientists support this tasting comparison. Marino Uceda, the agronomist whose team characterises varietals at Venta del Llano, the oldest olive-oil research station in Spain, breaks the term ‘fruity’, for example, into eighteen different flavour-notes, among them nettle, blackberry, mint, acorn, fig-tree, banana, raspberry and tomato – by the way, leaf, fruit and plant are different notes. There are also, of course, the more familiar apple and new-mown grass. As this kind of analysis catches on, a sense of what ‘variety’ in olive oils means begins to sink in.
Underlying this, there is another link between the emergence of the new Spanish wines and oils. The romantic vision of old-fashioned picking and pressing lingers, but high-speed modern stainless-steel technology has been the key to developing grapes’ and olives’ aromas and tastes with new precision and clarity.
“The speed of pressing enabled by new technology has given a leap in quality,” explains ‘flying’ olive oil-maker Gerardo Jiménez Luque, who composes half a dozen Andalusian oils for export clients. “The freshness of the pressed olive allows the oil to keep its flavour and aroma subtleties.”
However, there are differences between wines and oils. One, olive oils never improve with age. Indeed, the flavour of some initially superb oils wanes within weeks of pressing. Two, an olive oil’s quality is relative to its uses – and there are many of them.
“The old idea that we can have one olive oil for everything in the kitchen just cannot be,” says world-renowned Catalan chef Ferran Adrià. “We need one or maybe several for raw use, another for frying, another for sauces, another for the hotplate, and so on.”
Spain Gourmetour, Madrid, 1999-2000
Twenty-six years after the first Spanish olive-oil terroir won Protected Denomination of Origin status, seven demarcated growing areas in Andalusia, Castilla-La Mancha and Catalonia were revolutionising Spanish oil making. I was asked to write a bird’s eye history and panorama, explaining and honouring their achievement. But far more fascinating was the second part of the commission: to research new directions for the future. This took me to the Venta del Llano, in Mengibar, where I was lucky enough to meet Marino Uceda, a hidden guru figure in the evolution of Spanish oil: he designed the world’s first gourmet tasting system for olive oil, searching not for its defects but its flavour notes and aromas, and tutored many oil-makers.
Close to Córdoba’s university stands a large field of olives. At first sight it may look like any olive grove swallowed up by a city – infact, it fills the space of an early botanical garden – but if you look at the trees closely some are small and stocky, others have spindly or bulbous trunks, and yet others are bushy with full, leafy boughs curving down to the ground.
This is the world’s largest collection of olive varieties, known originally as the Banco Mundial de Germoplasma de Olivo and now as the Colección Mundial de Variedades de Olivo. In 2001 it contained 408 varieties and now, in 2022, it is officially home to 668, of which 262 are Spanish varieties still being grown today. Although the native inventory finished fifteen years ago, new varieties are added annually as they’re sent in from around the world. Four specimens of each variety, two irrigated and two grown in dryland conditions, are held by the collection.
“The idea of the collection is to safeguard the olive family’s diversity in case it is threatened through disease or natural disaster, and to provide a research resource for genetic improvement and other work,” explains Professor Juan Caballero, who shaped the project from its inception at INIA (Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria).
Once a new arrival reaches fruit-bearing age, a sample harvest is sent to the Venta del Llano, a research station in Mengíbar, Jaén, founded in 1905. There the oil is pressed in a miniature mill, characterised and panel-tasted. Each taster’s oil is warmed to 28°C/ 82°F in a small blue glass cup to disguise the colour; there can be no communication between the panel of ten tasters, to ensure their independence of opinion. Only five oils are tasted a day. Some two dozen flavour notes – ranging from the basics like bitter and sweet to tastes like mint, tomato, nettle and blackcurrant – are noted and the results collated. This profiling of flavours, aromas and chemical analyses are then the basis for identifying denomination oils and designing assemblage oils like those of fine blended wines.
“I want to answer a couple of questions,” explains Marino Uceda, agronomist and researcher. Born among Jaén’s mountain olive groves, he had studied olive oil for over twenty years when I met him. “Firstly, what importance does variety have in the composition and flavour of different oils? And, secondly, how does that relate to the growing environment? My starting point was to think of oil in the same way that we think of wine.”
Uceda first posed his questions as a post-doctoral student in the mid-1970s. Always based at the Venta del Llano research station, he has worked with a team of nine biologists, agronomists, chemists and engineers who use chemical analysis, photospectometry, air injection and positive flavour-note tasting to characterize the varietal oils from growing areas, analyse and compare them.
“It is horribly slow work,” he explains. “We need generations of research to know how environment fully shapes an oil’s character. But certain things are clear. Geography and climate are key determinants. Drought can stress a tree, and make oil very sharp in the throat. Temperature changes can develop olives’ flavour. Now we are just beginning to research the effect of different soils, dampness, surrounding crops and so on. That’ll be the next area opening up new horizons.”
Meanwhile, Mengibar’s researchers are experimenting with leaf analysis, different varieties’ plasticity, the effect of temperature during pressing, and – a recent development – the aromatic oils giving each olive’s oil character.
Before I leave, Uceda pours three oils from varieties grown in different regions into glass beakers. We taste each separately – one is very big, the other a little bland, and the final one strong and peppery. From these he blends an assemblage. As he lifts the beaker to taste it, he toasts the future. “To the next generation of makers.
Spain Gourmetour, Madrid, 2005
Commissioned as a brief history of olive oil since 1985, this piece grew into a homage to the olive-oil community. If written now, the perspective would be different: we stand at a pivotal moment when olive growing is set to be revolutionised by climate change.
“Twenty years is not so long in the life of an olive tree. Maybe it’s eight to ten years of a human life,” reckons Francisco Núñez de Prado. His family has been making extra-virgin oil in Cordoba’s rolling hills for two centuries.
In those first twenty years of life a young olive plant grows from a waist-high stripling into an orchard tree bearing shiny, ripe fruit: “the perfect capsule”, as poet Pablo Neruda described it, with a personality revealed through its fruit juice and oil. Grassy or fruity, buttery or earthy, pungent, lemony or smoky, it may have one of many different characters.
But aged twenty, an olive tree is only just reaching maturity. For another sixty or hundred years, at the least, it gives a full crop.
The fruit-producing trees on the Núñez de Prado estate, for example, are up to two centuries old; they are young by comparison with Jaen’s, Aragon’s and Catalonia’s spider-branched trees, which give hundreds of kilos of fruit each harvest after two millenia of life.
(Epilogue: Francisco Núñez Prado was a discreet man ahead of his time and a key figure in establishing estate olive oils. He died in 2020).
Spain Gourmetour Madrid, 1994
“A taste older than meat, older than wine,” wrote English novelist Lawrence Durrell of the earthy bitterness of a cured olive. “A taste as old as cold water….”
The most curious thing about Spanish recipes for marinated olives is their ability to resist commercialisation. Ranging from the very plain to full-on brined fruitness scattered with flavourings, they need to be tried on home territory if you want a full spread of flavours.
Cracked olives, called aceitunas partidas, are especially typical of Andalusia, where they’re also known as machacadas. Here, especially in Jaen, where neatly groomed olive groves roll away as far as the eye can see, recipes are generally built around a base of crushed or whole raw garlic cloves and oregano. In Extremadura you may find specks of smoked red pimentón and in the Balearics bits of sea fennel and lemon. In Teruel province, in Aragon, the olive can be left on the tree till very ripe, wrinkled and blackened. It’s then dried in the sun and salted to give a nutty, very oily olive best eaten within a month or two. In Seville, where the same dried method is used for home-cured olives, a little garlic or chilli pepper may be added to the salt.
Why, then, are these olives rarely found as a full range beyond their home territory? Brining and curing containers have evolved, from earthenware to wood, and plastic to glass, but the processes involved are as yet little modernised, meaning that the recipes guarantee flavour and character, but not the stability food products need if they’re going to be long-keeping and good journeyers.
“The research possibilities are just beginning to reveal themselves,” comments food bio-technologist Luis Rehano of the Instituto de Grasas in Seville. There scientists follow two main avenues of investigation. “One is removing bitterness by combining alkaline treatment and brining – lactic and yeast fermentation respectively – to eliminate the chance of secondary fermentation during the usual slow (even year-long) leeching of bitterness in water. The olives can then be mildly acidified or, for absolute security, very gently pasteurised. The second avenue is to replace a proportion of the most volatile favourings with natural essential oils.”
Until the results of this research are more widely applied, craft-marinated olives are likely to remain one of Spain’s few foods that you can only try at their best in the landscapes where they are made.
Spain Gourmetour Madrid, 1996
Orange trees had been growing in Iberia for a thousand years by the time Spain’s first commercial orange grove was planted in 1781 in the Valencian region. Around that has grown a vast orange garden, as Rose Macaulay called it, but with distinct modern features: scientific orangeries where 21st-century varieties are designed and developed; export-driven planting; and the word’s first perishable fruit futures market, the Mercado de Futuros de Cítricos, which opened in Valencia city in 1995.
Valencia’s lush, orange-growing smallholdings look deceptively calm, whether you drive through them on motorways or small side-roads, but mutability has been the key to their survival. Only by shifting varieties half a dozen times in fifty years have orange producers managed to keep consumers content.
Infact, varietal switches have always set the pace in the growth of the orange groves, but never before have the changes come at such speed. When Citrus Aurantium L, the bitter orange, arrived in al-Andalus from the 7th century, it was one among many food plants in the “green revolution” bringing eastern Mediterranean agriculture westwards. From that came a further diaspora in the Christian medieval centuries, well recorded at the top of society. One potted bitter orange tree was taken north by Eleanor of Castile to the Duke of Bourbon in 1523, and from there found its way to Fontainebleau. Seeds were carried to the Caribbean and planted by Columbus in 1493. From each one-off migration came new celebrations of the fruit: in Fontainebleau, the famous orangerie; in the Caribbean, inspiration for curaçao liqueur; and back home in Spain, sugared crystallized orange rind, orange marzipan and medicinal bitter orange jam. Today, still, bitter-orange trees grace the streets of Andalusian cities’ old barrios and monastery patios.
But it was only when fully sweet varieties (Citrus sinensis) arrived from the far-east, brought by the Portuguese in the 1520s-30s, that the fruit moved into the mainstream. Initially grown along roadsides and in kitchen gardens, these naturally sweet so-called China oranges threw up improved local subvarieties like the juice-rich “blonde” orange Salustiana, still commercially grown today, and appreciated for the sweet and acid balance special to older varieties.
Three centuries later, as commercial groves began to spread in the 19th century and growers learnt to graft shoots on to rootstock – of citrons, lemons or bitter oranges – the pace of change accelerated. Seedlings’ variety could now easily be switched and back to full fruit production within a decade. In 1910 Washington Navel, the first pip-free orange with juicily sweet flesh, arrived in Valencia from Bahía, Brazil, and its subvarieties like Navelina, Navelate, Lanelate and Newhall began to fill the 20th-century groves.
Today, the planting scenario has changed again as loose-skin, pip-free mandarins appeal for easy in-hand eating, but, following years of economic crisis there’s been a landmark change. New varieties no longer come from elsewhere. Now they are developed at the region’s orangery and its research institute, IVIA, set up in 1982, since when 700 disease-free hybrid varieties have been developed. Orange growers were also among Spain’s first producers to learn to survive by offering farm-to-table deliveries of crated fruit sold on line. In this way they have financed their own switch to an organic market far wider than could ever have been achieved in retail shops.
Irish Food and Wine, Dublin, 1984
Only in the 1970s did piquillo peppers leap from little known local variety to gourmet speciality, but then, within twenty years, they made a winning long-jump to worldwide success. Three factors lay behind that leap. I wanted to explain these as well as the synergy between them in this commissioned article.
One reason for piquillos’ worldwide success was their reliability as a stock-cupboard purchase. Long before they won fame, they had been sold fully prepared in durable jars or tins in which their flavour improved over time. Secondly, alluring piquillo recipes had been developed by Basque chefs, new contemporary stars who were turning their hand to local foods. Martin Berasategui’s lasagne layering the roasted peppers between other kitchen-garden produce was one example. Ramón Roteta’s shellfish-stuffed piquillos was another. It launched a thousand tapas, first in Spain then in the wider world.
The third and most important factor, however, was the long intergenerational history of varietal selection. The small, triangular piquillo pepper, with an identifying quiff at the base, a thin-skin and a sweet ruby-red piquant flesh, emerged as a local variety in the 19th century, but was grown only in small patches. It was these growers, preserving small quantities for family use, who developed the preserving method.
“They are put over the wood embers and turned until soft,” explained Francisco Javier Arraiza of piquillos in a 1930s collection of Navarrese recipes. “Once removed, they are wrapped in a cloth and left for ten minutes, the skin is lifted off and the seeds removed.”
By chance, since the peppers weren’t discovered by the wider world, the old-fashioned preserving was to remain intact till the 1970s.
As piquillo cultivation grew in scale, so, too, did the roasting operation at harvest time. Huge improvised metal drums turning like slowly spinning hamster-wheels over wood-fires contain the roasting peppers. Aficionados look for tell-tale roasting evidence: tiny black flecks cling to the flesh after deft practised hands have rubbed away the cooled pepper’s charred skin. This explains the rich, smoky-sweet aroma hanging in the air in piquillo preservers’ roasting sheds, a tell-tell whiff repeated more mildly when you open the jars or tins anywhere in the world and warm them slowly in a frying pan.
Spain Gourmetour, Madrid, 2003Just after the turn of the century Spain Gourmetour asked me to research and write a long-read piece on Madrid’s tapas. It gave me a chance to delve into the largely unwritten back-story of a spontaneous food culture.
A proverb runs ‘Madrid, ciudad bravilla, entre antiguas y modernas, tenía tres cientas tavernas y una sola librería’. ‘Madrid, brave little city, counting old and new, had 300 taverns and only one bookshop.’
This was no exaggeration. By the end of the 17th century over 350 licensed taverns were documented: among them a hundred were run by women and thirty held the right to call themselves ‘royal taverns’. Three centuries later, in the year 2000, the town-hall statistics showed an urban population supporting an astounding 29,998 bars – one for every hundred inhabitants.
Not bad. Rumour has it that it is the highest rate of bars per capita in a European capital city.
However, in Madrid a bar is rarely just a bar. It may be a tavern, still known as a tasca or taberna, with an old zinc or marble bar, vermouth and soda on tap, a tiny dining room at the back, and signs prohibiting spitting, dancing and singing, reminders of lively times long ago. A few taverns hold a place in political history. Clients of Casa Labra, just off the Puerta del Sol, go not just for its deep-fried salt-cod, but also to revisit the place where the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party was founded in 1898.
A bar might also be a bodega, a cellar where wine was once served from barrels lined up against splashproof 19th-century tiled walls, or it may be a cervecería, that is, a beer bar, where the tapas are lined up on a long, stainless-steel bar under a glass cover.
Alternatively a bar may take its name from food specialities. There are, for example, the freiduría, dedicated to frying, the marisquería, or shellfish-bar, and the pulpería, or octopus bar. The latter two are usually owned by Galicians who serve seafood from their home region and hang football pennants on the wall. Nor should one overlook the market bar run by early-risers who work wonders with a small two-foot square plancha (flat griddle).
Last but not least comes the multi-purpose barrio bar, a dignified institution where neighbours talk, argue, play cards, grab a coffee, watch big football matches and satisfy quick pangs of thirst and hunger at any moment of the day or evening.
What many of these bars share is a common denominator on their menus, the tortilla, or Spanish potato omelette, and the everyday rituals of vertical eating and drinking. Clients happily pack close together in bars as the noise level climbs, pushing conversation ever louder.
Spain Gourmetour, Madrid, 1996
Spain was the first European country where capsicum peppers were used to make a powdered spice, deep red and dusty, called pimentón after the peppers’ name pimientos. Yet it has been curiously overlooked as a culinary invention, perhaps because a younger cousin, paprika, jumped from Hungarian cooking into German recipe books as a seasoning for gulash, and from there grabbed the 20th century market. Recently however pimentón is coming into its own, its quality helped along by the old ways of stone-milling. Today, if you visit La Vera, west of Madrid, pimentón-making’s earliest scenarios are still intact.
La Vera’s smokehouses, like the water mills once standing along its streams, have existed since medieval times, but their economic importance dates from the New World food exchange, a surprisingly slow process still ongoing in the 21st century.
Its very first major success story was the capsicum pepper, a member of the Solanacea family like the potato and tomato. Initially it journeyed around Spain between monkish kitchen-gardens, hopping from one Jerónimo monastery to the next. Presented by Columbus to the monarchs at Guadalupe monastery, pepper seeds were soon planted nearby at Yuste in La Vera, then at Santo Domingo de la Calzada in the Rioja, and at La Ñora in Murcia. Today all three sit in major pepper-growing areas.
One contemporary, Nicolas Monardes, commented in the mid-16th century that capsicums were originally sown for the fruit’s beauty. How the leap to making pimentón happened is not known: some say peppers accidentally dried in autumn sunshine, others believe that the monks had observed the Aztec use of ground peppers for preserving game. For sure it is in this role, as a preservative, that it won a place almost as important as salt, pepper and garlic in Spanish cooking. If you have ever eaten chorizo then you know its spicy-hot or brickish smoked flavour, and its power as a preserving additive for meat.
Monardes pinpointed the second key success factor for pimentón as opposed to the black and white peppercorns of medieval court cookery, “They differ in that those from the Indies cost many ducados, this other costs no more than sowing it….” Home-improvised flavour won over imported status. Nonetheless, some regions have never taken to pimentón. It is rarely used in Basque cooking and Aragonese charcuterie remains loyal to earlier spice mixes of sweet cloves, anis, peppercorns and cinnamon.
For some gourmets this is a relief. Writer and journalist Julio Camba commented in La Casa de Lúculo o el arte de comer (1961) that its colour and flavour was ubiquitous in Spanish food, from chorizo to meat calderetas, from saltcod arrieros to fried breadcrumbs, migas, potato stews, fishermen’s and garlic soups, pork marinades … even vinaigrettes.
Spain Gourmetour, Madrid, 2003
A wild duck spreads its wings as it rears up from water broken by spiky green rice plants. Above the photo, printed in curly green type, runs a slogan, “Save the rice, and we will save Doñana.” The duck, printed on a poster, hangs in the offices of La Ermita, a farmers’ collective in Isla Mayor, a town in the Gualdalquivir delta, from where irrigation for 300 rice growers is managed. “When I designed the duck poster,” says Julián Borja Ibáñez, pointing to its details, like a duckling swimming past rice, “a lot of people thought I was a bit mad.”
That was back in 1994. Today Julián, a founding member of La Ermita, is the president of the rice growers’ federation. Like many of them he is Valencian by birth. He arrived as a young child in the late 1940s with his parents, expert rice-farmers who were lured here by the offer of land. The marshes’ mosquitos had driven away earlier visitors such as George Borrow. “I was aroused by the furious biting of a thousand bugs,” he wrote testily of a boat journey here. British adventurers who planted rice here in the 1920s also got beaten by the bugs. The Valencian farmers, however, persisted in the 1940s, years of hunger. Malaria caused deaths and the work was hard – most was done by hand until the 1960s – but the paddies grew into Spain’s largest rice-producing area.
Today they occupy 16,000 acres, producing a harvest of over 300,000 tons of short, round and long grain rice in paddies irrigated by river water, pumped through them before returning to the sea. Julián, aged 59, and his brother Sebastián, 63, who began working in the rice-fields as children, own 220 acres that they work with their nephew. Some of their rice stays in Spain, but most, especially a local long-grain variety called Puntal, sells for export via cooperatives.
The symbiosis between rice-fields and parkland has been uneasy. Conservationists initially regarded the farmland around the park with suspicion, especially after an estimated 30,000 birds died of botulism in the drought of 1986. The blame was put on pesticides, but later it was discovered that stagnant warm water had caused the deaths. However, the rice-farmers began to cut back on weedkillers, pesticides and fertilisers and in 1998 they signed up 60 specialist agricultural engineers and a small army of fieldworkers to weed the paddies.
Their effort has been worthwhile. The chemicals used in the paddies have been cut by two-thirds, and today 90% are registered for integrated rice growing – that is, farming with less than 10% of the EU’s permitted pesticides. With drought a regular event, and ever more severe, the paddies have become an essential counterpoint to the natural parkland. When the Doñana’s marshes bake dry into cracked mud, the ducks and other birds take refuge in the paddies.
Integrated growing is just one step in the rice-farmers’ plans. Their next priority, already being negotiated, is to source their pumped water further inland, giving them low-salinity irrigation that may be pumped two or three times through the paddies. They also want to lay down protection guidelines for flora and fauna; to revive an abandoned river ferry; and to build a rice museum. Finally, they hope to emerge from anonymity, creating a denomination of origin defining the growing area and its varieties. This would allow them to skip wholesalers. “Then,” says Julián – he pauses as if to show seriousness of intent – “the next step would be to farm the rice organically.”
Taste, London, 1988
East London 1980s street-life was enriched by sedimented immigrant food cultures: Chinese, Jewish, Sylheti and Ethiopian, among others. Each kept to its own character, but shops or delis and restaurants might sit side-by-side, for example, in Brick Lane, famed for its curry restaurants. For locals the Lane also meant beigels, and visits to a 24-hour bakeshop which sold them by the bag, hot and densely doughy.
Beigels, those ring-shaped rolls with alluring chubby curves and shiny golden tops, are often thought of as classic New York fast-food. The irony is that the American beigel is nothing like the Polish original. Around three times its size, lacking the original crust, filled like a sandwich, the Stateside version reflects the New World’s prosperity and craving for variety ….
Beigel-baking also belongs to the East End of London. Here Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia created their own late 19th-century crowded world of synagogues, textile workshops, kosher food stores and gambling cafés. In those days boobas (grandmothers) sold their beigels on the street, piled in a basket or stacked on a long stick, just as they had done in Warsaw or Cracow …. Their circular shape, a religious symbol for the cycle of life, was said to bring good luck and prospects. From the boobas’ success grew bakeshops, but none survived the Jewish East End’s break-up between the world wars.
Then, however, a wholesale baker revived business close to the top of Brick Lane, distributing beigels to restaurants and retail bakeries all around London. The dough was shaped, boiled then baked at night in electric ovens, which replaced the old brick ones, and delivered during the day. By chance, one evening, a famished lorry driver stopped and asked to buy a few beigels to eat on the road. Within weeks the bakeshop was born and by the mid 1980s, a thousand dozen beigels were sold over the counter each week. We would pass by late at night for a bagful or a filled beigel to eat at the counter: the chat was always as good as the food.
(Epilogue: The Beigel Bake survives at no 159 Brick Lane, London, E1.)
Spain Gourmetour, Madrid, 2005
When I revisited organic farming in 2004 for the first time since 1999, I was not sure what I would find. Would the steep learning curve have caught pioneering farmers by surprise? Would their idealism have been dented by bureaucracy, their workloads and financial stress? The perspectives, though, were encouraging. Scattered, isolated producers were now taking on bigger environmental issues. Canarian pineapple growers in El Hierro were harnessing renewable energy sources, Huelva’s strawberry farmers were teaching consumers to enjoy smaller organic fruit, and rice-growers in the Ebro Delta had set up a farm, wildlife and bioplus brand. Here’s the story of the rice growers, and of one of the many anonymous, small-scale local heroes who have built up today’s organic production.
West of Ronda, in Andalucía’s Sierra de Cádiz mountains, Antonio Mulero Tamayo, aged 44, farms 18 hectares of rolling countryside near Prado del Rey village. The farm runs down from wild holm-oaks and olive trees to sheltered orchards and two new giant greenhouses worth 180,000 euros.
As tall as a two-story building, the greenhouses were funded by a job-creation scheme and reached the farm as a kit for a single capsule measuring 1,950 square metres. Antonio, who believes in working “within the existing eco-system”, set to work taking it apart and rebuilding it to “belong” to his land. He divided it in half, removed the insect netting, added lift-up windows on all sides and various doorways. “Just the roof was usually enough protection against climatic risks,” he says.
For his first season he grew green beans, lettuce and cucumbers then moved in his flock of Merino sheep for on-the-hoof manuring and rotated his crops to capsicum peppers, courgettes, melons and varied salad leaves.
By this time he was selling his greenhouse and open-air crops well through a specialist cooperative flourishing thanks to Andalusia’s organic farming boom, which had grown to occupy 7% of the region’s farmable agricultural land by 2005 (and 23.6%, the highest figure in Spain, by 2021).
Success for Antonio, though, had come quickly only thanks to a solid foundation of slowly learned skills. Self-taught, he’d been keeping diaries for his vegetable plots and orchards, noting planting, harvesting and drip-irrigation dates for over twenty years. “On the spot lifelong studies,” he says jokingly.
In the case of Riet Vell, the Ebro Delta’s organic rice farm, the research was done as a systematised study. A 1994 report by SEO, the Spanish Ornithological Society, revealed a dramatic drop in the delta’s fish and bird life due to the herbicides, insecticides and fertilisers used in the rice paddies. Three years later SEO converted 66 hectares of watery marshes into their own organic rice paddies, incorporating a nature reserve where wildlife could be fostered and viewed by the public.
Today Riet Vell’s annual rice yields match those of conventional local growers. Their paddies may be identified by their wild grassy banks, bullrush-edged lagoons and pheromone insect control. Between harvests they drown weeds, with no chemicals, and alongside their commercial growing they experiment with new rice varieties. Thanks to these, within a year of launching exports to the UK in 2003, they scooped two gourmet awards, one from the Soil Association, the other from the Natural Products Fair. Additionally, every box of rice carries a message explaining wildlife-friendly farming to shoppers and their families.
Herbs (Journal of the Herb Society), London, 1996
That Spanish saffron-growing has survived against the odds is largely due to its unsurpassed quality. This is judged two ways: by the length of the flowers’ stigmas, or dried filaments, and by their levels of pigment and essential oils, which give colour, aroma and flavour. Spanish saffron’s blood-red stigmas are not only longer but also contain much higher levels of the volatile aromatic and flavouring oils than those of saffron elsewhere. The reasons for this are not entirely clear.
Growers and scientists alike put emphasis on the unbroken centuries of growing as a key factor in Spanish saffron’s quality: during the span of a millenium, the bulb stock may have genetically adapted to its environment. Alongside this, in both growing and commerce, old-fashioned customs have survived: medieval land and weight measures, payment for work in kind and, above all, a family workforce.
In the 18th century, when eating tastes changed, production dwindled in many areas of Europe. Only in Spain did saffron-growing flourish. In 1898 exports were valued at some 9 million pesetas, more than oranges, and were sent as far afield as Russian and India. In 1930 some 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) were cultivated and 80,000 kilos of the dried spice produced.
The small-scale plots with growing today now lie in three specific reduced areas: in La Manchuela, north of Albacete; in a western group of towns around Consuegra in Toledo; and on a smaller scale in Aragon. Famous for being demanding to plant, harvest and dry, saffron is laborious at all stages of the growing cycle. After harvesting the bulbs have to be dug up, dried and kept for replanting. In the second and third year the bulbs will produce the greatest number of blooms before their production falls. When the land needs to rest, it must be left fallow for ten years.
In the last few years alarm-bells have begun to sound at falling production. Rapidly shrinking families and rising labour wages, which now account for 50% of total costs, have cut profits.
But producers are philosophical. They emphasize that for a thousand years saffron has had cyclical patterns of ebb and flow, and that the international circuit for top-quality saffron is extremely stable. Prices at source for the finest saffron have been rising steeply since the mid-1990s and demand is once again running beyond supply.
BBC Magazine, London, 2003
Commissions to write listings focus attention on condensed fact, but even then, they are a challenge and need an invisible underlying analysis if they are going to work for an international audience. For this “Food Lover’s Passport to Spain” I took the chance to spotlight everyday, often overlooked and easily accessible food resources that could be enjoyed by all generations with every kind of budget: the municipal food markets, preserved or reinvented; Iberian kitchen tech, enjoying a creative renaissance; good wines to take home as drinkable souvenirs; and summer coolers, those delicious chilled drinks or ices for which Spain has an inimitable flair. Looking back today, there have been remarkable developments in nearly every one of those categories.
Spain Gourmetour Madrid, 2003
In the 1990s smart wine routes were being designed to give visitors the knowledge for exploring vineyards, wineries, restaurants, landscapes and culture. The pleasure of creating these – I did four in all – came from the possibility of working in areas where tourism had not yet tilted the balance of vision in any particular direction. My first journey was commissioned for the Ribera del Duero, then next I explored the Albariño vineyards by the Rías Baixas’ jagged coastline. Here’s the introduction.
Wet foliage in the vineyards, scudding clouds above, and legend hanging in the damp sea air. On the road from Santiago de Compostela to the western coastline, vines appear well before you glimpse the sea. By the time you reach the silted-up port of Padrón they are everywhere, squeezed into gardens and vegetable patches or planted as arbours over porches and pathways, although there are rarely more vines than those needed to supply a family’s needs.
The townspeople of Padrón say Saint James, patron saint of Spain, preached his first sermon in the peninsula on the hill overlooking the town. It’s easy to climb its low summit and from there you can look over luminously bright green fields and pasture to the Ría de Arousa, where the commercial vineyards start. Local myth tells that the stone boat which brought Saint James’s body back to Spain after his death made landfall here. Wine, too, is magicked into a spiritual affair. Rosalia de Castro, the Galician poetess, who lived and died here in 1885, conjured up this verse conversation between tenant and landlord.
“¿And would there be wine in Heaven?”
“Drink, drink, what a beautiful thing!”
“It’s as smooth as syrup!”
“Oh, how it slips down, my friend, with neither wheat nor cornbread….”
Last of the Independents, London, 2014
This piece is special to me for two reasons. Firstly my Viridiana eating experience came at a time when I’d been living for years on a very tight budget while writing New art of cookery / Nuevo arte de la cocina española. Secondly I was commissioned by Gareth Jones, one of those rare friends ever-supportive at good and bad moments along with his wife Joy Davies, the award-winning food writer. Hugely admired in the food world, Gareth had cooked in a rural French restaurant and worked in governmental agri-food promotion in the UK; he then put both sides of his learning together for exceptionally creative promotion, or “healing” for hand-picked small European producers. At the time I wrote this he and Joy were also publishing “Last of the Independents”, a digital magazine inspired by Rory Gallagher’s song.
Every so often a chef turns up a dish that feels like a home-cooked luxury created to share with friends. At ‘Viridiana’, a stone’s throw from Madrid’s Museo del Prado, Abraham García has one such dish, Abraham’s Eggs. They arrive in small skillets, one egg in each, soft-yolked, with black winter truffle generously shaved over the whites. Alongside each free-range hen’s egg spreads a velvety-smooth wild mushroom and duck liver mousse, puréed to a sauce. From it a rich funghal aroma floats up to evoke much older dishes like the wild mushroom sauce from Llibre de Sent Sovi, a mid-14th century Catalan cooking treatise, and the wood-roasted criadilla de tierra , or black truffle, published in the early 15th century under the medieval pen-name of Robert de Nola.
Like much of Abraham’s cooking, the dish is infused with a deep sense of history yet at the same time manages to tap into connections with modern Spanish popular cookery. He is one of the few chefs who revels in the food of his rural childhood in “the unforgettable 1950s”, as he calls them.
Abraham grew up near Toledo and aged just thirteen, he set off for Madrid alone to work his way up through professional kitchens until finally, in the late 1970s, he set up his own restaurant, “Viridiana”, named after Luis Buñuel’s 1961 classic film. Small black and white images from the film’s paupers’ feast are clipped along the walls. (There is also the odd Republican flag to be seen.) Abraham’s conversation is famously well informed on Spain’s food culture, as well as its history and wider culture, and he peppers his comments with his iconoclastic wit and open scepticism of the food system, and attached media.
His right to comment has considerable moral authority: Dabiz Muñoz, voted the best chef in the world for 2022, and also famed as an iconoclast, began his professional life in Viridiana’s kitchen, a debt he often gratefully acknowledges.
The fact that Abraham himself is self-taught helps to explain not only his cooking, but the personality of his dining room. Here you feel as nurtured as if you’re in somebody’s home: service style is warm and friendly, never point-scoring; diners’ clothes can vary from jeans to high fashion; and the man himself is cooking, talking and making clients feel welcome seven days a week as he works with his brigade. If he isn’t, then he may be writing, doing a radio broadcast or journeying to see producers, who he credits generously as he explains dishes to customers. He may also be searching for new wines for Viridiana’s formidable list famed for its reasonably prices.
If you have time you can visit two reconstructed kitchens around the corner at the Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativos before lunching at Viridiana. The top-floor tiled 18th-century Valencian kitchen celebrates the cookery of lush irrigated Spain: here you can see a couple of ducks, tied up by their feet, hanging ready for plucking. In his mousse Abraham uses duck livers, generally overlooked in modern Spanish cookery. One floor down is a lesser known montage of an earlier Golden Age Castilian kitchen with a free-standing spit, austere in feel, typical of the dryland or secano north-eastern Spain where the poor foraged funghi . As Abraham comments of the golden yolks and truffle-flaked whites of his dish, there’s a complementary yin-yang balance to his ingredients, just as there is between the richly fertile and poorer dry areas of Spanish farming.
Foods from Spain, New York, 2006
I had no idea that a small culinary revolution was bubbling under when I was commissioned to write this article on Valencia, but it was wonderful to sense it on the ground. The pace slowed during the economic crisis that followed, but guiding influences and momentum were maintained, the municipal markets ticked on, just as they had for centuries, and new talent emerged. In retrospect, one can see that the learning from the economic crisis left residual business wisdom, one of Valencia region’s restaurants’ great strengths today, and that a similar revolution, perhaps with even more potential for the future was underway in Alicante.
Valencian chefs’ cooking is a talking point among Spanish gourmets. Until the 1990s a visit to the city meant orange juice, seafood and paella as well as luscious, slushy tiger-nut milk (horxata) sipped at a café in the warm, damp Mediterranean air. Now, though, gourmets can head for starred restaurants where many of the chefs grew up in restaurant families, while also soaking up the city’s 1980-90s cosmopolitan culture.
Added inspiration came from super-creative emigré chefs who arrived here in those buzzy years: Bernd Knöller from Berlin, Stephen Anderson from London, Joaquín Schmidt from Madrid. And, of course, waves of influence rolled in from the Basque and Catalan vanguardias.
“In Valencia your cooking has to be Mediterranean,” says Bernd Knöller, chef-proprietor of fizzily creative Riff. “The produce is so good, it leads you. But there’s also a new awareness learned from looking further afield, a renaissance of artesanal products, terroir wines, speciality crops and imported foods. It all helps.”
Visit the mythical Art Nouveau food market in the old town, or the lively modern one in Cabanyal near the fishing port, and you enter a chef’s dream. Midweek in June there are hand-shucked baby fava beans and five varieties of tomato from the city’s market gardens. There are also shelled milky almonds, dried wild mushrooms, beach and rockfish. In the city-centre market specialist gourmet stalls sell spices, ostrich eggs, farmhouse cheeses, eels and fruits ready-prepared to eat on the street. These products, the nearby growing huertas, and the local patterns of comerce are underlying continuities around which gastronomic culture thrives and evolves in each generation.
By James Chatto and W. L. Martin. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1987
As series and commissioning editor.
The third book in the Life and Food series (see below) used collective memory to explore Corfu’s cuisine. In particular, it harvested individual recollections of 20th-century hunger, war and the arrival of tourism. At the same time this is a book filled with the warmth of the friendships built by James Chatto and Wendy Martin around food.
“A brilliantly researched book that combines the topographic sensitivity of Durrell with the narrative celebration of James Morris’s Venice.” The Literary Review
By Annette Hope, Tom Jaine, Alison Ross, Jennifer Stead, C. Anne Wilson, Alison Ross, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1993. Edited by C. Anne Wilson.
As series and commissioning editor.
By giving a comparative perspective on British food history in different regions this book reveals the kind of archives available, and the analyses possible in the hand of experts. It was an honour to work with C. Anne Wilson, one of Britain’s leading food historians, for many years in charge of the designated Cookery Books collection at the Leeds Brotherton Library.
By Fay Maschler, Bloomsbury, 1989
As series and commissioning editor
Practical and convenient but inspired, the recipes in this anthology came from restaurant critic Fay Maschler’s London Evening Standard column. She had lived the 1980s immersed in the cosmopolitan food of London restaurants, and its homecooking, and she balanced both as she opened doors into cuisines from near and far.
By Clare Connery. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1992
As series and commissioning editor.
When Connery, primarily a hands-on cook, wrote this book with more than 150 recipes, Ireland’s native food renaissance was gathering momentum. Although she focussed on the kitchen, she also reflected on its expression of the island’s agriculture and she invoked original historical sources and archaeological evidence.
By Chitrita Banerji. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1987
As series and commissioning editor.
Chitrita Banerji’s first book was an insider’s observant account of Bengali cuisines as she had known them, as both child and adult, cook and writer, through family, work and marriage. She gave readers a rare view into a very varied cuisine still little recognised for its sophistication. This was the fourth book in the Life and Food series, and marked a change of direction, opening perspectives beyond Europe.
“Whether writing about bread or … about the Bengali learned appreciation of bitterness as a taste, this is fascinating stuff.” World of Cookbooks, Vol VI, no 1
By Cristine Mackie. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1991
As series and commissioning editor.
Mackie, a classical pianist, took a long sabbatical with her Caribbean-born husband to build a small ecofriendly hotel in Grenada. Taking the island as her base, she began delving into archives – diaries, letters and household accounts – before researching the islands’ layered ethnic cuisines. These she took as her main theme, giving a different account of each ethnic food culture, but also suggesting how they blended together, and fitted within colonial history.
“Beautifully written and produced.”Vogue
By James Bentley. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1986
As series and commissioning editor.
James Bentley, erudite author of the second “Life and Food” book, chose to focus on a long historical perspective for the fishing, farming, hunting and foraging systems of a region famed for its gastronomy, but little explored for the underlying food history. For recipes, James went back to early French sources to give the original versions of well-journeyed dishes, sometimes changed almost beyond recognition along the way.
“A good scholarly book for those cooking in France … it has much historical information as well as authentic recipes.” The Irish Times (Reprinted by Penguin Books in 1996).
By Elizabeth Romer. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London / Grove/Atlantic, New York, 1989
As series and commissioning editor.
“A classic of culinary literature … one of the first works in English to show how a way of eating was the product of a unique conjunction of agricultural, climatic and cultural factors.” John Hooper, Intelligent Life, 2011
Elizabeth Romer had lived in Tuscany for many years with her husband John Romer, the archaeologist and egyptologist, when she began recording the food of the farms and villages around her with a patient, systematic eye. By accompanying recipes with observations of everyday life and work, and following the seasons precisely, as they were lived in the region, she created a classic account of the world behind one of Europe’s best known cuisines.
By Sheila Ferguson. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1989
As series and commissioning editor.
Sheila Ferguson, lead singer of the Three Degrees, wrote from the heart when she sat down to create a book sharing the soul food of her humble childhood in Philadelphia. She retold the recipes of family members and friends who had taught her to cook with the five senses: sound, smell, taste, touch and sight. To her words she added old family photographs, and stunning location set-pieces by British photographer Howard Grey.
By Richard Olney. Interlink and Ebury Press, London, 1988
An early American master of French cookery and one of the first accepted to teach on wine and food in France, Richard Olney hid a useful principle behind the title of this book. Each menu, and every dish, was chosen to accompany certain fine wines, rather than vica versa. This was one of those rare books in which there was almost no editing to do.
By James Kempston. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993
James Kempston was a professional cook who focussed on the know-how underpinning the skill of combining flavours and produce in many cuisines. This was an original book, for playful learning, ahead of its time in its emphasis on world cuisine’s common denominators and cooking skills in all kinds of kitchen contexts, ranging from a restaurant to a ship’s galley to a food-truck.
By Jeremy Round (of The Independent newspaper). Barry & Jenkins, London, 1989
A classic of modern British cookery writing, this recipe anthology of Jeremy Round’s writing for The Independent was produce-driven and strictly seasonal, not only for food plants, but also for fish and meat. Jeremy had learned to cook in Turkey, and had competed successfully in Masterchef, but was also amused to take on the urban fun of cooking and eating: for example, a reduced-angst approach to entertaining and stretching the seasons via preserving.
By Frances Bissell. Chatto & Windus, London, 1992
Food correspondent for the London Times (see below), Bissell was a pioneer in researching livestock rearing methods. In this book she explained how to handle it in the kitchen. She opened the book by proposing her own philosophy for eating meat: enjoying rather than excluding it from her diet, but thinking of it as a luxury, and buying it with that mindset, prepared to pay the prices asked by humane small producers.
By Frances Bissell. Chatto & Windus, London, 1993
Frances Bissell, once called “the best private cook in Britain”, wrote for The Times, and also cooked regularly at some of the world’s leading hotels. She had a great eye for adapting dishes from little known cuisines to home kitchens while keeping keys to authenticity. This book was a collection of more than 600 recipes gathered during six years of newspaper columns and intercontinental journeys. One year later Frances won the Glenfiddich Award for Food Writer of the Year (1994).
By Silvia Ziranek. Bookworks, London, 1987
Best known as a performance-artist exploring women’s role in domestic life and suburban culture, Silvia Ziranek used recipes as diary entries or art-works, punctuating them with images of her 1950s childhood. This was a limited edition book and is now a collectible item.
Conran-Octopus & Heinemann, London / Shelton Books, New York (1988).
The base of this anthology was Jacqueline Saulnier’s work as cookery editor for French Marie Claire magazine in the 1970s, the era of nouvelle cuisine, new ethnic influences and food as “la troisième médicine”. Synthesizing and writing linking texts for English readers, consulting with Mme Saulnier and her chosen chefs was a pleasure.
More info coming soon.
Client, Bodegas Tío Pepe, Jérez de la Frontera & London
I rarely take on commercial consultancies, in order to avoid conflict of interest, but the briefing for this project was entirely open, it gave a chance to support a market shift away from old-fashioned cream sherries and to make known new-generation Andalusian chefs. It was also an honour to be invited to write alongside wine expert John Radford. I gave my own userfriendly recipes for tapas in home cooking, designed according to the time it would take to make them in a busy London schedule: ten minutes or half an hour. All used Spanish ingredients easily available elsewhere, in particular olive oil: for example, roasted red peppers in a manzanilla vinaigrette (ten minutes) and fried cured jamón and eggs on fried bread (half an hour). Some brilliant restaurant recipes, needing more skill and time to prepare, came from invited chef guests, all from Andalusia: Fernando Córdoba from El Puerto de Santa María, Juan Batista Agreda & Dani García, then cooking in Ronda, and José Carlos García from Malaga.
Oxford Symposium on Food and History, St Catherine’s College, Oxford, 2004
A paper on Pedro Pérez Roque’s life and his work collecting, classifying and cultivating wild medicinal herbs for future generations, this was originally researched for the Oxford symposium on the subject of wild foods. Pérez Roque has always lived at the centre of an ecobotanical hot-spot, in inland Alicante, where the dry Mediterranean heat raises the level of mountain herbs’ oils. Alcoy still keeps its perfumery distilling, a craft here since Arab times, and the area has unusual natural “microreserves” to protect areas of very valuable aromatic plants. (Printed proceedings 2006).
Oxford Symposium on Food and History, St Catherine’s College, Oxford, 2011
A paper on the fiesta calendar in friary and popular 18th-century Spanish cooking for the symposium on “Celebration”. (printed version in Petits Propos Culinaires, 2012)
Link to a revised print version of the paper at Oxford:
Talking Food: Altamiras at Oxford
Museo Goya, Zaragoza, 2017
A brief presentation on the non-appearance (and appearance) of food in Goya’s work, marked out by its ethical oppositional approach: the almost complete absence from his early work of food still-lifes, potentially valuable for a struggling artist, may be compared to hunger’s powerful presence in his “Disasters of War” engravings and to his depiction of popular cookery in his late still-lifes.
Dublin Gastronomy Symposium, DIT, Dublin, 2017
A paper for the symposium on the subject of “Food and Power” held at Dublin Institute of Technology. In it I explored the long continuitities between reformist Spanish Franciscan food philosophy, to which Altamiras’s cookbook belongs, early modern popular cookery and the flowering of regional Spanish kitchens, sometimes as political expression, in the 19th century.
Link: Dublin: Food and Power
Amsterdam Symposium on the History of Food, Allard Pierson Collections, Amsterdam, January 2015
A paper for the symposium on the subject of “Food, Hunger and Conflict”, organised by the History of Food Collection at the Allard Pierson. The paper looked at the high visibility of hunger in Spanish culture from the picaresque to modern times, including its representation in three narrative cookbooks, but its invisibility (and masking by one cookbook) during the 1940s “Silent Famine”, as revealed by historians since 1995.
This piece was written at the time Claire Lorrimer’s biography of Jeanette Roberts was published. Back then, Jeanette correctly predicted that her revelation of her lifestory would lead to her work being discredited, but today it is recognised as sharply relevant as the complexities of the topic are given greater recognition, in times of war and peace.
Over the last 17 years Jeanette Roberts has fostered 41 children with whom the social services could not cope. Most have been victims of physical violence or sexual abuse and by the time they reach her, they have been shunted for years between their birth parents, foster homes, children’s homes and lock-up instititutions.
For most onlookers who hear of Jeanette’s work, her commitment is its most striking element, but among social service professionals she is known for her success in helping children come to terms with the past. Clearly she is a sharp-eyed observer. She was raped by her father.
“If a kid’s being hurt, you’re not just looking for a bruise. The emotional signs are always there. A child may be withdrawn, or kicking up noise and trouble, or perhaps cowering if an adult walks into their bedroom.”
She is conventional in some approaches, but not in others. She believes statutory guidelines should be developed to create unified procedures and that wider public education is needed to focus on a clear message.“Children aren’t just social workers’ responsibility, they’re everyone’s.”
“I’m sure therapy can work in some cases,” she explains “but it’s too easy for the child to pick up on what they know the adult wants to hear. That doesn’t touch the turmoil inside.”
She has limited faith in play techniques using anatomically accurate dolls. “Recently I pressed a doctor to whom a little girl had said nothing in a doll play session. As an afterthought, the doctor remembered the girl had said, ´If this doll had a secret and she told you, she’d get bashed up.’ ”
The psychological scarring left by abuse is not exaggerated, she says. “The fear of rejection is everlasting. You have to keep working on it. And if it’s like that for me, as an adult, what’s it like for a kid scared stiff of losing their family and who may have been told it’s their fault?”
Epilogue: In 1985 a television documentary looking at Jeanette’s work, entitled “In the Name of Charity”, was directed by Nigel Evans. It is still available.
Carla Artés grew up with a false identity given to her by fake parents. She knew nothing of Graciela and Enrique, her birth parents, who “disappeared” during the Argentinian military dictatorship’s ‘Dirty War’ (1976-83) against dissidents. Once found by her maternal grandmother and recovered by the police, Carla moved for safety to Madrid where she studied, worked and became birth-mother to three children. In 2005 she testified in Madrid in the Alfredo Scilingo trial, which heard the first evidence of high-ranking military involvement in the “disappearances”.Carla’s case was also key proof of the existence of the cross-frontier Condor plan.From this long-read feature, I’ve selected Carla’s account of her discovery of her real identity.
At the age of eight Carla Artés was watching television in her home in Buenos Aires when she saw something that jarred her. “A reporter was interviewing an older woman in a white head scarf, and she was wearing a baby photograph of me around her neck,” she says. “I recognized myself right away from a photo in my parents’ house.” That night Carla asked her father why the woman had a photo of her. “He told me that she was an old witch who wanted to take my blood away, and he gave me a terrible beating. It wasn’t the first. So I tried to forget the incident.”
Carla and her younger brother, Alejandro, had been brought up in a smart suburb, but when a democratically elected government came to power in 1983, the family had begun to move every three months or so, now living in houses on the city’s fringes. Carla and Alejandro were told they were being given a holiday and were removed from school. “It was an odd life for two years,” remembers Carla. “What I hated most was that they would cut off my hair, dye it, make me wear it different ways, and give me glasses and coloured contact lenses. They were always altering my appearance.”
A year after Carla saw her baby photo on television, the Argentinian police stormed her family home at 4am with dogs and arrested her parents, Eduardo and Amanda Ruffo. “Alejandro and I woke up to find ourselves locked inside our bedroom,” she remembers. “We were terrified. We thought the police had come for us.”
The family was taken to a police station where they were separated. Only then was Carla told that her parents, but neither she nor her brother, were in trouble with the law. They took her to a small room to say goodbye to her ‘father’, who was handcuffed to a chair. “On the wall behind him there was a big ‘Wanted’ poster showing photos of him, my ‘mother’ and me,” says Carla. “I began to see things differently, but I still didn’t guess the truth.”
Later that night two policemen and a social worker brought a dazed Carla to the courts in Buenos Aires where a judge told her that she had been stolen from her mother, Graciela, in the government prison camp where her fake father had worked. “It was a terrible shock,” she says.
That same night the social workers introduced her to Satcha, her maternal grandmother. They embraced silently for a long time. “It was instinctive,” says Carla.
She agreed to go home with Satcha and so her new life began.
Epilogue: In 2011 Carla returned to Argentina with her children. She married, gave evidence against her fake father in his trial for abuse of her as a child, and researched her parents’ fate. She could not confirm how her father Enrique died, despite the existence of an official theory. Of her mother Graciela she knew only that she was arrested in Quito, where she herself, as a baby, was tortured in front of Graciela, and that they were both taken to the clandestine Orletti detention centre in Buenos Aires. In 2016 she began writing her autiobiography, entitled “Pedacitos de Mí” (Little Pieces of Me). Soon afterwards she developed cancer. When she died in 2017 her ashes were scattered, as she asked, in the Orletti centre, now a memorial space.
The 21st century came knocking early in Villena, in inland Alicante, thanks to a visionary experiment. I had first visited the town in 1991 to map a historical itinerary, but when I returned six years later it was to see its virtual town-hall, a world-first experiment in citizenship.
Drive west of Alicante towards Madrid and after half an hour on the motorway you reach the castle-topped historic town of Villena. Until recently visitors headed for its Renaissance town-hall for a glimpse of the ancient past: a treasure trove of Bronze Age Iberian gold unearthed here by aficionado archaeologists in the early 1960s. One of Spain’s most important early archaeological finds, it is still kept here in the town-hall’s museum annexe.
Recently, though, visitors have been climbing adjacent stairs to glimpse a new feature of life, the virtual town-hall. Here a glassed-in systems-room bulges with computer hardware, silent but powerful, which is revolutionising everyday town life.
“What does today’s citizen need to live in the global village?” asks José Emilio Cervera, director of the project. “We’re suggesting that apart from rubbish collection, planned mobility and so on, everyone needs computer hardware and some joint-venture services. Our idea is to help people see a computer as a household item, like, say, a microwave.”
The $2.45m project launched in spring 1996 with a bargain offer to residents: a desktop computer with internet connection, software, classes and three years of maintenance, all costing half the computer’s normal retail cost. Eighteen months later 2,200 computers were installed and around 40% of the town’s 30,000 residents had domestic access to one….
“What makes this project different from others,” says Cervera, “is the degree of political leadership. We believe that unless you have such leadership the arrival of an information society creates haves and have-nots.”
The local economy, structured around small to mid-sized family companies – makers of furniture, shoes, paper and ceramics, farmers and wine-makers – needs to hold its own against competitors in export markets. For that, explains Cervera, digital fluency is a key tool…
Scepticism proved the greatest hurdle, but an unexpected solution quickly solved that: many housewives were taught to use a computer by their enthused eight- to eleven-year-old children. Soon community projects included senior citizens’ dominoes and digitalised sheet music for municipal bands. Jesus Tortosa, head of the town-hall’s computer system, is responsable for making this music available on-line, with sound, to facilitate home practise and rehearsal.
Embracing these local cultural projects may help bring the project to tipping-point. “We’re keen to communicate that using a desktop computer at work doesn’t mean you have to give up eating snails and drinking wine,” says José Francisco Navarro Gabaldón, the mayor’s secretary. A broad smile spreads across his face. “In Villena we’ve known that for a long time!”
For this article I visited Cañada Real thanks to an invitation from Manuel Martín Ramirez, joint founder and then President of Asociación Nacional Presencia Gitana, a remarkable organisation working for Gitano rights, language, culture and related issues since 1972. Even today the shanty town of Cañada Real continues in the news, most recently thanks to the Defensor del Pueblo (National Ombudsman), who has raised his concern over living conditions there in the European courts.
Madrid’s shanty-towns first sprung up on the city’s fringes after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), as families came to the capital in search of work. Homes were built close to scattered water stand-pipes and wells though often no roads existed. Initially their population was balanced between rural immigrant workers and Gitanos: a 1980 government survey revealed only 55% of residents were Gitano. But in the early years of democracy that changed: by 1986 the percentage of Gitanos had risen to 95% according to Madrid’s regional housing body, set up to rehouse all 12,000 censused shanty-dwellers (chabolistas).
In the following decade events at Cañada Real, on Madrid’s eastern edges, awoke public awareness. Called “the fourth world” by social workers, the shanty-towns by now formed 44 improvised urban pockets, which were home to 2,500 to 3,000 families, an estimated 17,000 adults and children. A few of the shanty-towns, or chabolas, could be glimpsed briefly from motorways or railway lines, but one could rarely get closer.
Cañada Real was an exception to most shanty-towns’ norms. The homes, for example, were unusually built in straight lines. One Sunday afternoon, we found children playing in the late winter mud and a few pick-up trucks parked by a chapel built of plywood and cardboard.
Unlike the residents of other chabolas, the sixty families living in Cañada Real did not choose their settling place. They had been brought here in lorries by the city council one May morning in 1994 after watching council workers demolish their homes, settled since 1960. A few weeks earlier their non-Gitano neighbours had been given keys to new council flats, a pay-off: the land had been sold for development. At that time the Gitanos, too, had been promised new homes by the city’s conservative mayor, Álvarez de Manzano. It was the first of many broken promises to come.
When city-council demolition trucks turned up at at first light one May morning not long afterwards, their arrival was unannounced. The families removed their belongings as best they could, watched while their homes were destroyed and were taken to an unshaded flat field near the NIII motorway, 15km east of Madrid. There council workers were marking 30-metre plots on the field in white paint. Each family was given a plot, a few plywood sheets, and some corrugated metal roofing, and was left to build a home. No tools were given, nor help with assembling new shacks.
Three years later, when I visited, the chabolistas had upgraded their shacks with doors and window-frames improvised from scrap, but winter weather had damaged the flimsy structures. There was no running water in the shacks and 300 residents were sharing three communal standpipes. For toilets they looked for privacy in the bare field. On the opposite side of the access road stood the city’s largest rubbish dump and incinerator, and in the adjacent field was a pig farm. Nearby were older shanty-homes.
The events at Cañada Real in 1994 provoked immediate national press protests followed by renewed town-hall promises of rehousing, this time within three months. As the date approached, the timeline was extended, first until the end of the year, then for another year, till December 1995, and, finally, as that date approached, indefinitely.”
According to Medicos del Mundo, who visited the site in 1994, living conditions were by now “dangerous, noxious and unhealthy”, and responsible for a skin condition linked to toxic waste evaporation and soil seepage. Twenty dogs, numerous chickens and many pet canaries had died in the first year alone. One young shanty-dweller had also died, following a diagnosis of brain infection.
A marked sense of fatalism showed during our visit. The families, who lived from collecting and selling scrap, buying wholesale fruit and garlic for sale at street-markets, and labouring, gathered for the weekly Evangelical service held in the chapel. At the noisy afternoon celebration, attended by believers and non-believers alike, the visiting pastor declaimed, “Even if the government will not give you a home on this earth, the faithful will inherit a palace in heaven.” Hearing their exclusion articulated seemed to consoled even those who were not religious.
While Cañada Real is the most infamous of Madrid’s shanty-towns it is not the only one. When Julian Fernández Mato, the first director of the local government’s housing consortium, left his job in 1994, he succinctly summed up the reasons for the chronic failure to rehouse chabolistas in the last decade: zero political will, racism, and the Gitano community’s lack of bargaining leverage due to their low level of voting rights.
When Europe’s first mixed-sex prison wing opened in Picassent prison, near Valencia in 1990, and it proved a success, it began to make international headlines. Marie Claire magazine asked me to look at how the project worked and what resident prisoners felt. The day I spent there, with a photographer, was a humbling experience
The time is late afternoon. When a boy discreetly leaves a girl’s cell wearing a towelling dressing-gown and strolls past prisoners who stand chatting in the wide cement corridor, nobody bothers to turn and look. This is Modulo Cuatro of Valencia’s Picassent prison, Europe’s first mixed prison wing.
“Back in 1990, when we set up the wing, some people suggested that we were trying to encourage sexual relationships,” says Ms. Jabardo, director general of Spanish penitentiary affairs. “But in reality it seemed to us that living together was natural in an educational wing.”
Education underpins Spain’s penal code, as formulated by its young democratic government in 1979. Ever since all prisoners are helped to develop useful professional skill-sets while serving their sentences. Picassent, a new purpose-built prison, gave the opportunity to build a mixed residential educational wing for prisoners opting to be full-time students. Originally the idea of local prison workers, it was welcomed by the Ministry of Penitential Affairs.
“Our intention was simply to make life closer to that on the street,” continues Jabardo, “To eliminate the abrupt change between time in prison and life following release.”
The male prisoners in Modulo Cuatro are the first to endorse this analysis. “For eight years I’d only seen women at a distance,” comments Chema, 26, who came from a Galician male prison. “You know, the occasional social worker or doctor, and I’d lost the knack of how to behave with women. I was relatively lucky, I’d lived with a girlfriend before prison, but even so it took me months to adapt.”
As the number of women in the wing has increased, so relationships have blossomed, but they say prison life tests romance. “Putting up with someone every day from 8am till bedtime is very demanding,” says María José, married, separated, and three years into a sentence for armed robbery. She has a steady boyfriend in the wing. “There are no escape routes like going to work. You have to learn to make privacy in your cell, and to agree on it with your partner.”
Jabardo believes onlookers’ early scepticism was based on fear. Infact, there has been no single problematic incident between the men and women, perhaps because the prisoners value the privilege of living in the wing. “What counts is human warmth,” says Rosa, “Having someone to share the bad moments. For example, someone to hug you with real passion on New Year’s Eve … it isn’t sex but it’s wonderful.”
“Small things, like the low noise level, help the quality of life here,” says María José. “And being in a mixed group makes it far more relaxed.”
For some, however, having a boyfriend can bring a sense of release. “We’re given models of suitable behaviour to which we should conform,” comments Alicia. “On the whole we respect them, but I don’t accept it for my personal life. In the authorities’ eyes I picked the wrong boyfriend, but it doesn’t bother me. It’s my freedom, to be with whoever you want.”
Insight’s editors often asked for new features illuminating overlooked areas of culture, history or society. For a relaunch of the Spain guide in 2006 they picked up on my suggestion of an essay on Spain’s Gitanos, or Gypsies, who’d always featured in the writings of 18th-19th century diarists, like Richard Ford or George Borrow, but are curiously absent from most of today’s guides.
George Borrow wrote of the Gitanos, “I felt myself very much more at home with them than with the silent, reserved men of Spain ….” When he journeyed with them in the 1830s they had been in Spain for over 400 years yet he found them to be foreigners in their own land, clinging to their language and culture long after settling in city barrios in the 18th century ….
The Gitanos’ marginalised position is explained by their history in Spain. Persecution from 1499 was aimed at forced assimilation through restricted movement and eradication of their culture. To cite just one of a dozen laws promulgated over the centuries, Philip IV’s Pragmatic of 1633 banned Gitano language, costume, music, horse-dealing, possession of weapons, marriage and association in public on pain of life slavery. Even Charles III’s 1783 law, which granted equal rights of work and residence, made Gitano “behaviour” punishable by red-hot irons or by the death sentence. It is little wonder that half a century later Prosper Merimée found the Gypsies “astute, daring but naturally fearful of blows ….”
Today the Constitution protects the full citizens’ rights of the Spanish population of 725,000 Gitanos, but the exclusion of their children from schools and of families from public housing schemes are everyday occurences difficult to eradicate on the ground. Yet alongside this, ironically, UNESCO’s 2010 inclusion of flamenco in its world register of “immaterial culture” honours Gitano song, dance and music as one of Spain’s most distinctive contributions to world culture.
Link: Los Gitanos: the Spanish Gypsies – Media Access and Expression as a Tool for Integration
By Asa Briggs. Weidenfeld & Nicolson / BCA, London, 1983. (Paperback retitled “Penguin History of Britain and Ireland from Earliest Times to the Present Day”)
Asa riggs, who was Chancellor of the Open University and Provost of Worcester College when he wrote this book in the 1980s, took on a huge challenge when he widened his focus from the 19th century, to give a historical overview stretching from the pre-Roman period, through classic, medieval and early modern history to contemporary society. In house we used extensive picture research, graphics and integrated design techniques to build a clustered visual narrative punctuating the text. The year after publication the book became the highest-selling UK hardback (1984) and even today the updated paperback edition is still in circulation.
“This is real history. Informative, informed…. comprehensive.” The Sunday Times
“The visual material is excellently chosen and superbly produced.” Times Literary Supplement
In the 1970s English language-teaching texts rooted in local life were a priority for the New Hebrides’ British Ministry of Education. These, based on local story-telling, were the brainchild of senior adviser Alan Roberts. To create them stories from around the islands were recorded in their original oral form, then brought into English calibrated at different reading ages by specialist advisors. I lent a hand with the type, graphic design, production and editorial structure.
As the New Hebrides approached Independence in 1980, secession was declared on the island of Espiritu Santo. While European headlines jokingly nicknamed events the “bow and arrow rebellion”, there were deeper colonial historical roots, as analysed in this book by John Beasant, personal secretary to incoming prime minister Walter Lini. Beasant was given full access to political papers, but wanted to give a backdrop involving historical and anthropological research. This, then, was a job as researcher, managing and text editor.
Award-winning director Amanda Blue journeyed to California, India and Spain to talk to women who gave birth to children late in life. She filmed the women’s accounts, avoiding judgement, but depicted the distinct ethical issues and attitudes raised in each culture. Research in Spain led to María del Carmen Bousada de Lara, mother to twins at the age of 68. The interview with Carmen and her toddlers was poignant since she had advanced cancer. But she had no regrets regarding the decisions that she had taken to have fertility treatment and give birth.
Link: «Los Gitanos: the Spanish Gypsies – Media Access and Expression as a Tool for Integration»
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Catherine Coleman was a dynamic figure in Madrid’s art scene in the 1990s, working a 12-hour day (or longer) to embrace the private gallery scene and bring its artists and gallerists into contact with public collections. She always spoke her mind, and had built her practical work on a strong theoretical framework, so seemed a good pick for an interview on the Spanish scene. We talked on a searingly hot August day, and I then crunched her perceptive comments. In 2021 the interview was digitalised in full, but below I’ve also selected three distilled gems among her comments.
Interview in full: https://www.focusphotomag.com/curatorinterviews/catherine-coleman/
“Spain has not been a forward-looking country until relatively recent times, and there was not a great deal of wealth here in the first half of the 20th century. Photography is a very expensive sport, or hobby, so in Spain it was the upper-middle classes who began playing around with it. That produced some very good and little known photography…. The first important exhibition, held in the late 1990s, was of work by the Spanish pictorialist photographer Ortiz Echagüe, a contemporary of Stieglitz – so let’s say, that put down a marker on Spain’s contribution to photography history in the early 20th century…. [also in the collection] there is great Spanish photography from the 1950s that goes very well with informalist painting….”
“What is very obvious, I think, is that in the very early 1970s, Spanish photographers became very aggressive and began photographing the Spanish urban scene, music and alternative lifestyle. This is well before Franco’s death, so I don’t think it’s an issue of before and after the dictatorship at all. There was a lot of irreverence and large doses of Spanish black humour, bordering on the surrealistic and linking back to Buñuel. I enjoy that very much. Spaniards love to take issue with themselves over Catholicism or lack of social progress…..Whenever I can, I go down and make sure the Luis Buñuel classic short movie on show in our collection is working well because I think it’s fabulous. You realise what surrealism was really about when you see that movie. Just near it we have Man Ray’s photograph of Max Ernst, who appears in the movie for two seconds. That is an example of how we can bring things together.”
“Photography is not a pure art. It was born a bastard and it changes all the time through its relationships with the chemical, optical and electronic industry. Where is that going to end up? I would love to do something that presents that question to a general public, a show getting away from the snapshot on the wall. I would like to go over the collection and reveal a very wide range of work in which there is some incidence of photography….Photography is all over the map, it was born that way – born to be ubiquitous. Well, let’s recognize that.”
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In 1994 Portugal’s isolated Côa valley, 400 km northeast of Lisbon, hit the world’s headlines when archaeologists began to map large-scale open-air rock-art etched here between 10,000 and 22,000 years ago. The engravings, unprecedented in size and extent, were initially found at rock faces at twenty sites scattered along the isolated, semi-wild valley. Yet, from the moment they were discovered they were also threatened, due to be flooded by a $366 million hydroelectric dam. The future hung in the balance when I visited. If archaeologists could prove the world importance of the engravings, they would be saved. If not, they would be submerged.
Foz Côa, as the Côa valley is called in Portuguese, was known abroad only to fine port connoisseurs until 1994. In past centuries some of its slopes were slowly, painstakingly hand-laboured into terraced and now valuable vineyards. Then, following the discovery of its rock engravings, UNESCO experts came to visit, a year of national debate followed and building work on the hydroelectric dam planned here was suspended. Archaeologists scrambled to assess the site.
“We now have to consider, I believe,” comments João Zilhão, a professor of archaeology at Lisbon university and the project’s coordinator, “that large areas of the European landscape may have been decorated in this way.”
Smaller similar open-air engravings, found since 1981 in France, Spain and Portugal, had been considered isolated exceptions.
“I think our knowledge has been skewed by climate change. Open-air rock-art would have been destroyed by the Ice Age or freeze-thaw climates in northern Europe. It survived here only because of the valley’s Mediterranean microclimate, the resistant schist bedrock and surrounding isolated wilderness.”
Older people from Foz Côa say the unterraced banks of the nearby River Douro, of which the Côa is a tributary, were heavily “tattooed” until submerged by damming in 1983. They recall those etchings’ primitive beauty. Here, in Foz Côa, examined closely, they reveal previously unknown early artistic techniques, like the use of various overlaid heads on one animal to convey animation-style movement.
Collectively the engravings pose a riddle: why are some rock faces packed with etchings and others left bare? “The clusterings during millennia suggest some sites harboured long-term mythological importance,” comments Zilhã. “That may have been linked to the sun’s movements, to economic territory, or to hunting messages for future generations. We hope to discover in time. These are still early days.”
(Epilogue:In 2006 work on the Côa HEP dam was suspended and four years later the Museo Do Côa, designed to show the rock engravings as the earliest known Land Art, was opened to the public. Displays also explain the valley’s viticulture. Since then the valley has gone on to be identified as a biodiversity hotspot and plans are advancing to develop it as a wildlife corridor along the Portuguese-Spanish frontier.)
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By Stephen Bailey. Booth-Clibborn Editions, London. Designed by Graphic Thought Facility (2000)
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