The Food of Spain
By Claudia Roden
Michael Joseph, £25
Claudia Roden is one of the all time great food writers. Her books generally explore Middle Eastern and north African food and are classic texts on the cookery of those regions. The shift toward Spain is a natural extension.
The book begins with a fairly comprehensive history of the country and how the ebb and flow of invaders - Celts, Romans and Visigoths included - affected what was on the plate, and not just the plates of the aristocracy, but also those of your humbler category of citizen. The peasants in Spain had a fairly tough time it would seem and the flowering of Spanish cuisine we see now needed events as recent as General Franco's demise in the 1970s to free things up and lead to cheese and olive oil production aiming for quality rather than bulk.
The links to south America gave Spain its tomatoes, peppers and chillies ahead of elsewhere. Spain's version of paprika, pimentón, gives chorizo its characteristic punch and tomatoes appear to partner a good proportion of dishes from their arrival onwards. These, and spices like cinnamon and saffron, have helped fashion a distinctive and, until recently, neglected cuisine.
The book's second segment looks at the country's regions. My own prejudice has always been to admire Basque and Catalan cooking and be fairly dismissive of the rest, so glimpses of cooking in areas like the Balearic islands and central Spain were really quite instructive.
I also learnt that the British had occupied Menorca for nearly a century and brought Friesian cattle to the place. Previously, I thought British interest in the Balearics had been solely through its invasion of Ibiza with loud music and Majorca with cheapish holidays when foreign holidays became possible for us all.
The recipes are what most cookbooks are judged by. Empanadillas, little pasties with fillings like tuna and red peppers; salt cod omelette; and a fabulous almond cake from Santiago are the sort to expect. I liked them, but feel that the background knowledge that went into this book is what makes it special. Photos of the dishes by Jason Lowe are a bonus.
By Shaun Hill, chef-proprietor, the Walnut Tree, near Abergavenny
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