In 2006, Ann and I signed up for a ‘pilgrimage’ through Spain and Italy sponsored by Saint Joseph’s University. The school encouraged faculty to follow in the footsteps of Saint Ignatius, learning as they went about the Ignatian ideals of Catholic education. While Ann went and learned about cura personalis, or care of the whole person, I snuck along to study cura porcinalis, the curing of the whole pig. Secretly, stealthily, the only feet I wanted to follow were the little trotters of the famed Iberian black pig.
Much to my surprise, a pilgrimage turns out to be a great way to see a country. Turns out, most people go to Spain to see churches and drink wine anyway. So going with Jesuits is like getting back stage passes to the show. You get to see the big churches like the Gaudi, and you also get to see the little dark places with their bone-filled ossuaries. You get to cut through lines, and if you stay in Montserrat, you get to stay at the monastery that is usually off limits to tourists at night.
Monserrat is a surreal “serrated” geological formation. Driving from the countryside, you really understand why it had spiritual significance for so many people. You drive for hours by bus across the flatlands, hot and hung over from last night’s wine. You can only imagine what it might have been like to cross by horse or foot. Then, all of the sudden, this knife of otherworldly pink conglomerate juts up, precisely where a mountain range shouldn’t be. So naturally, ones first impulse is to build a church on it, or a monastery, or a chapel, or a shack to meditate in. And while the first monks to climb that slope must have been armed with pitons and crampons, the whole surreal image is now made complete with a funicular railway sliding up and down the middle of it. It’s like some sort of Disneyland theme park for Benedictines.
Yet while most of the tourists had to slink back to Barcelona for the night, we got to spend the night in Santa Maria de Montserrat, one of the trips more memorable moments. Ann and I bought cheese off the back of a cart to share with our fellow travelers. Some other composition specialists were on the trip—including Patricia Bizzell and Cinthia Gannett—but I was an adjunct at the time, and a bit tentative about starting up conversation, particularly with Pat since she was on my graduate exams reading list. But that night, Pat asked me, “And Ted . . . What do you do?” I thought for what must have seen an unreasonably long time, and said, “I roast chickens.” The whole table suddenly became engaged in a discussion of brines, high-roasting, and trussing, and I suddenly felt comfortably at home. After dinner, we took wine out to the courtyard of the giant church, home of the Black Madonna and drank beneath the stars while giant, feral pigs roamed quietly back and forth. That’s right, black, bristly, boars just routing around for God knows what in the shrubberies. After that evening, Spain made a lot more sense to me. So did Spanish wine. So did Salvador Dali.
What did I learn about Saint Ignatius? Born of a wealthy family, he was injured as a soldier and retired to a cave in order to contemplate his rapidly growing beard and fingernails. Deciding that this life was a kind of vanity in its own right, he returned to the world and committed himself to the fight for social justice. We were all asked what the saint’s retreat from the world meant to us. Catholics said catholic things. Non-Catholics said Non-catholic things. Others related the experience to Jungian archetypes. All I could think of was that Saint Ignatius had a lot in common with Batman.
What did I learn about food? More, at least more that stayed with me and has sparked further spiritual inquiry. Most of St. Ignatius’s travels seemed to go from Bilbao to Bacelona, Basque country and Catalonia, so the food we ate was French influenced but quite distinct in its own right. I gather there’s a certain amount of struggle for Basque and Catalan cuisines to keep their identity unique. Look at on-line at reviews for Gerald Hirigoyen’s Pintxos for example, and you’ll see users savagely criticize him for being too French, going to French culinary school, or only representing the more Northern Basque traditions, an argument which seems to resolve almost entirely around his use of butter—The horror! Butter or not, the Basque and Catalan food was a revelation, and I have been trying to recreate it at home ever since. This has become a trend for all of Ann and my trips, but I’ve become a better note taker over time. Every year we go somewhere–Spain, Italy, China, or Sweden—we immerse ourselves in books before and after. Ann will immerse herself in six months worth of books set in or about the country, while I make the same journey through cookbooks, shoring up my memories with the tastes, textures, and aromas of the country.
A lot gets lost in translation however. So I can only speak guardedly and at times despairingly, about my efforts. There are three reasons for this, though it’ll take me two posts to explain them fully. First, there seems to be a paucity of really good cookbooks. Second, in spite of Spain’s copious export industry, some ingredients are still hard to find without a website. Last but not least, the fun stuff like tapas and pintxos aren’t really the kind of thing that’s easy to make for two.
The Cookbook Problem
I only own six Spanish cookbooks, but ironically, when it comes to recipes for Romesco or other Spanish classics, I might as well go to my old standbys like Judy Rogers’s The Zuni Café Cookbook. People don’t even really think of them as being Spanish dishes. Doesn’t Romesco come from Rome? Well, there you go. Like many French and Italian dishes it’s all been absorbed by the mainstream, and there are a lot more good mainstream cookbooks out there than there are good Spanish cookbooks. But what I wanted after coming home from Spain, was something thoroughly Spanish, something like Julia Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking or Marcella Hazan’s’s, well . . . pretty much anything written by Marcella Hazan. I wanted a book that sought to explain authentic Spanish cooking to outsiders.
I thought I’d found this with Simone and Ortega Inez’s 1080 Recipes. This is one of those fat Phaidon books, which have been showing up lately. Phaidon, best known for its books on art and architecture, ironically seems to be trying to corner the market on dated, rustic cookbooks with mostly hand-drawn illustrations. These are not overly dressy, coffee-table books. They’re repackaged popular cookbooks from different countries, some 30-50 years old, but never before published in English. All of them claim to be the “bible” of something. Look at the Phaidon website. The Silver Spoon is “the Bible of traditional Italian cooking”. I Know How to Cook is “the Bible of traditional French home cooking”. Vefa’s Kitchen is “the Bible of Traditional Greek Cooking”. And 1080 Recipes is “The Bible of Authentic Spanish Cookery.”
This sounds promising, but there are many ways to define “authentic.” In this case, the book is authentic in that it was written thirty years ago and was popular in Spain. But it’s a general cookbook, and really makes no claim to reveal regional secrets. It’s more like The Joy of Cooking for Spanish audiences. There’s no pretense here of explaining mysteries to outsiders. The recipes are simple, appropriate for a family meal, and many of them aren’t Spanish. Curiously too, there are very few recipes calling for uniquely Spanish ingredients beyond saffron. For all its 1080 recipes, there are fewer calls for Guindilla, Padron, Choricero, or Piquillo peppers than there are in much shorter American cookbooks by Hirigoyen, Barrenchea or Garces.
Phaidon books are also spare on instruction. A recipe for suckling pig, for example, basically just says to cut the pig in half and roast it. It hails back to an era where a relatively high level of competency or familiarity with cooking seems to be assumed. And while there may be some interesting subtleties or nuances to Spanish cooking, it doesn’t make it onto the page.
Consider the onion. Most cuisines have some combination of aromatics that they cook in fat or oil at the start of a dish. People like to buy fancy bottles of oil with all manner of herbs and peppers in them because this is what fat is good at: it holds aromas. But it doesn’t really matter if those peppers have been swimming in oil for six months, or whether you’re cooking in the pan for six minutes at the beginning of a meal. It has the same effect. By cooking aromatics first, you can cook them just right to activate the aromas, and let the flavors permeate all the other ingredients as you go. But it seems to me that every cuisine has its own unique combination of aromatics, as well as their own very particular ways of cooking them. The French have mirepoix. The Italians have Soffritto that usually includes garlic. India has its own concoctions of onion, garlic and dried chile. Onion is common in all, but it seems that French books usually insist on sweating onions, cooking them slowly so that they turn soft and translucent, but never brown. Indian food in contrast, seems to find it desirable to brown onions over relatively high heat. Marcella Hazan’s books, however, always use the term arrosolate, as if there were some sort of rosy in-between state of cooking onions. It’s a fiction, of course. There is no rose colored onion. But it’s a workable fiction. I keep looking for that arrosolate state and while I’m never sure if I’ve got it right, it makes a relatively mundane part of cooking seem new again.
I’m assuming these preferences are not simply an arbitrary decision born out of prejudice. Presumably, the stronger, slightly singed flavors of onions better match spicy foods. The fats and even cooking fuels may play a role here as well. Whatever the reasons for these changing conventions, however, I want to know them. I want a cookbook that can explain something like inspiratore and arrosolate, and the Phaidon books don’t do that. Whether you’re in France, Italy, or Spain, they all pretty much just say, “cook onions”.
There’s also something ironic about the Phaidon artwork. After decades of producing art and architecture porn for your coffee table, Phaidon is now turning to cookbooks that are subdued enough to border on the plain. This is probably deliberate, and in some cases there’s a nice contrast between the modern design of the books and the simple, hand-drawn images, such as in Pork & Sons by Stephane Reynaud. Pork & Sons has decidedly unglossy photographs matched with charming sketches of pigs in various compromising positions and S&M outfits. In 1080, the hand-drawn artwork is appropriately rustic, but the photos are universally taken from above, without regard for depth of focus or field or even really color. It’s a lot of brown food all photographed on a brown table.
Perhaps this is out of deference for the original, but I haven’t been able to find a copy as a source of comparison. So out of spite, I’ve included a close-up here, of my own effort to make the Ortegas’ chicken with lemons look tasty.
And it was tasty.
When all is said and done, the book has the advantage that it actually works. Like most old cookbooks, you have to fill in a lot, but so far the recipes have served me well. I say, guardedly, that it is the best Spanish cookbook that I have yet to find. The chicken with lemons was delicious, if not uniquely Spanish, and I’ve liked other recipes well enough to pre-order Simone and Ortega Inez’s The Book of Tapas. But I’m still searching for the book that will bring back my memories of Spain. Perhaps all I really need is an explanation for why the Café con leche and churros in Spain seemed so much better than in the U.S. Is that really so much to ask?