Book Review: Spain From the Source, by Sally Davies

cv_spain_from_the_sourceAvailable in bookshops nationwide. 

I’m a cookbook addict – over 180 at last count – so there’s a lot of competition for shelf space. Whether new or vintage (oh, the strange and wonderful cookbooks to be found at school galas and church fairs!) a cookbook must meet certain criteria to earn a permanent spot in my kitchen. Lonely Planet Food’s Spain: From the Source passes the test. It’s well-written and laid-out, with stunning photos and interesting narratives accompanying each recipe. Recipes range from ‘good honest peasant food’ based on whatever’s in the larder to advanced restaurant-level fare, with most appearing manageable as well as authentic.

Traditional Spanish dishes have been reinvented with new ideas and flavours, and almost all ingredients will be easy to find in New Zealand. Preparation and cooking times are included for most recipes, there’s a decent index (although with English titles only), and measurements are both imperial and metric. The pages lie more or less flat when the book is open, and a red ribbon offers an elegant alternative to marking a favourite recipe with a sticky note.

Part cookbook, part travel guide, with intriguing social, cultural and gastronomical history, I think you’ll enjoy reading this book even if you never get around to attempting a recipe. Author Sally Davies is a long-time Barcelona resident who writes about Spain and its restaurants for guidebooks, newspapers and magazines. Davies’ writing and photographer Margaret Stepien’s images conjure up the sights, sounds and aromas of Spanish kitchens: olive oil glistening on a chef’s hands as he tears smoky, chargrilled vegetables; the sizzle of duck browning in a pan seasoned with garlic, onion and bay leaves; clouds of icing sugar drifting over fresh pastries; and the lace-striped pinny (and fierce concentration) of the woman who has been making her signature dish for nearly 50 years.

Recipes have both English and Spanish titles. How much more enticing bikini de tartufo and lonchejas de cerdo iberico y calamar sound than their translated counterparts: a cheese and ham toasted sandwich, and strips of pig’s ear with squid.

There’s a strong focus on healthy, simple food. Many chefs share restaurateur Carlos Zamora’s philosophy of creating ‘slow food, locally sourced, with an emphasis on organic and free-range produce’. Here you should be able to find most ingredients at a supermarket, butcher or farmers’ market. Others can possibly be bought at specialist food stores or ordered online. Some, but not all, ingredients with Spanish names are translated. Substitutions are suggested for some of the less common ingredients. No tramezzino in your pantry? Apparently crustless slices of white bread will work just as well.

The recipes are clustered by region, covering north-east, north-west, central and southern Spain. Dishes reflect the climate, culture, produce and rituals associated with each region, as well as seasonal influences. In addition to the main index at the back of the book, there’s a separate map and an index for each of the four regions. Websites and contact details for all restaurants whose recipes feature in the book are included on one page (should you be tempted to visit a particular restaurant, or to email a chef for advice).

Spain offers tapas and mains, of course, as well as both unusual and traditional desserts. Duck, chicken, pork, fish and other seafood feature prominently. There are a handful of recipes that are meat-free, such as the chilled cashew soup. Desserts include churros, marzipan balls with pine nuts, and candied egg yolks. Legend has it that the latter were created to commemorate Saint Teresa, founder of the order of Carmelite nuns. The sugar-dusted spiral Ensaimada pastries come with their own folk stories – some say they are shaped like the turbans worn on the island of Mallorca in days gone by. Consider ditching the trifle this Christmas for crema de arroz con leche requemada (scorched rice pudding) – the photo next to this recipe so enticing that you can almost hear the spoon cracking the crunchy caramel surface to reveal the sweet and creamy rice underneath.

Even if you’ve not got enough time or courage to try the more complex recipes, many of the side dishes appear quick and easy. Blend a roasted red onion and roasted beetroot, sprinkle with salt and pepper – and you’ve created red onion cream. Or turn to the ‘basic recipes’ section for the nut- and garlic-based picada – a traditional Catalan sauce.

I loved the history as well as the recipes – the story of the master pastry chef who is the fourth generation of a baking and chocolate dynasty; the monastery-based restaurant high on a hill in the Sierra de Villuercas; the restaurant within a 17th century building that was once a hospital for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago trail; and the 9th century basement turned wine cellar that holds 32,000 bottles.

There were a few things that puzzled me: the type is surprisingly small, given the amount of white space on most pages. And although any one of the photos on the cover would have made an excellent cover image on its own, the combination of photos with the gilt-lettered and multi-fonted title text looks somewhat thrown-together. Several recipes don’t specify exact times, instead suggesting ‘bake…until the base is golden’ or ‘stir every few minutes until golden brown’. Perhaps this is a reminder that cooking requires both patience and persistence. Overall, however, Spain is an excellent source of ideas whether you’re planning a feast for friends or a night with your feet up and comfort food for one.

If you’re not tempted to buy this book as a To Myself: From Myself gift, it would make a great present for that friend who’s walked the Camino de Santiago, your foodie colleague, your armchair travelling aunt or uncle, or the new graduate with their first real job who will finally be able to afford to cook good food. Spain will inspire them all.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Spain: From the source
by Sally Davies
Published by Lonely Planet Global Ltd
ISBN 9781760340766

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