I was having a coffee with my friend Dan in his splendid deli-diner in Valencia, Spain, when we got on to the subject of Spanish cuisine. Knows a thing or two about food, does Dan, which isn’t surprising, given that he served a long apprenticeship in Harrods fabulous Food Halls.
“I’ve been told,” I said, “that the Spanish are a bit conservative in their tastes. Would you agree?” “No, I wouldn’t say that,” said Dan, “I think I’d probably say that they are totally, completely, unutterabley and absolutely unadventurous in their tastes as far as food goes.” No punches pulled there, then.
For a country through whose portals has arrived a wide range of foodstuffs on their way from Latin America to the tables of Europe, thanks to Christopher C., you would think that they would be open to something gastronomically new, but oh dear no.
Potatoes, tomatoes, avocadoes, tobacco and cacao all graced the plates of Spanish grandees long before the crowned heads of Europe ever got their teeth into them. It’s said by some sources that Columbus brought the first chilli to the continent, (although others say it was the Portuguese), so you’d think the Spanish would have a bit of spice in their cuisine, if not in their life. But once again, oh dear no. Not a sparkle, not a tingle, not a nothing, as far as we Brits are concerned, having educated our palettes to the wonderful spicy flavours of the far-east.
Despite it’s limitations to an outsider, the Spanish are enormously proud of their cuisine, and fair enough, in some respects they have every right to be, as their gastronomy is based on freshness and no saucy mucking about as is that of their northern neighbours, the French, (or at least it was until Ferran Adrià and his ilk started creating foam and warm jelly). But even though the country is the market garden of Europe and the markets are full of gloriously vibrant vegetables, they have no idea what to do with them – fried on a skillet or roast in the oven, and that’s about it.
What particularly irks me, though, is their patronising manner regarding British food, usually put about by those who have never even visited the country.
“Fish and chips,” that’s all you offer, someone once said to me, obviously not knowing that the people of Cadiz on the southern coast of Spain claim to have invented fried fish. Great Britain had links to Cadiz in the eighteenth century through the sherry trade and it is thought that the British imported the idea of fish ‘n’ chips from there (about the same time as they discovered a taste for vino de Jerez, giving it the name ‘sherry’). My hackles bridled.
“Do you like pescado frito?” I ask; fried fish, a traditional Shabbat dish originating amongst the 16th century Jews in Andalucia, which could be eaten hot or cold and was a favourite dish for a late breakfast or lunch after synagogue services on Saturday morning, now offered on almost every Spanish menu.
“¡Por cierto!” “Of course.”
“And patatas fritas, do you like them?” ‘French fries’ to Americans, ‘chips’ to the British.
“Absolutamente, con un poquito de salsa brava,” ‘brave sauce’ a supposedly spicy tomato sauce – at least to them. To me it’s ‘salsa cobarde’, coward’s sauce, given the lack of tingle it leaves on my tongue.
“And do you buy them from a fritadeira?”
“Claro, ellos son los expertos.” Always best to buy from the expert.
“So, you buy your pescado frito and a portion of patatas fritas from a fritaderia, no?”
“¡Claro que si!” Of course!
“In other words, you buy your fish and chips from a fish and chip shop.”
I rest my case.