Foodie Thoughts: Flavour fiesta - How I fell for Spanish cuisine...

Mercat de La Boqueria.
Mercat de La Boqueria (Filip Maljkovic/Wikimedia)
Anyone reading my previous posts on the Scrumptious Scran blog will gather that I’m a big fan of Mediterranean food, and Spanish cuisine in particular. I can trace my interest in Spanish food back to my first 'proper' visit to Spain in the mid-1990s. The family holiday to the Costa Brava, ten years earlier, though enjoyable didn’t involve the teenage me eating much that could be considered ‘typically’ Spanish, as I recall.

In 1994, my long-time pal David and I visited Barcelona for a few days, staying in a friend of a friend’s delightfully shabby apartment in the city’s El Raval district. This was two years after the Olympics had put Spain’s second city firmly on the map as a tourist destination. Yet the neighbourhoods – 'barris' in Catalan – that constitute Barcelona’s old town – Ciutat Vella – were then nowhere near as gentrified or touristy as they are today. Despite the Olympic boost they remained slightly run down, stoically clinging on to their working-class communities, and even being a wee bit gritty in places.

My abiding memories of this first visit to Barcelona are liberally peppered with the smells and tastes of Spanish food and drink. Of course, I now realise that what I was predominantly sampling was the Catalan contribution to what is a 'national' cuisine that is a mosaic of regional variation and speciality. David and I would spend hours in the glorious October sunshine exploring the maze-like lanes off La Rambla, or the Parisian-esque boulevards of El Eixample, stopping to sample the fiesta of food and drink available round every corner, wherever it took our fancy.

Sagrada Familia.

Sagrada Familia (Bgag/Wikimedia)
For breakfast we would partake of the deceptively simple, yet totally delicious, pan amb tomaquet - slices of freshly-baked baguette, drizzled with grassy-flavoured olive oil and liberally rubbed with garlic and sweet tomato. Lunch, often in a workers’ cantina or neighbourhood bar, might consist of a hearty stew of white beans, butifarra sausage and subtly cooked, fantastically tender tripe. Or maybe we would sample esqueixada - a salad of onions, tomatoes, peppers, red wine vinegar and shredded, rehydrated bacalao (salt cod). And if we were partaking of the ubiquitos ‘menu del dia’ (the amazingly reasonable lunch specials) these mains would be precursed with a starter such as sopa de gamba – shrimp soup – and followed with a dessert of luxurious crema catalana. Such a feast would, of course, be accompanied with a chilled bottle of Catalan red wine, or a glass or two of cerveza negra - a dark, nutty lager.

The culinary wonder of Barcelona wasn’t merely confined to its bars and cafes, however. For me, a visit to Mercat de La Boqueria - Barcelona's largest food market - was an utter revelation. Located half way down La Rambla, it is a cathedral to superb ingredients. Stall after stall was (and still is) piled to the rafters with the most amazing produce: gleamingly fresh arrays of fruit and vegetables; butchers selling a myriad of cuts which encompassed - quite literally - everything from nose to tail; an abundance of fish and shellfish, many of which I struggled to identify despite a background in marine biology; cheeses in all shapes, sizes and intensities, and floating forests of hanging hams; purveyors who entirely dedicated their pitch to wild mushrooms, olives and anchovies, nuts and dried fruits of all varieties, or simply sensational salt cod. And then there was the thrill of dining amongst traders and shoppers in the bustling bars adjacent to the market, sampling great tapas and chilled, dry cava.


During that visit to Barcelona, so enamoured with Spanish food had we become that upon our return to Edinburgh I remember David and I gave some serious thought to the potential of opening a tapas bar. Unfortunately, or possibly forutnately, our pipe dreams came to nothing. Yet my continuing, unwavering effusiveness for Spanish cuisine did eventually prove productive in another way. It resulted in another friend presenting me with a copy of Moro - The Cookbook.

Sam and Sam Clark - writers of the book and owners/chefs of the fantastic restaurant that shares its name - have a common passion for Spanish, North African, and Middle Eastern food. They have captured the absolute essence of what makes this cuisine so desirable and delightful, in the three volumes they have authored to date. I regularly refer to the Clarks’ recipes when entertaining. Further trips to sample, first hand, the cuisine of Barcelona - as well as Madrid and Seville – have provided me with an insight as to how spot on Moro's take on Spanish food actually is.

So, after having not caught up with my friend David for far too long, when he was able to join me, my other half and a mutual friend for lunch last Saturday, the temptation to cook a Spanish feast featuring my interpretations of some great Moro recipes was hard to resist. I do hope you enjoy the accompanying posts - billed as a 'flavour fiesta' - that detail the recipes that contributed to that particular lunch menu. These include:

  • Galician fish soup
  • Marinaded, slow cooked shoulder of lamb, with patatas bravas
  • Tarta de Santiago.
     
Cooking and eating these dishes certainly took me back to balmly days in Spain, as well as an excellent meal I once thoroughly enjoyed at Moro.
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