My brother and his wife own a holiday flat in Fuengarola. They go as often as they can, twenty or more times a year. They once avoided Christmas at my other brother and his wife’s by flying to Spain on Christmas Day, then flying home on the 27th. I don’t know what one had done to offend the other, but families can be as hilarious as they can be awful. They love the heat, (not in late December, I know, but that time was different), they love the sea and jet skis and all the things you can find at a resort in Southern Spain. They also love the food there: burgers, pizza, egg and chips. Gastronauts, they are not.
I can’t imagine what they imagine actual Spanish food to be or what they think it would do to them if they ate it. I know, there are rabbits and snails, and they might sell their flat if they knew about barnacles. They have the taste of twelve-year-olds and are as adventurous, too. Nothing can persuade them of the pleasures they’re missing.
Spain has one of the great cuisines of the world. You can find some of the most innovative chefs working today there, but the food I’m interested in is what people make and eat every day. It has big flavours, punchy tastes and strong colour. It’s not fussy, or especially pretty, but it is beautiful in a robust way and, how could I have left this to last, delicious.
I have José Pizarro’s new book, with recipes inspired by the Basque region, which I concede is the opposite part of the country from Fuengarola; the far north east, not the deep south west. José is from Extramadura, which abuts the Portuguese border, has lived and worked in London for many years, and loves the people and food of the Basque country. I suppose all of this has an influence on the recipes in his book. Anyway, San Sebastián, on the Basque coast, is to Spain what Lyons is to France and Bologna is to Italy. I don’t wish to impugn any other part of those countries, and you will find fine things everywhere, but those three cities are their gastronomic hearts.
The chapters are divided into meat, fish, vegetables and desserts and the recipes are either pintxos – smaller, tapas-style – or larger, main dishes. Make either, make both, cook in the way that suits you best, José says. Cookbooks should always be inspiration at least as much as instruction. Recipes are starting points for finding what you most want to eat.
I’ve been making things from the book for a week and have enjoyed it all; peas with chorizo migas and an egg. (Migas is, essentially, fried breadcrumbs and an improvement to anything you scatter them over. I’d like to open a migas café one day). Lentils and goat’s cheese with caramelised walnuts. Chicken with cider and apples. Lamb shank with jerusalem artichoke and olives. Halibut with fennel. They’ve all been very easy to make and very good to eat. I’ll cook each of them again.
There is a significant trend in the world of expensive cookbooks not to put a photo on the cover. I’m fairly indifferent to this development and occasionally hostile to it. Another fashion seems to be printing the edges of the pages with a colour. Here it’s a deep blue. Nopi has gold. Another recent purchase, Florentine, has orange edges. They would look more than fine together if only I kept them with their spines facing the wall. Florentine is also published by Hardie Grant, so I suppose it’s their art department’s thing. I like all three books very much, so maybe it’s a way to mark that.
I can live with the wobbly type used in headings, but the standout part of the visuals of this book is the photographs and how well they’re used. The photographer is Laura Edwards and I don’t know why her name isn’t on the cover. The pictures, not just of the recipes but of the region and its people, too, are used full page, mostly, and are terrific. Between Laura, Jason Lowe, (of course), Jonathan Lovekin (of course), Katie Quinn Davis (of course), and all the others, of course, we have been at a high point in the history of food photography for some years.
My brother and his wife should buy this book and use it, but won’t.
BASQUE: Spanish Recipes from San Sebastián and beyond by José Pizarro
Hardie Grant, £25.00
Photography: Laura Edwards