I love cookbooks, but I hate to follow recipes. I know I’m not alone, however. For me, a recipe is a suggestion, while a cookbook is an inspiration – a thought that makes many of my friends cringe. For them, recreating the traditional techniques and nuances of a historic dish is the goal; whereas, for me, I want to improve it! Vane, yes, but I also know that I’d rather eat a traditional dish in its home country with someone whose been making it for decades.
I begin with this introduction because “Cook España, Drink España”, by John Radford and Mario Sandoval, appeals to the adventurer in me. Mario Sandoval, a rising star in Spanish cuisine, partners up with John Radford, arguably, one of the most knowledgeable Spanish wine authorities on Spanish wine, to make a cookbook that covers the vast diversity of Spanish wine and cuisine.
If you enjoy beautiful pictures in your cookbooks, by all means, pick this up. Displaying fantastic photography, coupled with a nice, simple layout, make this a book a joy to sit back and peruse at your leisure. All 17 political regions are comprehensively covered, beginning with a short explanation on both the food and wine culture. This introduction is followed by 3-4 recipes and then a short recap of the wines, or in many cases, sidras, drunk in said region. A great idea, but with only 190 or so, you’re only provided the briefest snapshot of the foods for which each region represents.
To be a little critical, however, I felt that neither of the authors fully considered their audience when writing the book. The introductions to the regions, and the wrap up of the wines, do the best they can given the space. They also give someone new to Spanish cuisine a nice overview of the food culture. As for the recipes, they range from uber traditional to modern takes on old themes. Last night, I thumbed through the book and found a recipe for Patatas a la Riojana and was quite pleased with the results. However, even though the ingredients are all relatively easy to find for someone in the UK or the Americas, including: potatos, chorizo, green pepper, onion and gralic, there are some ingredients that can only be found in Spain. Take Sopa de Gofio, a soup made with a coarse flour made of roasted corn, rye and wheat grains. Even if you live in Barcelona, it might be hard to find this typical Canary Island staple, called Gofio. It’s times like these, I wonder if the authors thought twice about their audience. Additionally, for all those North Americans picking up this book, it’s written in British English. Though this isn’t a poor choice, it is something to be aware of if you don’t know what aubergines are (eggplants)!
Audience aside, what really frustrated me about this book is that at the end of each recipe is a list of suggested wines to pair with the food. Three wines, one for “special occasions”, one for “Sunday Brunch” and one for “Everyday”. This ticks me off! It’s not because they’re suggesting a wine that irritates me, but that they are suggesting specific wines. This drives me nuts! No information on the style of the wine recommended, or suggestion as to why these pair well, but rather one wine that works. Should I assume others will not pair well?! Why not, instead, offer up a suggested wine, if you feel the need, and then a short explanation telling us why you chose this wine, such as “to balance the acidity in the food” or “because the light tannins work well with the sauce”. I really don’t care what explanation you provide, but just don’t leave me with one choice that 9 times in 10, my local wine shop will not carry. UGHHHH, sorry, sorry, it just drives me nuts. I’m fully in Alders’ camp as to food and wine pairing, but I still think some general rules would help the novice to feel more comfortable. Sadly, last night, our Patatas Riojanas had to suffer with some random Rioja wines, and not the specific choices outlined for us at the bottom of page 130!
And to make matter worst, at the end of each region, there is a page dedicated to the “main bodegas” of the region, which in some cases, such as Rioja, are woefully under represented, while in Austurias, they are painfully stretched thin. Keep in mind that I truly love the idea of this book, which strives to integrate food and wine, but instead of feeling satiated, I end up feeling as if I want something more substantive.
So would I recommend this book for you? YES and no! Yes, if you want to play with your food and have an introduction to regional variations of Spain. This book makes some of the plainer foods a bit more exciting, and at the same time, dutifully represents some of the traditions you can’t approve upon. Plus, if you know nothing about Spanish wine, you may find this to be a nice baby step, as John is incredible with his knowledge of Spanish wine. My answer is no, if you want something that seriously looks at food and wine, and how they integrate and play off of each other. If you want to learn about the history, culture and traditions behind the food, look elsewhere.