The Food Lovers' Cookbook Collection
The New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen
The New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen is a clever book. While it is organised along the traditional lines of grouping dishes into soups, eggs, salads, seafood and so on, she also manages to seamlessly make the book a tour of Spain and Spanish culture by introducing recipes with well chosen stories that provide the reader with a valuable insight into what makes Spanish food so special.
The author also manages to straddle that strange dichotomy that exists in Spain between the allure of the traditional foods that have been cooked the same way for centuries and the cutting edge culinary fervour that is sweeping the country lead by such notable chefs as Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz, and Juan and Elena Arzak of Arzak.
Her introductory chapter entitled Falling in Love with Spain captures this dichotomy perfectly. Her rapturous description of her first meal at El Bulli encapsulated the positive experience we certainly had at this culinary shrine. But she also explains that even the most avant-garde of these chefs acknowledge their debt to traditional cooking techniques and the quality of local produce. This has certainly been our experience. The food at Mugaritz, for example, shows flair and imagination in both technique and presentation, but is deeply rooted in the produce of the region.
The next section on the regions of Spain sets the scene with a brief, but useful summary of the regions of the country. This summary includes a description of the wines of each region and some of the important wine producers. This is useful as it is impossible to separate the changes to the food scene in Spain have been paralleled by a rapid improvement in the quality of the wines as well a a rediscovery of many traditional grape varieties.
And then its on to the recipes. The first section on Tapas has many interesting recipes including the traditional such as tuna-stuffed eggs and veal-stuffed piquillo peppers to the more upmarket such as the beet leaves stuffed with morcilla which was inspired by a visit to Arzak in San Sebastian. Within this chapter is a rapturous essay on eating tapas (pintxos) is San Sebastian which describes with gusto the culinary gems on offer in these wonderful bars that dot the city. We warmed to her descriptions as the five bars she mentioned were five of our favourite venues in this amazing food city.
The chapter on soups is particularly strong with some beautiful recipes that capture the spirit of Spain. The Galician white bean soup made with unto lard and turnip tops is changed to use bacon fat but otherwise sticks to the tried and true for this unctuous dish where the beans take up the silken texture imported by the fat to raise the flavour and texture to new heights.
When we were reading the recipe for chicken in almond and saffron sauce, however warning bells started to ring. The almonds we have used for cooking in France and Spain are fresh and vibrant and full of flavour - far better than those from other countries. We would warn that the same flavours and textures cannot be achieved by wandering down to the local supermarket and buying a packet of often stale, tired, inferior nuts. The same goes for saffron. Although the stamens are dried, they deteriorate in quality quickly so it is important to source really fresh stamens that will impart the correct flavour to the dishes. This is not a comment on the book but more a comment on the availability of Spanish ingredients in other countries.
There are hundreds of recipes all explained very clearly and all set in context with historical titbits provided where appropriate.
This is a serious contribution to our understanding of Spanish food and culture and we can unreservedly recommend it.