Delicioso Author María José Sevilla Talks About Food & Spain

Abi Lindsay Clark talks to María José Sevilla, whose book Delicioso gives a fascinating account of the history of food in Spain.

María José, you are both a chef and a writer, when did you first feel your passion for the gastronomic world?

I am not actually a chef but a passionate cook and also a food and wine writer. My mother was an excellent cook and my grandmother was  a professional cook admired by many. For decades  I worked  at the Economic and Commercial Office of Spain in London where my job was to highlight the virtues of Spanish Food and Wine as a marketeer,  a broadcaster and an educator.

You are also a specialist in viticulture.  Can you tell us more about that?

At a very early stage of my career  it became clear  that I needed to know more about wine in general,  and the wines of Spain in particular. In the early 1990s, I was lucky enough to become the first Spaniard  to pass the Diploma of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust in the UK. This Diploma  became fundamental in the development of my whole working life and  it still is. One thing I feel very proud of is to have been elected  a member of La Gran Orden de Caballeros del Vino.

I understand you live in the UK, have you lived there for many years? What motivated you to move there?

The desire to learn the language and to enjoy the freedoms I did not have in the Spain of the 1970s

In 1989 you wrote the book, ‘Life and food in the Basque country,’ was that your first book? How many other books have you written?

The book about Basque food (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)  was the first. It was followed by Spain on a Plate (BBC Books), Mediterranean Flavours (Pavilion Books)  and  more recently Delicioso, a History of Food in Spain (Reaktion Books). Over the years I have  contributed to a number of other books such as  The Cooks Room, A Celebration at the heart of the Home (Macdonal and Co Publishers Ltd.), The Cook Book of Ingredients (Dorling Kindersley), Street Food around The World and  An Encyclopaedia of Food and Culture (ABC-CLIO), among a number of others.

You have worked as a presenter on UK television, for example with the BBC.  Can you tell us about these projects? 

I started working in television in the UK at the end of the 80s . I just had published Life and Food in the Basque Country and it had been well received by the press and by a  couple of television producers looking for new  ideas and faces.  In those days very few people was writing about Spanish food outside Spain.   Out of the blue, an independent British TV channel asked  me to present a short program about Spanish drinks for children. This was followed by a request from BSB (British Satellite Broadcasting) to write and present  five 30 minute programs for a new series under the title Plat de Jour . The series featured ingredients and dishes from a number of countries including Spain. In 1991 I received a letter from BBC TV offering me to write and present a new series about Spanish food. At the end of 1990, the Corporation decided to produce two series about Spanish food, as part of their contribution to the 500th Anniversary of the  European discovery of America and also the Olympic Games to take place in Barcelona in 1992. One  of the series  would  be filmed both in  Spain and in Ealing Studios in London and presented by a Spaniard. More importantly,  the series was going to be  fully backed by my employer in Madrid, ICEX. Spain on a Plate was broadcast first in the UK in March 1992 and  later in many other countries around the World.  The BBC also asked me to write a book under the same title which  was to become a bestseller.  In 1993 Spain on a Plate was selected   as the TV Program of the Year by the  prestigious Glenfiddich Awards in London . The same year the series was granted   a  Premio Nacional Alimentos de España  by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture which particularly touched my heart . Since then I have contributed to a number of TV food programs in the USA, Australia and Japan among other countries.

Last year you published your latest book Delicioso, A history of food in Spain, in English, with the UK publishers Reaktion books, could you give us an overview of what it is about? Would you like to have it translated into Spanish at some point?

Delicioso belongs to a s book series published under the generic title, Food and Nations. It explores the rich history  and geography  of Spanish food from Palaeolithic times to the present day, telling the story of how food production and consumption developed and how it was influenced by other places and peoples. From the beginning I had something clear in my mind; The book had to offer a readable account of the unique flavours and  long history of the food of my country.

I would love all my books to be translated into Spanish but it has not happened so far. 

When I first moved to Spain back in 1997, I noticed certain apprehension in the Spanish people to try dishes from other countries, but this has changed dramatically in the past few years.  What do you feel has been the main cause of this?

It was natural that it would change , particularly in the big cities but actually it changed quite slowly. The  country had been opening up since the end  of the seventies and the people, including chefs had started to travel abroad. They were bringing back other ideas, and also new ingredients, not necessarily to copy other chefs and other recipes,  but to update they own traditions. Later,  a new generation headed  by very innovative and creative chefs mainly from the Basque Country and Catalonia,  would position Spain at the top of the professional world of food. Perhaps the improvement and excitement created by Spanish food during a period of almost forty years,  did not  encourage enough investment  in  restaurants from other countries,  with some exceptions such as  a number of Japanese and Latin American restaurants  which  have managed to develop a healthy following.  Sushi, pizza  and  American style hamburgers are  now available over the counter in shops and supermarkets all over the country . However,  in certain parts of the country there is still a  strong resistance  to change. I can give you a good example.  In  the Andalusian Sierra  where I live for a  few months of the  year , the changes I have encountered over a period of fifteen years  are related  to local cooks and chefs becoming more professional. It is the  improvement of local traditional dishes, rather than the desire to try dishes and ingredients from other countries or even  from other parts of Spain that has become important .  A Chinese family opened a restaurant in Aracena our closest town and after two months, due to the lack of interest sadly  had to close. This is not  happening exclusively in  Andalusia.  In most parts of the country local food traditions and dishes have remained very  strong and will most likely remain so.

In an interview you gave with the newspaper La Vanguardia you commented that, ‘In reality, Spanish cuisine, as such, doesn´t exist,’ can you expand on this?

In the introduction, and in chapters seven and eight of Delicioso, I wrote on the subject of  a Spanish Cuisine or the Cocina de España  in the singular, which for me does not actually exist.  My language is the language of the Cocinas de Espana in their plurality and  individuality, Mediterranean and not so Mediterranean.  The most beautiful thing for me about my country is its diversity; the various languages,  the climatic variations  and  the geographical  barriers that for centuries have tended to keep apart the regional  identities of its peoples and their food.

I became aware of the great diversity of the Spanish kitchen as my family moved from place to place following my fathers postings in the air force.  My grandmothers and my mothers  dishes , as well as the dishes prepared by  the local  cooks they employed , reflected the parts of the country where they had lived .  Although the food they loved and served most days  was from Navarre and Aragon, where they were originally brought up, dishes from Extremadura, the Balearic Islands or the  Basque Country would appear at our table from time to time, each dish so different and quite distinctive . For the last thirty years I have been travelling all over Spain. I have been lucky to eat in amazing restaurants in Madrid, Barcelona or Bilbao but if  I wanted to understand  local food  I would eat in bars and  small  traditional  restaurants where I could talk to the cook and so appreciate local traditions.

There has been a huge increase in the exportation of Spanish cuisine to other countries of the world over the last few years, do you think that the gastronomy is truly reflective of the standard of the cuisine at home?

The image of Spanish food outside Spain has improved dramatically contributing to the improvement of the image of the country as a whole. Gone are the days when Spanish food was served  in restaurants outside Spain where cooks, many working without any form of training, were trying  their best to reproduce authentic Spanish dishes and not succeeding . The lack of shops selling authentic Spanish ingredients especially  in major cities did not help.  In those days Spanish chefs did not travel or had any intention  to work  or train outside their own localities.  Twenty years on, the work and influence of  talented Spanish chefs  is now  reflected  in the food cooked in very popular tapas bars and in prestigious restaurants in many cities and towns all over the world.    What  has proved  to be  difficult  is maintaining outside Spain the level of quality and innovation that characterises the best of Spanish food today, both traditional or innovative.  However until now there have been some wonderful examples of  excellent Spanish food served in Europe,  Asia or America . A  permanent challenge affecting Spanish  restaurant business abroad has been to attract  and retain, fully  trained Spanish chefs  prepared to work in  kitchens outside their own country,  even when a good offer has been made . They normally don’t speak the language and most importantly they miss life in Spain, their families and their friends. Unfortunately the future of many  businesses is now in the balance owing to  the devastating pandemic  that undoubtedly will affect Spanish food and the whole hospitality industry all around the world.

Given the latest fashion for Vegan dishes and the introduction of new products for example Quinoa, how do you think this will affect the traditional Spanish cuisine?

As Spanish food is a  melting pot,  layered  by ingredients and cooking traditions  from many different cultures,  it should not be difficult to absorb these new tendencies without seriously affecting the traditional Cocinas It is in fact already happening.

You are the first Spanish person to obtain the diploma, of  ‘The wine and spirit education trust,’ congratulations! Can you elaborate on this?

The Wine and Spirit Education Trust is  of course  the prestigious organisation  which has been behind the advancement and improvement of peoples knowledge of wine all over the world. Its qualifications cover the study of all aspects of viticulture, wine making and marketing.  I was required to study for over four years  alongside my regular job and pass the final examinations before obtaining the Diploma in Wine Studies. 

How do you think dishes in the globalised world that we live in will evolve?  Do you think that we will end up losing the traditional dishes from the different countries?

This is a complicated question and  the reply would have to be analysed  almost country by country. It will be necessary to look into their development and  how strong still are their food traditions, among other factors, including food production,  trading and very importantly , food history. Quite often I  judge food and wine writing competitions  and every time it surprises me how many books  are full of traditional dishes or based totally on traditional dishes. One of the most beautiful books I have seen in recent years was dedicated to the food traditions of Ethiopia,  so intriguing and amazing were the recipes that I tried  to cook a few.  If we talk about European food in general and the food of Spain in particular , we need to look at the presence or not in daily life, of traditional dishes  and the desire of people to eat them frequently even if around the corner they can eat also delicious food from another country.  We cannot talk in the same way about traditional dishes  in the U.K as  in Italy or in Spain which brings us to another question What is a traditional dish? Is a curry a British traditional dish?  For me it is.

To reply at this moment to the second part of the question, let me share with you a few thoughts all related to Spanish food.

The hospitality industry has been forced by a brutal pandemic to alter  its  business models in a matter of months.  With a second or possible third wave of the pandemic on its  way, it looks like the original models  may have to be altered  forever if they are going to survive.   In this new world in which  we  are already living, recipe innovation  and evolution in which Spain has reigned supreme for several decades now,  will have to be set aside  at least for a while.  The investment, energy and expertise needed, will have to be redirected to  new areas of  the business, such as delivery systems, packaging design and marketing innovation including, an even more sophisticated social media . Many kitchens will  have to be  redesigned and recipes to be selected  more in tune with the new business models and their capacity to be adapted to new requirements,   especially if the meals have to be delivered. It has not been easy but in London for instance,  Spanish restaurants and tapas bars  such as the Grupo Iberica, Pizarro or Sabor  have already been very active and  quite successful in altering their business . What they have done is to  concentrate  on their most popular and traditional recipes,  which in the case of Spain is very important. Furthermore,  some Spanish bars and  restaurants  have invested  in shops selling  authentic Spanish ingredients, which  they  can also sell on line:  sauces and caldos already prepared,  fresh produce such as meat or seafood, specialised breads and even wines.

 One thing that will protect different food cultures today, including the Spanish,  is that  food for the majority of the people, is very emotional. When we are threatened or unsettled we need comfort and reassurance from recipes we love whether  they are from our own  culture or from other cultures that make us feel good.

Thank you Maria José!












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