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 1990’s, 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 1970’s
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 Cook’s 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 80’s . 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 father’s postings in the air force. My grandmother’s and my mother’s 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!