“It is important that you find it simple to put together Moro plates, which should be balanced, complementary and culturally true.”
Some friends stopped by after spending 6 months in Spain – I know, it makes you sick – and they returned to the UK understandably raving about Spanish cookery.
The book they had come home with – a parting gift from their Spanish-based hosts – was Moro by Sam & Sam Clark.
What did I think, they asked?
It’s considered one of the very, very best cookbooks of recent memory, I said. In the end, I woke up in the early hours thinking about it.
Incredibly, Moro is now fifteen years old. Once you’ve got over the blanched shock of all that time passing, it’s hard not to see how influential the book has been, how groundbreaking it really was. At this distance, in Moro you can see the seeds of great books like Persiana, for example, or even Mamushka, which I was recently writing about here.
A beautiful book design-wise, Moro is stunning from its cover to the black & white photographs of the old Mediterranean world, from the yum yum photographs of the food to the very font spacing itself. I very much like the little photo inserts of products, loose or in their tins and bottles – like Morcilla, saffron and sherry vinegar. In the look of the book and the underlying respect this care conveys for the subject matter, it’s not hard to get a sense now of just how influential Moro has been on lots of cookbooks that followed.
Of course, it could have looked as great as all that and still disappeared without trace if it wasn’t for the simple brilliance of the food, and the appeal of the writing.
“Up in the Sierra Morena above Seville,” they write, “we had the pleasure of observing one lady’s secrets: elbow deep in chorizo meat, she added lots of garlic, anise, sweet and hot paprika, cloves and salt, and then lit a fire in the room where her freshly stuffed sausages were hanging …”
Are you not just right there? By their very nature, cookbooks need to impart such cultural description quickly, succinctly but retaining the power to inspire. They’re not travel books, so there isn’t as much room to move around the recipes, but when its relevant they still need to transport you in a way, grab for you just a second of different atmosphere. Writing like that found in Moro is rare, the kind that genuinely places you emotionally in the food landscape of another country, then sends you to the kitchen.
The book is filled with examples of this sort of writing, snippets of memory from the authors’ camper van trip “through Spain and Morocco to the Sahara”. It’s one of the defining features of Moro, and one of its legacies – that sense of veracity, of experience, their intention that everything about their book should be “culturally true”. This wasn’t just a book about Spanish and North African cooking, culled from the pages of other books and the odd weekend, the kind of ‘cooking around the world’ books piled high in your local WH Smiths – here was a sense of something very genuine indeed, an exception & a response.
The recipes themselves are tremendous, and there are dishes in here that are defined and refined, and will stand every chance of being your go-to until you end up making them by heart. The spicy Patatas Bravas for example (“We like the sauce to be quite ‘picante’ … probably more so than your average Spaniard, who is surprising sensitive to spicy food”), the Mashed potato with garlic, the Pinchitos morunos, the Roast chicken with harissa (from Casablanca, no less).
These are all simple to make, but the stuff of craving – rich, warming, delicious food that gets you shopping and cooking, or out to your nearest Mediterranean restaurant for a paprika fix. In Moro you’ll find the recipe for Salt cod croquetas, one of my absolute favourite things, and a must-have dish when I used to visit the much-loved & much-missed Bar Rioja in Edinburgh. Salt cod is a delicious thing, and in Scotland, they are now producing it up in the Shetland Islands.
I like a very great deal too the section on sherry, which again is precise but brilliantly written. “Saying one does not like sherry,” they say, “is like saying one does not like wine after trying Blue Nun.” They capture in only a page the terrific range of Spanish sherries, and beat the drum so strongly for it that its hard not to run straight out and buy a bottle:
“… we have been swept away by the complexity of its tastes and the romance of its production.”
When they describe the ‘solera system’ – blending wines from different years – they’ll convert you to Sherry if you’ve not gone full-Frazier and are there already: “… part of what you’re tasting may be two years old , but part may be two hundred years old. You are tasting a wine from another age, another time …”
If you’re like me, and often slightly bamboozled by sherry types on a menu, there is a great section of the end of the book that sets out distinguishing notes on sherry styles.
Moro, then, is a classic. It creates a fevered sort of mouthwater zeal to munch into the food it describes, and a passion to visit the places that inspired the recipes. In book form, it distills the essence of all those times in your life when you sit in a good Spanish restaurant and they deliver Patatas Bravas to your table, excellent ones, and consuming the rich hot oil, tomatoes, potatoes, paprika, thyme and garlic you think to yourself, is there anything better to eat than this in the whole wide world?