Brindisa: The True Food of Spain

brindisacover_webBrindisa: The True Food of Spain is an outstanding cookbook.

The nearest thing I can point to in comparison is Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy – which unsurprisingly comes from the same publisher. Brindisa reminds me of Made in Italy – one of my favourite books ever – because it stands for the same dedicated, determined, passionate exploration of an entire food culture. Similar in housebrick-size too, Brindisa is a whacking great study of the food of Spain. If you have even the faintest interest in Spanish cuisine, you need to buy it immediately.

Although I’m quite determinedly Italian in terms of cooking favouritism, I have also loved Spanish food for a very long time. This fascination was born in a decades-gone visit to the much missed Barioja in Edinburgh. I can remember the discovery of this incredible cooking like it was yesterday .

There are a number of Spanish cookbooks – some are exceptional, and some just phoned-in tapas selections. What makes Brindisa stand out – in the way books like 1080 Recipes or Claudia Roden do – is the complexity and the determination to do justice to the food of all Spain, the real food of Spain, as opposed to just recreating the standard dishes we get down at our local chain. Brindisa is exhaustive in the very best way possible.

Of course, I love these standard dishes, and they are all here. Yet, every one of them I made from Brindisa improved on my earlier experiments exponentially. You can’t go too stray with Albondigas or Patatas Bravas, maybe, but like the other great Spanish books I mentioned, from Brindisa you’re going to cook something better, much better.

The range of the book is extraordinary. There is a fascinating & moving early biography of Brindisa the company, and then for each section there are detailed introductions – to vinegars, for example, or panceta. In between, there are reminiscences and introductions. In this sense the comparison with Made in Italy is very apt – both books share an endless generosity & hospitality.

Here are recipes gathered over years, from dear friends, from dedication and research. Here is a sharing – of ideas, techniques, ingredients – that is overwhelming in its collective impact. It’s the same with Locatelli – by the end of Made in Italy, you’re so saturated in information that your instinct is to start reading it again. And I often do. I take Made in Italy off the shelf even if I’m not going to cook from it. Sometimes I just look at the pictures. Brindisa will probably be the same; I haven’t even scratched its surfaces yet …

In fact, Brindisa has broken new ground at the Scullery. For the first time ever, I found myself thinking I’d like to have a cookbook on iPad. Not exclusively on iPad, of course – physical cookbooks will never be replaced, I hope – but in addition. It’s a huge book, a heavy book. And yet, because of the writing, the readability – the storytelling that exists within and without the recipes – I have a sense I’d like to be able to carry it with me. To read on a boat, maybe. A train. It would be good to have Made in Italy on my iPad too. Or Emiko Davies’ recent Florentine – another book Brindisa reminds me of – these detailed, labour of love wonders of books which are actually much more than cookbooks alone. I may just start doing this, and the hit on the bank balance will be terrifying. In fact, I’d buy books like these as audiobooks too.

I branched out, of course. Just making meatballs from this book would be like only making Ragu from Marcella Hazan. I had mixed success it has to be said with my Catalan Beef Stew with Chocolate, but was amazed by the Braised Chicken with Meatballs, which is one of those dishes that seems to somehow magically drift together just at the very last minute – rich, hearty, filling. I spent hours on my Ana’s slow-cooked sweet orange infused rice, which was so gorgeous, so mutely delicious, that every single stir was worth it. I almost burst out laughing it was so lovely. “In tears, the moon says:” wrote Lorca, “I want to be an orange.”

It’s not rocket science to suggest this, but I’m going to anyway: these dishes all fly with the best ingredients. Locally, I just can’t get some of those used in the recipes, and some are strictly online. But I can still make the call to get the best chorizo I can find. For my Chocolate Beef, for example, I could have got a better cut. Better chocolate. It doesn’t mean at all that you can’t revel in this book without access to top-stuff produce, but you’ll get a lot more from it if you try. Indeed, there are particular Spanish ingredients that you simply have to use for the recipe to make sense. The book itself leads you by the hand when it comes to this produce – what’s the story with different Pimenton? What kind of chorizo to use? What is Bomba Rice? Sherry anyone?

I love the design of this book too. I really like the geometric patterns of the cover, and those on the inside section pages too – not unlike wallpaper my mam had in her kitchen in 1974. The photographs are beautiful – and I really value the focus of the ingredients. They’re lovely to look at of course, the tins of tuna, the sausages, and so on – but they also help to give you a sense of quality of produce and direction for those of us learning to look – in a way that just the finished dishes can’t. Cookbooks could do more of this. I also like the cream, quality textured paper, and above all, the clear, defined type. This is a cookbook that knows instinctively what works best for actual kitchen use: readable, unfussed fonts, with practical, purposed use of bold rather than typeface akimbo. The only problem I had with this book was keeping it propped up – did I mention that it was completely enormous?

I’m going to return finally to my tapas bar comfort zone – yes, I did love reading about the more unusual fish dishes, the pasta dishes, the porridges and oxtails – but I think my reaction to this joyous book is summed up by my cooking of the Chickpeas with Chorizo – the Garbanzos con chorizo. I have made a lot of chickpeas and chorizo over the years, and eaten even more in tapas bars here and there, but I have never succeeded in making such ostensibly basic, but beautiful chorizo & garbanzos before now. This is because I searched out a good wine, learned to make my own Fritada, dusted the panceta with paprika, found good quality cooking chorizo, chickpeas. And so, the result was astonishing. It took a bit more time and effort, sure, but it breathed a different air.

And, I had read the introduction to the recipe – about Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, a single electric ring and this one dish’s little part in the story of Brindisa, what Brindisa stands for, why there is a Brindisa. The recipe sits therefore in the context of hundreds of others, a lifetime of discovery and perfection, and this sense of each dish being part of something bigger speaks in the end about how a fascination for a whole culture gathers every individual recipe in the book – and you really feel it.

This is also like Made in Italy, Locatelli’s masterpiece – the total effect of this recipe, this story, this food,  is not an off the shelf bit of Spanish Cuisine fakery; it is a straight-forward declaration of love. An inspiration to immerse, rather than pick and choose. A totality. You can’t help but be motivated to learn as much as you can. It’s no more about just chucking chickpeas and chorizo in a pan to create something vaguely Spanish, than haggis is just a bunch of guts in a bag. The subtitle is important – Brindisa: The True Food of Spain. After a month cooking from this book, I take this two ways: the search for authenticity in the food, and a writer driven by an equal truth of passion.

I admire Brindisa greatly. It is encyclopedic in scope, but poetic in intention. It is stuffed to the gills with learning and sharing, and filled with the most exciting food of Spain – from the basic, to the complex. It demands re-reading and has the inbuilt cherishability that characterises the very best cookbooks.

Brindisa is a Spanish lovesong.


Brindisa: The True Food of Spain is published by 4th Estate