Spain: A Literary Companion – Extract

“The perception of Spanish food as unpalatable to civilized taste was an important element in the mythological baggage of the romantic travellers of the nineteenth century. Food, like bullfighting and flamenco, was what separated Spain from the rest of Europe, made it primitive and different. The cuisine was for tough constitutions, and the tasting of it carried a necessary element of risk. The food of Spain was one of the reasons it was never part of the Grand Adventure. Dumas crossed the frontier and left behind him a France where ‘hotels welcomed travellers at any hour, providing sumptuous profusion for two or three francs a head.’ Once in Spain sustenance proved harder to come by. On the first day, the best a local innkeeper could provide for Dumas and his companions was ‘five thimble-sized cups of a thick black liquid, five glasses of clear water and a little basket containing small sticks of break, pink and white’. Dumas considered the quality of Spanish chocolate superb, but thought there was not enough of it. He had to wait till he reached Victoria before he could try out his first full Spanish meal. It was an experience he was never to repeat, so disastrous an effect the food – apuchero – have on his digestion. Nevertheless…if the art of good cooking lies in improvisation. The capacity to make, as Ford put it in Gatherings, ‘something out of nothing’, there has always been good cooks in Spain. Gautier may have been disgusted by the taste of gazpacho, but he was impressed by the quantity of food available to him when he crossed the frontier from France into the Basque country staying the night in the village of Astirraga. Instead of the expected ‘omelettes adorned with hairs dating from Merovingian days, mixed with feathers and claws, gammons of rancid bacon with all the bristles on them, equally suitable for making soup and for cleaning shoes….’ He was treated to a veritable banquet.”

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