This was the fourth and final episode of Rick Stein's travel-and-food-alogue of Spain. The food of Spain is often neglected in the attention it receives. It is never seen as matching the quality and refinement of French or Italian cuisine. Stein wanted very much to redress the balance with this series. I agree that Spanish food deserves much more recognition.
In my view, cooking and preparation techniques do not have to complex to result in good food. Some of the world's best dishes are simple. So why is the food of Spain not respected more? And, let's be honest, some Spanish dishes (most notably Paella) appear to be very simple but are actually quite difficult to get right! Believe me, after picking up a Paella pan (small size for 2) during my travels in Andalucia, and thinking it would be a doddle, it really is more tricky than the recipe books make out! I realise that Ferran Adria with his 3 Michelin Stars has proved that Spanish food can be sophisticated and on a par with the finest food anywhere in the world, but El Bulli was always far from the typical, and given that it is closed for good now, none of us mere mortals will get the chance to sample its fare.
During his series, Rick has travelled to Galicia, the Basque region, Catalunya, La Mancha, Extremadura and ending in Seville. The scenery has been stunning, the people he has met fascinating, and frankly, had me wanting to book a flight and retrace many of his steps, both in terms of travel and culinary discovery. In my mind, that has to be the measure of a travel and food show since the high-watermark was set by the late, great Keith Floyd. I would also praise this programme since it has been relatively gimmick free, too. Stein travels, interviews, watches others cook and attempts dishes without self-aggrandisement or artifice.
In this last programme, he toured the relatively unknown central Spanish region of Extremadura and ended his trip in Seville. As he pointed out, the name 'Extremadura' is not derived from an expression of extreme toughness of the terrain (as in “well 'ard!”), but because the region is at the extreme of the Douro river. I've never been to this particular part of Spain, but his enthusiastic presentation of it makes clear to me that this is yet another gap in my travel CV.
Other commentators appear to describe Stein as 'avuncular' (or even 'super-avuncular') and it seems to me to be somewhat patronising and more than a little bit ageist. He has travelled to Spain since he was a youth, and when you have done so and reach the age of 64, will have noticed changes in society, places etc. You are bound to comment on them, right? I am a long way from collecting my free bus pass and can notice how my home town has changed in the time I've been here. Does commenting on it make me an old Auntie? (Please don't answer yes to that question! I'm already having a mid-life crisis!)
What is to be admired is that after all these years and so many different series, Stein can still demonstrate sincere and real enthusiasm for food, cooking and imparting that passion to viewers. He doesn't go through the motions, or fake his enthusiasm for learning new techniques or discovering new ingredients or even imparting his knowledge of well known ingredients. His journey to the farms which grow Pimenton (that's Spanish paprika to the uninitiated) was a case in point. If you want to find some wonderful smoked paprika, I'd advise you head to the Brindisa shop in Borough Market, which is also a haven for all things Spanish. Round the corner is their lovely tapas bar where you can rest and enjoy a glass of wine and a nibble to get over your journey south of the river to London Bridge.
The recipes featured on this programme are generally authentic (he lets you know when he has done his own take on a classic) and are more importantly, achievable. None of the techniques are difficult (although some dishes are time consuming). None of the ingredients are impossible to get hold of or are unduly expensive. Having watched so many other cooking shows and then had the inevitable wild goose chase for “essence of unicorn” or “angel tears” or some other such nonsense, I was pleased that everything was available without a mission.
Although I have not yet made the leap to buying the book (my kitchen shelf is heaving already and I have to clear some of my beloved cookbooks out before I buy ANY more), it would appear that the book to accompany the series is accessible, helpful and easy to follow. I am tempted! For a review, have a look at this:
I'll close with the words of the man himself, which I think sums up Spanish food and cookery:
"To me the underlying point of journeying to Spain would be to discover the ‘duende' in the cooking. By that I mean a sense of soul, of authenticity. The word is normally used for the soul of flamenco but I think it could be equally applied to the art of Spanish cooking because to my mind, in really good food, there is a communication between the cook and diner that amounts to art."