Claudia Roden and the secrets of Spanish cooking
Therenownedwritertells Victoriaprever aboutherpassionforacuisinewithafascinatingjewishhistory
Claudia Roden cooks Spanish
AT A time of life when most cooks might be ready to hang up their oven gloves, Claudia Roden is busier than ever. Her latest book, The Food of Spain, a Celebration — the result of five years of research, recipe testing and writing — has just been published in the UK and she is already contemplating her next project, an update of a previous work, The Food of Italy.
“Since I wrote it, 22 years ago, there are so many new cheese and wine varieties, and over time I have found some of my recipes need to be revised,” Roden says. “I have discovered a better version of one of the gnocchi recipes, and some of the others simply no longer have a good enough reason to be in there anymore”
As part of this project — which should take a year — she plans further research in Italy, where new photos of the food, and the country, will be shot.
She is delighted with the UK edition of her Spanish book, with its cover of deep azure with a border of an intricate Moorish design in green, cream and gold. Inside, the photography by Jason Lowe is simple and stunning. “To compete with the books of the celebrity chefs, cookery books must be beautiful nowadays, and I’m really pleased with how it has turned out,” she says. (Three recipes adapted from the book appear on these pages.)
Roden taught herself Spanish to research the book, and became something of a detective on matters of the country’s Jewish past. “I visited one of Madrid’s top restaurants, and was introduced to the head chef Jesus Santos. I told my companion: ‘He is descended from conversos, I cantellbyhisname’.sureenough,whenhecame to talk about the food, we discovered he was.”
Conversos were Spanish Jews who converted to Catholicism rather than be exiled in the expulsion of 1492. Huge numbers did so, but many families (known as marranos) continued to practise Judaism secretly. Even until the 19th century, they feared being exposed by the Inquisitors and imprisoned or even burnt at the stake. Marrano also meant pig, as many conversos conspicuously ate pork in order to protect themselves from suspicion.
Jewish dietary rules were one of the ways in which marranos were outed. Where Christians cooked in pork fat and Muslims with clarified butter, Jews cooked with olive oil. The distinctive smell of their cooking led Inquisitors to their doors. Christians were scared to cook with olive oil for fear of being accused of being Jewish.
“Even eight years ago,” Roden says “those descended from conversos were ashamed of their history. Now it is almost fashionable to have those roots. Chef Santos was happy to say his cooking influences were Jewish/moorish.”
With several thoroughly researched works under her belt, Roden is now viewed by many as an academic. “I was a visiting fellow at Yale for six months and have also been to several other universities in the US to teach. I am an honorary fellow at UCL and have been asked by SOAS to help PHD students. Several of them have already asked me for my help with their research” she laughs.
She has also made it into new media. “At Yale I was introduced to a blogger who has cooked and blogged her way through my Book of Jewish Food.”
Many of her classic books are being reprinted in new collections. “My French publishers are releasing a new collection, including The Book of Jewish Food and The Food of Spain alongside a book on French haute cuisine written by four food historians. In the US, the book has been nominated for a James Beard award — the highest award in the cookery book world. It has already won a Gourmand award in France.”
Roden’s in-tray is so stuffed with invitations to speak at festivals and seminars, she is unsure whether she will attend the awards ceremony in New York. It is a miracle she even finds time to spend in her kitchen. ‘The Food of Spain, a Celebration’ is published by Michael Joseph Ltd priced at £25
Roden: competing with celebrity chefs