What’s the USP? Emma Warren’s third cookbook proudly declares to eschew many of the most famous dishes of Spain, the country she has called home for the best part of twenty years. Instead, Spanish at Home explores food popular in domestic kitchens across the country. It’s a nice idea, if one that immediately lends itself to a sort of fantasy. Homecooking, after all, is a concept leaden with romanticism and nostalgia.
We have our own language to describe the food cooked at home. It is honest, and ‘humble’ – another term whose meaning shifts dramatically depending on who is being asked. Home cooking – at least, the concept of ‘home cooking’ that so often is championed in cookbooks, is fuelled as much by the loving intentions of the person making the food as it is by the electricity or gas that powers the stove itself. And so Spanish at Home is about the food made in home kitchens across the length and breadth of Spain – drawing on the ‘generous hospitality’ that Warren has experienced during her time in the country.
Is it good bedtime reading? There are a few short chapter introductions throughout, and a paragraph or so ahead of each individual recipe. Though these are brief, Warren writes enthusiastically, and occasionally slips in little nuggets of information for extra flavour. Nevertheless, this is a book that is intended to be opened on the kitchen counter rather than underneath a bedside lamp.
Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Unfortunately, I suspect sourcing all the ingredients for dishes featured in Spanish at Home will often seem out of reach. Food writing frequently champions home cooking as though it is one thing that unites us all: our desire to offer good food to the people closest to us. And the sentiment is, I suppose, ultimately true. Whether we cook alone with the kids in the other room, or together as part of a large community, the food we make at home seeks to build up our loved ones, to give them strength and ensure that they are healthy.
But this idea, life-affirming though it might be, doesn’t change the fact that nations differ greatly. Spain is not far from the UK, in the grand scheme of things, but many of the ingredients here will not be practical for home cooks looking to replicate these Spanish dishes.
Sometimes this is a matter of sourcing. The difficulty of finding certain fresh seafood in the UK is not a problem unique to Spanish at Home. I can get my head around the absence of cuttlefish from our high street food retailers, but until very recently it was much simpler to buy fresh mussels that had not been vacuum-packed with a ready-made cream sauce, and I don’t know quite what’s changed there. But difficulty here is not solely the fault of UK retailers: ‘chicken ribs’ feel like a fairly niche ask for the Arroz del Campo, and as the recipe lists other ingredients including rabbit and snail, it is plausible that the recipe will never be in serious contention in any home, at least in its intended form.
Mostly, though, the barrier to getting your hands on all the necessary ingredients will be your budget. Perhaps, in Spain, meat is distinctly cheaper. Perhaps Emma Warren’s experiences of Spanish home cooking have mostly occurred in the houses of well-off families. Whatever the case, something has been lost in translation. These dishes, though desperately good-looking, are also frequently very costly.
Take one of the highlights of the book, for instance: the Ragú de Cordero. Captured by Rochelle Eagle’s sumptuous photography, it should be hard to resist. But once you spot that the recipe (to serve four) calls for both a kilogram of boneless lamb shoulder and a supplementary rack of lamb, the average reader may be less tempted. Readers may not even get to the point where the recipe requires ownership of a bottle of Cognac to finish the dish.
For another exquisitely presented dish, Carrilleras de Cerdo, Warren espouses the affordable virtues of pig cheeks – but short of one extraordinary trip to a Morrison’s in Brighton (also in Waitrose sometimes -ed.), I have never seen this cut of meat outside of a butcher shop. Calling around the butchers of Nottingham, I’ve yet to find it in any of those, either.
How often will I cook from the book? Clearly, not as much as you might like to. But that isn’t to say all hope is lost. There are still plenty of (mostly vegetable-led) dishes that are entirely accessible to British home cooks, from minestrone soup to panzanella salads. The patatas bravas, served with two homemade sauces, were absolutely gorgeous when I made them, and those looking to experience something truly unique would be well advised to try the Arroz Cubano, which somehow allows banana, fried egg, tomato and rice to team up in perfect unison.
Killer recipes: Beans in salsa ‘gravy’, beef fricassee, red wine-poached pears and saffron ice cream.
Should I buy it? Ultimately, the problems with Spanish at Home are not problems with Spanish at Home. Instead, they are problems with our over-reliance on supermarkets, the increasingly homogenised range of meats available to us, and, importantly, with the romanticised view we have of home cooking. When we talk about home cooking in £26 cookbooks exploring other cuisines with hungry eyes, we are talking about the food we make at home when we most want to impress. Food that takes a lot of time or a huge wealth of ingredients. When we talk amongst friends about home cooking, we think of the simplest of dishes, and of cuts of meat that are frugal, yes, but also accessible. I would dearly love to eat a great deal of the recipes in Spanish at Home, but the home we are given access to here is, generally speaking, not one I will be able to visit nearly as frequently as I might like.
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars
Buy this book: Spanish at Home by Emma Warren
£26, Smith Street Books
Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas