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You May Want to Push Yourself Away from the Table

Review of “A Late Dinner” by Paul Richardson

Review of A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain, by Paul Richardson, Scribner, 2007, $24.00.

You could compare A Late Dinner, by Paul Richardson, to one of those fabulous meals you wish you had stopped eating about one or two courses earlier.
Unless you’re a bona fide Spanish food fanatic, A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain may prove to be too much of a good thing.

Richardson, a British ex-pat, owns and manages a small farm and vineyard in western Spain. Here he takes the reader on a gastronomic journey across his adopted country, from the smallest towns and villages to the big cities of Barcelona and Madrid. Along the way we meet a gallery of people who grow, cook, eat, and write about the cuisine of Spain—and Richardson makes it clear there’s much more to it than paella and gazpacho.

As we virtually eat our way across the Spanish countryside, Richardson provides a little taste of the history of the places we visit—always told in a culinary context. He admits that, historically speaking, the national cuisine of Spain has been disparaged as ‘monotonous, poorly prepared in foul conditions, swimming in rancid oil, and stinking of garlic.’ Our tour guide’s mission, it seems, is to prove that Spanish food has come a long way, bebé. In fact, Mark Bittman, author of How To Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food has called Spain ‘the current superstar of European cuisine.’

A Late Dinner feels like a reading from Richardson’s travel journal, casual yet richly detailed. He paints tasty word pictures of simple meals he’s been served in the homes of Spanish families, as well as those he’s enjoyed in cafes and restaurants. He begins the trip in the Mediterranean coastal region of Levante with stories of fish and fishermen. He describes some tiny shrimp he himself once caught there and stir-fried in a spoonful of oil and a half clove of garlic: ‘The shrimps went from glassy to deep orange in an instant, leaching out some of their color into the sizzling oil…it was one of the most delicious mouthfuls I can ever remember taking. The Spanish gastronome Julio Camba wrote that just one sardine is the whole ocean. Well, those shrimps were the whole Mediterranean Sea.’

Richardson offers glimpses into the food served in tiny village eateries, as well as the haute cuisine found in fine restaurants such as La Broche, which, he says, ‘galvanized Madrid’s food scene.’ (He presents a listing of his personal favorite restaurants in the appendix, which may make this book worth the price of admission for anyone planning a trip to this part of the European continent.) Here’s a passage in which he describes a meal served to him by Sergi Arola, chef at La Broche…a meal that he says, ‘fairly took my breath away.’

It included a deconstructed escudella of beans and meatballs with foie gras; confit of cocks’ combs; and a surrealist combination of sea and land snails roasted in lard with a mad salad of tiny violet potatoes, capers, marinade onions, and chanterelle mushrooms, all arranged on a square of fine phyllo pastry. I wished I could have tried the loin of horse with tomato bonbons, if only because seeing it on the menu reminded me forcefully of the civil war, when the eating of horse was more a matter of desperation than of scaling the summit of exquisiteness in food.

If you’re planning a trip to Spain and want to learn all you can about its culinary culture, A Late Dinner could be a delicious treat. For me, it was more than I cared to digest. But when I go on holiday to Barcelona (someday!), I will be sure to heed Paul Richardson’s restaurant recommendations. I think I’ll draw the line at the loin of horse, however.