Nancy Harmon Jenkins interview

Is Galicia a good place for a food lover to stop?

If I tell you the signature dish you won’t want to go there. It’s boiled pork with turnip greens (lacón con grelos), and it’s really delicious and worth the trip. The one great product from Galicia that you can’t get anywhere else is percebes (gooseneck barnacles). You used to go into bars in Madrid and see them on the counter; now they’re too expensive. I thought they were elephant toes: that’s what they look like. They’re somewhat endangered, so if you get the chance, eat them but don’t eat them all. The third reason for going to Galicia is the albariño, one of the great white wines of the world.

How about Andalusia?
Nancy Harmon JenkinsNancy Harmon Jenkins
I think it’s safe to say that the iconic dish of Andalusia is gazpacho. We think of it as cold tomato soup with chopped peppers, onions and croutons, but gazpacho has only had tomato in it for maybe 150 years. We’re talking about a bread soup eaten by poor people, taken into the fields wherever people worked outdoors. The white gazpacho from Málaga is decorated with peeled grapes. There’s a cold gazpacho of chick peas that is just fantastic. It’s a peasant dish that has been turned into something of great elegance.

City life is important in Andalusia. There’s a dynamism to Sevilla and Córdoba and Granada, and along with that comes the whole tradition of tapas. It’s a tradition we’ve adopted in a slightly misguided way.

What do you mean by “misguided”?

In Andalusia, tapas are something you eat standing up with friends, not sitting down with a knife and fork. It would be instrumental for chefs to go experience tapas in Sevilla, Córdoba, Barcelona and Bilbao. Spaniards don’t make a meal out of tapas. You meet your friends for a drink at 9 p.m., long before dinner, and you have two or three tapas because you always have something to eat with wine. You don’t usually have a menu of tapas in Spain. There’s just a board with a few things chalked up.

What’s your reaction to the new Spanish cooking?

What’s going on is particularly exciting. Spanish chefs are defining the future of restaurant cuisine. At elBulli, every single thing is not what you expect. It’s dazzling for the diner, exciting to tangle with these things, but it’s not the way to nourish people. These chefs are not interested in nourishment at all. There’s a masculine and feminine style of cooking in Spain today. The boys are playing with their food and having a wonderful time. They are cooking from their head, while the women are cooking from their heart. Carme Ruscalleda (of Restaurant Sant Pau) is a good example. Her food is so rooted in the place where she is, on the coast just north of Barcelona. This is someone who understands the almost spirtiual connection between the earth and its products.

Where would you send American chefs who want to taste the most inventive Spanish cooking?

If you’re looking for insight, the one place to go is elBulli, north of Barcelona. It’s staggeringly expensive, and if you can’t get in, there’s no scarcity of other places. Carme Ruscalleda has three Michelin stars. There’s Santi Santamaria at Can Fabes outside Barcelona. Within the city, there’s Xavier Pellicer, who has a restaurant called Abac, a beautiful place. Around San Sebastián, there’s Arzak, which is such a great restaurant. Go to learn how a great restaurant operates. The food is inventive, surprisng, yet rigorously tied to tradition. Mugaritz, where Andoni Aduriz is—that place almost turns elBulli on its head. Martín Berasategui’s restaurant in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is casual but staggering. What he does with an egg and some potatoes!

And for traditional food?

As far as tradition is concerned, there’s a restaurant called Hector Oribe in Laguardia, deeply traditional food prepared by a very private young chef, but the cooking that comes from that place is fantastic.

What Spanish ingredients deserve to be better known in the U.S.?

All the peppers (pimentón). Not all Spanish pimentón is smoked. It’s also important to understand the high quality of the canned ingredients, like pimientos de piquillo (roasted red peppers), canned tuna, mackerel and sardines. Most chefs turn up their noses at canned products, but you don’t have to in Spain. The Spanish arroz Bomba is excellent rice not just for paella but also for risotto. There’s no reason why these Spanish rices can’t be used for risotto, maybe with Spanish ingredients such as pimentón and piquillo peppers.

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