German publisher Konemann has produced an excellent series of books under the Culinaria name. They're so much more than cookbooks; as well as recipes, each volume gives an insight into the culture of a country, in particular, how it relates to cuisine.
Unfortunately, its heft - at 3.2kg - means Culinaria - Spain is not exactly bedtime reading. But although it looks like a coffee-table book, it offers more than just pretty pictures.
This instalment delves beyond the Spanish culinary clichés of paella, churros and gazpacho. In the introduction, editor Marion Trutter writes, "To savour a nation's culinary customs is to experience the unfolding of an entire culture. Like tasting a fine wine, it takes time and patience, and a readiness to discover some hitherto unfamiliar subtleties. Spain is much loved for its sun-drenched countryside and white beaches, but that very fact can be a disadvantage. Reality is reduced to a set of unrelated clichés, and that applies to Spanish culture and cuisine alike: paella and octopus, red wine and sangria so dominate our images of Spanish cuisine that no room remains for new discoveries. This book aims to awaken the reader's appetite for Spain's variety, the countless facets of nature, culture and cuisine it offers. The great range of climate is a sure sign that this country has more than just one unified culinary tradition: the cool, damp northwest produces a very different harvest from the constantly mild Mediterranean or the sparse plateau of central Spain, with its searingly hot summers and icy winters.
"Many peoples conquered or settled these lands and left their mark; their passage can be traced even today in the flavours of Spain: Romans, Jews, Arabs … All these different groups introduced goods, ideas and customs to the Iberian Peninsula. A country of such variety … has of course also developed a complex cuisine."
Culinaria - Spain takes the reader through the various regions of the country, starting with Catalonia in the northeast, travelling through Galicia, Madrid, Andalucia and finally to the Canary Islands. It goes into details about some of Spain's favourite ingredients: saffron, rice, citrus, cheese and cured meats. It explains why canned seafood and vegetables are enjoyed as much, although in a different way, as fresh produce. And it looks at how geography affects the culinary specialities of various parts of the country, with hearty, warming dishes in cooler mountainous regions and seafood in coastal cities.
The book explores Spanish festivals - both religious and regional - such as calçotada, the "great green onion feast". These are not the green onions we're familiar with; taking up to a year to grow, these calçots are roasted over an open flame and served on roof tiles instead of plates.
There are plenty of recipes, too, including partridge in chocolate sauce; duck with peaches; angulas (baby eels) with garlic, chilli and olive oil; Galician soup; Castilian-style pig trotters; mushrooms with garlic; La Mancha shepherd's stew; Asturian-style salmon; and, of course, paella.