‘A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain’

Travel Books: Paul Richardson's new gastro-adventure, Emily Stone finds, catches a European country with a complex past at a strikingly modern moment

08.28.07 | 12:45 PM ET

a late dinner book coverIn 1991, British food writer Paul Richardson zipped away from London in his Mini to set up house with a Spanish agronomist on the disco-dotted island of Ibiza. More than 15 years later, Richardson and his partner have comfortably slipped into a life as gentlemen farmers in Spain’s Extremadura region.

Though they largely provide for their own meals now—they grow their own vegetables, cure their own ham, bottle their own wine—Richardson’s curiosity about the varied cuisine of his adopted country compelled him to undertake another road trip. This time, he zigzagged in search of fisherman and shepherds, modern chefs with ethereal ideas and family matrons with closely guarded recipes. The trip is the basis of his new book, A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain.

The Iberian Peninsula typically has been overshadowed by France and Italy in everything from Grand Tour travelogues to the 20th-century expat-memoirs made famous by Peter Mayle and Frances Mayes. This year has been different. “A Late Dinner” joins two other travel narratives about Spain published in 2007—Giles Tremlett’s political exploration, Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Secret Past, and Michele Morano’s memoir, Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain. In prose that both lingers on and looks beyond food, Richardson, for his part, catches a European country with a complex past at a strikingly modern moment.

The journey recalled in the book lasts for a year, though the motion from place to place feels less important than the autobiography behind it. Richardson believes that knowledge of another country comes during a lifetime, not an excursion. The title “A Late Dinner” is a nod to Spain’s decadent dining hour, and it reaches back to a midnight meal of fresh seafood served on a fishing dock in Santander that Richardson stumbled into as an impressionable 19-year-old backpacker, introducing him not only to a culinary culture but to a lifestyle of indulging in food and life.

“A Late Dinner” opens with a hand-drawn map highlighting each of the regions on Richardson’s itinerary. The first two sections, “Coast” and “Land,” explore the culinary character of Spanish rural and village life. The discerning author eschews Valencia’s dubious paellas made for tourists—flavorless, colored with turmeric instead of saffron, frozen and reheated—in favor of uncommon yet more authentic rice dishes prepared with such ingredients as beans, turnips, pears and raisins. And he explodes the foreigner’s definition of gazpacho, highlighting all possible variations, including the ingeniously simple ajoblanco soup (made with raw almonds, garlic and olive oil). In Catalonia, he samples a concoction of salted fish, pigeon, sausages and potatoes suspended in broth, called el nui (“the nest”), which he describes as “so bizarre, so archaic, and so rare that it has long since passed into shadowy legend.” The final section, “City,” celebrates classically Basque San Sebastián, unrepentantly modern Barcelona and Pedro Almodovar’s surreal stomping ground of Madrid. In those urban locales, Richardson finds that the most important culinary tradition is newness.

The triple-Michelin-starred El Bulli on the Costa Brava, known for chef Ferran Adrià‘s experiments in “molecular gastronomy,” receives more than 400,000 reservation requests yet can accommodate only 8,000 guests annually. It’s no surprise that Richardson gloats at being one of them. His account of the meal could have been excerpted from a fantasy novel: “The tarragon ball was to be placed in the mouth and allowed to dissolve ... the dishes gain in intellectual weight if not in actual size ... Adrià blanches the ear, skins it, and fries it….” But the roving gourmand finds authenticity in less haute places as well, including a neighborhood bar where he meets an elderly couple willing to sit down over café con leche and discuss the food shortages of the Spanish Civil War.

A sometime correspondent for British Condé Nast Traveller, Richardson delights in the role of the cantankerous restaurant critic. He’s an expert at describing a bad meal. About a regrettable dinner in a resort town, he writes, “the tomato was out of a jar, the olive oil nearly rancid, the sliced serrano ham as sweaty and pink-tinged as the tourists filing past on the promenade.” But the writer’s praise is equally sharp. He describes a traditional fabada (bean stew) from the northwestern Asturias region, explaining that “the tocino had taken on a translucent, glassy quality, like a slice of caramelized melon; the chorizos were smokily sweet; the morcillas were succulent and spicy. Best of all were the fabes, big fat white beans, so tender and fine-skinned they melted in the mouth.”

Later, Richardson comes upon the great chef Adrià again at an event called Madrid Fusión. Handlers with walkie-talkies surround Spain’s 21st-century celebrity chefs while an army of knife-wielders thinly slice artisanal hams for throngs of salivating fans. As the scene is about to begin, Richardson writes, “I felt it to be the culmination, in a peculiar way, not merely of my own experiences in the world of Spanish food, but of the history of Spanish food itself.” It seems out of character (and forced) that Richardson should have such a revelation. Indeed, he seems to reach the end of the book scratching his head, wondering whether he has had a proper epiphany to bring the book to a close. In the case of “A Late Dinner,” there may be no satisfactory answer, but that kind of technical detail can be easily overlooked during a good meal.