The most memorable cab ride I ever took occurred along the mundane route that connects the Madrid airport to the city center. My boyfriend and I had just arrived on a transatlantic flight, and the driver, noting our accents and taking us for first-time visitors, decided to educate us in the pleasures of his native land. The conversation quickly turned to food. Spanish seafood, we were told, was easily the best in the world. The tomatoes? We did not know the tomato until we tasted a Spanish tomato. His voice grew increasingly emotional as he continued. The chorizo! The cheeses! By the time he got to the jamón, he was quivering with zeal. When he dropped us off, there were tears in his eyes.
His passion fits perfectly with today's romanticized vision of Spain, a country whose reputation for flamenco and matadors has only recently expanded to include shellfish and cured meats. Ever since famed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià made it onto the cover of the New York Times Magazinein 2003, the country has been the object of fierce culinary desire. Not just for the high-end stuff for which Adrià is renowned—liquid-nitrogenized raspberries and centrifuged squid ink—but for the quotidian as well: the sturdy housewives who argue over the ripeness of melons, the old men who toss back glasses of red wine with breakfast. We live in a world that fetishizes food, and these days, Spain wears the black leather and stiletto heels.
The publishers at Phaidon hope to capitalize on that craving with an English-language version of the Spanish cookbook 1080 Recetas de Cocina. (This isn't the first time Phaidon has updated a foreign classic. In 2005, it brought forth an English version of "the Bible of Italian Cooking," The Silver Spoon.) Written by French-born Simone Ortega, who married into the family of renowned Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, 1080 Recetas is precisely what its title indicates—a no-nonsense collection of more than 1,000 recipes, with a few helpful hints on menu planning and skinning a chicken leg. First published in 1972, it has sold more than 2 million copies and remains the classic cookbook that most every Spanish family owns—an Iberian Joy of Cooking.
Phaidon's English version is handsome. Updated by Ortega and her daughter, Inés Ortega, it is a fat, hard-covered volume—indeed biblical in its proportions—with whimsical illustrations by Barcelona designer Javier Mariscal. The book offers a comprehensive introduction to favorites of the Spanish table (gazpacho, paella) and to less celebrated delicacies (stewed tripe, fried eggs). Still, I suspect that many readers will be disappointed.
The problem is not with the recipes themselves, which, for the most part, retain the clarity of the original. The problem is that 1080 Recetas does not lend itself easily to fetishization. The book is the definition of pragmatic: Its numbered recipes are directed at a beginning cook who is concerned with keeping costs down and perhaps a little overwhelmed at the prospect of getting three meals a day on the table. To that Spanish woman, Ortega's voice—calm, clear, and only rarely given extravagant adjectives like "delicious"— must have been comforting. How else to explain recipe No. 10 for tuna canapés?: "Drain a can of tuna in a bowl; mash with a fork; stir in the mayonnaise; spread mixture on bread."