Richard Ford on Spanish cuisine

Portrait of Richard Ford.
Portrait of Richard Ford. / R.C.
  • This British traveller and hispanist, responsible for much of the image of 19th century Spain abroad, published some of the country's most traditional recipes in 1845

Between 1830 and 1833, in numerous places in Spain, a foreign man could be seen riding a horse, dismounting from time to time to draw landscapes, talk to the locals and make notes in a book. This was long before the British took over Benidorm, the Germans conquered Mallorca and the Swedes began to display their navels, so a strange character of this type was not called a tourist then, but was known by the rather more respectable term 'traveller'. Richard Ford (1796-1858) became the pioneer of a foreign trend which would change the image of Spain forever: that of the romantic travellers.

Inspired by Washington Irving and guided by Ford's famous Handbook for Travellers in Spain (published in 1845), numerous foreigners would visit this country during the following decades, attracted by the image these two writers had helped to create: that of a country halfway between past glory and barbarity, exotic, dramatic and still uncivilised. Our friend Ford used his experiences on the back of an Andalusian pony to write books (A Handbook for Travellers in Spain and Gatherings from Spain) which, although the author was well-intentioned, are full of scathing criticisms written for gentlemen as British and rational as himself.

Between jibes and taunts, however, the erudite Ford managed to develop a great appreciation for the customs of this country and gained a profound knowledge of what it was like to travel through Spain nearly 200 years ago. The British Hispanist journeyed through the country from top to bottom and despite the poor service offered at that time in the inns and roadside eating houses, he learned to appreciate the gastronomy and make some reflections upon it.

The famous saying, that Spain smelled of garlic and badly seasoned stew had been accepted for nearly two centuries outside these frontiers when, suddenly, Richard Ford told his readers that, actually, it wasn't the case. He did also say that finding a good chef was almost a miracle and that the only two wines worth drinking on the Iberian peninsula, sherry and port, were produced by the British, but he praised the excellence of the raw materials here. For him, Spanish cuisine was so "Oriental, classical and singular," that he dedicated an entire chapter to it for travellers.

In it, he said that it would take too much space to "discuss properly the merits and digest Spanish cookery".

"All that can be now done is to skim the subject, which is indeed fat and unctuous. Those meats and drinks will be briefly noticed which are of daily occurrence, and those dishes described which we have often helped to make, and oftener helped to eat, in the most larderless ventas and hungriest districts of the Peninsula, and which provident wayfarers may make and eat again, and, as we pray, with no worse appetite. To be a good cook, which few Spaniards are, a man must not only understand his master's taste, but be able to make something out of nothing. The genuinely Spanish dishes are good for their class and made in their own way, so there is nothing as ridiculous in a chef, the same as in any other person, wanting to appear to be something they are not (...) The ruin of Spanish cooks is their futile attempts to imitate foreign ones."

According to Ford, roasting was almost unknown in Spanish popular cuisine, which cheerfully dedicated itself to stewing and frying, seasoning everything with a variety of indistinguishable sauces based on garlic, oil, saffron and paprika.

In normal households, "the pot, or olla, has accordingly become a synonyme for the dinner of Spaniards, just as beefsteaks or frogs are vulgarly supposed to constitute the whole bill of fare of two other mighty nations," he said. For this writer, the Spanish culinary genius was condensed in the pot, like the genie in the stories of A Thousand and One Nights .

"The olla is only well made in Andalucia, and there alone in carefid, well-appointed houses; it is called a puchero in the rest of Spain, where it is but a poor affair, made of dry beef, or rather cow, boiled with garbanzos or chick peas, and a few sausages."

Despite his British scruples, Ford was quite adventurous in his tastes and his manual included some detailed recipes so his readers could make some of the Spanish dishes which he considered excellent.

Stew, of course, but also onion soup, pisto, marinated brains, braised partridge, salad, gazpacho (but without red tomato), fried eggs, stuffed onions or tomatoes and Valencian-style chicken stuffed with rice. A self-confessed admirer of the ham of Monánchez, chorizo from Extremadura and bread from Seville, this 19th century traveller par excellence played his role in introducing Spanish food to his countrymen in Britain in the same way he encouraged his fellow travellers to experience and enjoy Spain.