Grape, Olive, Pig: Matt Goulding's Love Letter to Spain
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Matt Goulding’s latest serving of food writing, Grape, Olive, Pig, begins with a letter to his mentor, Anthony Bourdain, acclaiming the virtues of Spaniards (‘people you will want to name your children after’) and what they eat (‘food that will make your toes curl’).
‘There are stories to tell here,’ he says, ‘what do you think?’
‘You could hardly pick a better place to eat,’ replies Tony, ‘to write about, to die. Cheers.’
Goulding’s previous book under the Roads and Kingdoms banner, Rice, Noodle, Fish, gave readers a taste of Japan. A huge hit, the most common response to the book was just three words long: ’I am going.’
But, for Goulding, Spain is different. Spain is something personal. Married to a Catalan girl and having made his home in Barcelona since 2010, Goulding entered into this project aware that Grape, Olive, Pig would be an intimate book.
‘To write in any other way would be to ignore the role my family and friends have played in shaping my understanding of this country and its people.’
In many ways the book reads as a heartfelt thank you letter to those same family and friends.
In writing about Japan, Goulding had greater liberty. He didn’t have Japanese in-laws evaluating his cooking or his assessment of their country. Also, the reading public is more familiar with Spain.
‘The Wandering Scribes’ Club, -- Dumas, Orwell, Papa—have been peddling their opinions on Spain for centuries.’
The standard was high but writers write best when they write from an irresistible urge, an up-swelling of words from their soul. Just so has Goulding poured out his love of Spain.
‘I’ve been pocketing these stories for years, saving them in the dank bodega of my mind like a bottle of ’74 Vega Sicilia, waiting for the right moment to decant and drink. Now’s the time.’
To which the ever profane Bourdain replies, ‘F**k You.’
Chapter One is set in Barcelona where Goulding’s love affair with Spain began on a 1999 school tour. Three years later he returned for a college semester but skipped lectures on Catalan history in favour of exploring Barcelona’s fifteenth century market. The Boqueria became his classroom as he planned elaborate dinner parties for college friends.
‘A technicolor collision of produce, protein and human activity.’
He spent a summer taking cookery classes in the Basque country with Michelin-starred Luis Irizar Zamora before heading home to work in a grill joint in North Carolina.
In September 2010, Goulding had a plan to move to Italy, write a salty novel and fall in love with an Italian. A pit stop to visit old friends in Barcelona diverted him. The best meal of his life, at El Cellar de Can Roca, and a beautiful girl, convinced him to stay.
Goulding’s account of the first evening he spent with Laura, on a bar crawl of Barcelona, recalling every morsel of food, ‘ibérico pork dumpings, and giant red shrimp washed down with cava,’ is searingly romantic. Sweet, salty, enough to make your heart skip a beat. But it took more than one night of good food to seduce Laura. Goulding finally put those cooking lessons to good use:
‘and made her the dinner I had been cooking in my head since the moment we met at La Paciencia : gnocchi with duck ragù topped with a bit of shaved orange and bitter chocolate. We rolled the gnocchi together, drank cava, ate vanilla gelato with coarse salt and emerald olive oil -one of those nights that lives on a loop in your head.’
This isn’t food writing.
‘I felt the earth open up inside me.’
Goulding isn’t writing from a love of food but from a heart expanded by love and respect for flesh and blood people.
There’s far more to this book than romance and rolling the gnocchi together. As chapters traverse Spain from Catalunya to Cadiz, personal stories are punctuated with illuminating snippets of Spain’s turbulent history. From the days when Spain was the bread basket of the Roman empire to Colombus’ return from the Americas with potatoes and chillies, from the hunger of Franco’s regime to the $6 million tuna industry, Goulding traces the evolution of Spain’s gastronomia. With Catalunya, Basque country and Gallicia all still agitating for independence, Goulding argues that it might be food that holds Spain together.
‘A common pantry, a shared palate, a handful of emblematic dishes.’
Double page spreads with mouth-watering photographs illustrate the anatomy of iconic dishes like Pan con tomate, Salmorejo and Fabada.
Know Before You Go sections offer guidance on how order tapas, and drink cider like a Spaniard.
Whether he's describing the conveyor belt of a meat processing factory, ‘warm with the smell of blood and burned hair,’ or Juan Sobrecuera’s magical cheese cave, Goulding aims, not to teach you anything but to make you feel something.
He paints, in luminous detail, the art and artifice of a five-hour, forty-five course dinner at the world’s most famous restaurant, Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli but he adds;
‘The real beauty of the meal, though, was watching Laura lose herself in its sprawling dimensions.’
Goulding admits that he is better at writing about food than cooking it but, even in his writing, it is the best chefs who are his inspiration.
‘Adrià has long said that he’s not in the business of giving pleasure; he cooks in order to produce emotion.’
This would seem, also, to be Goulding’s approach. His writing is evocative and emotional; he writes straight from the heart.
If the Spanish food writers Goulding so much admires, Néstor Luján, Josep Pla, Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, ‘imbued cuisine with an academic and cultural gravity’, Goulding has imbued it with pure and simple love.
There are no recipes in this book. Goulding hasn’t uncovered any secret ingredients although he does reveal the clandestine hideaway where one of Barcelona’s greatest cocktail makers has retired to stock a tiny country bar with more than 100 gins (I am going).
Goulding believes himself to be incapable of capturing the complexities and nuance of Spain but he doesn’t need to; he succeeds in convincing us that the complexity exists.
His book is like a gateway drug, a first dose of a passion for Spain. It will leave you craving more, another bite, another chapter, until before you know it you are checking out low-cost airlines for flights to Barcelona.