EN VOYAGE – Barcelona Days

30 Mar 2004

I happened to see an article on the www.babelmed.net website announcing the 1st International Mediterranean Cookbook Fair in Barcelona, to be held from February 26-29 2004. Why not? Off to Barcelona I go.

It’s a fascinating seaside city: spacious, well laid-out and airy. It’s also easy to get around—on foot, by car or by metro—and the people are quiet and respect the highway code. They are kind, patient and slow.

As a member of Slow Food I ought to be slow too—but I’m not! At times, slowness exasperates me. But never mind. So it’s off to the Book Fair. I wanted to get there early to visit as many stands as possible before taking part in a round table on exchanges of publishing experiences, scheduled to last from midday to two o’clock.

The Fair is held in the Palau Robert, a stone’s throw from the Diagonal metro station. At the entrance they explain how to get there: I have to cross a small botanical garden (where I see green parokeets high up in the palm trees) and turn left at the bottom.

The first room, the Aula Gastronomica Boqueria features the bookstall from the Sant Josep della Boqueria market. On display are cookbooks of every kind, from the most lavish to the simplest.

I move on to look for books written in one of the languages I speak. I thus come across the stand of the Algerian Books Promotion Agency. I imagine the stands will be arranged in alphabetical order and wonder what might come next: all the countries of the Mediterranean in sequence. In reality, alphabetical order is respected—but jumping several letters!

Along the way, I meet Cyprus, Croatia, Greece, France (Librairie Millescamps, Périgueux), Slovenia, Switzerland (the Fondation B.IN.G., which presents its monumental Catalogo del Fondo italiano e latino delle opere di gastronomia, Secoli XIV – XXIX (but no Swiss cookery book!) and Turkey (just one book).

Journey’s end, or almost! The last room is dedicated to a private collection of books written in the most diverse languages: French, Swedish, Italian, Arabic, English etc. In short, a multilingual Mediterranean table, Here you get an idea of the interest non-Mediterranean countries— the Netherlands, for example, or Sweden, GB and the United States—for Mediterranean cookery.

Another reflection: the best cookbooks about Arab countries are published in Europe. Those by the Moroccan authoress Fatema Hal, for example, are published in France. They are very beautiful, hence very expensive, unaffordable for the average Moroccan reader. It is necessary to think in terms of joint publishing ventures with the countries of the southern Mediterranean—as Paris-Mediterranée has done, publishing Cuisine d’Algérie et du Maghreb (Cuisine of Algeria and the Maghreb) by Amina Boutaleb in collaboration with Ennadha.

One final point: the absence of an Italian stand is incredible. I can’t say the same thing about Tunisia, whose publishers only travel when they receive financial support from the French ministry for cooperation.

I come away with a few purchases: Choice of Recipes from Greco’s Tavern, The Cookbook of Traditional Cyprus Food and La cuisine Tlemcenienne (The Cooking of Tlemcen), which I buy only because it is written in Arabic and French (it’s amusing to see how they translate ‘bain-marie’ into Arabic: ‘hammam maria’).

The best Catalan cookbook recommended to me by the coordinator of the Aula Gastronomica Boqueria is only available in Catalan and Spanish. Which is a pity since I would have liked to have read it to try to reproduce some of the Catalan dishes I discovered during my stay in Barcelona.

It’s a really interesting cuisine that I become familiar with thanks to a local, Barcelona born-and-bred, who takes me to the tapas bars, the stands in the market, and refined restaurants. Plus, we eat a paella at home made from fresh produce bought at the market.

The Catalan cuisine I have the chance to savor—from the popular (fresh broad beans with black pudding, chickpeas, baby calamari sautéed with white beans ) to the refined (sea urchins au gratin, squid with asparagus, sushi of salt cod) is always appetizing, with unusual land and sea combinations, and accompanied by excellent wines. The classic copa de cava (glass of dry spumante), offered as an aperitif before tastings of white and red wines, is a fortunate experience that never leads to a headache. Which means, in my opinion, that the wine is of good quality.

At the round table, I’m happily surprised to bump into Kamal Mouzawak from Beirut, who introduces me to the one and only Claudia Roden, Cairo-born ‘queen’ of Middle Eastern cuisine in GB and the USA. Together with John Irving, a participant from Turkey and an American, we occupy the first row. The debate is pretty lively. It addresses a number of questions regarding the publishing of books about cookery and gastronomy, easy-to-cook recipe manuals and books about culinary culture, affordable practical books or attractive volumes of photographs and recipes by great chefs that are impossible to make.

One person pointed out that, despite the importance of the sector, cookbooks aren’t viewed highly upon by publishers. They aren’t allocated space in major book fairs such as Frankfurt, London and Paris, whereas poetry, which is hard to sell, finds a niche in all of them.

Claudia Roden, for example, has never been invited to any of the above fairs to present her books, recipe collections with descriptions of daily life and literary quotations all rolled into one. José Maria Pisa, of the De Re Coquinaria bookshop, speaks of the lack of translations of important books written in Catalan and Spanish and the existence of Arabic and Spanish manuscripts about cookery that have never been published.

The researchers meet in another point of the city, at the European Institute of the Mediterranean as part of the third International Symposium on Mediterranean Food. A number of distinguished experts are present, among whom Manuela Marin, the great expert on gastronomic manuscripts in Arabic, Françoise Aubaille-Sallenave of the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle de Paris, and the Italian scholars Massimo Montanari, Alberto Capatti and Alessandra Guigoni, a young researcher who makes an interesting speech about the introduction of tomatoes, prickly pears and potatoes to Sardinia.

A gala dinner was organized for the presentation of awards to the best authors and cooks of the Mediterranean. Alas, the prohibitive cost (300 dollars) prevents me from enjoying the company of this beau monde and finding out the results .

March 1 2004

Adapted by John Irving

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