When I first heard about this show I was both extremely skeptical and extremely interested. Gwyneth Paltrow is traveling around Spain with Mario Batali??? What? Mario Batali, the guy who always gets an exasperated channel flip from me whenever he is on the Food Network, taking precious time away from Giada, Sandra, Rachael, Alton, Ina, and Nigella?! And on PBS? That's weird.
On the other hand, I love anything having to with Europe and wine and olives and cheese and the education of it all. The history, the process, the tradition. I love that stuff. But the fact that this random waify movie star and this gluttonous Italian chef are the road trippers threw me off. But it totally works.
As promised, I downloaded Spain: On the Road Again to my itunes and have been completely obsessed ever since. I watched 5 episodes in a row while painting this weekend and afterwards felt like I could actually speak Spanish and should be analyzing the amount of rainfall in the Galicia region and the best time of year to fish for mussels in a delta. I felt tired of processed food and decided that I deserved a daily siesta. And I desperately want to visit Spain.
The show works for many reasons, one of which is the fluid chemistry between Mario and Gwyneth and the two other personalities who joined the trip-- the lovely Claudia Bassols, a Spanish actress, and Mark Bittman, one of my favorite NY Times food writers (and bloggers!) The four are constantly giving slack while simultaneously bring out the best in each other. Aw :)
Bittman, por ejemplo, is a known curmudgeon yet the other three have him laughing and singing like a schoolboy in the back seat of the Mercedes convertible. Gweenie (as the Spaniards call her) feels like an old soul and someone that you absolutely want to be friends with. Its shocking how normal and gracious she is and how giggly she gets when Mario says inappropriate things (which is often.) Listen to her speak about her children... its so very endearing and so obviously from the heart. She even sings the Dora the Explorer theme song to Mario. That is one of my favorite scenes.
Mario is annoying, as a human, but every once in a while he starts talking about his childhood in Spain and his children's' love for the color orange and suddenly we see this interesting, content, excited person who really does exude an infectious energy. Claudia is a popcorn ball of positive thoughts and a genuine craving of knowledge. She balances Bittman beautifully.
The heart of the program does come from this nourishing of knowledge, the nourishment of learning. Its not actually about food, in the end. Part of my skepticism came from an idea of a gluttonous journey of the privileged few. A flaunting of wealth is never attractive and I envisioned Mario stuffing ham into his already full jowl and Gwyneth demanding extra pillows and towel service. But its nothing of the sort. These four individuals bask this opportunity to learn the history, culture, and products of Spain while enjoying its riches.
The food is rarely lavish-- its often quite simple-- consisting of fresh meat and vegetables cooked over an open flame seasoned with only a drizzle of olive oil and sea salt. The point is exactly that... what makes Spanish (and Italian) cuisine so very desirable its is very intimate relation to the earth. Its about local ingredients, local flavors, and simple preparation. Its about eating what is available and preparing food to best suit its natural flavors, not the other way around.
Its the opposite of French cuisine. The French cook for a taste created with sauces and very specific heat and labored preparation. They value the delicateness of a chef's art and of mastering the most complicated of recipes. Recipes are sacred and should only be handled by those who understand the beauty of creating aspic, fois gras, or cassoulet.
The Mediterranean idea, in contrast, is simple, fresh, and anything to bring out the innate flavors of the region. The Spanish eat the oysters raw and WITHOUT seasoning... even in restaurants. The vegetables are barely seasoned, the meat is without sauce. And that, my friends, is why this road trip was essential. In order to actually taste Spanish food one must be in Spain. I love that idea. It's romantic and nostalgic and this girl eats it up. (As I write this I am eating pink and white Keebler frosted animal cookies and feeling very guilty about it, by the way. Mario would slap them out of my hands...)
My parents and I once shared a meal on a farm in the Clay Hills region of Tuscany. Everything we ate was prepared on the property on which we sat. The bread, the meat, the cheese, the wine, the olive oil... everything. It was the best meal I've ever eaten and know that I will not have another like it unless I go back. What grows together goes together, sings Mario, and he's right.
Wine from Basque is enjoyed best with lamb from Basque and cheese from Basque and asparagus from Basque. Get it? It takes the guessing out of cooking. Food nourished by the same earth has a harmonious effect on the palate. We simply can't get food like that here in the city. We make fabulous efforts (many of them by Batali himself) and many of them outstanding... but grapes don't grow on Canal Street.
During the same meal mentioned earlier, my parents and I learned about the Slow Food movement. I later studied and did a presentation of this movement in college for a Global Interactive dinner and earnestly believe in its benefits. Its about eating locally, consciously, and slowly. Tapas aren't food, I learned in the episode on Catalunya. They are a way of eating, a way of understanding life. Tapas are small bits of food meant to be shared and enjoyed in moderation amongst friends and conversation (and wine, of course with wine). One doesn't eat tapas over a sink standing up in their apartment, as I often eat. They are an event, a gathering. And again, I love that idea.
I have a few more episodes left to watch and almost hate to start because it will only mean that the end is near. The road trip did come to an end eventually, but thankfully there are recipes and ideas and conversations for all of us to take with us into American life. Come on over, I'll cook a mean tortilla española while we toast our cava.