From Borough to Barcelona

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Working as a waitress in a Catalunya bar, Monika Linton became passionate about Spanish food. Emma Hagestadt talks to the woman who introduced chorizo, Monte Enebro cheese and tapas to a hungry British public

With so many new cook books flooding the market every year, it’s sometimes hard to say which will become keepers on the kitchen shelf. But occasionally a book arrives that has all the hallmarks of a classic. Monika Linton’s Brindisa, The True Food of Spain is one such book – an in-depth celebration of  Spanish cuisine and food that will send less distinguished volumes flying into the Oxfam bag.

There can be few British writers better placed than Linton to write the definitive introduction to Spanish cookery and food.  First as a student, and later as the founder of the wholesale and restaurant business, Brindisa, she’s been immersed in the subject for over 30  years.

Unlike most of us, Linton had a bright idea in her twenties and the chutzpah to carry it through. Working as a waitress and later as a teacher in Catalunya, she became passionate about Spanish cooking and artisanal produce. On her return to London in 1986, she boldly got in contact with  up-and-coming chefs like Alastair Little, Simon Hopkinson and Rowley Leigh and asked them to sample a shipment of Spanish raw milk cheese. A shop in Borough Market soon followed – one of the first on the site – and later a string of  London-based tapas bars and restaurants. It’s hard to imagine life before chorizo, but it is largely thanks to Linton that this paprika-hot delight ever ended up in our frying pans.

A few days before publication I meet Linton and her husband, Rupert, in Brindisa’s distribution centre in Balham. The book has been several years in the writing, and it’s clear from what they say it’s been both a labour of love, and a serious attempt to distil a lifetime’s worth of knowledge of Iberian cuisine and food production. It also comes at an interesting time in European history.

‘I’m shy about calling the book the ‘True Food of Spain’, says Linton. ‘But at the same time I can’t pretend the last 30 years haven’t happened. We began the business post-Franco at a time when there was vast regulation, and local produce was looked down on. All this time later we’re waiting to see the effects of Brexit…it would be so sad to see all our long-cultivated relationships disrupted.’

Yet Linton, now in her early fifties, radiates an optimism and brainy friendliness that suggest that she will find a way around most problems. ‘It’s always helped that I’m not flying any particular flag, geographical or political, ’she explains.  ‘Because of my degree I spoke fluent Spanish – it’s how I got producers talking to me initially. I could get into conversations that were human…about the cinema, about food.  It wasn’t as if Spain was a faraway, impenetrable place.  My proposals were realistic. The real obstacle was that the British had a particular view of Spanish food. They didn’t know much beyond sangria and summer holidays.’

Tapas and paella are probably still what spring to mind when most of us think about Spanish food. But as Linton’s book reminds us there’s a world of astonishing stews, wonderful soupy rice dishes and magical legumes waiting to be discovered.  ‘The tapas menu is very suited to going out and a night on the streets,’ explains Linton. ‘But preparing tapas is intensive work, and you need equipment like deep-fryers. We  recently opened a restaurant near Barcelona’s Boquería Market, and quickly learnt that the Spanish expect a main dish…they don’t want to share.’

Linton’s book isn’t organised around regional  or seasonal cooking, but around mealtimes : breakfast and afternoon snacks (desayuno y meriendas), small plates (tapas y raciones), big plates (platos principales), postre (pudding) and queso (cheese). It’s not a book concerned with modish reinventions or on-trend menus, but the nourishing pleasures of home-cooking.

I wondered if during the course of her research she’d come across any surprises? ‘I did come across recipes that some of my Spanish friends hadn’t heard about’ she says. ‘Take a fast food snack like tuna empanadas. They’re  industrially made and found in sandwich bars all over Spain – delicious. I knew they originated in Galicia, but when I visited I came across more elaborate variations. For example there’s the costrada de setas – a mushroom-filled pie cunningly layered with pancakes – and also the empanada de castanas con perdiz, a partridge pie made with chestnut pastry…perfect with a simple green or tomato salad.’

The real stars of Linton’s table, however, are the one pot stews and bean dishes – recipes that are as adaptable as they are tasty.  ‘The Spanish are flamboyant when they cook. When I first started writing up my recipes I’d get home and think, O My God, was that a big or a small handful? How many grams is that? Cook to suit yourself and the season. Substitute meat for seafood in the stews. Combine pasta and lentils.’

Dried beans haven’t featured much in the British diet since medieval times, but along with chickpeas and lentils, they’re  regarded as the staples of the Spanish kitchen. ‘They look beautiful… and they’re fantastically nutritious,’ says Linton. ‘Rupert and I like the soaking process – we like cooking that has stages. It’s meditative. But  jarred beans can be brilliant too, the only thing you lose is the texture. My absolute favourite dish is Changurro con alubias, Cantabrian white crabmeat with white beans. I first had it in a restaurant in Somo, near Santander. You have to book ahead, the chef needs 24 hours to prepare.’

Yet Linton’s book is more than just a recipe book. Behind every  ingredient and product there’s a story of a small-holder, a forager or a farmer, and the history of a family, town or rural landscape. Linton’s fascination with sourcing products, from the perfect olive to the most exquisite cured ham, has always underpinned Brindisa’s commerical success. ‘I found there was a real tact and modesty to keep in mind when I was writing,’ says Linton. ‘ The real challenge was to make sure I didn’t upset any producer, chef, home cook or supplier.’

So 30 years on from those heady summer nights waiting tables in Catalunya, how does Linton see the next stage of her career? ‘Some of my friends joke that death is their exit strategy ‘ laughs Linton. ‘But for the time being, we’re going to concentrate on some post-Brexit consolidation. ‘

But consolidation doesn’t sound like a word that sits easily with Linton’s adventurous nature. As we walk out past warehouse shelves replete with bottled capers and tinned tuna, Linton shows me a photograph of a game and chicken stew prepared by her 15-year old daughter. ‘Both my son and daughter are really good cooks, ’ she says.  ‘Though they do get sick of visiting dairies on holiday…’ Something that Linton probably won’t tire of any time soon.

Brindisa, The True Food of Spain by Monika Linton is published by  4th Estate, £29.95 harpercollins.co.uk. For a taste of Monika’s recipes go to breadandoysters.com/recipes