If there is one thing I know about the Spanish – having visited their beautiful country many times and set my most recent fictional works, the Andalucían Nights trilogy, there – it is this: they are fiercely proud of their culture and heritage.
That pride extends to cuisine, it has become apparent in the past weeks, when the Spanish nation united in outrage over a British chef fiddling with their beloved dish paella.
Newspapers have delighted in reporting on the backlash to Jamie Oliver’s simple tweet: ‘Good Spanish food doesn’t get much better than paella. My version combines chicken thighs & chorizo’.
Paella is a traditional dish in Spain, and while regional variations on the ‘pure’ Valencian recipe exist, they never extend past a core list of ingredients, which includes rice, chicken/ rabbit/snails/seafood, green beans, white beans, artichokes, tomatoes, salt, rosemary, paprika, saffron, garlic and olive oil. Nowhere in that list, as you can see, is chorizo.
Spanish respondents on social media were deeply unimpressed by Jamie Oliver’s tweet; reactions ranged from polite but irritated, through to downright vitriolic. So why the fuss? It comes down to pride and a sense of ownership. Paella belongs to the Spanish. It is their dish, made their way. ‘Putting a twist’ on the dish and still calling it paella is offensive and disrespectful.
One group feels so passionately on the definition of paella it set up a website called Wikipaella on which you can see the definitive recipe (Spanish dictionary at the ready). ‘Our objective is to have the majority of people know what an authentic paella from our region is,’ co-founder Guillermo Navarro told the Guardian. ‘We want it to be like pizza – where people can add in whatever ingredients they want, but that they know what a traditional pizza is.’
The comparison to pizza is interesting. It’s no secret that the pizza you eat outside Italy is quite different to the pizza you eat in Italy. How do Italians feel about that? Just as the Spanish do, I think. They don’t like to see their authentic cuisine misunderstood. Just last week Italian chef Antonio Carluccio was bemoaning the state of the spaghetti bolognese served in Britain. He told the Telegraph that spaghetti bolognese does not even exist in Italy. There, ‘it is tagliatelle bolognese, with freshly made tagliatelle and bolognese without any herbs whatsoever’.
So what is a food-lover to cook that won’t offend a nation? May I suggest this:
Les Diners de Gala is a cookbook that offers 136 recipes compiled by the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala. It’s already topping the bestsellers’ list on pre-orders alone, not for its authentic Spanish recipes, but instead for its highly inventive take on gastronomy. I can guarantee that tweeting ‘Here are the frog pasties I made from Les Diners de Gala; delicious!’ won’t get you in hot water with the Spanish.
‘A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.’ So said one of my favourite French writers, Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
I love architecture, and of course as a writer and a romantic I love places that are alive with symbolism and spiritualism and soul. It is hardly surprising, then, that whenever I travel to a new city, I find myself drawn to its beautiful cathedral.
When I first visited Cadiz, setting for my new novel Legacy, I was absolutely astonished by the grandeur of its cathedral, the Catedral de Santa Cruz. It dates back to the eighteenth century (but houses an older church, the Baroque Santiago church, built back in the early seventeenth century).
The cathedral that is so prominent in the Cadiz cityscape was built to impress. At the time of its construction Cadiz was enjoying a golden age, thanks to the growth of trade from the port to the Americas; indeed, it was called the Cathedral of the Americas. The cathedral was painstakingly built over more than a century to exemplify all that is great about Cadiz, and to put it on the spiritual map.
Visitors to the cathedral feast their eyes on the ornate, detailed architecture, which is a mix of Baroque and Neoclassical in style. There are various artworks and sculptures within, but for visitors the most interesting part is the Torre de Poniente, the bell tower, which is open to the public. The views from on high are breath-taking; you can see all the city laid out below, and you get a good view of the cathedral’s iconic gold-timed dome roof, which gives it an exotic Moorish look.
Personally, while I enjoyed the panoramic views (if not so much the vertigo), I thought that the real beauty was to be found in simply sitting on a pew and soaking in the reverent, peaceful spirit of the place. I was so affected by this quiet time I spent, I was inspired to take my heroine for Legacy, Luna, and the hero, Ruy, to the cathedral. Here are Luna’s first impressions when she arrives for an evening concert:
The cathedral’s vaulted ceiling rose above them in a tessellation of rounded arches, reaching up to the famous dome itself, which was suspended like the pale insides of some magnificent giant sea urchin. Below it, wall lights and tall candles offered a warm, sacred glow; the air smelt of cool marble, roses and incense. Luna’s gaze travelled over the heads of the audience finding their seats, and around the vast stone hull of the interior. History and piety, suffering and bliss were etched into every piece of wood and stone that surrounded them, and it was hard not to feel awed by it all. Yet, added to this, an unexpected feeling of comfort struck her; she was not immune to the profound spiritual atmosphere here.
For the next hour, Luna is swept away by the concert in this inspirational setting. One of the songs performed by the choir most perfectly encapsulates the mood in the cathedral:
The dramatic, sweeping sound of Barber’s Agnus Dei started up from the choir stalls and Luna’s every nerve ending was aware of Ruy as they sat together listening to the exquisite voices climbing and falling.
Afterwards, Luna is moved to describe her surroundings as ‘a ship of souls’. ‘Did you know,’ she tells Ruy, ‘that “nave” comes from the Latin word “navis”, meaning ship? Symbolically speaking, the cathedral is the ship bearing God’s people through the stormy seas of life, buoyed up by their faith and worship, I suppose.’
Luna has come to the cathedral this night purely to enjoy good music in a beautiful building. But in this space, sitting alongside Ruy and feeling so much for him, can she find more? Can she develop faith in herself, in Ruy, in what it means to love and be loved? Perhaps – if she can move beyond, as Antoine de Saint-Exupery suggests, seeing the cathedral as a pile of rocks and contemplate it with the idea of a cathedral, a ship of souls, in mind.
In my new book, Legacy, the male protagonist Ruy is of mixed heritage – he is part gentleman, part gypsy. His gypsy roots are very important to him, and one of the ways in which he connects to these roots and participates in the gypsy community is through music: he is a flamenco musician.
Here is the heroine’s first glimpse of Ruy:
The gypsy stood up, came forward and murmured an announcement of the next song, making a fresh thrill ripple up Luna’s spine at the husky, masculine sound of his voice. He started the rhythmic clapping of a toca de mano, and the waiter went round refilling glasses while the audience joined in, working up to a crescendo of hand-claps until the whole tavern shook with cries of ‘olé’ and ‘anda’.
The muscles of his arms flexed as this time he picked up a guitar and strummed a rapid cascade of chords. He gazed down into her eyes. The dazzling white smile he gave her almost stopped her heart and she lowered her head to hide her confusion.
As the rhythmic clapping subsided, he began to sing. His voice was rich and mellow, warm with vibrant tones and tingling with emotion, beguiling and beckoning like a filtre d’amour that scram-bled her thoughts and stirred primitive and alarming desires within her. The music was plaintive and feverish, and as Luna watched his long fingers alternately strum and flick across the strings of his guitar, first lightly and then harder at lightning speed, she found herself wondering how those hands would feel on her skin. His songs were in Caló so she could not understand the words, but she could sense the intensity of feeling that went into the full, vigorous notes and although he sang to the audience, she knew from the sensuous intimacy in his eyes that he was singing for her alone.
Ruy’s instrument here is a guitar, but not just any guitar: he is a flamenco musician. Today, I thought I would share with you what is so special about that emblem of passionate, fiery Spain: the flamenco guitar.
Flamenco dates back around two hundred years in Andalucía. Originally, flamenco was song – the distinctive raw and primal cry – and rhythm created by pounding on the floor (the palo seco or dry style). Over the years, as the art form gained popularity, it evolved to include four parts: the voice, the dance, the guitar and the jaleo (clapping, stamping, shouting – it translates to raising hell).
During the café cantante period, from 1850 to 1910, flamenco clubs were opened in major cities, and out of this was born the solo flamenco guitarist.
Traditionally, the flamenco guitar is crafted from Spanish woods: spruce or cedar on top and cypress, sycamore or rosewood on the back. It is a lot like the classical guitar (indeed, luthiers – those who make guitars – did not always differentiate between the two), but it is lighter with a thinner top, which makes the sound produced bright and punchy and percussive, and loud enough to be heard over stamping feet and clapping. It also has a golpeador, a laminated plate that protects the instrument from the tapping fingers (called golpes) that are part of flamenco guitar playing.
A flamenco guitarist (a tocaor) plays differently to a classical guitarist:
* He plays in the apoyando style, which means striking, rather than pulling, the strings (apoyar is the verb for support, and the next string supports the finger that strikes, causing vibrations to the fret and a percussive tone).
* Often, he holds the guitar parallel to the floor, giving him a wide range of motion in his arms.
* He uses a capo, which attaches to the neck, to sharpen the sound and heighten the pitch.
* He employs a range of flamenco-specific playing techniques. My favourite is the rasgueado, which is strumming with outward flicks of the fingers that is meant to echo the sound of the dancer’s feet and her castanets.
Flamenco is a style of music that comes from the heart. Improvisation is common, and traditional music is rarely transposed into music books and learned by rote, but is passed from player to player. In this way, a piece can alter subtly with each passing, so that it is always changing, growing; a work in progress. Toque gitano o flamenco is a soulful, expressive style of Spanish music; it is incredibly stirring.
I will leave you with this video of one the greatest and most influential flamenco guitarists, Paco de Lucia, and the hope that you can find time to watch even just a minute of this and be transported to the world of my characters in the Andalucían Nights trilogy.
As a young woman – after my university degree and before I met my husband and settled down in England – I travelled extensively through Europe. I was something of a nomad, moving from country to country in my eagerness to see new places, meet new people and experience new cultures. The impassioned need to explore stemmed, I think, from my childhood in Egypt, during which my family were put under a sequestration order and banned from leaving the country. As a young woman I was determined to beat my wings and fly free.
Of the countries I explored, Spain left a lasting impression on me, and that is how I have come to write not just one but three novels set in this beautiful land of tradition and passion: my Andalucían Nights series, of which the final book, Legacy, is publishing on Thursday!
Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy are set in Andalucía, in the south of Spain, but during my travels, and as part of the research for my novels, I visited other regions of the country as well. I loved the cosmopolitan city of Barcelona in Catalonia so much that I opened the action in Legacy there, but the other region that really captivated me is Galicia, in the northwest. Some years ago, I was lucky enough to visit on this very day, 25 July, which is a national holiday in honour of Saint James, and was at the hub of the festivities in Santiago de Compostela.
No doubt you’ve heard of this historic city, the capital of Galicia. It is home to the shrine of Saint James the Great, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, and the first to be martyred, often known as Santiago. Legend tells that the remains of the apostle were brought to Galicia (in a miraculously stone ship) and buried, whereupon they were discovered by a shepherd guided to Santiago de Compostela by a heavenly light (Compostela derives from Campus Stellae, ‘Field of Stars’). The shepherd reported his experience to a bishop, who declared the remains to be those of James, and a beautiful cathedral was built on the burial site.
Many believe that the legend is grounded in fact, and that Saint James preached across the Iberian Peninsula. For more than a thousand years, pilgrims have followed what is known as ‘the way of Saint James’ (Camino de Santiago) from places all over the world to the shrine at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. (For a wonderful modern depiction of this pilgrimage, I can recommend the film The Way written by Emilio Estevez and starring Martin Sheen; it’s very powerful and moving).
On 25th July each year, Galicia celebrates Saint James’ Day, which dates back as far as the ninth century. I arrived a few days before, and was amazed at the buzz in the city; it seemed that in every square at the heart of the city there was something to see, from dramatic productions to musical concerts, and on the eve of the special day, what a firework display!
I found that on the Saint’s Day itself the atmosphere in the city was electric. Along with so many others I stood in the street and watched the carnival procession – the Galician pipers were particularly memorable – and then I ate a delicious meal from a scallop shell, which is deeply symbolic in the city: the grooves on the shell meeting at a focal point represent the paths to Santiago de Compostela, and all along the Camino de Santiago one can find scallop carvings as directional markers.
What struck me most about St James’ Day was not, however, the fun and festivities: it was the moving poignancy of it all. So many years of historical legacy shape this day; it was a real honour to be a part of it. As I stood outside the cathedral, all I could smell was the incense from the botafumeiro (a great, ornate burner that swings from the ceiling, guided by tiraboleiros), and it triggered my sense so; all I could think of was how many people had stood on these old stones and breathed in the heady scent and been humbled and thankful for their lives.
My visit to Santiago de Compostela was short, but it has echoed with me since, and I am sure it played a part in inspiring my Andalucían Nights series, in which tradition and legacy are so integral.
My latest fiction series is set in Andalucía, Spain. It is a region I know well, having travelled there several times. Whenever I visit, I try to practise my Spanish (I am far more fluent speaking in French and English), which requires that I listen carefully to the language and read as much native material as possible: from signs and menus to newspapers and tourist guides. In doing so, I invariably notice Spanish words that look very familiar: they have been adopted in English.
Today, for your interest, I am sharing some of the many English words that are of Spanish origin. I think some may just surprise you!
Aficionado: from the verb aficionar, meaning to inspire affection
Alcatraz: means gannet.
Alligator: from el lagarto, meaning the lizard
Armadillo: means little armored one
Bonanza: means prosperity
Breeze: from brisa, meaning a cold wind
Cafeteria: from cafetería, meaning coffee store
Canyon: from cañón, meaning a gorge
Cargo: from the verb cargar, meaning to load
Chocolate: from Nahuatl xocolatl meaning hot water
Cockroach: from cucaracha
Cocoa: from cacao
Comrade: from camarada, meaning mate
Crimson: from Old Spanish cremesín
Crusade: from cruzada
Galleon: galeón, meaning a large sailing ship
Guerrilla: means small war
Hacienda: from Old Spanish facienda, meaning estate
Hurricane: from huracán
Lasso: means tie
Maroon: from cimarrón
Matador: means killer
Mosquito: means little fly
Oregano: from orégano
Patio: from patio, meaning inner courtyard
Platinum: from platina, meaning little silver
Potato: from patata
Ranch: from rancho, meaning a tiny rural community
Renegade: from renegado, meaning heretic or disowned
Salsa: from salsa, meaning sauce
Savvy: from sabe, meaning knows
Stampede: from estampida
Suave: means charming and confident
Tobacco: from tabaco, meaning snuff
Tomato: from tomate
Tornado: from tronada, meaning thunderstorm
Tuna: from atún
Tourist: from turista
Vamoose: from vamos, meaning let’s go
Vanilla: from vainilla
Vigilante: means watchman
How many of these have you been using in everyday conversation without knowing their origins? Do let me know if you have any to add to the list.