We are delighted to introduce María José Sevilla of Food and Wines from Spain, a loyal sponsor of the Oxford Symposium over many years.
Please tell us a bit about yourself, your background in food, and your current role at Food and Wines from Spain?
In the Spain where I grew up in the 1950s food was regional and very tasty. The years of hunger brought by the Civil War had been left behind and food production and distribution had reached some form of normality. My father was a demanding eater and my mother a good cook. She knew how to please him at the table as much as she knew how to please my brother and me. It was easy for her as she had learned to cook from her own mother, a professional cook and so I learned from both. I cook now as they did: rice and pasta, pulses, more fish than meat, plenty of fresh vegetables and a few puddings such as apple, brioche with caramel tart and cream caramel. In November we had pomegranate with sugar and strawberries and wine in the spring. We often cooked with fruit or served it fresh especially in the summer when the whole house used to smell as my house in Spain smells now in June and July with peaches, apricots, cherries, light and dark green figs.
I started my professional life more than forty years ago with the same organization that I still work with today, The Spanish Embassy, Economic and Commercial Office in London. Having left behind an unfinished degree in Economics in Madrid, I starting serving coffee and tea and delivering the diplomatic valise at the main office of the Chancellery in London. From there with the help of many and good fortune I progressed to the job I hold today. A forever-changing job that has allowed me for decades at different levels, to work both with food and with wine, with traders and journalists, with cookery writers and talented chefs. It has also allowed me to lecture, to write and to cook, to taste wine and to become in a limited way a broadcaster, while sharing my private and professional world with people who are as passionate as I am about these subjects. The development of Spanish gastronomy outside of Spain is an area that has always been included with the job.
In 1996 I became the director of Foods from Spain and in 2006 also director of Wines from Spain. I am responsible for information, marketing and promotion of Spanish Foods and Wines in the UK.
There has been an increasing interest in Spanish food in the UK in recent years. From your perspective how have you seen this interest develop?
I believe the present interest in Spanish food and wine in the UK. has followed a long process in which two areas complementing each other have been working in tandem. The availability and presence of original Spanish products in supermarkets and delicatessens all over the country such as chorizo or Iberico ham has been one. The other is the importance acquired by Spanish gastronomy represented by creative Michelin star restaurants in Spain and tapas bars and restaurants in cities such as London, Manchester and Leeds. We have also to remember that almost 30% of all fresh produce consumed in the UK has been grown on Spanish soils.
Are there any Spanish products or dishes that deserve to be better known in the UK?
There is always room for improvement but in terms of food products it can be said that Spain is beginning to be well represented in the UK. There are areas such as regional charcuterie and cheeses, branded olive oils and lesser known fruits and vegetables, that could be extended as it has happened with the Padron peppers, for example. The presence of Spanish beef from Galicia and the Basque country or fresh iberico pork in many British restaurants is encouraging. The strong competition from other countries and the percentage of the market distributed through the major retailers constantly proves be a major challenge for the introduction of many other unique Spanish products, but it will happen. As for dishes, the culture of tapas, also known as the “small dishes of Spain”, have contributed to the introduction of regional specialities in many different countries, well beyond pulpo a la gallega, patatas bravas or tortilla de patatas. However there is a long way to go, if we compare with the food now to be found all over Spain cooked by exceptionally talented old and new chefs, both regional or innovative.
The theme of our conference this year is offal. What Spanish offal recipes would you recommend?
It is interesting that I asked a group of young Spaniards if they knew the translation or the meaning of the word offal and surprisingly no one did. Neither were they aware that “Casquería” is the generic name for this group of foods as well as of the shop where specifically offal is sold in popular Spanish markets. The recession has helped to bring back some of the popular dishes prepared with offal in those areas of the country where their use has been almost eradicated from the Spanish table. The small lambs brains, coated with flour and egg and fried in olive oil, prepared for the smallest members of the family will probably never return, but those dishes that in the 17th and 18th Century gave pleasure to the royals cooked with sweetbreads are coming back to life thanks to the modern chefs. They are also becoming popular. Also becoming popular are the smallest lamb trotters cooked in a rich sauce still prepared by Marisa Sanchez at the restaurant El Echaurren in Rioja; the chicken livers with onion “mermelada” my son Daniel cooks or the less substantial but utterly delicious fabada cooked with pork belly and smoked black pudding that chef Manzano served at the Spanish Wine Fair in London last April.
How did you first get involved with the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery? Can you tell about some of the meals that you have been involved in organising?
In the eighties the Spanish Government decided to start promoting Spanish food and wine in some countries, the United Kingdom among them. Press and food writers’ trips had become a powerful tool to establish a relationship between countries and to facilitate information to those looking beyond France or Italy. Having become the organizer of many of those trips I met a few writers that had been attending the Symposium, people like Jane Grigson, Claudia Roden and Jill Norman. For the last 30 years I have been attending the Symposium and as long as I can I will carry on doing so.
In the past I have helped to organize one or two Symposium dinners and several tastings including one of spectacular Iberico ham. I also encourage Spanish producers to contribute their wines to the event.
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