A short festival on Spain



This was written for an occasional series in The Sydney Morning Herald called ‘A short festival on…’ and I chose Spain. I’m posting it because we’re going to Spain in a couple of weeks, my first trip in some years. 

The Spanish would rather a fiesta than a festival any day, it’s a party and a lot more fun. We will hold ours on St Anthony’s Day, January 17th, a day on which a bonfire is lit (St Anthony’s fire?) in every village square, and neighbours gather to eat and drink.

What better to eat than a paella, ours prepared by Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, whose detective character, Pepe Carvalho, eats far more than he detects, and is pedantic about paella, asserting (in South Seas): “I made myself quite clear. Half a kilo of rice, half a chicken, a quarter-kilo of pork shoulder, a quarter kilo of peas, two peppers, two tomatoes, parsley, saffron, salt and – nothing else. Anything else is superfluous.” The wine, the legendary Vega Sicilia Unico, will flow like water.

Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) is also a novel by last century’s most prominent Hispanophile, Ernest Hemingway, a tale which introduces the intertwining themes of our fiesta, the bullfight, the matador, and sex: eros and thanatos. In Fiesta, the matador, Pedro Romero, makes love to the bold and beautiful Lady Brett Ashley because the narrator, Jake Barnes, can’t: a war wound left him impotent. Hemingway does Lorca.

Because we can, we have invited Hemingway, and you can see him, glass of wine in one hand, cigar in the other, talking to his friend the matador Antonio Ordoñez, who will be demonstrating the art of killing bulls, showing classic passes, the pase natural, and his own derechazo de rodillas among them.

Our fiesta is being held in a bull ring, the roaring bonfire throwing glints and sparkles off Ordoñez’s suit of lights. Just the place to ponder the nature of a culture whose heroes are killers – matador from matar, to kill – and whose national sport, also an art, sacrifices animals and men in public. There is a darkness in the Spanish soul.

That darkness has a name: duende, the elusive spirit that poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca called “the hidden heart of disconsolate Spain.” It is to be found in Spanish art, literature and music. “All that has black sounds has duende” murmured Gypsy canto jonde (deep song) singer Manuel Torre upon hearing composer Manuel de Falla’s Nocturno del Generalife.

It certainly informs the paintings on show here. There are three in the art tent, the first and greatest, once defined as “the theology of painting”, in front of which the French romantic poet Théophile Gautier stood and cried “where is the picture?” It is Diego Velásquez’ profound, enigmatic and beautiful Las meninas, the maids of honour, a painting which transforms its every viewer into the King and Queen of Spain. All Spanish art stands on the shoulders of this man who, artist Anton Raphael Mengs said “paints the truth not as it is but as it appears to be.”


Our second painting is by one whose duende drips from his brushes, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. We have chosen the baffling El perro semihundido, the half buried dog, from the series known as the black paintings. An abstract field of light with a curved horizon, bare but for the tiny head of a terrified spaniel. It has mystified viewers and critics for almost 200 years, moving many to tears. This is only detail from the larger painting which is way more mysterious – and  moving.


Finally, one work from the creator/destroyer, the protean Picasso, the painting that ushered in the 20th Century, of the most famous whores in history, Les demoiselles d’Avignon, equal parts eros and thanatos, with its cryptic reference to the promiscuous Picasso’s fear of syphilis.


But where are the killer heroes? Elsewhere in Goya and Picasso of course, on television all day during summer, and in the cinema regularly. In Carlos Saura’s 1983 adaptation of Carmen, his most successful collaboration with choreographer Antonio Gades. And most sardonically in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1986 Matador, in which the sumptuous Assumpta Serna murders her victims in coitus, and, ‘al momento de verdad’ (at the moment of truth), using a long hair pin in much the same way as her ultimate victim, ex-matador Nacho Martinez, despatched bulls with his sword.

The matador (or matadora) returns in Almodóvar’s 2002 film Talk to Her, a film already heralded as the first classic of the 21st Century, in which Rosario Flores plays a famed female bullfighter, gored, left in a coma, and cared for tenderly by her lover, Adrio Grandinetti.

We leave the films being projected onto a suspended muleta (bullfighter’s cape), and stroll to the fire for a plate of Montalban’s precise paella and to take a glass with Javier Marias, whose 1997 novel, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, opens with a man whose first night with a lover is interrupted by her death, in his arms. We note with pleasure we have been given a small scraping of socorrat, the burnt crust of rice from the bottom of the pan. And then the arena falls silent, but for the crackling of the fire.

We look up. The gate has burst open. A magnificent fighting bull runs onto the arena and skids to a halt in the sand, black hide glistening. He looks wildly to right and left, snorting steam. We are frozen with fear, but for Ordoñez, who reaches for his sword. The bull lowers his huge head, and charges the bonfire, crashing into it, scattering embers, ashes and flaming branches. The burning bull stands in the centre of the conflagration, bellowing.





O illustrious paella! Another gift from the Arabs.


How can a bowl of rice gives us an insight into the past – and offer hope for the future? Let’s have a look at the history of paella, the rice dish that, for most people, says Spanish food. And in ways that many hadn’t even thought of, they’re right.

Paella is a dish named after the pan in which it is cooked, the paellera. In its purest form, it consists of rice and vegetables. Without the rice, it is very like another more ancient dish which did not contain rice, a dish called adafina. But let Spanish food historian Clara Maria de Amezua tell us about it.

“Adafina is an ancient Sephardic (Spanish Jewish) dish: the origin of the name is Arabic and applied to both the food itself and the receptacle in which it is made, much like the modern day paella.”

The Jews were in Spain as far back as the early Roman Empire. Some Judaic traditions have them there even earlier, from the destruction of the Kingdom of Judea in 587 B.C. and the fleeing of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah to Sefarad, the Jewish name for Spain.

But adafina was a meat and vegetable dish, and contained no rice, because there was no rice in Spain when the Jews arrived. The Arabs bought the rice.

The Arabs arrived in 711 A.D, and proceeded to place Moorish Spain at the centre of the civilised and cultured world. They travelled, explored, invented, and brought back from distant lands new plants and methods of cooking. From Ethiopia, for example, they brought back Triticum durum, hard wheat, and, according to a theory (hard to prove or disprove) of food historian Clifford Wright, invented pasta as we know it today, because only the pasta made with Triticum durum can be dried, to form what Italians call pasta asciutta. From India and the far east, they imported rice, and planted it in the deltas along the Levante, that region of Mediterranean coastal Spain which runs roughly from Castellon to Alicante, whose centre is Valencia. And it is from Valencia that we get Paella. And it also made its way to Italy, so we can also thank them for risotto.

But before we go to Valencia, let’s spend a little time in Moorish Spain. Especially between 711 and 1000 under the Umayyad Dynasty, Jew and Muslim lived side by side in, if not harmony, at least relative peace, a period called the Convivencia. Indeed the Jews contributed enormously to the magnificence of Moorish Spain, both intellectually, artistically and in government. So the question we must ask, especially of current Middle Eastern leaders is this: if it happened then, could it happen again? So you see that we can find both history and hope in a simple bowl of rice.

The complete name for the paella of Valencia is paella valenciana de la huerta (or in Catalan a version of which is spoken in Valencia de’l horta) – meaning from the vegetable garden. Paella (the dish) was a product of rice and vegetable cultivation, and, for meat, included whatever was on hand – but not seafood, which came from the coast, was not easily transportable and was, for inland dwelling peasants, expensive.

Instead, it might include snails, chicken, rabbit, or eel. There are rice and seafood dishes (Spanish cuisine includes hundreds of rice dishes) but they are not paellas. For the very strictest interpretation of paella by a gastronomic pedant, listen to the Spanish novelist Manuel Vasquez Montalban’s creation, the gourmand detective Pepe Carvalho:

“I made myself quite clear. Half a kilo of rice, half a chicken, a quarter-kilo of pork shoulder, a quarter kilo of peas, two peppers, two tomatoes, parsley, saffron, salt and nothing else. Anything else is superfluous.”

In the same book as the above, Montalban also quotes José María Pemán’s marvellous ‘Ode to Paella’, which illustrates both the Spanish passion for food and contempt for rules: Carvalho’s own precepts for paella are countermanded in this poem:

O noble symphony of colours!

O illustrious paella!

O polychromatic dish

eaten by the eyes before touching the tongue!

Array of glories where all is blended.

Divine compromise between chicken and clam.

O contradictory dish

both individual and collective

O exquisite dish

where all is fair

where all tastes are as distinct

as the colours of the rainbow!

O liberal dish where a grain is a grain

as a citizen to the suffrage!)

And Señor Carvalho himself left out a most important ingredient: the beans – but he got the spirit right. I tasted my first such paella at a little restaurant called the Gallo d’Oro near the central markets of Valencia and it was only then that I understood what all the fuss was about. Although many will tell you paella should be cooked outside, using orange tree branches, over a wood fire – and only by men.

An interesting development in the history of this dish is that now, officially, only ten ingredients are allowed: olive oil, rice, chicken, rabbit, ferraura and garrofó beans (specific to Valencia), tomato, water, salt, saffron and rice. Dispensation is given for the addition of duck, snails and artichokes as regional variations. This was as a result of a recipe submitted in 2012 to the Conselleria of Agriculture in Valencia by the restaurateur Rafael Vidal. His recipe was granted the status of paella valenciana tradicional con Denominación de Origen Arroz de Valencia – a Denomination of Origin. Dispensation was given for the addition of duck, snails and artichokes as regional variations

But people will eat  what they like, as they should, and as should you. If you want to put Balmain bugs or witchetty grubs into your paella, the food police will not arrest you. My neighbours in the little Spanish village in which I lived for some time prepare paella every Sunday – with seafood. And I guess, being Spanish, they know more than do I.

But for those of you who relish the authentic (Barbara Kafka’s “spectrum around an idea that changes even while we’re trying to appreciate it”) here is the most authentic recipe I could find, adjusted for local (Australian) conditions. Once you understand the spirit of the dish, your own additions will only improve it.


PAELLA VALENCIANA DE LA HUERTA.                                                                                           







Serves 4


1 polished carbon steel or enamelled paellera (the two best, most important)

100g lima beans (fresh and newly shelled best)

100g cannelini or flageolet (ditto)

100 ml olive oil


400g organic chicken cut into pieces

350g rabbit, cut into pieces

125g green beans, cut into pieces

100g tomatoes, skinned, de-seeded and finely chopped

16 cleaned snails in their shells or a sprig of rosemary

2 strands saffron

1tblspn pimentón (the best, the DOC, is la vera)

1.75 litres chicken stock

350g la bomba rice (the finest Spanish rice, calaspara if you can’t get it)


Unless you are using fresh beans, soak the lima beans and butter beans overnight in cold water, then drain and rinse.

Heat the oil in a 40 cm paellera with a little salt. When it is hot, add the chicken and rabbit and fry over a low heat until golden brown.

Add the green beans and fry for 5 minutes, then add the tomatoes and fry for 3 minutes.

Meanwhile boil the snails in a separate pan for 5 minutes, then drain.

Crush the saffron then dissolve it in a little boiling water.

Add the pimentón to the paella, quickly add the stock and bring to boil. The quantity of stock is difficult to specify and may need a little practice. Add the rest of the beans. When boiling, add the snails rosemary and saffron and a pinch of salt and simmer for 30 minutes

Sprinkle in the rice and boil over a high heat for 5 minutes, then gradually turn down the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes until the rice is cooked and the liquid has evaporated.

Do not stir. If you have cooked the paella properly, you will end up with a brown, toasty caramelised circle of rice at the bottom of the paellera in the middle. This is called the socarrat, and is given to the most honoured guest.





Ziryab: musician, poet, arbiter of taste, fashion and manners.


No one person from the Umayyad period of Islamic Spain (755-1000CE) better illustrates its attainments in culture and civilization better than the man known as Ziryab.

Imagine one man who combines the talents and sensibilities of Jimmy Hendrix, Robert Graves, Ferran Adrià, Giorgio Armani and Martha Stewart – and you come close to a portrait of Ziryab.

Abu Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi was born near Baghdad circa 789. The son of a freed Ethiopian slave and a Kurd, he would become one of the most influential men in history, a paragon of the culture of the Empire of Islam, and yet he is almost completely unknown in the Western world. In the histories he his known simply as Ziryab, which means the Blackbird (possibly a reference to his skin colour). Very little is known of his station or of his childhood. His father must have been an important member of the court of the Caliph as the first we hear of Ziryab is under the tutelage of the court musician, Ishaq Al-Mawsili (sometimes called Isaac of Mosul). From an early age he showed immense talents as a musician.

He arrived in Córdoba in 821, having been exiled from Baghdad by Ishaq Al-Mawsili, who accused him of trying to replace him in the favours of the Caliph.

To welcome Ziryab and his family, the Emir of Córdoba – Abd Al-Rahman II (the great-grandson of Abd al-Rahman I) gave him a mansion, sent him his daily provisions and provided him with a handsome wage. Although only young – at 33 the same age as the Emir – he was already renowned throughout the Arab world.

All this before he had even heard Ziryab sing and play. It is said when he finally did, he would never listen to any other singer.

With the backing of the Emir, he served as what we would today call a Minister of Culture. In this role, his first act was to found a school of music. And not just any school of music but one that encouraged experimentation and innovation.

He had already revolutionized the Oud, the stringed instrument of the day, by adding a fifth string to it and using, as a plectrum, an eagles talon or quill, heightening the instrument’s flexibility.

As well as a singer, composer and song writer, he was also a poet, a student of astronomy and geography. And he loved to eat and dine well.

Under his influence, palace dinners were served in a fixed sequence of dishes, as opposed to just being piled on the table. He taught craftsmen to produced tooled and fitted leather table coverings, he replaced the heavy gold and silver goblets used since Visigothic times with delicate crystal, and re-designed the bulky soup spoon with a lighter model. All this to the delight of and with the approval of the Emir.

But his inventiveness and refinement also appeared on the table. It was Ziryab who introduced Córdobans to asparagus, previously dismissed as a weed. He invented dishes, including guirlache, a confection of walnut honey and sesame, still made today in Zaragoza.

Guirlache, still eaten today, created by Ziryab

Guirlache, still eaten today, created by Ziryab

Many other dishes bear or bore his name: taqliyat Ziryab, meatballs and triangular pieces of dough fried in coriander oil: ziriabi, roasted and salted broad beans; zalabia, spirals of fried batter soaked in saffron syrup.

He is said to have invented toothpaste, although we have no idea of the ingredients. He opened a beauty parlour not far from the Emir’s palace, where he created women’s hairstyles, taught the shaping of eyebrows and the use of depilatories for removing bodily hair.

He introduced new perfumes and cosmetics. Some of Ziryab’s fashion tips he borrowed from the elite social circles of Baghdad, then the world’s most cosmopolitan city. Others were twists on local custom. Most became widespread simply because Ziryab advocated them He was a celebrity, and people gained status simply by emulating him.

He decreed Spain’s first seasonal fashion calendar. In springtime, men and women were to wear bright colors in their cotton and linen tunics, shirts, blouses and gowns. Ziryab introduced colorful silk clothing to supplement traditional fabrics. In summer, white clothing was the rule. When the weather turned cold, Ziryab recommended long cloaks trimmed with fur, which became all the rage in Al-Andalus.

But beyond fashion, food and music, Ziryab’s influence was felt in the Emir’s court in matters of state. Abd al-Rahman II re-organised the administration away from Roman Visigothic model, and Ziryab’s hand can be seen in this as well.

Abd a-Rahman II died in 852, and his friend and adviser Ziryab followed him five years later. But Ziryab’s influence lived on through his eight sons and two daughters all of whom were musicians and singers.

His legacy was a cultivated and civilized Córdoba, a cultural capital and seat of learning. A contemporary account said of him: ‘Kings and great people took him for a pattern of pattern of manners and education, and his name became for ever celebrated among the inhabitants of Andalus.’

As the first millennium drew to a close, students from France, England and the rest of Europe flocked to Córdoba to study science, medicine and philosophy and to take advantage of the great municipal library with its 600,000 volumes. When they returned to their home countries, they took with them not only knowledge, but also art, music, cuisine, fashion and manners. Europe found itself awash with new ideas and new customs, and among the many streams that flowed northward from the Iberian Peninsula, more than one had been channeled by Ziryab.Hadîth_Bayâd_wa_Riyâd_-_BAV_Ar368_f10r_-_Garden_scene