Review: ‘Bar 44 Tapas y Copas’ offers the recipe for a carnival of Spanish food and drink
When I was little, whatever else might be dominating family life, every now and then my parents had friends to supper. Our bungalow would fill with colourful smells. Mum would be differently busy. There were jobs, sometimes, I could help with. Peeling. Mixing. Measuring things out with little spoons. Then later, as I huddled in bed, I would hear the sound of grown-ups laughing. Clearly some magic was at work. Food = joy. Very early on, I wanted to learn to cook.
On my 16th birthday I was given The Good Housekeeping Cookbook. An atlas of dishes I couldn’t have imagined! I spent days deciding what to cook for my girlfriend and finally settled on three-courses of such astonishing passion she wouldn’t possibly be able to love anyone else, ever, other than me. Spangle-eyed with ambition I went to the local convenience store. A tall man was stacking some low shelves. Unable to find one, I asked him, expectantly, “Do you have any avocado?”. Avocado was key. He stood up and looked down at me. “Is that a cheese?” he replied.
We’ve come a long way in the thirty years since. Food in Wales has undergone a revolution. In no small part, that revolution is thanks to the passion and efforts of people like the Morgan brothers, the guys behind the celebrated Bar 44 restaurants, who went out on a limb early days. Their new cookbook Tapas y Copas is a testament to that passion, and to an unstinting commitment to the quality of ingredients and the respect those ingredients demand.
The book, a carnival of Spanish food and drink, has all the trademark flare and attention to detail that’s brought their Bar 44 concept such acclaim. As an object in itself, it reinforces the mantra that runs through the recipes. It’s solid and useable, at the same time interesting and good to look at. Like the Moro cookbooks, which also present trademark restaurant dishes, it actually feels like a recipe book you will use.
You’ll forgive yourself for splattering it with oil. The challenge will come in trying to build your own menu and how to go about bringing it together. Alongside ingredients and care, time, or rather timing, is also key here. More than 100 recipes present a range of options from batch-cooked snacks to slow-cooked sharing feasts. If you’ve eaten at Bar 44, you’ll find favourites. Crispy hake, those duck burgers. But the reach of the book is wide.
Some dishes are simplicity itself. In a matter of minutes, you can turn the handful of ingredients for pan con sobrasada into a ‘bar-top’ tapas that will deliver way beyond the sum of its parts. Patatas aliñada, tuna belly, air-dried tuna is a brilliant opener to finish the Fino with before you move on.
Some dishes are simple once you’ve done the prep, which in many cases can be done well in advance. Make the mixture for (frankly addictive) jamón Ibérico croquetas and bread them ready and you’ll have a hand free to drink cava while you do the deep-frying. Prep the oxtail-stuffed piquillo peppers and you’re 20 minutes away from a baked dish that will knock you sideways. (Especially if you pair it with a 15% Priorat.)
Some dishes aren’t complicated, just need patience. But the pay-off is undoubted. A reheated slice of leftover smoked morcilla and potato terrine could change your week. I haven’t tried the chicharrones de cadiz two ways yet but it’s only a matter of time.
Other dishes are surprisingly complicated. If you thought patatas bravas were simple, think again. “The more effort you put into the potatoes, the more you get out.” The brothers make no apology for it.
Without a doubt, many of the recipes in this book demand you go all in. But, you’ll learn in the introduction, that’s what Owen and Tom Morgan did back in 2002. The evolutions, determinations and discoveries they’ve made since show clearly in the pages of the book, not least in incidental sections that provide insight into regional produce and processes that have inspired Bar 44.
These informative, anecdotal passages are balanced with humour and a welcome sense that food has stayed the star throughout the brothers’ journey. Or rather that food and drink has, as the bright, concise section on Copas makes clear. If after reading you don’t agree that sherries offer some of the world’s best food matching wines then there’s no hope for you.
Above anything else, the cohering element that runs through Tapas y Copas is care. In a world now so lost it’s possible to buy a book that presents ’50 Great Sandwich Ideas’ we need cookbooks that unashamedly demand you don’t backslide on the food you eat. Commit to the recipes, commit to the ingredients. That goes not just for food, but for drink. And given the access we now have to ingredients (avocados included), not least from the Morgan’s Mercado 44 itself and exceptional Wales-based suppliers like Ultracomida, who will deliver to your door, you don’t have any excuse.
Buy this book for someone you trust to cook from it, then make sure you’re invited when they do. Or buy it for yourself, make a list of people you like, who make you laugh, and cook from it for them.
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