Tag Archives: Spanish

Do you remember Vesta paella?




I have to say that my mum wasn’t a great cook. I don’t know if the nuns at the convent school in Ireland who educated her taught her any culinary skills, but if they did, she didn’t learn much.

Even so, she was willing to try new things, unlike my dad, who was never happier than when eating a plate of beans on burnt toast, which was the only meal I remember seeing him cook.

Maybe eating more exotic food was my mum’s way of trying to feel part of that glamorous world she saw in films and on TV and in the women’s magazines she used to buy each week, sitting up in bed at night flicking through the articles about clothes, being a good housewife, and new gadgets for the home.

One day, she arrived home from the shops and plonked her blue shopping bag down on the living room table.

“What’s for tea?” I asked as usual. I was always starving when I came home from school.

She pulled out a box and held it up. “This!”

“What’s that?” I said, peering at the photo of yellow rice flecked with red and green.

“It’s called paella. It’s a new thing,” she said, handing the box to me.

I examined it and saw that it had a small map of Spain on it. All I knew about Spain was that it was famous for oranges and that Leeds United under Don Revie had changed their kit to all white, like Real Madrid, to try and emulate their success.

Mum opened the box and there were two white sachets inside, one containing rice, the other a powdered mix with tiny pink prawns in it. After reading the instructions on the back of the box, she lopped off a chunk of Kerrygold butter into the frying pan and then tipped in the rice and began to fry it. As the grains sizzled, they started to brown.  She then gingerly poured in a jug of water and, checking the instructions again, turned up the gas flame to bring the pan to the boil.  Then she shook in the colourful powder, lowered the gas, and left it to simmer for twenty minutes.

When she put my plate in front of me and I took my first mouthful, I let out a long Mm sound. I’d never tasted anything like it before. I loved its creamy texture, the unfamiliar flavour, and the bite of the small prawns.

Remarkably Vesta still produces boxes of paella, although the map of Spain has been replaced by a flamenco dancer.

The fact that I can remember that paella all these years later tells me that it must have been a moment of some kind of significance. Perhaps that paella acted a signpost to a more exciting world than the small Midlands town that I was feeling trapped in. Food can do this. It can transport us to another place.



Restaurants in Italy and Spain can be disappointing

We are always told how fantastic the food in Spain and Italy is. And, yes, you can find some great places to eat. But there are also many restaurants where the food is mediocre or awful and the service slapdash.

This is my conclusion having returned from a holiday in Tuscany and Barcelona with my wife and son. I had gone in the expectation of eating great food in wonderful restaurants. Instead more often than not I came away disappointed.

For example, one evening we sat down at a table outside Osteria Enoteca in a small square on Corso Italia, the main shopping street in Pisa. I ordered a pizza with salami, my wife a spaghetti carbonara, and we ordered a margarita for our son. Each dish turned out to be very poor. But the service was just as bad.

Could we have some parmesan, please? Ten minutes later a waiter returns with a small bowl. Could we have some olive oil, please? Another ten minutes goes by before the waiter returns. By the way, I ordered a beer – half an hour ago. The beer arrives after another ten minutes. At 10.20 pm one of the waiters starts stacking the chairs while we are several other customers are still eating.  This was a Tuesday evening in the middle of August when Pisa is packed with tourists.

It was a similar story in several other restaurants we visited in Pisa or in the towns along the Tuscan coast. So many of the waiters we encountered seemed very forgetful.

However, one restaurant in Pisa was brilliant: La Meloria Fried and Fish in Via Domenico Cavalca.  From the outside it doesn’t look much, but the food was excellent (penne with octopus and calamari with boiled potatoes in parsley and olive oil were particularly good) and the service from Elena, the owner, outstanding. She seemed to be able to do six things at once and always with a smile. You could tell from the way she served the customers that she took a pride in her restaurant and was passionate about it. What’s more, you can have a bottle of good wine for nine euro.

In Barcelona the prize for the worst meal I ate goes to La Surena in Port Vell. I ordered dogfish and patatas bravas. Both were disgusting.  Something told me that the food was probably frozen. After we had left the restaurant, I went immediately to a shop to buy some biscuits to take away the awful flavour.

Another bad experience was at Congrejo Loco, a fish and seafood restaurant in Port Olympia. As soon as I saw the prices (190 euro per kilo of lobster), the white table cloths, the huge menus, and the waiters dressed in white jackets I suspected that this would be another disappointment. And it was. I ordered Gallician octopus and potatoes (15 euro). It was saturated in pimento and salt. Truly awful. The restaurant had been chosen by a friend of ours and her husband, because they had had their wedding reception there.  They admitted that it had gone down hill since then.

Two restaurants that were excellent, however, were Laia in Blanes, a resort on the Catalan coast, where I had some delicious baby calamari, and Entre Pam I Tapes in Badalona, on the northern edge of Barcelona, where I had the best patatatas bravas I’ve ever eaten.

Chefs such as Rick Stein, Gennaro Contaldo, and Jose Pizaro have done a wonderful job in convincing us that Italy and Spain are gastronomic wonderlands. The truth is that there are many restaurants that dish up food that is as poor as you would get in some places in Britain and that seem to care little about providing diners with a memorable experience.




Watch my short film about London’s Spanish restaurants

This is a short film explaining what my book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate is about and how I started running pop-up kitchens at Beer Rebellion, a quirky bar in Sydenham, south-east London..

Meeting the Arzaks in San Sebastian

On my recent trip to San Sebastian in the Spanish Basque country, I met a legend of Spanish gastronomy, Juan Mari Arzak, regarded as one of the world’s top chefs. I called unannounced to present him with a copy of my new book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London.

He’s seventy-four and he’s still cooking in the kitchen at his restaurant, which was awarded three Michelin stars in 1989, a time when Spanish cuisine was still struggling to make a name for itself. He has been at the forefront of what has been called the new Spanish cuisine, taking traditional ingredients and dishes and adapting them.

His daughter Elena, an equally talented chef, works in the kitchen with him, overseeing a team of 30, which includes 10 interns from various parts of the world.


I wanted to know if Juan Mari was still as passionate about cooking as when he began his career.

“Yes! When I can’t sleep I sometimes think up new recipes,” he said.


He has a laboratory at the restaurant, which has over 1,000 plastic containers, each with a different ingredient. It’s here that Juan Mari, Elena, and their team

Come up with ideas such as sardine and strawberry, squid with banana, and chistorra with beer and mango.

They might sound odd combinations, but having tried all of them I can say that they were absolutely delicious.


Elena has received many offers to do TV shows, but she isn’t interested in them.

“I don’t want to be on TV,” she said. “I don’t like it. I prefer to be cooking in the kitchen.”

She also receives many invitations to attend conferences. In the next few weeks she is off to New York, Istanbul, and Milan.


What struck me about the Arzak restaurant is that it is a family business with a deep sense of tradition and views the team as part of the family. In one of the wine rooms is part of a tree and a bottle of wine dating back to 1897 when his grandparents opened the restaurant. Several of the kitchen staff have worked there over 30 years.  Two remarkable chefs and  a remarkable restaurant.

Interview with Alberto Crisco


Clink restaurant

Spanish chef Alberto Crisco tells me he believes learning to cook can prevent prisoners reoffending. That’s why he set up The Clink Restaurant at HMP Brixton and in three other prisons. 

 What has been your proudest moment at The Clink and why?

My proudest moment was the day we opened in 2009. It was the culmination of four years planning and overcoming many hurdles. The look on the prisoners’ faces when they arrived for work was inspiring. They were so proud to be training in The Clink.

The Clink is such a brilliant idea. Why do you think it has not been taken up by more prisons?

The Clink currently operates in four prisons with two more in the pipeline as well as a gardening project and Clink Events which caters for clients in and around the M25. Clink Events also offers ex-offenders and homeless young people from the Centrepoint charity the opportunity to work and train with The Clink.

Typically, how many prisoners would be working in a kitchen at any one time?

We train 30 prisoners at any one time in the restaurants. This is split between the kitchen (professional cookery diploma) and the restaurant (food service diploma).

Who provides the training and how?

The Clink is a registered training centre with City & Guilds and we employ professional staff who are accredited assessors to deliver the training.

What are some of the challenges of running a kitchen in prison?

All tools, including knives, must be accountable at all times and must be locked away when not in use. If a tool goes missing then a full search is carried out by security until it is found. Prisoners that you have trained to a high standard being transferred without warning can be very frustrating. At the end of the day you are working in a prison first and a kitchen second.

What led you to The Clink?

I wanted to combine high quality training in a real work environment, break down barriers that existed with the employment of ex-offenders and also change the public perception of rehabilitating prisoners. To open a training restaurant that employers and the public could dine in made perfect sense to me.

How does a kitchen at The Clink compare to those at some of the restaurants you’ve cooked in?

A kitchen in The Clink is no different to any other I have worked in. Hard graft, teamwork and dedication are all essential.

How Spanish cuisine features on the menu at The Clink?

Our menus are typically modern British but with influences from around the world. All our menus feature seasonal and local produce. We don’t have any Spanish dishes on the current menu but ajo blanco (a chilled soup made with almonds) has featured previously and we make our own membrillo (quince jelly) that we sell by the jar and serve with the cheese board.  We always have a homemade pasta dish on the menu as a result of my Italian heritage. The prisoners are all classically trained so making fresh pasta, bread and stocks is second nature.

What food do you recall from your childhood?

My fondest memories of my mother’s home cooking has to be homemade ravioli filled with ricotta cheese and served with tomato, basil and lots of Parmesan. Beef olives are also braised slowly in the pasta sauce as this gives the sauce a very rich flavour. Serve the hot beef olives with green salad and crusty fresh bread.

When did you first think of becoming a chef?

When I was still at school I used to work weekends for my uncle as he was head chef for Trusthouse Forte at Heathrow Airport. I went to catering college when I left school and have never looked back.

Have you any idea how many of your students at The Clink have gone on to work in catering and hospitality after prison?

We have placed approximately 200 into jobs that we have arranged and aim to release 1,000 graduates into employment each year by the end of 2020, providing we hit our target of having 10 prisoner training schemes in operation – we’re currently at six.

To book a table at The Clink Restaurant please visit theclinkcharity.org.





Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate

Ole! The cover


The cover to Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London looks brilliant.

Spanish Story – wine labels matter

Spanish Story

Spanish Story

If you want to make your wine really stand out from the crowd, then you need to come up with an eye-catching label. Last week I attended the Wines from Spain 2016 trade fair at Tobacco Dock, where  bottles Wine from hundreds of bodegas in Spain were on display.

I was stopped in my tracks by the Spanish Story stand. This Madrid company has produced a series of wonderful labels, each in a vibrant colour and featuring an image of a bull, an octopus, or something else associated with Spain.

The importance of wine labels

Spanish Story

If you want to get your wine noticed, then you need to come up with an eye-catching label. When I attended the 2016 Wines from Spain trade fair last week at Tobacco Dock, I was stopped in my tracks by the Spanish Story stand. This Madrid company has created some of the best and most colourful wine labels I’ve come across. It uses the same design in a different and vibrant colour for each of its wines. What adds to this are the images, such as a shrimp, a bull, and an octopus.


Putting passion on a plate

Omar Allibhoy tells his story in my new book

Madrid chef Omar Allibhoy putting passion on a plate at his Shoreditch tapas bar

One of the hardest things when you are writing a book is to come up with a catchy title. You can spend weeks, or even months, playing around with words, trying to find the right ones. After much doodling on A4 pads and going for long walks, I now have a title for my new book: Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London.

The book is scheduled for publication in June.

Barrica’s success


Many restaurants close down within their first year of opening. The reason for this is that the person with the bright idea hasn’t done their homework. “Yes, a great idea!” friends will say when the budding restaurateur reveals his or her idea.. Sadly many do fail.

One that hasn’t failed is Barrica, a wonderful tapas bar in Goodge Street. It hasn’t failed because owner Tim Luther really did do his homework before opening it in 2009. He spent weeks wandering around, popping in and out of bars and restaurants around Charlotte Street and counting the customers. Given the number of media companies located in the area, he felt confident that a traditional tapas bar would work. Tapas is casual dining and it’s about sharing. It’s also ideal if you are in a hurry.

“You can find information on an area on the web, but there’s no substitute to seeing it for yourself, going in the restaurants to see how busy they are, what they serve, what they charge, and what the footfall is,” he told me.

Tim is one of a number of talented and imaginative individuals who have brought to London an authentic experience of Spanish food. If you are thinking of opening a restaurant, then you would be foolish not to follow his example and burn some shoe leather. It could make all the difference between success and failure.

From engineer to Michelin star chef


To be awarded a Michelin star is the dream of many chefs. So it’s remarkable when this happens to someone who set out in his career intending to be an engineer.

This is what I discovered when I met Segi Sanz, head chef at Ametsa with Arzak Instruction, the oddly names restaurant located inside The Halkin Hotel in Belgravia. He didn’t take up cooking professionally until he was twenty-five, after having completed a degree in engineering in Barcelona. Cooking was really what he wanted to do all along, he told me, but engineering had seemed  a safer option.

Having worked with the legendary Ferran Adria in Seville, his opportunity to move to The Halkin came about after he spent time in the kitchen with the Arzak’s at their Michelin three-star restaurant in San Sebastian.

The restaurant received a Michelin star in 2014, just months after opening and on the back of some very mixed reviews from food critics who were unimpressed by its modern and experimental take on Basque cuisine. The only other Spanish restaurant in London with a Michelin star is Barrafina.

Sergi, a modest and unassuming chef, is now aiming for a second star.

The London tapas battle

Jose Pizzaro in Broadgate Circle

Jose Pizzaro in Broadgate Circle

The tapas battle continues in London with at least a dozen new Spanish restaurants and bars opening this year.

La Tasca opened its seventh restaurant, in Covent Garden, and Iberica its fourth, at the bottom of the Zig Zag building in Victoria. Hot on their heels is Camino, which opened its fourth venue, near the Tate Modern in Bankside. Elsewhere Jose Pizzaro has branched out from Bermondsey Street into The City, at Broadgate Circle, and Barrafina has pitched up in Drury Lane in theatreland.

Away from the crowds, down in south-east London, tapas has come to Peckham for the first time with the opening of Miss Tapas, tucked away among the African food shops in Choumert Road.

There are those who think the number Spanish restaurants in London might eventually overtake the number of Italian restaurants. This is still some way off, but if things continue the way they have been doing in the last few years, it might well happen.