THE FOREWORD of Grape, Olive, Pig, Matt Goulding’s latest book, consists of a correspondence regarding the birth of the book between the author and Anthony Bourdain, the chef and food writer well known for his global, food-centric travels. Goulding writes, “I’ve been pocketing these stories for years, saving them in the dank bodega of my mind like a bottle of ’74 Vega Sicilia, waiting for the right moment to decant and drink. Now’s the time.” Bourdain replies, “Might I respond to your last with a resounding ‘Fuck You!’”
Bourdain knows Goudling is a long-time resident of Barcelona and, as I do, envies Goulding’s qualifications for writing Grape, Olive, Pig, “You go out to dinner at midnight, start drinking again at noon, nap around three, nibble on olives and little bites of awesomeness when you rise, and pretty much live the dream. So, yeah, fuck you, Matt.”
His first book, Rice, Noodle, Fish, Goulding called a “love letter to Japanese cuisine,” and his latest work is best described as an adoration of Spanish cuisine and the cultural traditions and histories imbued in Spanish foodways. Goulding shares how he personally fell in love with Spain, its people, and its food, spending days enjoying “the vermouth culture, an old Catalan tradition of drinking sweet vermouth and eating salty snacks before a big family lunch,” and nights in Madrid at the bar of StreetXO, a restaurant where “a roaring cast of chefs assemble the famous Korean lasagna: an Asian-inflected ragú made with forty-five-day-aged Galician ox, layered over sheets of pasta, and goosed with a cardamom-spiked bechamel, kimchi-tomato purée, and coconut powder.” This is part of a menu Goulding describes as “stoner food with a PhD.”
As this suggests, Grape, Olive, Pig employs an impressive literary toolkit in appreciating and savoring Spanish cuisine, with descriptions of meals, translations of uniquely Spanish culinary vocabulary, spirals through relevant history, depictions of current food productions, and narratives of Goulding’s food-focused travels across Spain. In dedicating each of the nine chapters to a distinct region of the country, Goulding fixes a powerful multipurpose lens on Spain’s unique culinary culture. Geographically zigzagging across the country enables Goulding to slowly initiate readers into the rich melting pot of Spanish cuisine. Beginning in Barcelona, he heads to Salamanca, Valencia, Basque Country, Cádiz, Asturias, Galicia, and Madrid before concluding in Granada. It is no coincidence the book begins in the city where Goulding met and courted his wife, nor is it accidental that Granada is home to his grandparents-in-law.
Throughout the book, Goulding labors over his words the way chefs labor over the meals described herein, ensuring each word evokes the appropriate memory of taste or sensation.
Goulding savors various types of cured Spanish pork with Santiago Martín, who still operates the butcher and cured meats producer, Embutidos Martín, opened by his father, Fermín:
I indulge my habit: not just lacy veils of jamón, but planks of pluma — taken from the neck — so soft and rippled with fat that it could double as foil and chunks of secreto, cut from the skirt of meat below the ribs, with a salty crust from the fire and a marvelous chew. I hold up a slice of lomo and let the light illuminate the rivers of fat that run through it. Lomo might not have the fame of jamón, but Fermín’s take on it is stunning, with an earthiness and perfume that recalls toasted hazelnuts and shaved truffle.
Goulding takes care to illuminate how history mingles with quotidian life in Spain. He describes a favorite, quiet plaza, Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, “an urban oasis, a place we go to hide form the chaos of the surrounding city.” Though Goulding frequently eats, drinks, or people-watches here, his is not just any plaza, but one where “the façade of the church, the same one where Gaudí was attending evening mass while building the Sagrada Familia, is still cratered from the bomb blast” rained down by Franco’s army in January 1938, murdering 42 people, “most of them children from the preschool next door.”
I ran my own fingertips over the same pockmarked stone this past July, marveling at Spain’s propensity to literally wear its history on its sleeve and listening to the bubbly tour guide whose group my husband and I had joined for the evening. My honeymoon included a week in Spain split between Barcelona and Madrid. As a gastronome married to a chef, my most anticipated plans included tapas tours in both Barcelona and Madrid.
My Barcelona tapas tour even mirrored Goulding’s “ruta de resaca, the Saturday morning hangover crawl,” as both begin at “La Plata on Carrer de la Mercè, a southern-style Spanish bar serving just three things: fried anchovies, a tomato-and-onion salad, and grilled pork sausage, all washed down with jugs of barrel wine.” Next time, I can save the several hundred euros on the tapas tours and simply carry this book (or, due to its girth, an e-version or photos of useful pages with restaurant names and tapas tips).
In between chapters, Goulding offers resources geared toward locating traditional food vendors and restaurants that remain local treasures. The tips accompanying the chapter on Basque Country outline how to achieve “the most intense meat experience of your life.” The instructions send you to Bodega El Capricho in León, where the meal “starts with ruby veils of raw aged ox loin, then moves on to cecina (dried beef cured and aged like jamón), ox blood morcilla, and an outrageously good tartare.”
My mouth already watering as I read this, I had to reread the next few words because they refer to the aforementioned dishes as “a minor prelude to the main event,” which was “chuletón de buey, massive rib steaks, cooked over oak with nothing but coarse salt until charred on the outside and barely warm throughout. The meat packs deep concentrations of umami and mineral intensity and a rim of dense, yellow fat that tastes like brown sugar.”
In case just reading descriptions of food isn’t enough for you, the glamour photo shots of Spanish cuisine in action will whet most any appetite: pictures of a traditional Valencian paella pan brimming with rice and chicken and bubbling over a citrus-wood fire; bluefin tunas thrashing sea waters white trying to escape a net; and close-ups of dishes like the hearty, pork-infused bean stew fabada or the indulgent “cordero lechal, baby milk-fed lamb, slow roasted in a traditional wood-burning oven until the point of collapse, then hit over with a final blast of intense heat.” According to Goulding, “as the skin shatters like a fallen wine glass, and the meat bellows pulls apart in tender, juicy ropes, all you can do is laugh at the genius of the Spaniards, and at your good fortune for eating among them.”
Goulding weaves his own story of being captivated by Spain: what was supposed to be a “pit stop on [the] way to paradise” instead leads to his fulfilling many a Europhile’s dream when he becomes “officially a resident of Europe” in thanks to his “sponsor,” his wife, “a lovely Catalan-Andalusian with eyes like oceans, a heart of melted butter, and a special set of prescription lenses that magically enhance my virtues and mitigate my faults.”
It’s hard to imagine any reader not falling for this ocean-eyed, rose-colored-glass-wearing partner. Goulding’s obvious enrapturement with his wife informs his proclamations of love for her native and his adopted country. The book turns a lens on Spain not dissimilar from how lovers learn to love each other, seeing themselves through the eyes of those who love them.
Goulding’s admiration for Spain’s women permeates the book, from detailing his courtship and marriage to his wife to the story of a trio of barnacle hunting sisters (more about them later). He writes this pointed observation of Spanish demographics: “If you ever walk into a bar here and wonder where the ladies are, they are busy holding the world together.”
The first meal described in Grape, Olive, Pig is in fact the last sumptuous meal he consumed before meeting his wife — a meal so good it makes him wonder about his single state: “Did I just have the best meal of my life by myself?” Even for readers unfamiliar with his ode to Japanese cuisine, Rice, Noodle, Fish, Goulding’s infatuation with food is obvious from the start, with Goulding lovingly recalling a meal encompassing
everything I’d had been reading about […] a mixture of technical innovation, whimsy and concentrations of outrageous texture and flavor that moved me deeply over twenty-two courses and four hours. A single giant shrimp broken down into seven different aquatic expressions; an earth-shattering beef tartare covered in crunchy pommes soufflé and tiny pellets of mustard ice cream; a dessert served in a halved soccer ball presented as “un gol de Messi.”
Goulding introduces vocabulary from Spain’s diverse regions, such as the concept of comboi, the importance of communal food consumption in Valencia, and ribollita, Basque country’s war-era tradition of reusing what was previously seen as food waste as ingredients. For some food lovers, these words render into language previously nameless delicacies; when eating paella, “at the base of the pan, scattered in irregular pockets, you’ll find the socarrat, the crispy, caramelized grains that drive rice fiends wild with desire.”
Goulding digs through the history of Spain much like an archaeologist, lovingly cataloging layers of Spanish culture as far back as the Roman origin story of Barcelona, beginning with Hercules accompanying Jason and his Argonauts to Catalunya. He introduces each region using personal experience, but then drills down into the historical roots of the social, economic, political, and cultural forces that made this particular food practice possible in this particular place.
In the chapter exploring Valencian foodways, Goulding, in less than three pages, quotes Confucius (“A kitchen without rice is like a pretty girl with one eye”), notes that the “average Spaniard consumes just under ten kilos of rice a year, slightly more than Americans but twenty times less than the Chinese,” and ultimately concludes that in Spain, “rice, when it makes it to the table, is always the star, a conductor for flavor and texture created by the inclusion of vegetables and protein and the careful manipulation of heat.” Goulding further contextualizes the history of the ingredient:
When Christian monarchs reclaimed Spain from its Arabic occupiers, rice became a symbol of a past most of the country wanted to shed. More than a symbolic concern, Spaniards blamed the grain for cases of malaria and yellow fever that decimated the Mediterranean population.
This historical exposition informs subsequent investigations of paella, culminating in a detailing of “the 55 Concurs Internacional de Paella Valenciana, the world’s oldest and largest paella competition.” And here’s where you realize (probably not for the first time) how Grape, Olive, Pig opens doors into culinary worlds locked to us mere mortals. Not all of us will be invited, as Goulding was, to Sueca, the “under-caffeinated town of twenty-eight thousand with deep paella roots” to judge paella offerings from 35 “international contestants [who] qualified for their slots earlier in the year in regional semifinals.” Merely along for the ride as an honorary judge, Goulding describes how the winning paella:
has a rugged charm, more handsome than beautiful, but with the ruddy, almost rust color characteristic of a rice cooked with a deeply flavorful sofrito. More important than the aesthetics, the flavor is deep and well balanced and the texture is exactly what it should be: a warm, subtle sheen blankets the rice while maintaining the singular integrity of each grain.
He believes paella’s cultural prominence cannot be overstated, “Paella is a way of life, a presence in every major life event in and around Valencia.”
In Grape, Olive, Pig, Goulding dedicates as many pages to the processes of harvesting, catching, growing, or by other means procuring Spain’s unique culinary resources as he does to the preparation and consumption of food. He adeptly exposes the threads whose knots form the fabric of modern Spanish cuisine and whets the appetites for both food and travel, daring readers to explore unadvertised adventures of Spain.
Indeed, some of the most engaging passages of Grape, Olive, Pig detail those once-in-someone-else’s-but-not-your-lifetime events like being invited to the paella competition in Valencia or to go barnacle hunting with that trio of Galician sisters who, like their mother and grandmothers before them, maintain the family business by diving into rough seas and facing “frigid water temperatures, the fierce Galician weather, and the force and unpredictability of the ocean at its angriest” to harvest the crustaceans.
It wasn’t until I finished the book that I wondered why olive and grape sat alongside pig in the book’s title. Goulding admirably distills the past, present, and future of Spanish pork production and consumption. You’ll even learn about Antón, the moniker bestowed on the pig chosen annually and then fattened up and raffled off by the townspeople of La Alberca, some 50 miles from Salamanca. Antón is the heart of “a magical tradition, this of the free-roaming village-fed beast” who, in the Middle Ages, was gifted “to the poorest family in town, but these days, the village sells raffle tickets to the hundreds that stream in from around the region to drink cherry firewater and eat blood sausage and maybe, just maybe, win three hundred pounds’ worth of the world’s most prized pig.”
Given Goulding’s dedication to the pig in this tome, however, similar explorations of the contributions of the grape and the olive to Spanish cuisine might require additional volumes. In fact, he spends far more time wending his way through the history of bluefin tuna in an effort to contextualize Spain’s seafood market on a global scale than he does sharing the histories of the omnipresent olive and the noble grape.
Such false advertisement aside, this book should be savored like a good piece of jamón ibérico; no need to cram it in all at once, though there is a particular delight in devouring something so rich so quickly. Better to slowly luxuriate over the flavor, as Goulding prescribes in the chapter exploring Salamanca:
Acorn-fed ham so rich with fat that it sweats as soon as it’s exposed to air. Rub the fat on your lips like a balm, then place the slice on your tongue like a communion wafer and wait for it to convert you. First you taste the salt, then the pork, then the fermentation, and finally some deep, primal flavor will rise up and scratch at your throat and leave behind a ghost that can haunt your palate for a lifetime.
Though throat-scratching might not be everyone’s ideal, the idea of a haunting salty savoriness echoes exactly what a practiced butcher at a Barcelona Xarcuteria encouraged me to look for when tasting the best jamónes ibéricos.
While reading Grape, Olive, Pig, I repeatedly caught myself checking flights to Spain, projecting the costs of crisscrossing the Iberian peninsula while eating my own weight in Spanish ham. For those of us not BFF with Anthony Bourdain or married to a Catalana whose love came with unlimited access to the European Union, reading Grape, Olive, Pig will have to suffice.