Sometimes we forget that Public Television is where it all began…well, where food television began. The history of this form of educational enlightenment began in earnest with Julia Child and The French Chef and carries on today with Lidia's Italy.
Another new show, "Spain...On The Road Again", has been getting tremendous buzz, mostly because, rightly or wrongly, an Oscar winning and gorgeous actress is involved.
This visit across and all around Spain, exploring local food, is Mario Batali’s brainchild. He takes Mark Bittman with him, who gets better with each column and each book that he writes, (but he does come off a bit curmudgeonly on this show).
Mario is a great appreciator of Spain’s cuisine and culture and he is the perfect guide. But Gwyneth? I have to admit I wasn’t so sure about her participation. She’s so annoying beautiful and way too thin to be someone from whom I want culinary instruction AND, on top of THAT, she speaks fluent Spanish! How obnoxious is that?
We learned last week on Oprah (I swear I didn’t watch, I listened in the car) that Gwynnie eats what she wants, but she exercises mercilessly in a specially built building on her property with a fancy trainer, who trained her good friend Madonna. (It didn’t help that Oprah kept asking her all these gossipy details that makes us want to dislike her all the more.)
Back to Mario, he’s smart, I’m sure he figured the more buzz he got, the more people would watch and I guess that’s a good thing.
What I love about Spain is that it's still refreshingly Spain, no matter what kind of global world we live in. I lived in Madrid almost two decades ago, and amazingly, much of my old neighborhood is exactly the same. My corner farmacia still has the same 2 ladies that work there. Many of the shops and restaurants are the same; the vegetable guy and fish guy are still there. It’s quite amazing when you think how modern Spain is in many ways, but even Madrid retains a village flavor. And so it is with the cuisine.
In this first episode, Mario visits the area around Toledo in a province called La Castilla-La Mancha. (Yes, THAT La Mancha.)
Gorgeous scenes from all over Spain start the show with Willie Nelson singing “On the road again”. Mario tells us his culinary beginnings took hold in Spain, where his family had moved during his high school years. After he added his friend Gwyneth to the trip, he needed to find a companion for ”Bitty”, who is a non-Spanish speaker. He chose the knockout, multi-lingual Spanish movie star Claudia Bassols.
Should we care that these 2 gastronomic heavyweights are being accompanied by much younger gorgeous gals, who are not known primarily for their culinary accomplishments? Kind of, but I’m willing to give it a chance and, after all, I’m not a fool. I know Mario will get a lot more eyeballs viewing his show with them on than if he had taken some old coots along.
Oh, wait, maybe I do mind. Mario tells us that the ladies are also planning to get a bit of pampering - don’t they do that enough in their real life, without having to subject public television viewers to it? - on the trip, as well as visit artistic and historical sites. And, voila, we get the obligatory shots of the stunning Claudia having a massage and Gwynnie in a bathtub. Okay, I know it’s better than seeing Mario in either of those settings, but, c’mon, it’s totally gratuitous.
It IS amazing that nakedness and sex appeal inserts itself into the last place you’d expect them: a Mario Batali cooking show.
The trip begins with Mario and Mark touring the fish markets of Madrid at 4 am. The ladies are shown (a few hours later) enjoying the ambrosial chocolate con churros after just waking up. Mark and Mario watch tuna being cut up. Wow, that’s a lot of blood. Mario walks around picking up fish and admiring them. The gals have girl-chat.
Ahhh, berberechos. Mario admires them. I remember those. Mario says they’re like a cross between a scallop and a clam. I think they’re more like claws filled with snail-like “meat”. No, wait, sorry, I’m thinking of percebes. I hope he tries those at some point. Berberechos are like tiny clams.
The “couples” split up. On the road to Toledo, as they travel through Castilla-La Mancha, Mario and Gwynnie give us a bit of the history of the cathedral that took 500 years to build. Mark and Claudio start singing on their road trip.
M and G visit the Cigarrales of Toledo, named for its many cicadas (cigarras in Spanish), which is an old mansion with gardens and vineyards on the outskirts of Toledo.
They meet up with Chef Adolfo Muñoz. He shows them how to make Arroz Con Verduras Y Azafran (rice with vegetables and saffron). He infuses saffron in hot water for the rice dish. The chef uses bomba rice. Remember I told you that that was the rice that Chef Garces uses? It swells sideways, not lengthwise to absorb tons of flavor.
Gwyneth is doing the translating. She’s doing ok, but I’d rather have a chef be the translator than a movie star, but whatever… The chef adds the rice to a hot pan and stirs in the saffron water. Mario is intrigued. Spoonfuls of hot vegetable broth get stirred in. Mario says it looks like a risotto. Gwynnie tells him there’s no oil and to let it go, they’re not in Italy. Mario chimes in there’s also no sofrito. I think he gets it now. It’s SPANISH, not Italian.
Later on, a handful of finely diced carrots and then red peppers are added. They add turnips and more broth.
They start another dish called Pisto Manchego. Roasted vegetables are passed through a food mill. They add olive oil and serve the purée on grilled bread which has been drizzled with olive oil.
We see a bit on nonsense between Mark and Claudia. Back to Gwyneth and Mario, they are being shown a partridge dish. I think Gwyneth looks a bit ill, but that could be me I’m talking about. They carve the breast off the tiny bird, leaving the leg on.
Mario asks if she’ll eat a bird like this. She says she will if she knows it lived a good life and was hunted in the wild. Huh? Doesn’t it die just as much HUNTED in the wild, as any other way? I do get what she’s saying, but it does come off as a bit pretentious.
If you don’t want to eat meat or living things, then don’t. I guess a road trip with Mario makes people do all kinds of things they might not ordinarily do. Oh, she explains further. She doesn’t believe in factory farming of any kind and she won’t support it. There’s no way I can argue with that. Mario doesn’t either.
Back to the chef, who doesn’t seem to care how he got hold of the dead partridge, he dunks the tiny breast quickly in olive oil and wipes it over the grill. Then he puts the breast ON the grill. He braises the legs for 30 to 35 minutes in a stock reduction. Chef Muñoz likes to leave the partridge breast a little rare to give it the taste of the country and where the bird comes from. Gwyneth looks faint. He puts a piece back on the grill for her.
The chef plates the rare breast and the braised legs and adds many of the braising liquid ingredients RAW at the last minute, the herbs and lavender, for example. He drizzles the dish with olive oil. Gwyneth likes it. Mario has the “bird sushi” version. They finish the Arroz with olive oil and herbs. Mario says Holy Toledo, it’s good.
Mark and Claudia drive to Tembleque, 55 kilometers from Toledo and home to Manchego cheese. A really good-looking cheese maker is introduced and Claudia gets to milk the sheep. We see the cheese-making facility and how the cheese gets pressed into rounds and finished in a brine for up to a day. The wheels sit for 3, 4 or 5 months in a cave, until they are ready to eat. Claudia slices the incredibly hard cheese.
More chitchat between the two pairs in their cars... Mario and Gwyneth drive in a convertible and Gwynnie gets screamed at (in an admiring way) by passers-by. They arrive at the Iglesia de Santo Tomé in Toledo to see El Greco’s El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz. Interesting. Not a bad discussion of the painting, before Mario gets hungry again.
Mark and Claudia drive through Consuegra, land of 600 year old windmills. The previous chef’s son, Javier, shows Mark how to make Migas Con Chorizo Y Pancetta. Oil in a pan, then unpeeled whole garlic is stirred in. Javier says the best garlic is from Cuenca. He adds chopped chorizo and pancetta and cooks it until crispy. Then Claudia throws in coarse bread crumbs and cooks it “como el sol de Toledo” until it looks like the sun in Toledo. I like that. The Migas is served with a few grapes and roasted peppers. Mark likes it a lot. He compares it to fried rice. “You can’t ask much more from bread.” Don Q and Sancho Panza arrive and are given food and drink.
The four (I guess Don Quixote and SP had other plans) arrive in Toledo for a birthday dinner for Claudia cooked by Adolfo. Mario tells us later how sick he got from the raw partridge.
Gwyneth goes home and leaves the three of them to go to Avila (next episode).
What did I think of this show? Well, for the moment, I’m willing to put up with the beauty shots to get to Mario’s and Mark’s pearls of wisdom. The hour did seem a bit short on food and actual cooking, though. We don’t really need to see so much car time. We get how they’re DRIVING around Spain. The only virtue to that is to show viewers that they too can drive themselves and they don’t need a formal tour to see this magnificent country.
The itinerary on “Spain…” would be a wonderful route for any traveler. Added to the more mainstream, can’t-miss sites, it would make a trip of a lifetime.
My only caution…look up the itinerary for each episode here NOW, book it and get there before everyone else does…or you may risk a “Sideways” effect, where visiting that good-looking cheese maker is no longer possible; or that charming road with all the windmills that has barely a car on it now, is packed with hungry tourists.