There is enormous fashionable interest in the food of Spain — the cradle of modernist haute cuisine, its chefs raised to minor godhead, San Sebastián a place of pilgrimage and a seemingly worldwide obsession with tapas-style eating. But for art director Lizzie Frost and photographer Joseph Fox, the country revealed another, more interesting story.
In any culture that consumes animal products, an egg is likely to be among the earliest solid food you ever eat. Simple, nourishing and delivered by the chicken in a state of purity, it is the ideal first food. Even its texture, which can be infinitely varied from liquid to solid, is perfect for weaning. Unsurprisingly, it is a rare person who doesn’t have deep-rooted, elemental memories of comforting childhood egg dishes. Many food writers have waxed poetic about the elegance and refinement of the omelettes of France, but the Spanish tortilla de patatas affects one at an entirely deeper level.
Containing just eggs, potato and oil, it combines three very available ingredients in a way that probably made most sense to the people who first harvested or collected them. The potatoes are confited long and slow in the oil. (Many cooks would flash fry the potato to stop it getting greasy, but the oil is vital to a working body, a nourishing fat that needs to be absorbed with not a drop wasted.) The eggs must be fresh and cooked until barely set. The outer skin must be mottled with brownness, toughened a little and straining to contain the rich, almost custardy interior.
But it’s not just the food that speaks to you from this book. The interiors, ranging from the seediest of bars to smarter establishments, lend a diverse context to each slice of tortilla — while the rigorous simplicity, the utter similarity of each piece, implies unity. Any cheffy pretension is transcended. No matter the place, the room or the furnishings, here is egg, potato and oil made with all the love and care that can be given.
“Having recently moved to Spain,” says Fox, “we thought it would be interesting to take advantage of our outsiders’ perspective. We found the familiar and unassuming interiors of these small neighbourhood bars, built from a worn patchwork of tile, marble and wood veneer, a way to immerse ourselves in the life of Madrid and to observe the eating patterns and rituals of our new neighbours.” For Frost and Fox, their almost obsessive documentation of the tortilla de patatas became their route into a new culture.
Today, thanks to cameras in phones and the ubiquity of food bloggers, we have become used to a particular aesthetic. Food — spectacular or everyday — is shot, perfect and appetising yet, more often than not, deracinated. Frost and Fox’s book fascinates because both the pictures and the idea behind their collection restore connection. It’s a beautiful work but it also portrays something more: how the things we love to eat — which tap into our universal human needs for nourishment, love and comfort — unite us, when so much of the consumerist panoply of fine dining divides.
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