Interview by Annie Bennett, The Daily Telegraph, July 23, 2013
Andalusia encompases some of the most spectacularly different landscapes in Spain - from the winter snow caps of the Sierra Nevada, to the beaches of the Costa del Sol, and the historic Moorish cities of Seville, Granada and Cordoba. Its produce and culinary traditions are just as varied and they have proved an inspiration to London-based chef José Pizarro, who owns the José tapas bar and the Pizarro restaurant in Bermondsey and has written two books about Spanish food. Originally from Extremadura, he has been a regular visitor to Andalusia since he was a child, as his family always went there for their summer holidays. Now he pops over from London whenever he can to soak up a bit of the exuberance of the region and get ideas for new dishes.
What makes Andalusian food so special?
Andalusia is all about simple pleasures: a glass of wine or sherry, a piece of cheese or ham, and good company. And that's it; you are happy. It's all about the freshness, the quality and the diversity of the produce. Many of the dishes go back to Moorish times – or earlier. So many cultures settled in Andalucia – Jews, Romans, Phoenicians - creating an incredibly rich gastronomic heritage.
Andalusia also has great geographical variety. There are eight provinces and there is something special in each one. Something as simple as fried aubergines in Cordoba, for example, with molasses drizzled over the top. I love the salt cod and orange salad that is typical of Granada. Or a good chunk of tuna from Cádiz, which is fished using the traditional – and sustainable - almadraba method, where the tuna are caught in nets as they swim from the Atlantic to the warmer waters of the Mediterranean. I like it raw, with good olive oil and salt. There is nothing better for me. I also love air-dried tuna, mojama, which we serve in the restaurant, with a slice of pear. The restaurant is very much in the spirit of Andalusia – you just go to enjoy the moment, with no fussy nonsense, to eat some tasty prawns or whatever you fancy, and drink some great wine with your friends.
The region's most representative dish?
Gazpacho. The best tomatoes, fabulous olive oil, garlic and a few other bits and pieces, pounded together to make a silky smooth liquid. So simple, so delicious and so refreshing in summer. There are so many different varieties. In the restaurant we serve salmorejo, from Cordoba, which is a thicker version and for me is one of the best cold soups. And I love ajoblanco from Malaga, made from ground almonds and garlic and served with a few grapes or pieces of melon on top.
Any other peculiarities?
Andalusians drink a lot of sherry, which is made in Jérez or course, and also on the coast in Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. Sherry is one of my great passions and I am thrilled when my customers are very interested in learning about it and how to pair it with food. I always tell them to start with a light, dry fino or manzanilla and a plate of ham. Oloroso is lovely with ibérico pork from Huelva. But you will be in heaven when you try a proper, good palo cortado or amontillado with a bit of payoyo, which is a fabulous cheese, made from goat's and sheep's milk, from the Sierra de Grazalema. And then you finish with a Pedro Ximénez, which is the sweetest and thickest wine in the world.
Name two things that stand out for you
There are so many, but I would have to say ibérico ham from Jabugo in Huelva, which is spectacular; it takes my heart. It is very different from the ibérico hams from other areas, as each has its own characteristics, but it is always produced according to strict regulations. And then Andalusian olive oil is just amazing and an essential ingredient for me, particularly from the province of Jaén, which produces more than half of the total for Spain.
To understand Andalusian food, where should I begin?
Just go into a bar in any part of the region and try a few tapas. You often get given something before you order, particularly in the provinces of Granada, Almería and Jaén, so you don't have to spend too much either. Since we are in Jérez at the moment, my mind is full of so many things I've tasted here. Yesterday I had an ibérico pork meatball, with oloroso sherry sauce and straw potatoes. Few things make me wow, but that did. It seems so simple, but the ingredients are all local and excellent, and then you have a cook with the skill to put it all together.
José Pizarro ( josepizarro.com ) owns the Jose tapas bar and the Pizarro restaurant in Bermondsey. His books Seasonal Spanish Food and José Pizarro's Spanish Flavours were both published by Kyle Books last year.