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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Lauren Taylor

José Pizarro: ‘Memories are important in life – and in my cooking’

Emma Lee/PA

José Pizarro is feeling nostalgic. Often named the godfather of Spanish cooking, the hugely renowned chef has worked in Michelin star kitchens and opened no less than six restaurants, but lately he’s been reminiscing about life on the farm where he grew up and the food of that time.

“I don’t know, maybe it’s because my mum is getting old, and it’s important to feel it,” Pizarro says, poignantly.

Pizarro’s mother has been a huge influence on the way he feels about food

Isabel, his mother, is 89 (his father died a few years ago) and she’s been a huge influence on how he feels about food. “I was never allowed to be in the kitchen, but food always was very important to us. Always nothing fancy, but amazing. Properly made with love. More than anything else, she taught me, ‘Do everything with love’, and my dad the same.

“They always taught me that anyone coming to the house, they need to leave full and they need to leave happy!”

His sixth cookbook, The Spanish Home Kitchen, is a homage to those memories. “Some of the recipes have just come from my mum’s kitchen, lentils from the same pan my mum used,” says Pizarro, 49, who moved to the UK in 1998. “Memories are what are most important in our life, and of course in my cooking. It’s always memories that take you somewhere.”

And this latest offering is his most personal – littered with old family photos of his parents and grandparents, the rural village where he grew up in Extremadura, and snapshots of life with his partner Peter (adorable dogs included).

The way his mum cooks has always been very traditional and Pizarro feels a responsibility to guard those recipes. “My mum learned from her mum, my grandmother all she did was cooking, so my grandad always ate well. My dad learned the food from his mum – it’s how we learn.”

His latest cookbook is littered with old family photos and snapshots of life with his partner

One dish that will always remind Pizarro of his mum is a simple tuna tortilla: “Those flavours, that is my mum. A tuna omelette with mayonnaise.”

But lots of people are making Spanish tortillas incorrectly, he says, especially if you only cook one side. “That’s a frittata – more Italian – for a Spanish omelette, you have to turn and you will see it’s lovely and raw. I’m telling you, turning over an omelette is not difficult – try first doing it with a lid and make small ones (12-14cm). The lid will make your pan more secure, it’s the easiest thing in the world.”

Even tortilla pros occasionally drop one mid-turn though. “I was at a rioja festival maybe 10 years ago and on the stage cooking, I was busy, I don’t know how many people were in front, maybe 100 and I turned the bloody omelette on the floor! Everyone was laughing because they thought it was something that was planned,” he recalls.

Lots of people overcook the eggs too – traditionally a Spanish omelette is gooey in the middle. “For me, when I eat and cook, I love it really runny. My mum just sets the omelette – a little bit runny but not too runny – I love the omelette the next day. In the south [of Spain] they aren’t as runny.”

Pizarro and his partner Peter love entertaining

You really can just throw in whatever you’ve got left in the fridge, he says, and it makes a delicious (but easy) dish for entertaining: “People love to see omelette on the table.”

At it’s heart, the food of Spain is incredibly simple. “Totally,” says Pizarro. “Spanish food is all about ingredients, it’s never been anything fancy. How I grew up and how we eat in our home, it’s good, it’s quality, it’s all simple.

“We are so lucky now there’s so much creativity, so many amazing chefs we have in Spain, but Spanish food has always been honest – good lamb roasted in the oven, good salad, good potatoes, that’s it.”

He and Peter love entertaining (and have recently bought a “dream” house near Cadiz, Spain, perfect for dinner parties with astonishing sea views). “If I’m cooking for many friends, I want it to be simple,” the chef shares. “Because I want to eat with my friends, I don’t want to spend the whole day in the kitchen, or I want them to be in the kitchen with me and for them to enjoy it.”

The chef wants home cooks to use his book until it falls apart (Hardie Grant/PA)

Plus, cookbooks are no good if they’re only going to look pretty on a shelf. “It’s a lovely book for a coffee table, don’t get me wrong” – but ultimately, most of the recipes in his new collection are very simple because he wants home cooks to use his books until they’re falling apart. “What I say is that if your book is broken because you’ve been using it for years, send it to me and I will send you a new one!”

At home, Pizarro is unsurprisingly in charge in the kitchen, but Peter – a keen baker – “is in charge of the cake”. In fact, Peter’s tarta de Santiago – or almond cake – has pride of place in the new book as well as on Pizarro’s restaurant menus. “Peter loves sweet things, we call him ‘goloso’ – a person who loves to eat sweets all the time.”

Pizarro is more about cheese (and more wine) after a meal – and, believe it or not, making your own cheese is “really, really easy, if you follow a recipe,” he says. Growing up, his mum would use fresh milk straight from the cows on the farm, but he assures me it can be made with milk from a shop.

“When you do it, you’re going to feel very happy, and when you put it in front of your guests and you say, ‘I made cheese!’, it’s very satisfying. People will remember that – the first time you made a cheese.”

‘The Spanish Home Kitchen: Simple, Seasonal Recipes And Memories From My Home’ by José Pizarro (published by Hardie Grant, £27; photography by Emma Lee), available now.

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