While the average use (or misuse) of the Internet is debatable, there’s no doubt that the World Wide Web frequently brings people together who would have never met before. This past (cold, snowy!) winter in Philadelphia, I was working on a project that required some basic knowledge about Spanish beers. After a few Google searches, I stumbled on a particular blog post (here) detailing craft beer bars in Madrid. Interested in learning more, I clicked on the blogger’s bio, then his website, sent him an email and next thing I knew, this happened … Meet James Blick, food/travel writer and culinary guide based out of the capital of Spain. James’ story is quite unique — a native New Zealander who ended up living in Spain — as he describes below. In addition to being a freelance writer, specializing in travel, food and Spain, James is a partner and guide with Madrid Food Tour and Devour Barcelona Food Tours, companies that offer culinary experiences in the big Spanish cities, and the blogger behind Madrid Chow. When I reached out to James, I was merely making use of the Internet to complement him on his work and note our similar backgrounds. Next thing I knew — all thanks to the Web — a Philadelphian and New Zealander-turned-Spaniard became online pals, and James Blick was kind enough to share his (Chocolate Covered) Memories with us …
How did you find yourself in this niche of the food industry?
As usual, it was a long and rather winding road. I began my working career as a lawyer, then quit that to get into advertising. I directed TV commercials for a few years but never really felt comfortable in that role. Then about 3.5 years ago, I moved to Madrid with my Spanish wife (who is from Madrid). I was intending to continue directing TV commercials here, but I saw the move to Spain as a chance to reinvent myself. So I began writing travel stories as a freelancer for newspapers and magazines. And then a couple of years ago, I met Lauren Aloise, who had recently founded Madrid Food Tour, a company offering gastronomic tours in Madrid. I joined as a guide and ultimately became a partner in the company. And that’s how I got where I am!
Any child/teenage food industry jobs?
None. Strike that — one! I worked as a waiter for a while at the Stamford Plaza hotel in Auckland, New Zealand. I hated it, and I was a terrible waiter. But that was partly because we weren’t properly trained. I didn’t really know what I was doing half the time, and this was in a five-star hotel.
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
My mother is a wonderful cook. My parents live in New Zealand, but they’ve lived in the United States as well as various cities in Southeast Asia. So I always remember food at home being a melting pot of all the places my family had lived. Mum would do a typical Kiwi roast dinner one night, then the next night she’d be cooking Thai food. So I always remember lots of flavours — both local and exotic — on the dinner table.
Where does your love of food stem from?
There’s two parts to this. I love eating and drinking in and of itself. I love the pleasure of it. I love to be surprised by well-defined flavours, well-crafted dishes. But I also love the way food is simply one element in a country’s or city’s cultural web. For example, I love eating Spanish cured ham (jamón). It melts on your tongue and has wonderfully rich flavours. But it also reflects the history of Spain, of a country where you slaughtered your pig in winter and cured the meat so that it wouldn’t spoil. My mother-in-law grew up in a village eating jamón that her family had cured. Some say that we eat a lot of pork here because it was a way for Muslim and Jewish converts to publicly display their conversion to Catholicism and thus avoid the watchful gaze of the Inquisition. So for me, food is much more than flavour or knowing who the top chefs are or where the top restaurant in town is. Put simply, it’s an integral part of the story of a country.
What foods remind you of childhood? What were your favorite foods growing up?
That’s a tough one. I think Asian food reminds me of my childhood, given my mother cooked a lot of it. I was perhaps one of the few New Zealand-born seven year olds that loved eating ikan bilis — Southeast Asian style dried anchovies. But I also loved the staples — roast meats with roast potatoes and boiled peas. Mum also does a great beef schnitzel. It’s interesting comparing my more eclectic food memories (as a child growing up in a New World country that was still finding its identity) with my wife’s. My wife simply ate traditional Spanish food as a child, reflecting the more homogeneous culture in Spain at the time. That story continues. In New Zealand (like the States) you can get fantastic ethnic food. In Madrid, good ethnic food is still a bit of a struggle, though it is here and growing in popularity.
Any specific food memories/stories that you want to share?
Two memories, neither of which are necessarily very palatable! I remember eating link breakfast sausages in New York on a family trip, and they were either off or didn’t sit right in my stomach. And I vomited all over the Persian rug in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria hotel, where we were staying. Does that qualify as a food memory?
Another is not a childhood memory but rather a more recent and certainly formative one. I went hunting for the first time about six months ago, with my father and nephew in New Zealand. We were looking for pigs but wound up with three goats (a bit of a consolation prize). I didn’t like the act of shooting an animal and wouldn’t do it again. But I didn’t have a moral problem with it, knowing that we were going to eat the majority of each animal and that we were hunting in a sustainable manner. A few days later, we covered two of the goat legs with a plethora of herbs and slow roasted them for about six hours. The flavours were fabulous, and the meat was so tender, which is often difficult to achieve with goat.
Were you a picky eater as a kid? Any foods you couldn’t stand growing up? Have you overcome those childhood fears or do they still remain to this day?
I was never a picky eater, apart from Brussels sprouts, which used to make me gag (or maybe I was overreacting). Mum always made us finish everything on our plates, a rule that I thank her for now. Nowadays I make a point of eating everything (apart from junk food and stuff like that). Moving to Spain has been interesting because here we have a vibrant organ meat tradition. When you haven’t grown up eating kidney and liver and all that stuff, you recoil a little from the idea and flavour at first. But I think we have a moral obligation to eat all of the animal, so I force myself to learn to like those organ meats. I don’t think it’s right to say yes to a T-bone steak but not beef tripe. The difference is in our heads.
Any childhood farming/cooking accidents on/in the farm/kitchen? Any as an adult?
No cooking accidents as a child. I was bitten by a horse once on my grandmother’s farm, but that’s not really relevant to this discussion. Perhaps the most memorable kitchen accident as an adult was when my wife made her first tortilla de patata (Spanish omelette) a few years back. The time came to flip the tortilla, and I was in charge of holding the plate against the fry pan for the flipping. Of course, I screwed it up and the tortilla and plate fell to the floor, both smashing into a million pieces. She hasn’t tried one since.
Growing up, what was your favorite meal/food/snack to eat outside? Did you enjoy eating outside anywhere in particular? How about now as an adult?
Fish and chips on the beach. I love that, and it’s not something I get to do often in Madrid, where there are no fish and chips and no beach. Nowadays I hardly ever eat outside, as Madrid doesn’t have a strong street food tradition. Well, we do have deep-fried calamari sandwiches which you buy from a bar and eat in the Plaza Mayor, but I’m still not convinced by that one. Like cricket, you have to be born into it.
What do you think of the modern food world in Spain? New Zealand? Across the globe (from franchise chains to Starbucks, from the Food Network to Groupon, from Yelp to foodie bloggers)?
As I mentioned above, modern food in Spain is still rather traditional. Outside influences are starting to creep in. (For example, chef David Muñoz was recently awarded his third Michelin star for DiverXo, which blends Spanish and Asian influences.) And there are cheap food holes where you can get good Chinese food. But Asian food is still a little niche and exotic, as here it’s still something for “foodies” (I promise not to use that horrible word again …). It’s not like New Zealand where you see people from all backgrounds eating Malaysian food or Thai food. My mother-in-law, for example, would never go to an Asian restaurant. She would find the flavours strange. I just know she would hate it.
In terms of chains and Yelp and all that stuff, it’s all coming to Spain. We’re certainly seeing that more extreme side of the monetization of food creep into the culture here. But I suspect that compared to the States, things are still a little more innocent here. Rustic bars still offer simply-prepared, home cooking and wouldn’t know Yelp or TripAdvisor if it jumped up in their “cocido” (a traditional stew from Madrid). There are a lot of food bloggers here in Madrid (I am one of them!), and I suspect more in Barcelona. But as much as it’s a world I’m a part of, it’s a world that bores me a little. Perhaps I should pay more attention, and I certainly get ideas of where to try places from other bloggers. But there’s a lot of boring fawning in blogging (whether travel or food) and often not a lot of really interesting content. Blogs are getting more visual, but I’m more of a word person. So sometimes in the blogs I read, I miss incisive comments and critical thought.
What family recipes do you want to share with us?
First, a real comfort dish that Mum made. Second, a dessert that I always asked her for when I was sick or it was my birthday. Enjoy my mum’s Chicken and Rice with Salted Beans & also Steamed Pudding!
Born in New Zealand, James Blick is a Madrid-based freelance writer, specializing in travel, food and Spain. His work has been published in the UK Sunday Times, Toronto Star, El País, Ryanair’s Let’s Go, West Australian and many other publications. James is also a partner and guide with Madrid Food Tour and Devour Barcelona Food Tours, companies that offer culinary experiences in the big Spanish cities. James also runs the “embarrassingly, infrequently-updated” blog Madrid Chow, covering his food discoveries in the Spanish capital. For more about James Blick, link up with him on Twitter, his Madrid Chow blog on Twitter, his company Madrid Food Tour on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; and his new company Devour Barcelona Food Tours on Facebook and Twitter.