Clara Maria, Madrid

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CLARA MARIA

LIVES: Madrid, Spain

BORN: Madrid, 1930

MOTHER TONGUE: Spanish

GRANDCHILDREN: Alvaro, Jacobo, Enrique, Felipe, Camila, Primi, Luis, Lorenzo, Guillermo, Eugenia, Jimena, Antonio, Clara, Sofia, Lino, Martta, Isabel

THEY CALL HER: Yaya

COOKING: Escabeche and potato salad

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Escabeche is something you can keep for months and you can escabeche anything, from partridge and game to chicken, it’s a popular classic with all the Spaniards. The verb 'escabechar' in Spanish simply means to cook and preserve in vinegar, which I like to do a lot, but using only very good quality Spanish vinegar.

Cooking with vinegar is actually one of the first lessons I taught at the Culinary Institute in New York. I had taken six Spanish chefs with me to deliver a lesson on Spanish cuisine. They were very young and had never been to New York before, so I wasn’t convinced they would make the early start. I said, “Tomorrow at 7am, you are here or I will come and throw a cold jar of water over your heads as you sleep.” They said, “Of course, we will be there,” and of course, they never arrived.

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Everyone at the institute was very angry so I took the class myself to entertain them. I taught them how to do a vinaigrette with Spanish sweet sherry and sweet vinegar. You must mix half a bottle of a very good vinegar, with a bottle of sweet sherry and you leave it to boil until it reduces, then let it cool, and you bottle it again and you have a delicious vinaigrette. Of course I said, “You’re making that vinegar with a vintage that has had 160 years in a bodega and this is a very valuable sherry”. It was 100 times better than the modern vinegar in America, cheaper and better.

When I got back to Spain, the bodegas behind the sherry and vinegar I had recommended were waiting for me with tonnes of flowers. They said that for the first time in thirty years, they had sold all their stock in New York. It was because I’d taken the class for people who owned restaurants and hotels. I was so amused because I only took the class because the Spanish chefs with me had all disappeared.

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Eventually I founded Alambique, a culinary school and shop in Madrid after being inspired by what I had seen of the culinary scene in New York. I was a very good friend of Elizabeth David in London, so I asked her advice when I was thinking about doing it and she was very enthusiastic about it.

All my friends back home were telling me, you’re crazy – what are you doing? We have cooks in our houses, why do we need to learn to cook? The first month, only four people came into our shop but I didn’t mind a lot. As women, we should really trust our instincts. You live with your mind and your heart and you must cook something up that is good with them. My friends were terrified but I wasn’t worried at all because I believed in what I was doing.

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I went to see Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, to La Varenne and to the States again because it was a very important market for us. I became a very good friend of Julia Childs’. We were all in the same group of ‘foodies’, as you say now. This was in the 60s and 70s and it was complicated to make friends with people in America and those circles. Those American ladies were all the time, together. They had dinner in their rooms at the hotels. It was so difficult but I knew that I would need to make friends with these ladies to progress in the food world beyond Spain.

The Greeks and the French were furious that they were ignored by the American ladies but I wasn’t so upset. I understood that it was more fun for them to be with each other. One day though, they invited me to join them. I couldn’t believe it! We became very good friends and they helped me pass on my knowledge of Spanish cuisine in the States. It was a great success and a very happy circumstance for me. I enjoyed it a lot.I think one of the best secrets of life is to just be a good person. You receive so much just by being good. You will be very happy.

It’s so important to have faith in whatever you go into. You must believe in what you do, very much. You have to believe it is going to happen. That’s why I made a success of Alambique, because I truly believed in it. It’s a question of character. Sometimes, you do something and you think, “Oh I am crazy, this is ridiculous, I’m going to lose everything.” But if you are sure of what you’re doing, it’s magic. It opens all the doors. All you must do is believe.

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