An Interview with Tom and Owen Morgan (Part 1) – Bar 44 Tapas y Copas: This Is Our Spain
We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Tom and Owen Morgan of the Bar 44 group.
Their new book Tapas y Copas: This Is Our Spain is their love letter to the country which has inspired their work for 20 years, and we thought the occasion was significant enough to warrant a long, freewheeling chat. It takes in everything from their inspirations to their hopes, their memories and challenges they’ve faced, shared memories of remarkable places to eat and much more.
Thanks to Owen,Tom and Natalie for their time, their frankness, and not least their support for the work of this independent site.
This is part one of a two-part interview.
‘We just had to get on with it’
FMD: Why a cookbook, and why now?
Owen: It’s something we’ve been asked about for years and years, by regulars especially- “Why haven’t you written all this down?”
Tom: I’ve been talking about writing a book for at least ten, twelve years…
FMD: Was this last year an opportunity then, among all its challenges?
Tom: We’ve definitely pushed it forward: we wrote a ‘blad’ (a short version to send out to gauge publishers’ interest). Luckily, just before lockdown a couple of publishers were really interested but then restrictions hit…and it was like ‘Right, let’s get this over the line!’
It would have been very hard to write a book like this, to get the recipes checked, the photography done, if we had been open! It was hard enough as it was, with everything we had going on day to day. But 20 months or so of the hospitality industry being shut has afforded us time- I know we’ve had a lot to get on with, with being forced to diversify and one thing and another, but it gave us that time when you had to sit at home every day and just get on with it.
FMD: Owen, you shared recipes online- how to make croquetas, the two-part paella cookalong, and those prize-winning patatas bravas…
Owen: We did 10 or 15 videos at different times of the year, but as Tom’s always said, we’ve got hundreds of files on the computer since day dot! It has been funny looking at recipes from 15 years ago and how we do them differently in the restaurant now- let alone the seasonal dishes we do, and how we change them every year. It’s been a process of looking back at those and reflecting on ourselves. And of course we’ve been around 20 years. Early publishers asked why they would take us on: the ‘blad’ said ‘Here’s our food, here’s our background…we think we have a different take on things.’
FMD: Why should someone buy this, as opposed to all the other Spanish books on the market? Obviously a project like this hopes for national reach, not just a couple of counties in South Wales?
Owen: Well who knows… perhaps it’ll be translated into Spanish, unleashed on international markets, taken into space…
Tom: Many cookbooks are just that- recipes and pictures. This goes deeper, because it’s really about the love we have for Spain and our experiences there. It’s just as much a travel book, which takes you to far-flung corners of Spain you’d never know about otherwise. Some of our inspirations are so far off the beaten track! It gives a unique insight into these remarkable places, places many British customers wouldn’t be expected to know about. And of course half the book is all about the drink.
FMD: …which has always been at the heart of what you do, hasn’t it?
Owen: Yes! When we first opened in this dim and dusty old social club, the town was old boy boozers and restaurants with menus which hadn’t changed in 20 years. The challenge was- how do we create food to go with a drink, rather than order your drink to go with your food?
Tapas is all about socialising, and 20 years on small plates are ten a penny and every high street has its own version. The difference in this book is us- the fact we are siblings and this has been our journey together, plus an insight into what it’s like to run a food and drink business in the UK (which is interesting, to say the least!) and of course our take on the food, born from travel and relationships.
“It’s that understanding that you don’t need more…”
FMD: Tell us about some of those places which inspired you in your restaurants and in the book, then. You devote space in the book to your time at Güeyu Mar and Bodega El Capricho: these are both remarkable places to eat, but they use the most basic of equipment. What did you learn there?
Owen: I think with Güeyu Mar it was purely how to…not tame a fire, but use it to your advantage. So while I was their gopher lugging buckets of hot coals from the fire pit out the back to the kitchen, I was watching them using different grills at different heights for different fish- whether it’s great tranches of fish, whole fish or individual shellfish…and all treated slightly differently. People might think ‘Oh they’ve just barbecued it’ but in reality it’s very, very different. Or Etxebarri, where the sheer expertise that goes into cooking a protein over fire, coals or embers is huge.
These are such ‘ingredient-led restaurants’ (you’d assume every restaurant should be ingredient-led…but it just highlights the importance of produce). Take a plate of prawns at Güeyu Mar: OK, so it can cost you the same as a meal at a three-star Michelin, but it’s that piece of produce on the plate and its unadulterated pared-back simplicity. I guess some might say, ‘They haven’t done much to that’, but it can be the best thing you’ve eaten all year.
Tom: I think somewhere like that shows how important it is to be confident in what you do. You can go there and have unbelievable mussels, just opened up over the grill with a lick of smoke…that’s it. Eating mussels like that is not what you’d expect in the UK- people might want moules mariniere or similar- but if you are open to it, the way we do it in Asador with just a bit of a spritz with our ‘secret solution’ is a fantastic way to eat. Or you can go somewhere like La Coruna, which we talk about in the book, where we had incredible seafood, where we found huge vats of mussels cooked so simply in seawater for seconds, the plumpest freshest things you’ll ever taste.
FMD: And El Capricho- given that your headline ingredient here at Asador 44 is Spanish beef, it must cast a long shadow. It felt like a privilege, to be invited into that kitchen, and to see the simplicity of that grill. Huge chuletones being cut, then salted, then cooked and rested and sliced: in a way it all seemed so simple, but you knew this was something very special indeed. Even before that first mouthful. That’s a memorable place, no?
Owen: That was amazing! Just spending time there, in the kitchen with José… he goes to such a remarkable level. It was about traceability, knowing which field and which farmer these huge oxen are coming from, knowing every step of their life, knowing them almost like your own children, so you treat them without complacency when it’s time to work with them. That’s so important. Bringing that back over here, the challenge has been to get across the idea that a kilo of beef isn’t some tacky Man v Food challenge, but a chop…. You only need a few slices (unless it’s you or I…ha ha) and for that price of £100 or whatever it might be- you could share that between 3 or 4 people, and have world-class food for £25 a head.
FMD: And there are several places doing ‘aged Spanish beef’ in the UK which are charging a hell of a lot more than you…
Owen: Yes. Yes!
Tom: The other key thing I think- and you see it in these places, or in Segovia- is that you’ll have an unbelievable piece of meat or fish, beautifully cooked, but the sides are just so simple. It might be a ‘standard’ salad but it’s beautiful because the tomatoes come from nearby fields and they’re the right thing to cut through the meat or fish, which are so rich and so powerfully flavoured…it’s that understanding that you don’t need more.
Owen: Those kitchens we’ve mentioned are on a world level in terms of their food, but they’re not the type of kitchen which has a million gadgets to over-process the food.
Tom: Or a million chefs! What comes through in spades in the book is experiencing the culture. There’s a story in the book called ‘You Never Forget Your First Feria’, from back in 2013 when we went to the Feria del Caballo in Jerez, and the impact of literally turning a corner and being hit with this smell. I’d never had an experience like it before- that massive, salty smell of sherry stopped us dead in the street. We sought it out and we lived it.
Sourcing, relationships and collaborations:
“Because we were obsessed!”
FMD: One thing which distinguishes what you do, we think, is the length you’ll go to find the right produce and treat it carefully. Why go to that effort when others click through a supplier catalogue and buy trays of croquetas in frozen?
Owen: It would be less labour intensive that’s for sure! It’s fine on Friday lunchtimes now we’ve got a full brigade, but you could run the other type of place with just a kitchen hand. But I would always hope people can tell the difference- surely it comes down to what’s good food and what’s not good food. What we’ve been brought up on as a family is that classic European gathering around the table, sharing stories, over really enjoyable food. It’s what you’re prepared to pay for the ethical side of it as well as the flavour element.
Tom: The other thing to remember is that we’ve been doing this for 20 years now, and that’s a rarity. I think we’re the second-oldest tapas bar in the UK? If you want to keep on going, and be enthusiastic, and stay enthusiastic, and keep on pushing yourself so you wake up and think I can’t wait to go to work today… you want to try these products out and see what customers think. That’s what gets you out of bed when you’re running restaurants I think. And if you don’t go and have those relationships with the people you’re buying from, who are actually making it, it may as well be that ‘something else.’
FMD: Give us some examples, then, of the lengths you’ve gone to ensure that you’re getting the best produce you can.
Owen: The Asturias trip for example, which we talk about in the book. I took our chefs, but we missed the flight and had to get another flight into another city, then drive through Asturias, and we spent the next three or four days in the mountains there. That one was all about beef and blue cheese, so we found ourselves hiking up a mountain, with a donkey, alongside Pepe Bada, the world’s best blue cheese maker, then signing agreements he had written to make sure we would never tell anyone where his cave was, where he ages his Cabrales- all by torchlight!
We have various companies in the UK which would send us samples- we must have tried around 50 types of Asturian blue cheese in the last year alone- but to go there with the guy who makes it is so special…
Equally, with meat, it means we can sample at different parts of the ageing process.
We did the same thing with cecina, going to different villages and meeting different producers, seeing the process, because with cured beef there are so many ‘levels’. What’s the raw meat like to start with- on a British dosmetic level, how good is that piece of intensively-reared supermarket beef, compared to a really good slow-aged, well-reared piece of grass-fed beef? It comes down to the level of marbling, the flavour, the texture, what it’s smoked over, and how long the cure is, and in what environment… there’s a lot that goes on. We have tried maybe 75-80 cecinas so you see the difference you get from this price to that, as you develop your own palate and preferences.
Tom: Educating ourselves is key, because we can come back home and fill the chefs and the staff and the customers with the enthusiasm we’ve felt over there and we can genuinely explain first hand why you have to try this.
Owen: It’s not about fads or fashions…we’ve tried cecina made with A5 wagyu, at well over a hundred pounds a kilo, and entry level ones with next to no marbling. But when you find amazing native breed mountain-reared beef which has that lovely marbling and also such craftsmanship behind it…
FMD: So it comes down to a sense of place and craftsmanship, then?
Owen: You’re looking into the family’s eyes as they are serving it to you, after you’ve spent the day with them, and you see what it means to them. Another example would be the Torta de Barros cheese producer down in Extremadura we’ve used for 15 or 16 years now: we revisited them just before Covid, and took some chefs with us. We have a core team but over time, others come and go and you could get complacent with materials you use every day: you might not always take into account where it’s from, or the level of craft that’s gone into it. But the family told us, ‘Because of what you take from us, we have employed a full time member of staff in the village this year’, and that’s in a village of 1000 people which survives on one industry, their cheese. If it wasn’t for that, depopulation to bigger cities would be even worse and these food traditions could be lost.
FMD: Here in Asador it’s not exclusively Spanish beef, is it, those older animals? I know you’ve recently started working with Oliver Woolnough from Meat Matters, haven’t you?
Owen: We’ve always seen it as ‘Spain Meets Wales’, with the best local producers. We use local if it’s good enough, but why use local if it’s not? Yes, there’s the mileage issue, but we want to serve the best we can. We’ve always served lovely Welsh beef here for example, or Gower salt marsh lamb. But when it came to beef no one was quite doing it to the level we have developed with our Spanish farmers and producers.
But since Oliver has been doing ex-dairy cows, he has now got it to a level which is absolutely incredible, so it’s hard to tell now when we sample- one of the hardships of the job!- his alongside imported Galician Blond. That’s his true passion and craft, and him only accepting the very highest standards.
Tom: Obviously we are a Spanish restaurant group but we are also Welsh, and marrying the two is something people will see in the book. Use what’s around you here, but the ideas and recipes are Spanish and traditional in nature.
Owen: Why wouldn’t you use cockles from the Gower and team it with Fino sherry, perhaps a fleck of jamón through there? It’s natural.
We love working with suppliers like David from Mevalco, he turned up in the early days of Cowbridge. Tom was busy in the kitchen but rang me and told me to rush round…and that was it. We ended up sitting in his van eating blood pudding and it started there. He had such a detailed knowledge of the food chain in Spain and his passion was to bring local Spanish food at a high level to the UK, which hadn’t really been seen before.
FMD: Even before Mercado 44 or the book, you’ve branched out into producing your own oil and olives. Why’s that important to you?
Owen: Because we were obsessed! We wanted to go through the whole process of doing it ourselves. The first one was the oil in 2013, with O-Med in Granada, one of the best in the world, and one of the nicest families you’ll ever meet. They took on their father’s traditional olive mill, when they were from a chemistry and pharmaceutical background, and took it to new levels. That has taken them to being one of the consistently top producers in the world: and when they said, ‘Yes we will do a blend with you’, we went out there and did everything from labouring on the farm to the final product and the tastings. The oil we wanted to produce was something we wanted that someone could use every day, but still a premium product we love.
Tom: That’s key- back when we first started, everyone had heard of extra virgin olive oil, but now people have learned to look out for grassy or citrussy elements. It’s an amazing blend that we use for a specific reason- so it’s about a citrus hit through a dish, perhaps, or a more earthy flavour with the 8 or 9 virgin oils we use at the moment, all for different things. One for tomato salad, one for fish, one for desserts, another lends itself well to ‘cheesy’ beef, it’s all about levels of ingredients. The things we have done ourselves like our manzanilla, our red wine, our olives, working with producers we love: we think the key is working well with people, whether it’s your local fruit and veg man or a Spanish producer at a world class level. It’s about forming relationships. Ideally, people you can have a meal with or go to the pub with, not just a business transaction.
Photography credit: The Bar 44 Group (taken from Tapas y Copas: This Is Our Spain)