An Interview with Tom and Owen Morgan (Part 2) – 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 two of a two-part interview. Part one can be viewed here.
Beginnings old and new:
FMD: I suppose Mercado, like the cookbook, was another case of circumstances offering you a chance to develop?
Tom: We started an online shop a while back but we ended up focusing on opening the Cardiff Bar and Asador instead, but we had that bank of knowledge already so when the time came we could get it up and running quickly.
FMD: Saturday mornings quickly became a ‘collection from Asador routine’ for us. To have that level of produce available at home! We all needed something to look forward to- and to have a kilo of chuleton was a treat, even if the people you live with might not thank you for the lingering smell of aged beef fat rendering…
Owen: It’s only going to get bigger for us, that side of things, I think. It was the time when it was needed. We had such incredible support from our customers!
Tom: And it got us out of the house…
Owen: …and we ended up back in the kitchens here at 6am on a Saturday, bickering away… like winding back time!
Tom: It was like 20 years ago, honestly!
Owen: That time was great, in a way, for people interested in the food and drink world. Many had time on their hands and wanted something to look forward to- it gave them time to really develop the passion, to read up on it, and to maybe ‘buy up’ in food and wine and try something different. And we were able to tell them a lot more about the product than if we were busy in service and managing the businesses. We had time for customers, either on Zoom or in person.
‘Elevated to make them sing”
Tom: A lot of recipes are classics, but elevated to make them sing, make them a bit more modern. To make them a little more accessible to the UK market, really.
Owen: You can just take that Torta de Barros cheese, cut the lid off horizontally and dip into it… but we breadcrumb it and serve it with Spanish tomatoes in season, as well as Isle of Wights, then we dehumidify olives and make a deeply savoury crumb. It’s just three main ingredients, but a relevant plate of food with a hugely traditional family-made cheese, amazing tomatoes and olives from the company we work with, just outside Seville- the ones we jar ourselves. There’s lots going on, yet it’s simple.
FMD: The enthusiasm- the pride- is radiating off you. What kind of reactions are you hoping for? How will you know if it has been a success?
Tom: You can measure success in so many different ways. For me, the fact we have got to this stage, by whatever means, and produced this book, that’s success enough. Genuinely. Look, if we sold thousands and thousands of copies, great. But for me, talking about a book for over ten years, for all the work we have done for two decades to evaporate overnight because of COVID… You never know what’s around the corner but it’s here now. It’s here and we’ve done it and it’s a cliché, but we see the enthusiasm from family and customers and that’s lovely. It’ll be great to know people enjoy cooking from it and reading the stories.
FMD: You’re going to get inundated with Instagram posts and tweets from people asking you to judge their efforts, you know…
Owen: It’s gratifying to see it picked up by WH Smith, Waterstones and others, but for me? The main driver is within our restaurants. They are our life, so if someone has had a good meal and wants to buy a copy? Wonderful. Everyone who pre-ordered it was from our list of regular customers. You always want to reach out to new audiences and never stand still but these are the people who really keep us going.
Tom: We do online vouchers and one of the most satisfying and reinforcing things is the messages people put on there to go with the voucher. ‘This is our favourite place’. ‘We know you’ll fall in love with it’. Perhaps if someone bought the book as a gift for friends overseas but wanted them to know what it was like at the restaurants…that would be just as special, that they wanted to share their enthusiasm for what we do.
Owen: It’ll be sold in a few places in Spain, as well.
FMD: It’s clearly a very personal, lived project, so there’s not going to be any unfortunate current newsworthy claims of plagiarism…
(both, laughing) No, it’s all us!
FMD: Very few cookbooks have come out of restaurants in South Wales, apart from Anand George’s ‘The 5000 Mile Journey’, and the Hang Fire book, so an accessible Spanish cookbook that people can use at home is a first.
Tom: Perhaps the drinks section will give it a wider appeal too- that’s just as important, and we’ve got drinks suggestions as well as cocktails… The biggest problem I had was limiting what Owen wrote- only about one-tenth ended up in the book!
Owen: I remember contacting our photographer, Matt Inwood, who has done such an outstanding job for us here and saying, ‘Sorry for the radio silence over the last week, but I’ve written 50,000 words on sherry…’ We wanted to link the two, so with 100-odd recipes, each one has a suggested drinks pairing, whether it’s beer, wine, sherry, cocktails or vermouth.
FMD: It’s clearly something you are very proud of. It’s a lovely thing, beautifully shot. Which recipes are dearest to you?
Tom: That’s really hard…my Desert Island dish would be jamón croquetas. Owen has done an amazing job on the variety of dishes we have included…maybe the fabada too?
Owen: I was going to pick that one!
Tom: It just takes us right back to where we started in Cowbridge, 20 years ago. No one else was doing anything quite like that, suddenly we had people flying through the door every lunchtime asking for another bowl, with a big hunk of crusty bread: I think at the time it was £3.95 for a big bowl and suddenly people aren’t having a sandwich for lunch, they’re coming over from local shops for a substantial lunch.
Owen: I do love the classics, so something I would make weekly at home for breakfast when we were in the kitchen every morning, would be tortilla… just three ingredients… but if you use the best eggs, cook down your onions until they are beautifully rich and sweet, get the potatoes right…
FMD: So you’re firmly in the ‘onion camp’..
Owen: Definitely, it just lifts it! I love it when our dishes play around with traditions, but stay true to the spirit- like our beetroot gazpacho with beautiful Catalan goats curd. Roasted, golden and pickled beets with that slight yoghurty sharpness, playing around with ideas like that. Getting different ideas across is not always easy in the UK. so we use a salmorejo or a gazpacho as an accompaniment- an ajo blanco full of garlic, almonds, sherry vinegar and olive oil goes perfectly with a lovely piece of mackerel, or beautifully with a little piece of lamb. Using it as a sauce or accompaniment gives people a taste of authenticity, a taste of the real Spain we love, in a more modern way. That’s what we love to do. And it gives me an avenue to go into the kitchens and teach the guys about that sauce, that soup that was made 3000 years ago in Cordoba for this reason, you’re using what the Arabs brought to southern Spain.
FMD: So many classics are the history of Spain and the history of conquest, aren’t they? Like pinchos morunos, a Northern African import turned into something unmistakably Spanish- yet so often made with pork, the one meat the Moorish invaders were prohibited from eating. Centuries of history on a plate.
FMD: Talk to us about the challenges of scaling down a restaurant to domestic quantities.
Owen: I did a series of fire cooking recipes for Sherry Week last year, with Genevieve Taylor, and I turned up with a coolbox of stuff I had prepped to make a rice dish- one very like the surf’n’turf one in the book- and I had made a shellfish bisque. She burst out laughing and asked ‘Have you done this on a restaurant scale for this little pot we are making?’. At that moment I realised the sale of the task ahead with this book: everything would have to be rewritten three times over for average servings at home
Tom: One of the hardest things was standardising your ‘bunch of..’ or ‘pinch of..’ into measurements people can use in their own kitchen.
Owen: But for some you may as well make large quantities…for example croquetas. You have to make enough to try them several times over as you go, of course, and they freeze well too…
FMD: A final, crucial question… What shape croquetas? Home style ovals… or restaurant style spheres?
Owen: (laughs) I knew you were going to ask that! At home, oval, that’s how we’d do them.
FMD: Finally, which recipes do you expect to be the most popular? We all own shelves of cookbooks and sometimes you look at a lovingly produced book and realise you’ve only ever cooked a handful of recipes from it…
Tom: Definitely classics like croquetas, bravas and tortilla.
Owen: With the tortilla we had to tweak it quite a bit to make it ‘home style’, as opposed to the way we’d serve it in one of the Bars. When we were doing the YouTube stuff the biggest hits were patatas bravas and croquetas, those comforting familiar favourites.
Tom: There’s something for everyone- from simple things, like learning to make a gilda, to the raciones, to going all out and making something for a huge feast around a busy table- a whole shoulder of lamb, that kind of thing. The postres too will push some people’s buttons- the Bake Off phenomenon might mean people are keen to try their hand at new desserts.
Owen: The majority of it is easily achievable by most home cooks. Some of these recipes are ‘assemblies’ rather than strictly cooking- for example, putting together excellent cecina, Cabrales cheese, figs in season, great sherry vinegar… that’s not ‘cooking’, just putting beautiful things together. You can have a world class plate of food with ingredients you have just bought. It can be that easy!
Photography credit: The Bar 44 Group (taken from Tapas y Copas: This Is Our Spain)