To the 19th-century travellers who established the lingering image of Romantic Spain, Spanish food was something you had to put up with while pursuing the country's true qualities – spirituality, exoticism, and passion. The French writer Théophile Gautier voiced the attitudes of many of his generation by saying that gazpacho was a dish that not even his dog would eat.
Anodyne gazpacho straight from a carton, together with soggy paella similarly unfit for canine consumption, are among the tourist staples still likely to colour foreigners' perceptions of Spanish cooking.
Yet the social and economic changes since the return of democracy in 1976 have made outstanding food more widely available than ever before, and have given rise to such an extraordinarily innovative chef as Ferran Adria, who has brought so much artistry to cooking that he even represented his country in this year's Kassel Documenta art fair.
If there is anything that unites such a culturally diverse country, it is a passion for food. Paul Richardson, in a book about "discovering the food of Spain" whose title conveys both Spain's idiosyncratic eating hours, and the lateness of foreigners in coming to appreciate its cooking, recognises this and sets off on an enviable journey of gastronomic discovery.
Richardson, an English expatriate with a Spanish partner and a farm in Extremadura, likes to think of himself as a country bumpkin. However, he is also a man of exquisite culinary sensibilities. Rightly and persuasively, he shows how much of Spanish haute cuisine is rooted in humble culinary traditions. Yet his own travels take him more often to fancy restaurants than to places and events where good, traditional Spanish food is most consistently found, such as private homes, gatherings of friends in the country, and down-to-earth, often seedy, bars.
For a writer so good at evoking such a bizarre and rarefied gastronomic occasion as "Madrid Fusion", it is a shame he does not convey a better sense of the everyday social context in which Spanish food is enjoyed; for instance, the way that the most ordinary of dishes can be transformed by the exclamations of delight.
Nonetheless, this is a very entertaining book, fuelled by a deep knowledge of Spain, and a relentless enthusiasm for his subject. And the descriptions are so tantalising that visitors to Spain might be tempted to stop wasting their time sightseeing, and get down to the truly serious activity of eating.
Bloomsbury, £16.99. Order for £15.29 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897Reuse content