Catalan cuisine, an unbeknown yet priceless heritage

Catalan cookery is known worldwide for Ferran Adrià’s revolutionary contributions and for ‘El Celler de Can Roca’ recently chosen by ‘Restaurant’ magazine as the best restaurant in the world. However the vast majority of Catalans have never tasted such haute cuisine and still defend their gastronomy as one of the richest in the world. It’s not about patriotic boasting: traditional Catalan cooking is characterised by an overwhelming variety of ingredients and cooking methods and no less than seven centuries of documented history.

Empedrat is a must recipe during the summer hot months (by onnoth / Creative Commons)
Empedrat is a must recipe during the summer hot months (by onnoth / Creative Commons) / Anna Pérez

Anna Pérez

July 9, 2013 10:30 PM

Barcelona (CNA).- When talking about Catalan cuisine, it is quite usual that the first thing that comes to mind is the avant-garde preparations of chefs like Ferran Adrià – whose work is currently on show at London’s Summerset House – or Joan Roca – whose restaurant ‘El Celler de Can Roca’ was recently chosen by ‘Restaurant’ magazine as the best restaurant in the world. However, the truth is that very few Catalans have had the chance to eat a spherificated olive or a deconstructed omelette. Besides, foreigners tend to associate traditional Catalan cooking with Spanish cuisine and think of tapas, paella and Iberian ham as typical products from Catalonia while they have Basque, Valencian and Andalucian origins, respectively. Catalan identity is not only defined by its own language, history and traditions but also by its own cuisine, which was first documented in the 14th century and comprises a wide range of ingredients, flavour combinations and cooking methods.

Catalonia might not be a large territory but it does include a significant amount of differing climates: from the sunny coastline to the cold Pyrenees mountains and inland areas. Therefore, Catalan cuisine can be classified as Mediterranean but it has mountain and continental touches as well. This leads to a diversity of ingredients and techniques worthy of consideration.

From the sea, one could highlight the suquet, a simple stew made from fish (normally monkfish or grouper), potatoes and occasionally seafood, which is traditionally prepared in an earthenware pot. This container is also used to cook a much more elaborated stew called sarsuela, with crayfishes, prawns, monkfish, hake, clams, squid…

Cod is very popular as well, and is usually used, among other recipes, to make esqueixada, a cold salad that includes fresh tomato, onion, peppers, olives and desalted, raw cod, all seasoned with olive oil. If legumes such as white beans are added, it is called empedrat. Anchovies preserved in salt or oil from a coastal village called L’Escala are also well-known because of its tastiness.

Typical meats from Catalonia are lamb, chicken and especially pork, from which many cold meats are made. The most representative might be the botifarra, a wide sausage with lots of varieties depending on the condiments – from egg to rice, but also pork blood and sugar-. It is usually served with white beans. Less common but also traditional are rabbit, duck (typically roasted with pears) and veal, thinly cut and accompanied with mushrooms in a dish called fricandó.

There are some recipes known as mar i muntanya (sea and mountain, in English) for mixing ingredients from both environments. Good examples of it are meatballs stewed with cuttlefish and peas, and chicken with lobster.

Some of the most characteristic preparations with vegetables are Catalan-style spinach, sautéed with raisins and pine nuts; samfaina, where vegetables such as pepper, onion and eggplant are simmered with grated tomato then eaten alone or accompanying all kind of dishes; and escalivada, which also gathers pepper, onion and eggplant but barbecued, skinned, cut and seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper. Fruit, nuts and cheeses such as serrat, tupí, mató or recuit are also very important in Catalan cuisine.

When talking about desserts, every village has its own. Some of the most typical desserts in Catalonia are crema catalana, a crème made of egg yolks, sugar, flour and milk, aromatised with cinnamon and lemon or orange peel; and menjar blanc, another sweet crème typical from the Southern Province of Tarragona with almond as its main ingredient.

The secret lies in the base ingredients

Cooker and gastronomy writer Eliana Thibaut declares that Catalan cuisine distinguishes from others because of two unique techniques: sofregit and picada.

Sofregit is the essential basis of many of the dishes described above, and consists of simmering, in olive oil and at a very low temperature, finely chopped onion and grated tomato until they become a thick, dark-coloured and delicious-smelling kind of jam (from 15 to 30 minutes or more). It can also include garlic, parsley, some other aromatic herbs, pepper or a dash of wine. One cannot imagine a traditional rice casserole, with rabbit, chicken and pork rib, and even fish and seafood if it’s made in a coastal village, without a good sofregit.

Picada is commonly added to sofregit to thicken or flavour a dish. Its three main components are almonds, toasted or fried bread and liquid (broth, hot water or wine), but there are endless variations: almonds can be substituted or mixed with hazelnuts, pine nuts and walnuts, and bread can be changed for biscuits or carquinyolis, a traditional long and crunchy biscuit with whole almonds inside. Other ingredients such as garlic, saffron, parsley, cinnamon and even dark chocolate and liver can be added. Picada should be made in a mortar in order to achieve its characteristic rough texture.

There are other sauces that have become basic, such as romesco, an orange-coloured sauce created in the Southern Catalan Province of Tarragona. It contains almonds, hazelnuts, roasted tomato, roasted or raw garlic, a dried pepper called nyora, salt, vinegar, olive oil and chili pepper, as well as fried bread. Despite this, every family has its own recipe.

Another distinctive sauce is allioli, a simple yet very popular preparation made by emulsifying garlic, olive oil and a pinch of salt. It is usually served along braised meat, roasted potatoes, fishes, toasted bread or fideuada (pronounced “fideuà”), a Valencian dish consisting of thick and short noodles cooked with seafood and fish.

Let’s celebrate today, and reuse tomorrow

Mònica Garcia is the author of “501 Catalan recipes that you should taste before dying” and describes Catalan cuisine as festive cooking. “It is very ritual, and has lots of dishes that symbolise special moments in people’s lives”. People might meet in a cargolada to eat snails, or in a calçotada to dip calçots, a kind of green onions, in romesco or another similar sauce called salvitxada, along with braised meat and toasted bread.

Catalan cooking is also characterised by reutilization: an example of this takes place during Christmas, when people recycle the leftovers from big feasts’ roast to fill traditional Sant Esteve canelons, tubular pasta rolls covered with béchamel sauce and grated cheese, which are typically eaten on Boxing Day. Canelons can also be filled with fish or vegetables.

From eight centuries ago and well into the future

Catalan cuisine received many influences from those nations that occupied the current Catalan territory, specifically Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Jews and Arabs. Many of the oldest gastronomy treaties in Europe were written in Catalan, such as the first recipe book, ‘Llibre de Sent Soví’ (1324); a manual to eat, drink and behave correctly known as ‘Com usar de beure e menjar’; and even an aphrodisiac manual called ‘Speculum al foder’. All this literature is explained by the fact that Catalonia had a leading role in Europe during the Middle Ages. According to Jaume Fàbrega, a renowned historian and culinary critic, “the biggest contribution that Catalan culture made to Europe was related to gastronomy, even though our intellectuals and politicians don’t want to recognise it”.

Nowadays, globalization and modern times’ hectic rhythm might threaten traditional gastronomy. On the one hand, the most caloric ingredients are falling into disuse, such as pork lard or some offal, as well as heavy recipes like escudella barrejada, a very complete dish with hen and veal bones, non-smoked bacon, chicken offal, potatoes and vegetables, botifarra, noodles and, at times, a big meatball called pilota and chickpeas or white beans. This is the dish Catalans traditionally eat at Christmas lunch.

On the other hand, most of the Catalans have introduced other cuisines in their everyday menu, from Italian pasta to Japanese sushi or oriental Shawarma. They do not have enough time to cook a two-hour simmering dish.

However the truth is that those innovative cooks who are having great success at the moment with molecular gastronomy such as Ferran Adrià, Joan Roca or Carme Ruscalleda also have their roots in this ancient cookery, and promote traditional cooking with local and seasonal products. As Catalan cooker and cooking teacher Mireia Carbó claims, “there is a renewed interest in recovering traditional dishes; those that make you go down in your family history”. According to her, typical preparations can perfectly coexist, “and must do so”, with the most innovative cuisine.

As Jaume Fàbrega sums up, “Catalan cuisine is a cultural heritage that we should preserve. It expresses our national personality and becomes the reflection of our language and landscape”.