If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.
Catalan character is not yet illustrated by its own language, history, folklore or habits, but also by its own cuisine, (which was for the first time chronicled in the 14 century), with a wide variety of ingredients, flavour and texture combos and cooking techniques. Catalonia is an official part or province of Spain, but culturally speaking, it has its own unambiguous identity.
Catalonia itself is not very big land as the region, however, with a wide range of climate zones: from the sunny beach line to the frosty Pyrenees mountains and mild inland areas. Thus, mainly Catalan cuisine can be labelled as Mediterranean but it also has touches of mountain and continental styles as well. This leads to distinction of components and methods, which definitely worth consideration.
As a geographically diverse land, Catalonia provides and cultivates an assortment of top-quality seafood, fresh meat, poultry, game, fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, Catalan specials come in uncommon trends, like meat and seafood (a combination known as mar i muntanya, local equivalent of surf'n'turf dish). Good examples of it are meatballs stewed with cuttlefish and peas, and chicken with lobster. For instance, Catalans find quite ridiculous and hardly to understand why other people spread butter and sweet jam on breakfast bread, while pa amb tomàquet – toasted bread rubbed with smashed tomato, olive oil, garlic and salt – is so much yummy. Such bread is known as regional pride, because it declares symbolical colours of Senyera (Catalan flag) – red stripes on a golden background.
From the seaside, one can’t miss the suquet, a simple stew made with fish (usually monk-fish or any grouper), potatoes and random seafood, traditionally prepared in an earthenware pot. This container is also used to cook yet much more elaborated stew called sarsuela, with crayfishes, prawns, monk-fish, hake, and clams. Typical meats from Catalonia are lamb, chicken and especially pork, from which many cold meats are made, like jamón ibérico and jamón serrano, salchichón and chorizo, paprika spised sobrassada and blood sausage morcilla. Botifarra, a wide sausage with lots of varieties, from egg to rice, also pork blood and sugar. It is usually served with white beans. Less common but no less traditional are rabbit, duck (usually roasted and garnished with pears) and slow-braised veal fillet, thin-sliced and accompanied with mushrooms in a dish called fricandó. The origin of the recipe is true medieval, and in accordance with Pre-Great Geographical Discoveries period in Europe, this dish is made without tomatoes.
The most representative Catalonia veg-specials 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 kinds of dishes; and escalivada, which also gathers pepper, onion and eggplant but grilled, skinned, cut and seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper. The name comes from the Catalan verb escalivar, means to cook in ashes, referencing the dish's preparation in the embers of a wood fire.
Pintxos, tapas alter ego
Although Spanish tapas practice originated not directly from Catalonia (as we remember, tapas culture was born in the mainland of Spain, La Mancha), it was imported to Barcelona like a house on fire and nova days the Basque country versions of tapas, known as pintxos, are particularly popular.
Pintxos are small finger canapés; the name derives from the verb pinchar, meaning to poke or stab. On slices of crispy baguette one can mix of any tapas – from bacalao cod, grilled octopus and seared scallop to morcilla with caramelised onion, or croquetas ibérico. Pintxos used to be served on a piece of crusty bread and held together by a toothpick, however, today most of the bars and taverns are serving them in shot glasses, mini ramekin dishes or small glass jars. These are most refreshingly washed down with a bit tart Basque white wine, txakoli. Each pintxo comes with a single toothpick, and the payment shall be done by traditional historical method – keep all your toothpicks during the meal to pay the final bill like a gentleman.
Speaking of desserts, every countryside has its own traditional masterpiece. Some of the quintessential desserts of Catalonia region are crema catalana, a crème made of egg yolks, white sugar, flour and milk, aromatised with ground cinnamon and orange peel; and menjar blanc, another sweet crème typical from the Southern Province of Tarragona with almond as its main element. Sweet coques were at first eaten only on holidays. Catalans have at least one type of traditional coca for each holiday and feast day of the year. It is typical to buy or prepare cocas during celebrations, especially during Easter, Christmas and Saint John's Eve. Catànies are Catalan marcona almonds, covered with white chocolate and powdered with black chocolate to be eaten with coffee.
Other alternative sweets are charmingly named music (postre de músico in Castilian), which literally means ’musician's dessert’. The name comes from times when troubadours used to play in small villages, to where they were invited. As for payment, these nomads were allowed to grab any snacks, that country people had in their homes. Usually, this is a selection of dried fruits (apricots, plums, grapes, figs) and nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pine kernels) according to your preference, sometimes mixed with ice cream, soft cream-cheese, or honey, normally served with a glass of sweet Muscatel.
And wines, of course. There is nothing more Catalan spirit than vermouth. This iconic fortified wine is popular all over Spain, but the most brilliant variety is produced in Reus, a small town in Tarragona. And, surely, Catalan vermouth culture is always blooming in Barcelona. The most enjoyable way to savour vermouth is to sip it leisurely on Sunday afternoon, before big family lunch. Traditional vermouth tends to be more luscious than modern ones. It is best paired with salty snacks like olives, potato chips, and anchovies.
Eight centuries back and into the future
Overall, the Catalan menu was massively influenced by all those nations that occupied the modern Catalan territory, such as Iberians, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Arabs and Jews. Many of the earliest gastronomy alliances in Europe were written in Catalan, such as the first recipe book, Llibre de Sent Soví (1324); the manual to eating, drinking and behaving during the dinner, correctly known as Com usar de beure e menjar, and 15-century anonymous aphrodisiacs manual called Speculum al foder (The Mirror of Coitus literally). All these manuscripts had appeared due to the fact that Catalonia played a dominant role in Europe during the Middle Ages. According to Jaume Fàbrega, gastronomy writer, journalist, critic, historian and professor, the most important contribution Catalan culture made to Europe was related to gastronomy and culinary science, even though some politician populists prefer to keep silent about that fact.
Nowadays, globalization and speed of contemporary chaotic life might threaten traditional way of gastronomy, which was accumulated over the centuries. On the one hand, due to the trend of a healthy, fat-free lifestyle, limiting carbs, butter and oils, the most greasy and calories-leader ingredients are falling into disuse, such as pork lard or some offal, as well as heavy complicated recipes like escudella barrejada. Traditionally this dish Catalans used to eat at Christmas dinner, but I believe that nobody is really going to cook a barbaric mix of hen meat, pork belly, bone marrow broth, veal shank, giblets, pig's head, rice, vermicelli noodles, botifarra negra, etc. on a daily basis today. We just do not have enough time and motivation to stir gently a two-hour simmering dish.
On the other hand, gastronomy patterns of all continents get around the world every day. There is no doubt that traditional, local, seasonal cuisine is cancelled from everyday routine by worldwide ‘supermarket thinking’, when all sorts of international food are available at any time. Blueberries in December in Amsterdam? Not a problem. Sushi with sea urchin in Moscow? Piece of cake, let’s book a table in sushi bar. Regional meals, following classical rules of terroir, seasonality and cooking methods become exceptional entertainment for connoisseurs – gastro-tours with cooking master-classes and degustations, supervised by food experts. Local cuisine turning into curious hobby, or requires special occasion journeys. Visiting Piedmont on a weekend in October to taste fresh truffles, picked right before the dinner, probably sounds more attractive than an invitation to a Michelin restaurant. The Aristotelian unities of time, place and action are valued in food art as much, as in the theory of theatre.
While Catalan cuisine may not be as globally famous as Basque food, cooks and chefs from Costa Brava are widely renowned and critically acclaimed all over the world. Three of the World's 50 Best Restaurants are located in Catalonia, and four places have three Michelin stars. Barcelona itself has nine Michelin stars including Cinc Sentits and has been chosen as the best gastronomical city by the American TV network MSNBC in 2009, topping the list of ten best gastro-cities in the world.
As Catalan chef, trainer and head of cooking TV shows Mireia Carbó confirmed, an interest in authenticity is restoring. Innovative-mind Catalan chefs who already achieved great success with ultra-chic molecular gastronomy (Ferran Adrià I Acosta, Joan Roca i Fontané or Carme Ruscalleda i Serra) do not neglect their cooking palette in ancient receipts and still promote traditional tips with local and seasonal products, that inspires you to dig your family roots and homeland history. According to professional estimate, classical methods and the most avant-garde techniques can mutually enrich themselves keeping unmistakable harmony. The sense of proportionality and balance, brought up by the landscape and genius loci of this region, declares that, at cooking and dining, Catalans are just as confident and harmonious as at standing in front of the easel.