Catalonia is one of the 17 autonomous communities of Spain. Located in the north-east of the country and sharing a border with France, Catalonia is home to one of the world’s most diverse cuisines. Over the centuries, the region, which has Barcelona as its capital, was influenced by the many invaders that conquered and colonised. The Romans, for example, brought olives and Mediterranean flavours; the Moors introduced the cultivation of almonds, rice, spinach, citrus fruit, sugar, chickpeas, eggplant and wheat; while trade with the French saw a Gallic style of cooking evolve, which can still be found in the north. More recently, chef Ferran Adrià was feted for introducing molecular gastronomy to the region through his former role as head chef at elBulli.
As Catalonia extends from the Mediterranean Sea in the south to the Pyrenees mountains in the north, the cuisine differs greatly from one province to the next. In the coastal towns, seafood is often teamed with rice, pasta and potatoes in dishes such as fideuà (a paella-like dish made with noodles instead of rice), zarzuela (seafood stew) and arròs negre (rice with squid ink). In the mountains, the meals are richer and meatier, and cooks have a penchant for fruit with duck, slow-cooked soups and casseroles. Goat’s- and sheep’s-milk cheeses are prevalent. Pork is prized throughout Catalonia, and the region’s cold meats and sausages are recognised as some of the best in Europe.
Sauces are the foundation of Catalan cuisine. Sofregit, made by cooking onions slowly until a sweet, sticky mass to which tomatoes and garlic may be added, forms the base for samfaina, a medley of vegetables cooked in tomatoes, which, in turn, flavours the popular seafood dish, samfaina amb bacalao. Other sauces on the Catalan menu include picada (almonds, pine nuts, garlic, bread, herbs and olive oil), alio (garlic and olive oil) and romesco (almonds, tomato, olive oil, smoked paprika, garlic and vinegar).
A popular festive dish is coca de Sant Joan. It is served on the feast day of Saint John on 23 June and is washed down with local sparkling cava.
Duck and figs with picada (anec amb salsa de figues i picada)
Like many recipes in Catalan cuisine, this dish pairs meat and fruit. When in season, fresh figs may be substituted for dried. Picada is one of the region's quintessential sauces and adds a touch of richness to this dish.
Salted cod with samfaina sauce (samfaina amb bacalao)
This hearty vegetable sauce is Catalonia's answer to ratatouille. Serve the samfaina with chorizo if preferred over cod and remember to salt the eggplant before cooking so it absorbs the flavours of the tomato.
St John's cake (coca de sant joan)
Catalonians enjoy this sweet flat bread on the feast of Saint John. The glacé cherries, crystallised ginger and pine nuts give this cake a pretty, jewelled look. Coca – the Catalan word for 'cake' – is perfect with tea, served warm or cold.
Saffron, smoked paprika, cumin, nutmeg and black pepper are widely used in Catalan cooking. Saffron threads can be soaked in warm water or added straight to sauces. Pimenton de la vera (smoked paprika) is used to add depth to dishes and is a core ingredient in romesco sauce.
2. Almonds and pine nuts
Introduced to Catalan cuisine by the Moors, these two nut varieties are used in sweet and savoury dishes. They may be processed for sauces (for example, picada) or left whole.
3. Butifarra and chorizo
Butifarra (pork sausage) is a staple of Catalan cuisine. There are many varieties including white, black, rice, blood and truffle. Chorizo is also a Catalan delicacy with many varieties.
Meaning noodles, fideos is used to make a toasted thin noodle dish in Catalonia.
Bacalao is fillet of cod that has been preserved in salt. Before cooking, the cod must be soaked in water for up to three days (with the water changed every couple of hours). The longer it is soaked, the milder the flavour. The soaked cod can be cooked immediately or drained and frozen for later use.
Photography by John Laurie.
As seen in Feast magazine, November 2011, Issue 3. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.