Are you the kind of person that, even right after a colossal feast, can still talk about your favorite foods and your next meal? There you are at the end of the meal sipping your digestif and brainstorming about how to roast the perfect chicken…meanwhile for everyone else around the table, the mere thought of food and cooking would trigger their gag reflex in an instance. Rest assured, you are not alone. In fact, there is a whole population of people who live and breathe conversations about food; 24/7. I for one was lucky enough to meet one of these people, my dear friend Mari Carmen (MC) from Tarragona, a province and city of Catalunya (Catalonia).
From the beginning of our friendship our fascination for regional cuisines, languages, seasonal foods and related traditions have given rise to a plethora of never-ending and enriching conversations. Recently we spoke, in more detail, about the characteristics of Catalonian cuisine. Although we only scratched the surface, this article is meant to speak generally about some of the wonderful ingredients and dishes one is likely to find in pantries and kitchens across the region. I also asked Mari Carmen what kinds of foods she craves when she goes back to Tarragona. Before diving in, I would like to mention two points. First, this article will not go over the Moorish influence on Catalonian cuisine. Second, it should be noted that Catalunya is divided into four provinces; Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona. It is, thus, important to remember how across these four provinces there are both geographical and cultural variations. From a culinary perspective this means that throughout Catalunya the differences in terrain and customs produce unique mixtures of dishes which either place more emphasis on fare from the sea or fare from the land (mountains), “mar i muntanya”. Let’s dive in!
For starters, Mari Carmen and I looked at what a typical day of eating might look like in Catalonia. Then we talked about what you will likely find in a well-stocked pantry in Catalonia. After that we looked at some of the popular foods like meats and produce that one is likely to see cooked at people’s homes or in traditional restaurants (country restaurants, tavernas, aka local spots). To top off our discussion, I asked her about some of the dishes she can’t wait to eat when she visits her family in Tarragona.
Basic Foods (What do people eat):
- Specialties foods made with pork such as charcuterie, cured meats, stews, on Tapes (known in Spanish as Tapas)
- Lots of eggs dishes
- Rabbit – always present at the weekly market.
Seafood: varies according to the season and micro-climate
- Local fish, usually the fishermen’s catch of the day. Sardines for example, in this region, tend to be smaller, lighter, and in Mari Carmen’s opinion flavor rich
- Canned anchovies are also very precious commodity, there are some small producers which are famed throughout Catalunya.
- Shrimp/Gambas are cooked in a variety of ways (e.g. different rice dishes)
- Mussels and clams
- Bacalao, fish preserved in salt (more than one type), is also very popular
What about breakfast: Remember that many eat dinner later in the evening (21:30-22:30), so it’s normal not to expect too much for breakfast in some households.
- Café au lait, Catalonian coffee includes different proportions of milk to coffee, remember that a cortado is not the same thing as a café au lait.
- Patisserie, smaller sized pastries or bread/toast, with tomatoes, hams, eggs, charcuterie are not uncommon
- Depending on the region, the person, and the nature of his or her job (e.g. farmers) the breakfast will of course vary (from a full meal with meat and carbs, to a small piece of bread with a piece of chocolate)
- Let us not forget too that many individuals have now adopted a more conventional/continental style breakfast
What one is likely to find in the Catalonian pantry: We went over a whole bunch of ingredients and “must haves” in the Catalonian kitchen. Here are some of the essentials:
- Olive oil: Like so many Mediterranean cuisines, olive oil is primordial (lard as well)
- Olives: A popular snack food and served before and during meals. Catalunya is the home of a large variety of olives. For my friend the tiny arbequina olives are fruity and light and are harvested and processed in her region of Tarragona, these are her “go to” olives. The arbequina olive also makes for a very elegant olive oil (not too intense but still very fruity). Mari Carmen jokingly says that for some people she knows the arbequina olive is a bit of a pain to eat because there is a lot of tactful chewing around the pit for very little flesh.
- Garlic, onions, tomatoes: This classic Mediterranean trio is used in countless ways in Catalunya. When used for cooking stews and sauces, the trilogy is used in different proportions to form a specific sofrito. I used to think that a sofrito was a single cooking base, however, Mari Carmen explained to me that there are many different types of sofritos (cooking bases). Some sofritos call for only a few ingredients like olive oil, garlic, and onions, while others include tomatoes and different herbs.
- Wine: cooking wines is important for sauces and stews and is essential for deglazing and maximizing the flavor from a given sofrito and meat. Let’s remember that there are many local wineries who produce terrific wines for drinking (the Priorat terroir is one more known example)- the rich chalk filled micro-climate produces a full-bodied wine, this wine has gained international notoriety in the last 2 decades.
- Cava: Any reason to celebrate…the first thing anyone does is see who is getting the Cava, this elegant sparkling wine which is very similar to Champagne, is a true gem and worth celebrating (celebrate cava with cava). Only increasing in popularity, Cava today is produces at various scales of production, locally,regionally, and at larger scales.
- Fresh Lemon: Lemons are also important and very abundant, the lemon and olive combination can be used for salads, meats, vegetables, seafood, etc.
- Vinegar (red or white) wine vinegar: vinegar like lemon juice is used for salads and as a light dressing for many dishes. Much like throughout the Mediterranean vinegar made from red or white wine may be passed down from generation to generation (all from a single origin batch).
- Bread: with all of those fresh flavors and olive oil, one needs bread
- Potatoes: many stews include potatoes, remember that in the more mountainous areas potatoes are a calorie dense, nutritious food that can be stored for long periods.
- Dried (garbanzo beans): There are many stews which slow cook chickpeas until they break down and create a smooth and silky, yet hardy dish.
- White beans (mongeta blanca): these whites beans are used in many ways, in salads, stews, or served hot to accompany different types of meats (e.g. homemade sausages)
- Pickled vegetables: with vinegars, salt, and olive oils it is very common to pickle vegetables. One standout preserve are the preserved peppers known as Pimiento del pequillo. They are known for their sweetness and bright flavors.
- Rice: Rice is also produced in the delta of Ebre, which is an important hub for rice production (short-grain rice called bomba rice for paella, it’s bomb). Even though paella is said to have originated from Valencia, there are many versions which are important to Catalonia. In addition to Paella, there is also arròs negra (made from cuttlefish ink/sepia- sometimes tiny cuttlefish are also added), arrossejat is another dish, arròs caldos de Llamàntol (cooked with fish broth). In Tarragona there are also specialty restaurants which specialize in rice dishes and other regional specialties.
Spices and Herbs:
- Saffron: Known to be the most expensive spice on earth saffron is very important and valuable in the Catalonian pantry. Its musky and floral elegance is used in stews, rice dishes (like for different paellas) and even in some deserts.
- Pimenton : A good pimenton is key to many dishes. Some may liken pimenton to quality smoked paprika, sometimes this is true. Pimenton is, traditionally, made of dried peppers which are slowly roasted over a fire. It is usually made into either a milder/dulce, medium, or spicy (picante) version. Mari Carmen brought me back some pimenton which was more sweet and the other smokier and spicier, I was truly amazed at the quality, color, and fragrance.
- Thyme: Whether bought from a supermarket, grown in one’s backyard, or foraged in the valleys, thyme is a very important perennial evergreen herb. Historically and still today, thyme is used medicinally in cooking. Known as farigola (thyme) this herb can serve as a way to soothe a sore throat and a cold. Often thyme, lemon, and honey are infused into a hot beverage. Other times thyme is incorporated with bread and egg to form a soup.
- Rosemary: This well-known herb is used in moderation and is often used on the grill
- Sugar and Flour: Without these two ingredients many of the fine breads and pastries would not exist!
- Parsley: flat-leaf parsley is common for garnish and salads and is a nice final touch to many dishes.
- Bay leaves: are used much like in French regional cuisines as well as other Mediterranean diets.
- Cinnamon: cinnamon is a prized spice which is used for sweet and savory dishes. It is not uncommon to find a cinnamon stick floating and infusing its flavors into a stew
- Other key spices: Black pepper, sea salt, cumin, clove, nutmeg: much of the cuisine in Catalonian centers around quality seasonal ingredients. Much of the time, salt or salt and pepper are the only two seasonings used for e.g. grilling meats. In other dishes, however, do not be surprised to get hints of clove nutmeg, and cumin.
Nuts and Dried Fruits
- Almonds: These relatives to the apricot are today more popular than ever. In Catalonian cuisine almonds are used for both sweet and savory dishes. One dish that she mentioned is picada. Picada is similar to a pesto and can be used to thicken soups and stews. It’s also used as a dip on the table. For your sweet tooth there is Turron (nougat also found in across Spain).
- Nuts: Hazelnuts and Walnuts also feature in many dishes (salty and sweet)
- Dried fruits (apricots, raisins, prunes, dates): Whether eaten on their own, used in a paste or stuffing or included in pastries they are staple foods found in many homes.
- Pine nuts: These tiny flavorful and aromatic nuts are also a very important ingredient which feature is cooked vegetable dishes, pastries and main dishes.
A few must try foods:
Pa amb tomàquet (Bread with tomato) know in Spanish as pan con tomate:
Across the regions and especially at peak tomato season, pa amb tomàquet is a must. You will see it everywhere as an accompaniment to many dishes throughout the day. Like bruschette, this recipe uses similar ingredients but employs different methods of preparation. According to my friend a good pa amb tomàquet consists of a good country style bread or a baguette, vine ripe tomatoes, fine olive oil, quality salt (often sea salt), and a brush of a garlic clove (optional). Do not be surprised however if, in restaurants, the bread and tomato are served separately. This is likely for the effect, presentation, and to ensure that the bread does not get too moist and fragile.
So how do you make it:
- Toast ½ inch slices of bread so that it is crunchy and firm enough to grate fresh tomato directly onto and into the bread
- Rub some garlic on bread (like for bruschette)
- Grate the tomato directly onto bread (as much as possible before the bread is too saturated with tomato juices and breaks apart) I cut the tomato in half first to expose the flesh
- Add a generous drizzle of olive in the crevasses of the bread
- Add sea salt to your liking
- Tip: In case your tomatoes are not ripe enough you can use an actually grater to purée the tomatoes and then spread on your toast.
For those who thought crème brulée had a monopoly on custardy desserts with a layer of caramelized sugar, I’m sorry to break the news. Southwest of the French border is a close cousin of the crème brulée, la crema catalana. What is the difference? At first glance, one might say, there is no real difference, however, according to my friend, for crema catalana there are some factors to consider. First and foremost, whether crème brulée or crema catalana the quality of the ingredients and the freshness of the dairy products will dramatically affect the taste and presentation of the desert. For Mari Carmen the best crema is made up of good ingredients, has a creamy/velvety texture, and has a nice even coating of caramelized sugar with a charr (a slight hint of bitterness). While ingredient qualities are important, other ways to recognize the difference between the two deserts are the proportions of the ingredients involved, more eggs (yolks), more cream, more sugar, more yolk, etc. It seems that creme catalana may on average have a slightly darker hue as well.
La Scalivada: This is a grilled aubergine and red pepper mixture to be eaten with meats and bread. The scalivada can also be paired with anchovies.