Las Ramblas in BarcelonaLas Ramblas in Barcelona
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008

Catalonia, the northeasternmost region of Spain, is the very epitome of the Mediterranean for its many visitors, attracted both by the sparkling beaches of the Costa Brava north of Barcelona, the capital, and the Costa Dorada to the south, and by the culinary delights of Barcelona itself, with a whole world of restaurants, cafés, and tapas bars, plus one of the greatest Mediterranean markets, the Boquería, right in the center of this vibrant city.

But Catalonia also boasts an interior of great interest to chefs, cooks, and gastronomes, including mountains that climb steeply into the Pyrenees on the French border. In fact, the seafood cuisine of the coast, as it melds into the meat-based cooking of the high mountains, goes through a curious transition in the intermediate zone of the Ampurdán (empurdà) where the tradition of mar y muntanya (sea and mountain) cooking is prominent—giving new meaning and distinction to our over-worked “surf ‘n’ turf.” Mountains often mean cheeses made from the milk of sheep or goats or both together, and Catalonia is not lacking. Garrotxa, a young but firm-textured goat’s milk cheese from the north of Girona, has found a ready market in the U.S., while soft, fresh Mató de Montserrat, made close to Barcelona, is difficult to export; on its home ground, it’s often served with honey in a dessert called Mel y Mató.

There are four provinces in Catalonia, Girona to the north, Tarragona to the south, Barcelona the capital, and Lérida (Lleida) in the interior. The Ebro river cuts through Lérida and Tarragona on its long course to the sea. The Delta del Ebro, where the longest river in Spain empties into the Mediterranean, is Catalonia’s most important agricultural zone and the largest wetland in Spain, a region of broad lagoons, salt marshes and sand dunes where rice is by far the most important crop. Rice in various forms, cooked with chicken, fish, shrimps, vegetables, sausage, or pork ribs, takes pride of place on the Catalan table, and it is a rich table indeed, with an array of seafood, wild mushrooms, meats from pastured animals, and all the vegetables that symbolize the Mediterranean: eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and fresh herbs in abundance.

The Barcelona MarinaThe Barcelona MarinaThere are two controlled-denomination zones of olive culture, Les Garrigues, in Lérida, and Siurana in Girona, just inland from the Costa Brava, but extra-virgin olive oil is produced throughout Catalonia; Catalan oil, made primarily from the local arbequina olive, is highly regarded by chefs for its distinctive notes of almond and hazelnut in the flavor profile. It adds an extra touch to typical Catalan pesto sauces like romesco and picada, made by pounding almonds or hazelnuts with garlic, olive oil, and other ingredients—often dried or fresh red peppers.

Indeed, the mortar and pestle is the emblematic tool in the Catalan kitchen and most cooks, even great chefs (of which there are an abundance in Catalonia), will insist that no food processor can do the job as well. Another pounded sauce, one that does not use nuts, is even more ubiquitous—allioli. The Catalan version of Provençal aïoli is properly made with just pounded fresh garlic, salt, and olive oil, but cooks who are less than 100% skilled may sneak in an egg to help bind the fragile sauce.

As for wines, probably the best known Catalan wine is cava, a sparkling white made in the Penedès southwest of Barcelona by the méthode champenoise, using local varieties, xarel-lo, macabeo, and parellada. Still wines are also made in the Penedès, both whites and reds, but the red wine districts that have oenophiles singing their praises are Priorat, in Tarragona province, and completely surrounding Priorat, the most recent DO Montsant, both areas producing big, full-bodied wines.

Iconic Dishes and Products of Catalonia

Rice dishes: Given the importance of rice culture in the Ebro delta, Catalonia abounds in rice dishes. Among them are arrosejat (rice, potatoes, and fish, cooked together with lots of garlic and mild chilies), arròs negre (rice blackened with squid ink, often served with a colorful dollop of allioli), arròs abanda (rice cooked in fish stock, the fish served separately with quintessential allioli), and of course paella.

FidueaFidueaFideua: a modern dish using an ancient ingredient, fideos, an early form of pasta. In fideua, the spaghetti-like pasta is cooked as if it were rice in a paella with seafood.

Canalons (cannellini): similar to the Italian pasta, but filled with a rich farce that includes pork, chicken breast, chicken livers, and lamb brains.

Embutidos (cured pork products): jamón de Cerdaña (Cerdanya hams), famous already in Roman times, from a region the Pyrenees; fuet, a long skinny sausage, dry cured like salami, from Vic, north of Barcelona; butifarra, a cooked pork sausage, white or black, in which the meat is often mixed with spices like cumin or coriander.

Anxoves de l’Escala (anchovies from L’Escala): The town of l’Escala, on the Gulf of Roses north of Barcelona, is famous for the quality of the anchovies fished off its shores. Try them fresh, pickled, fried or grilled in l’Escala, or salted and preserved outside the region.

Espardenyes (sea cucumbers): Considered a great delicacy along the Costa Brava (and in China), these are conventionally known as sea slugs, unappetizing in appearance but apparently with a pleasant, earthy flavor.

Calçots and calçotadas: Calçots, from the town of Valls, are a peculiar blanched onion that is usually consumed in the winter months roasted in its entirety over a wood fire and served with a sauce, similar to romesco, called salvitxada. The occasion for this usually very merry feasting is called a calçotada.

Pa amb tomàquet: Pronounced Pahm T’MAH-kett, this is Catalan breakfast—consumed by just about everyone, a crusty piece of bread, split in two, rubbed with a fresh tomato and sometimes a cut clove of garlic, sprinkled with olive oil and salt.

Allioli: the archetypal sauce of Catalonia, served with rice dishes, with fish, sometimes with steamed or roasted vegetables, made in a mortar with fresh garlic, oil and salt; less than confident cooks add an egg to bind it.

Escalivada: a signature dish made, like ratatouille in Provence and caponata in Sicily, with eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, grilled over hot coals, then peeled and stripped or slivered and served as a salad.

Samfaina: Another dish that recalls ratatouille, made with eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes, this time sautéed in extra-virgin olive oil.

Esquiexada: Salt cod, prepared by soaking the cod then shredding it, and mixing with tomatoes and onions in a salad.

Picada: Often called a sauce, which it really isn’t, picada is added to dishes as a thickener and to boost flavor. It is composed of fried garlic, fried bread, olive oil, and nuts, pounded together in a mortar.

Cocas (coques): Catalan pizzas, these come in both savory and sweet versions.

Suquet de peix (Catalan fish stew): Mediterranean-style fish stew with potatoes, garlic, and a little tomato, thickened and finished with a picada.

Romesco: In Tarragona, seafood of any nature is almost always served with romesco, a delicious sauce made from pounded mild red chilies, tomatoes, garlic, fried bread, and either almonds or hazelnuts (or both).

Mar i muntanya (sea and mountain): A favorite combination in the Ampurdan, an area of northeastern Catalonia, fish and flesh are cooked together in a sort of picada-thickened ragoût—combinations include rabbit with lobster, chicken with shrimps, rabbit with monkfish, shrimp, and snails, et cetera. In at least one version, grated chocolate is added to the sauce.

Xocolata (chocolate): Barcelona is known for the production of fine chocolates with several world-renowned chocolatiers, but it is also one of the few places in the world where it is possible to find very old-fashioned stone-ground chocolate sweetened with cane sugar, the sort of grainy chocolate Spanish explorers may have brought back from the New World.

© 2019 The Culinary Institute of America