Spanish splendour: Discovering Catalan cuisine

Not all countries are fortunate enough to boast a dream-like location as well as a range of artistic culinary dishes, yet Spain is one of those countries that attract numerous foreigners for a wealth of reasons, not the least of which is its Mediterranean setting and tantalising cuisine.

Spain, specifically Barcelona and its surrounding areas, have become renowned worldwide for its appetising options regarding anything from light snacks to decadent desserts. And thanks to a new wave of experimental gastronomic chefs, the region’s focus on food has splashed over onto the rest of the world.

But when it comes to the country’s cooking skills, it’s simply impossible to converse about its range of dining options without mentioning Catalan cuisine.

Dining the Catalan way

Catalan cuisine has been inspired by the country’s geography, rich history and diverse culture, with classics like the Greeks, Romans, Italians and French all leaving their mark on Catalonia’s culinary menu.

Add to this the fact that Catalonia’s geographical setting is quite varied (the country is made up of coasts, mountains and fields), and it’s no wonder that a wide range of Catalan recipes centre around fish and meat, as well as a range of vegetables like tomatoes, aubergines, artichokes and mushrooms.

In Barcelona and Catalonia, food is much more than just nourishment – it even dictates the schedule of the day, as Catalan people tend to start dining later in the day than their European cousins (lunch, known as la comida, is the largest and most important meal during the day and takes place between 2pm and 4pm).

Dishes to explore: Vegetarian  

Of course a country with such a diverse selection of culinary options will cater for just about anyone, even those who refrain from dining on meat. And when it comes to Catalan cuisine, vegetarians have an extensive range to pick from, such as:

  • Pa Amb Tomaquet (Pan Con Tomate): It is said that this dish (toasted bread rubbed with tomato, olive oil and garlic) reflects the colours of the Catalan flag, which is probably why it has become a true culinary staple.
  • Calçots: A type of large spring onion that is grown throughout the Catalonian winter and enjoyed in its prime between January and March. A traditional calçotada wraps these onions in paper and cooks them in the ashes of an open fire before serving them with a large helping of romesco Various restaurants throughout the country serve calçots on their menus.
  • Escalivada: A tantalising tribute to some of the most quintessentially Mediterranean vegetables in the region, like tomatoes, peppers and aubergines, which are skinned, de-seeded, grilled and served with olive oil.

Dishes to explore: For the meat lovers

Meat lovers won’t be disappointed by the rich collection of Catalan cuisine, as various dishes include embotit (cured meats). Iberian ham has become a star addition to meal tables in Catalonia, available in various types and tastes. The typical ones are the fuet (a dry sausage) and the secallona (even drier sausage with a more peppery flavour).

It’s not hard to find a dish that makes use of formatge (cheese) on a Catalan menu. The main centres of cheese production in Catalonia are located in La Seu d’Urgell, the Cerdanya district and the Pallars area in the northwest. Well-known options to accompany meals are formatge de tupí, a goat’s cheese soaked in olive oil, and garrotxa, another goat’s cheese made with penicillium mould that simply melts on the tongue.

Dishes to explore: Fish and sauces

It’s not surprising that a country known for its deluxe beaches will make use of seafood on its menu. Some of the more popular ones that any visitor to Spain simply has to try include:

  • Fideuas: A seafood paella that has similar ingredients, yet makes use of thin pasta called fideu instead of rice. Another variation of this well-known dish is called fideus a la cassola where the seafood is replaced by meats such as pork sausages and ribs.
  • Suquet de Peix: A seafood stew with a mouth-watering combination of potatoes, garlic and tomato.

Catalonia places greater importance on sauces than the rest of Spain, and two of the more well-known options are:

  • Romesco: Almonds, roasted garlic, olive oil and dried red peppers converted to sauce form.
  • Alioli: A sauce made from garlic and olive oil, whipped up for quite some time to produce a white paste.

Dishes to explore: Pasta

Those wishing to carbo-load while in Catalonia will find an assortment of pasta dishes, including the number-one hit canelon, known as cannelloni in Italy. This dish, a result from the centuries of trade between Catalonia and Italy, forms a vital part of Catalan cuisine, but unlike its Italian counterpart, the Catalan version is usually well cooked and smothered with a creamy Béchamel sauce. It’s an especially favourite dish around Christmas, with various Catalans dining on Canelons de Sante Esteve on the 26th of December, with pieces of cooked leftover meat from the Christmas meal (usually) combined with foie gras.

Dishes to explore: Something sweet

Visitors to Spain seeking something sweet should make a note to give crema catalana a try, which is very similar to the French crème brulée. Mel i mato (a traditional dessert that dates back to the Middle Ages) is another enticing option, which is soft, unsalted goat’s cheese served with honey and sometimes walnuts.

For those seeking something not too sweet, the appealingly named músic should prove to be a winner: dried fruits and nuts, sometimes mixed with ice cream or cream cheese, and served with a glass of sweet muscatel wine.

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