No holiday in Barcelona would be complete without a visit to a few of our excellent restaurants offering the world-renowned Catalan cuisine. Although intrinsically Mediterranean, Catalan food is not all fish, but also contains a fair amount of meat and flavoursome and healthy desserts.
When eating in Barcelona restaurants, always keep in mind that while the Catalans enjoy their food, they also regard dining as almost a ceremonial experience, and take their time to enjoy their meals in relaxation, with no hustle or bustle.
When they look at the menu, the visitor to Barcelona with no Spanish will likely need some help in ordering from the range of delicious dishes on offer, so to make that just a little easier for you here is my choice of 10 Catalan dishes, ranging from the luxurious to the rustic, that perfectly express the essence of Catalan cuisine.
MEAT AND FISH DISHES
Fricando is a succulent veal slowly cooked in a Catalan wild mushroom sauce (made of moixernons – otherwise known as St. George’s mushrooms), using a slow cooking technique that requires a lot of attention and a lot of time. This dish is fabulous and represents some of the best of Catalan cooking.
A properly cooked fricando should use veal that comes from a particular part of the animal known as llata, a lean part of the shoulder often used for thin escalopes. The mushrooms must be moixernons.
Moixernons are small thin mushrooms with a strong but unforgettable aroma. These are used along with almonds, garlic, parsley and plenty of onion. Add water and stew for 2-3 hours, although it is worth the time taken because the end result is a deliciously fragrant dense sauce with ridiculously tender veal that melts in your mouth - but only if properly cooked and not rushed!
2. Esqueixada de bacallá
This is a typical Catalan salad consisting of desalted cod, torn into strips with traditional Mediterranean vegetables and some pepper. It is a summer salad, and simple to make.
The cod is first desalted by steeping it in cold water for about 24 hours to remove the salt. The vegetables used are tomatoes, onion and olives, and the cod can be marinaded in chopped tomatoes and olive oil with vinegar if desired. Arrange the vegetables on a plate and place the cod strips on top, drizzling with olive oil. Hard-boiled eggs can also be added. It is easy to make but tastes delicious as a starter or a first course.
Esqueixar (in Catalan) means to tear and it refers to the way that the cod is torn into strips.
3. Butifarra amb mongetes
Butifarra amb mongetes is a classic Catalan dish of sausages with white beans, and represents the way that beans figure prominently in Catalan cuisine.
Butifarra (in Catalan) is a typical Catalan raw pork loin and bacon sausage, seasoned with salt and pepper. There are many different varieties of butifarra according to where in Catalonia they are made. Some add eggs to the sausage mixture or even truffles, and the black variety (vaguely like black pudding) also contains onions and blood.
The ingredients are chopped and salted, and mixed together before being allowed to stand for approximately five days. They are then stuffed into the sausage casings and cooked.
Butifarra amb mongetes is very easy to prepare: the butifarra is fried slowly until cooked then the beans, which have been cooked previously, are lightly fried in the same fat as the sausage. The sausage and beans are served together garnished with garlic and chopped parsley. This is a popular traditional Catalan dish, and is simple to make but delicious to eat.
4. Escudella i carn d’olla
This is another popular Catalan dish served on the traditional Catalan holiday of December 26th, otherwise known as St. Stephen’s Day, Sant Esteve, or Boxing Day, although it is a good dish for any cold winter’s evening.
An escudella is Catalan for a bowl, and is a large stew-like soup cooked from a variety of ingredients, often using the left over meat from the Christmas meal, which are cooked in broth all day. In its classical form, this is a substantial meal, and includes ham and beef marrow bones, bacon, pig’s ears and feet, chicken, veal, salami, butifarra sausages, blood pudding and ground veal, all cooked in the one pot in a broth made from beans, cabbage, potatoes, parsley, thyme garlic, saffron and pasta.
Escudella i carn d’olla is cooked all day then eaten in two stages. The rich broth is taken as a first course along with the pasta, and then the second course consists of the meats and vegetables heaped on a plate.
The pasta used is known as galets, a form of shell pasta noted for their considerable size. Sometimes a third dish is produced, containing the vegetables separately from the meats.
Escalivada consists of a medley of grilled vegetables that have been peeled, deseeded and sliced into strips after cooking. Typical vegetables are red tomatoes, sweet onions, sweet red peppers and aubergines, or eggplants. Once prepared as above, they are seasoned and drizzled with olive oil and occasionally garlic or basil which can give the dish a distinctive aroma.
The term Escalivar means to cook in hot ashes, which was the original Catalan way of cooking this dish, but modernity has taken over and the grill is now used. The dish is typically served with grilled meats, although many Catalans prefer to cook it in the oven rather than use a grill. The vegetables in a well cooked escalivada should be cooked fairly soft.
Calçot is a variety of garden onion known as Blanca Gran Tardana from Lleida. Calçots are milder and less bulbous than onions and more of a scallion than an onion. They are larger than spring onions.
A calçot is traditionally eaten in a calçotada, a gastronomic event held in Catalonia between the end of winter and March or April. It is a very popular event, and a great number of calçots are eaten. If you are in Barcelona during this period you are sure to able to attend one.
Traditionally, calçots are cooked by barbecuing them over a flaming grill and then wrapping them in newspaper in which they continue to cook, which makes them very tender. When served on a terra cotta roof tile they tend to stay warm, and when the newspaper is peeled away the calçots look black and unappetizing, but once you peel the black skin away - they are absolutely delicious! Particularly if you dip them in the sauce provided, made from tomatoes, almonds, garlic, pepper, olive oil and vinegar. Called salvitxada, this is used as a delicious traditional dip for the calçots.
After the calçots have been cooked bread slices and strips of meat are cooked over the barbecue and eaten with them. Eating calçots can be a bit messy because of the ashes that cover your hands as you strip them off, and the sauce that tends to dribble down your chin, and many restaurants will provide you with a bib to protect your clothes. Make sure it is tight under your chin, or your next laundry bill might be slightly higher than expected!
It is well worth it, however, to taste this delicious example of traditional Catalan cooking.
Alioli (from all i oli, Catalan for “garlic and oil”) is a cold sauce made by pounding olive oil, garlic and salt together using mortar and pestle until you get a thick, smooth-texture paste. The non-purists can use a blender but the traditional way does the best job.
Egg is not traditionally used, although modern recipes can include a small amount of egg to enable the sauce to reach the right consistency quicker. It is not, however, made in the same way as Provencal aioli, otherwise mayonnaise, which when incorporating garlic is referred to as mayonnaise with garlic. Aioli is good with chicken, paella, potatoes, fideua and many other dishes.
This is a traditional Catalan dish, the name meaning bread and tomato. It is made from pa de pages (peasant’s bread), a rustic bread which is rubbed with fresh garlic and then with tomato, seasoned with salt and olive oil and finally toasted. The secret is in the tomato, which has to be over-ripe and squishy to form a good coating on the bread before toasting.
There is a thin-skinned variety of tomato, that is very small but very juicy, that is used for the purpose, although if you are unlucky, some restaurants make pa amb tomaquet using tinned tomatoes. This changes the taste significantly and it is not true Catalan pa amb tomaquet.
This dish can also be found in Tuscan cuisine, though made properly it is a culturally traditional dish in Catalonia that can be found in all restaurants and most bars. It goes perfectly with Spanish tortilla, grilled vegetables (escalivada), cheese, sausages and many other dishes. The Catalans eat pa-amb-tomaquet at any time with just about everything.
9. Crema catalana
Crema catalana is Catalonia’s most famous dessert. It is a rich custard pudding contained within
a shell of burnt caramel.
The custard is a standard vanilla flavoured custard, although chocolate can be used to enhance it, or perhaps citrus zest or cinnamon, although these enhancements are less traditional. The caramel is heated with a sheep brand or some other very intense source of heat, and is best if still hot when served. The contrast between the hot caramel and the cold custard makes a crème catalane what it is. It is normal served in individual small ceramic moulds known as cazuela molds.
10. Mel i mató
This traditional Catalan dessert consists of the mató (or requeson), a fresh curd cheese, along with a good helping of honey (mel) on top together with a sprinkling of chopped walnuts. Mató is not a cheesy tasting cheese, tasting more like a hard yoghurt, but the dessert is fabulously light, very healthy and simple to make.
These ten are ten of the best examples of Catalan cuisine, ranging from the complex to the simple, and from dishes more attuned to top class restaurants to rustic meals that nevertheless find a great deal of popularity in cafes and restaurants throughout Catalonia and Barcelona. Try as many as you can during your visit to Barcelona, and you will never want to leave.