From traditional ‘surf and turf’ to Ferran Adria…
By Duncan Rhodes
Taking the best ingredients from the Mediterranean sea and Pyrenees mountains, and fertile soils of north east Spain, Catalan cuisine is both varied and delicious. In recent decades classic dishes have been given new life by a spree of innovating chefs.
Spanish cuisine is world famous of course, especially for that deliciously-filling dish that feeds the whole family – the paella, not to mention the country’s great hams, cheeses and wines. Plus who doesn’t know and love that wonderful habit of spurning a main course for a dinner made up of lots of small plates… these days Spanish tapas are a global phenomenon.
But what about Catalan cuisine? Because, in case you haven’t noticed yet, Catalonia is a region of Spain with its own language, culture, traditions… and food. In fact it’s probably fair to say that Catalonia is one of the most diverse gastronomic regions in the country, due to its proximity to both the sea and the mountains. Indeed many Catalan dishes are considered incomplete if they don’t have something from both “mar i muntanya”… no doubt that’s why here you’ll find the Valencian dish of paella served with both meat and seafood (considered strange in the rest of Spain). The same is true of fideua, a very similar, but more quintessentially Catalan, dish that replaces the rice in paella with short thread noodles. Try it… you’ll find it on many menus, especially in the small coastal towns either side of Barcelona, like Sitges and Tossa de Mar.
Fresh local ingredients form the backbone of Catalan cooking and the varied geography of the region – that stretches from the Mediterranean coast to the foothills of the Pyrenees – provides hungry locals with great seafood (think cod, anchovy and octopus), poultry, meat (particularly hams and sausages), rabbit, cheeses, vegetables (such as tomato, aubergine, peppers, artichoke, onions), mushrooms and nuts. Many of these ingredients arrive fresh at Barcelona’s La Boqueria market every day, and many of the city’s chefs do their kitchen shopping here.
Speaking of chefs it would be remiss not to mention one or two of the world famous ones that hail from this region and who have left a huge mark on, not only Catalan cuisine, but the world’s eating habits. Ferran Adria is one such man, a pioneer of avant garde cuisine in El Bulli restaurant in Roses (just up the road from Barcelona), which he took charge of in the late 1980s, transforming it from a run-of-the-mill seafood diner to the most famous restaurant on the planet in the 1990s and 2000s. Gone were starters, mains and desserts and instead the tasting menu phenomenon began, as diners were treated to “a symphony” of up to 40 courses, with many foodstuffs reconstituted into foams, balls and airs (much to the delight of food critics and the press who coined the term “molecular cuisine” in his honour). Whilst El Bulli has since been turned into a culinary foundation, it’s still possible to taste the genius of Ferran and his brother Albert in several new(ish) ventures around the city, such as Tickets Bar (see below). Meanwhile his influence can be felt across Catalonia with virtually every high end restaurant in the region adopting a tasting menu format, and traditional dishes reimagined and made contemporary with innovative techniques and foreign flavours.
To give Adria alone a special mention would be to do a massive disservice to the ever-increasing pool of talented chefs plying their trade in Barcelona and beyond. There are currently four two-star Michelin rated restaurants, and twenty more one-star establishments in Barcelona alone and over 60 stars in the region as a whole. Carme Ruscalleda is the head chef of one of the former, Moments, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The most decorated female chef in the world right now, Ruscalleda was born up the road in Sant Pol de Mar, which is also the home of her first restaurant, Sant Pau (which already has an unbeatable three Michelin stars!). If you want to sample the very best of 21st Century Catalan cooking look no further!
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Traditional Catalan Food & Dishes
Ok enough preamble… let’s unveil a virtual menu of some of the favourite local dishes of Catalonia, in no particularly order. (Hold tight for some restaurants where you can try them further down on the page!).
Pan amb tomaquet
Bread with tomato might not sound like the world’s most extravagant dish… and indeed it is not… but don’t you dare mock it in front of a Catalan. Locals are obsessed with this simple snack and the art of rubbing the tomato flesh, with olive oil and salt, is considered a fine one in these parts. To be fair, when done well, it is divine.
A classic regional salad of grilled aubergines, red peppers, onions and tomatoes (with skins burned to give them a smoky flavour) served with oil and sometimes minced garlic.
Escudella amb carn d’olla
This traditional Catalan stew is made with mainly winter vegetables such as chickpeas, potatoes, green cabbage, celery, carrot, parsnip, turnip, leek and onion. Meats can include meatballs, Catalan sausage (“botifarra”), blood sausage, veal, mutton, chicken, pork ears or cheek, and salted bacon. A good winter warmer and popular over Christmas.
A sandwich made out of baguette-style bread, bocadillos are a staple of any Catalan’s diet, usually eaten for breakfast or supper (lunch is usually a cooked meal). Filling normally include one meat and one cheese, and possibly tomato-spread. Worth trying is the sobrassada… a meaty paste of pork and paprika from Majorca.
Conill amb cargols
Fancy going full rustic? Don your peasant’s breaches and order yourself a slap up feast of rabbit with snails. Not the most fashionable dish these days, but in fact very tasty indeed.
The Catalan paella, fideua is also cooked in a large flat pan, but instead of rice uses small and thin noodles. Usually includes a combination of shellfish, meat, chicken and vegetables. Like paella it is oily, messy and filling and best enjoyed with a bottle of white wine and plenty of amigos.
Thought onions are round? Not in these parts matey, where long leek-shaped onions are harvested every winter and early spring and devoured with much gusto by eager gourmands. In fact there’s a whole ceremony attached to the eating of these onions called a “Calcotada”. Groups of friends drive out to masias (old farm houses… often converted into restaurants) and Cava houses in the country where they BBQ big bundles of these bad boys, before peeling off their skins and dipping them in tangy romesco sauce (a local specialty). It is actually illegal not to imbibe at least one bottle of Cava per person during such a ceremony.
Almost as sacred as pan amb tomaquet, this sauce is made from garlic, olive oil and egg yolk whipped together into a mayonnaise-textured relish. A good side dish for fideua or patatas (chunky potato chips).
There’s something silly like 100 different ways to prepare cod in Catalonia, reflecting it’s importance to the region’s collective kitchens. You can consider yourself an honorary Catalan if you manage to order some during your visit.
You haven’t tasted real sausage until you’ve tasted butifarra. This fat spiced sausage is made according recipes that hark back to Roman times. Often served “amb mongetes” (with white beans) at restaurants, it tastes best on the BBQ.
Anec amb peres
Duck with pears is a lovely traditional dish that you can still find at some of the posher joints around town. Order with some fine wine and imagine yourself as a Catalan count.
This dazzling dessert is one of the few dishes from these parts that has gone on to international fame… and deservedly so. Who doesn’t love the crack of the glazed caramel as your spoon dips in for that first indulgent bite? An absolute must!
A frozen ball of liquid nitrogen, ingest and then sneeze out clouds of white gas. One of Ferran Adria’s little follies… we thought we’d add at least one to our little bespoke menu!
Catalan Restaurants in Barcelona
Despite an invasion of rival Spanish cuisines, particularly Basque (who doesn’t love a pintxo?) and a proliferation of international restaurants serving everything from pad thai and sushi, to tacos, burritos and fajitas, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that Catalan cuisine still reigns supreme in Barcelona, with a mix of old school and novel interpretations of traditional recipes… most made with fresh ingredients from the excellent local markets. Here are a few to put on your shortlist. Click on their names for a full review, photos, location map, social media and website links.
Ferran Adria lends his name to this venture, but the main man is really his brother Albert, who Ferran calls the most creative cook he has ever known. Expect an Alice-in-Wonderland adventure into the world of avant garde cuisine. You will need to book a table exactly three months in advance on their website.
The name means “111” because that’s how far the restaurant is from La Boqueria market… which is convenient because that is where the chef does his daily shopping, ensuring only the freshest goods end up on the table. Modern takes on Catalan classics are rustled up with finesse and you’ll find many of the dishes above on one or other of their menus (a la carte, tapas, tasting or lunch!). Located on La Rambla.
A delightful – and popular – spot on a nook in the old Gothic Quarter, L’Academia serves up old school dishes done to perfection, and the boss even has his own vineyard so expect a boutique wine to accompany your meal. Closed on weekends.
Worth visiting just for the awesome location on a pier between two of Barcelona’s urban beaches, El Boo also serves up a mix of Catalan market and seafood cuisine. The bunyoles (fritters) are a house speciality, and they also sell fresh shellfish and bacalao amongst other delicacies. A good one if you’re in Barcelona on a romantic weekend away!
Catalan Food Tours
If you want to understand the local cuisine from antiquity to present day, look no further than this young company’s “The Evolution of Catalan Gastronomy Tour” a walking food tour of the Sant Antoni district that introduces you to the fields that once fed the medieval inhabitants of the city, before showing you the progression of the tapas scene from tried and tasted classics like Cantabrian anchovies, artichokes in romescu sauce and croquetas to more avant garde delicacies like octopus on parmentier foam. You even get to make your own pan amb tomaquet.
About the Author
Duncan established Barcelona Life in 2009, whilst freelancing for the likes of Conde Nast, The Guardian, Easyjet Magazine, CNN Traveller and many more. From interviews with Ferran Adria to revealing the secrets of the city’s poetry brothels, he knows the city inside out… and shares all his best tips right here.