If you’re a ‘foodie’ the chance of travelling to Catalonia to eat your way around the region is a most palatable prospect. Catalonia has one of the greatest culinary reputations on the planet, so it’s an obvious addition to any gourmand’s bucket list.
Catalan cuisine is all encompassing. From its roots in humble Catalan fare – fresh seafood dishes to feed hungry fisherman after hours spent at sea or hearty stews lovingly prepared by the farmer’s wife to serve after an laborious day of planting rice – to its pioneering, artfully crafted form of modern gastronomy that has got the food critics lips flapping. There is something to tempt all tastebuds in Catalonia.
Pictured above: A farmer in the Terres de L’Ebre participating in the annual rice planting festival.
In recent years the region has made a name for itself as one of the major epicurean destinations in the world. Some of the very best restaurants on earth have come from this particular part of Spain. This reputation is a result of a foundation in an extensive culinary heritage, as well as the availability and variety of the finest produce. Also, one must not underestimate the avant-garde, innovative flair that seems to run through the veins of Catalan people; from ground-breaking architects and artists such as Antonio Gaudi, Salvidor Dali and Joan Miro to visionary chefs who demonstrate artistry in the kitchen, like Ferran Adrias.
Pictured above: Casa Ballto Barcelona designed by Antonio Gaudi.
You’d be living under a rock if you hadn’t heard of the legendary El Bulli. Ferran Adrias took the reigns of the El Bulli restaurant in the late eighties, his technical wizardry was recognised with three Michelin stars and affirmed his megastar status in the culinary world. Adrias’ deconstructivist, avant-garde style of cooking has had a profound, widespread and lasting impact on the next generation of chefs.
Pictured above: The modernista mansions along the River Onyar are an iconic scene in Girona, Catalonia.
Girona is a picturesque medieval city nearby Barcelona and also home to another establishment awarded the coveted three Michelin stars. Moreover, El Celler de Can Roca holds the title of the world’s second best restaurant in 2016, having only been bumped down from primo position in June this year. It’s the conception of three talented brothers who add a dash of collective creative genius to their roots in Catalan cuisine by applying modern techniques of molecular gastronomy. Each of the Roca brothers is a master in his field; a chef, a sommelier and a patissier. Even the gelato at the Roca brother’s gelataria Rocambolesc is inventive.
Pictured above: Swirls of violet and chocolate soft serve topped with violet marshmallow cubes, house-made honeycomb, cocoa nibs and gooseberries.
Beyond these cult-like culinary visionaries, Catalonia boasts a remarkable total of fifty restaurants with one or more Michelin stars. There is a reason such innovative, world-class cooking comes from this region of Spain and it might be something to do with food being an intrinsic part of the Catalan culture and identity.
Pictured above: Paella made using locally caught seafood and bomba rice harvested from nearby Terres de L’Ebre. Served at Lo Golero at La Fanga Bay, Catalonia.
Catalan cuisine is not to be mistaken for ‘Spanish food’ in general. Catalonia is a distinct region with it’s own proud language, history and culture. To the extent that many Catalans seek to complete autonomy from Spain and the independence movement is a hot political issue in a country where many Catalans do not view themselves as Spanish.
Pictured above: Paella made at BCN Kitchen Cooking School, Barcelona.
Some dishes enjoyed in Catalonia are recognisable and much loved throughout the whole of Spain, such as paella from neighbouring Valencia (a traditional rice dish), gazpacho (cold soup) and tortilla de patatas (potato omelette).
However, traditional Catalan fare is it’s own distinctive gastronomy unique to the region and due to a variety of geographical, cultural and historical factors. There is an explicit regional pride in the rich heritage of the local produce and dishes. There’s an overwhelming desire to continue their traditional legacy particularly after a period of cultural repression under Franco’s dictatorship between 1939-1975 where the regime attempted to eliminate the Catalan identity.
Pictured above: A typical Mediterranean seafood stew with Roman origins served in Tarragona, Catalonia.
The Catalan passion for food began long ago with influences from the Greeks, Romans, Italians and the French. It’s medieval background is documented in one of the world’s earliest cookbooks, ‘Llibre de totes maneres de potatges de menjar’ (‘The book of all recipes of dishes’) that dates back to the 14th Century and contains many recipes that are still popular to this day.
Pictured above: A local grandmother in rural Catalonia preparing a duck and potato casserole that is typical fare for those living in the countryside.Pictured left: An anthropologist from Les Garrigues foraging wild Mediterranean herbs. Pictured right: Artichokes from a local market.
Geographically speaking, Catalonia is blessed with its position along the Iberian Peninsula with coastal towns strung along the Mediterranean Sea with an abundance of fresh seafood and typical Mediterranean vegetables and legumes are in abundance. There’s an arid interior that is ripe for growing a variety of nuts, as well as olive trees and grape vines to produce world-class olive oil and award-winning wine with denomination of origin status. Expansive wetlands along the River Ebro are perfect for cultivating rice, which an important staple used in many dishes. Finally, the fertile Pyrenees Mountains are advantageous for producing quality meat and dairy. The high quality and varied produce of the region creates the ideal conditions for complex and sophisticated cuisine.
Pictured above: View from above the mussel beds in Sant Carles de la Rapita.Pictured above: Freshly shucked oysters from, La Caseta Del Parrillo, a rickety restaurant perched above the mussel beds.
Pictured above left : A mussel farmer and restaurateur along one of the most expansive mussel beds in Europe. Pictured above right: Steamed mussels with a garlicky lemon broth.
Pictured above: Cambrils, a typical fishing village in Tarragona.Pictured above: La Farga de L’Arion’ in Catalonia, also known as the ‘Monumental Tree’, is said to be around two-thousand years old and the oldest olive tree in Europe.Pictured above: Clos de L’Obac; the cellar door of an award-winning winery in the Priorat, Catalonia.Pictured above: The unusually steep slopes of a vineyard that sweeps down to the valley in the Priorat. This particular vineyard belongs to world-famous winemaker, Alvaro Palacios.Pictured above: Driving through the winding mountains of the Catalan wine country – Priorat and Montserrat.Pictured above: Enjoying the sunset over the rice fields of the Terres de L’Ebre.
Classic Catalan fare has a unique flavour – dishes that combine meat and seafood (mar y muntanya) is unheard of in the rest of Spain but popular in this region. Famous sauces such as sofrejit (onions, garlic, tomatoes), aioli (garlic and oil), picada (parsley, garlic and almond or hazelnut paste) and romesco (garlic, tomatoes and sweet dried red peppers) are integral to their dishes.
Pictured above: Fricando thickened with the picada sauce typical of Catalan recipes.Pictured above: Crèma Catalana – a dessert similar to the French crème brûlée with a custard base and burnt sugar on top.
Some other distinctive dishes include; pa amb tomaquet (toasted coca bread rubbed with vine ripe tomato, garlic, olive oil and salt), butifarras (old-fashioned pork sausage), calcots with romesco (a vegetable similar to a spring onion or leek is roasted and dipped in the salsa), fideua (a quintessential Catalan version of the paella made with short noodles), fricando (veal served with a rich mushroom sauce) crema catalana (a dessert similar to the French crème brûlée) and mato y miel (a typical dessert of Catalan cheese served with honey).
Pictured above: Arbequina olives – the fruit is eaten or pressed to create olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil from areas of denomination such as Origin Garrigues made from a local olive called the arbequina is particularly revered. Award-winning wine from the steep slopes of the Priorat denomination is now world-recognised. Wine ought to be tried using the classic porron – a customary glass vessel with a thin spout designed for pouring so when it is held at a great height a thin stream of wine teems directly into your mouth.
Pictured above: The customary ‘porron’.Pictured above left: Fruit growing on local olive trees. Picture above right: An old-fashioned olive oil press found in the olive oil cooperative in L’Alba.Pictured above: Collecting wild herbs in an ethnobotanical garden in Garrigues.Pictured above: The Gothic Quarter, Barcelona.
The capital, Barcelona, is home to one of the largest food markets in the world La Boqueria. The vast undercover market located off the bustling La Rambla is brimming with regional produce. Meanwhile, the labyrinth of medieval streets Gothic Quarter has it’s fair share of hidden gems that keep the city’s culinary heritage flourishing.
A bomboneria called La Colmena has been sweetening the lives of local Barcelones since 1849 with traditional treats such as turron (soft nougat), pumpkin jam cakes, pine nut panellets (delicate sweet biscuits), carqionol (the Catalan version of almond biscotti) and the colourful plumes of meringues with crispy shells encasing an airy mousse-like filling.
Pictured above: Strawberry meringue from La Colmena.
Through the twisting, narrow veins that run through the historical Gothic Quarter, amongst the cobbled streets and antiquated shop fronts is the aromatic Casa Gispert. It’s one of the oldest food stores in the city; basically a museum piled high with a treasure-trove of edible delicacies and specialises in roasting nuts using the same wood fired oven from the mid-19th Century.
Pictured above: The shop front of Casa Gispert, Barcelona.
Some might be surprised to learn that chocolate first arrived in Europe when Christopher Columbus sailed into the port of Barcelona. Returning from a voyage exploring ‘The Americas’, he arrived in 1502 bearing exotic goods such as cocoa. As a result Barcelona offers many chocolate indulgences that date back centuries, such as Xocolateria Fargas. This much-loved establishment is still crafting chocolate and using their historic grinding mill to produce, xocolata a la pedra, bars of chocolate that are melted to make a decadent hot chocolate drink.
Pictured above: Classic walnut chocolates on the shelves of Xocolateria Fargas.
La Campana sells traditional Catalan turron (nougat). The store retains its 1920s interior and continues to produce nougat using traditional methods. It is soft and the almond base paste simply crumbles in your mouth. The Crema Catalana flavour is particular to this region and based on the favourite local dessert – it resembles a dense custard crème topped with soft caramelised sugar syrup.
Pictured above: The interior of La Campana, Barcelona.
Escriba (pictured above) originated in the early 20th Century and retains its beautiful frontage decorated with intricate green tiles and stained glass windows, yet it’s modern day cakes and chocolates are considerably inventive.
The patisserie is renowned for their wonderful, whacky cake creations such as the Dali lips; bright red shell encasing a white chocolate mousse and passionfruit centre (pictured above).
Although not typically ‘Catalan’; sophisticated tapas bars and old-fashioned bodegas can be found all over the city. These drinking holes are flowing with cava (a special sparkling wine made in Catalonia), vermouth and caña (a small glass of craft beer). The small plates known as tapas are shared amongst friends who move from one tapas bar to the next throughout the evening in what can best be described as a moveable feast.
Pictured above: A selection of tapas across a few of Barcelona’s traditional tapas bars.
This article was created thanks to the World Nomads ‘Passport to Plate’ Scholarship series. The writer was a guest of Catalunya Experience.
For more information on World Nomads amazing food and travel scholarships visit their website.