Sure, Barcelona has become a cauldron of culinary kookiness, with the foams and froths of master chef Ferran Adrià and his disciples. But you can still get a taste of yesteryear and traditional Catalan cooking.
With a reputation for producing some of Spain’s finest cuisine, it’s not just a matter of a few regional dishes but a gastronomy distinct from that found elsewhere in the country or in neighbouring France.
A geographically diverse region, Catalonia produces a variety of fresh, high-quality seafood, meat, poultry, game, fruit and vegetables. These can come in unusual combinations: meat and seafood (a genre known as mar i muntanya – the local equivalent of surf 'n' turf ), poultry and fruit, fish and nuts.
Catalans find it hard to understand why other people put butter on bread when pa amb tomàquet – toasted bread rubbed with tomato, olive oil, garlic and salt – is so much tastier. It’s matter of regional pride, often said to reflect the colours of the Catalan flag, and many restaurants – such as La Vinateria del Call or Alcoba Azul – make it a mainstay of the menu, so your only task is to choose accompaniments.
Pernil (ham) and formatge (cheese) are culinary constants. The main centres of cheese production in Catalonia are in La Seu d’Urgell, the Cerdanya district and the Pallars area in the northwest. Although many traditional cheeses are disappearing, you’ll still be able to find things such as formatge de tupí, a goat’s cheese soaked in olive oil, and gorritxa, another goat’s cheese (made with penicillium mould) that is meltingly soft on the tongue. You’ll also find all sorts of sausages, using pork as a base. Some generic names include botifarra, fuet (a thin, dried pork sausage) and llonganissa. Katherine at Formatgeria La Seu, though Scottish, is considered to be the city’s expert on artisanal cheeses, and you can book a tasting session at her wonderful little cheese shop.
Catalans are passionate about bolets (wild mushrooms), often disappearing for days in autumn to pick them. Head for the stall called Petras at the back of the Boqueria market for an idea of just how many varieties there are. Calçots (large sweet spring onions), which are roasted over hot coals, dipped in spicy romesco sauce (a finely ground mixture of tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, almonds and olive oil) and eaten voraciously when in season from January until March, are another national favourite. The calçot ritual most traditionally takes place as a Sunday lunch outing in which the calçots are the first course, followed by copious meat and sausage dishes as the main. Try them in one of the traditional farmhouse restaurants dotted across the Collserola hills outside the city.
In Catalan kitchens, greater importance is attributed to sauces than in much of the rest of Spain. The most common are sofregit (fried onion, tomato and garlic), samfaina (similar to ratatouille – sofregit plus red pepper and aubergine or courgette), allioli (pounded garlic with olive oil) and picada (based on ground almonds and other ingredients, such as garlic, parsley, nuts and breadcrumbs, to suit each dish).
Rice is grown in the Delta de l’Ebre area in southern Catalonia and put to a variety of good uses. Arròs a la cassola or arròs a la catalana is Catalan paella, cooked in an earthenware pot and without saffron, whereas arròs negre is rice cooked in cuttlefish ink – it’s much tastier than it sounds. Another speciality is fideuà, which is similar to paella but uses vermicelli noodles rather than rice as the base. You should also receive a little side dish of allioli to mix in as you wish – if you don’t, ask for it. Try it at Can Ros or Bar Joan, depending on your budget.
The Catalan version of the pizza is the coca. There are many variations, both savoury and sweet. The savoury option can come with tomato, onion, pepper and sometimes sardines. The sweet version, generally almond-based, is more common and is a standard item at many a festa (festival) throughout the year.
Seafood is high on Catalan menus but hearty meat dishes from the interior also figure prominently. Botifarra (sausages) come in many shapes and sizes, and for some there’s nothing better than a sizzling solomillo (sirloin) of vedella (beef ) prepared a punto (medium rare).
Not originally an integral part of the Catalan eating tradition, tapas culture was long ago imported to Barcelona. Particularly popular are the Basque Country versions – found in bars like Euskal Extea –, pintxos, most of which come in the form of canapés. On slices of baguette are perched anything from bacalao (cod) to morcilla (black pudding). These are most refreshingly washed down with a slightly tart Basque white wine, txacoli, which is served like cider to give it a few (temporary) bubbles. Each pintxo comes with a toothpick and payment is by the honour system – you keep your toothpicks and present them for the final count when you ask for the bill.
Traditional desserts include crema Catalana, a delicious version of crème brûlée, but you might also be offered mel i mató, honey and fresh cream cheese. Another alternative is the appealingly named músic – dried fruits and nuts, sometimes mixed with ice cream or cream cheese, and served with a glass of sweet muscatel wine.
This article was originally published in June 2010. This article was refreshed in February 2015.
Additional research by Sally Davies in February 2015.