It’s from Catalunya

  • November 7, 2023
  • Gastronomy
  • Carles GaigCarme RuscalledaFerran AdriàNandu Jubany

Seny i rauxa

Catalan cuisine is a good example of these two traits commonly used to describe Catalans, which translate roughly as ‘good sense’ and ‘wild abandon’. The eclectic pantry gives rise to creative combinations starting with the most traditional dishes, such as surf and turf – a historical pairing linked to seaside cuisine which combines aquatic creatures such as lobsters, crayfish or monkfish with the meat of land dwellers such as rabbit, chicken or pork trotters. Another example are the many alliolis that bring joy wherever they are served, be they made from quince, potato, honey, pear, tomato or even cod – all of which we can put in a pestle and mortar with egg yolk, garlic, oil and salt… These latter two ingredients, incidentally, combined with chocolate make one of our most celebrated and impressive desserts. Likewise, cocoa, ever present in our routine, is a dancing partner for rabbit, hare or shrimp: dishes enshrined in the Corpus of Catalan Cuisine for their flavour and cultural richness; and as the treasure it is, we sometimes slip it into picada – the essence of many stews, soups and sauces since the Middle Ages.

In Catalan we say that we ‘drink our sense’ or that we are ‘affected by the mushroom’ (crazy), and we certainly know a lot about mushrooms because every year we go into the forests to hunt for them. This would surely come as no surprise to Salvador Dalí, who aged six declared that he wanted to be a chef, aged seven to be Napoleon, and as an established artist he raised llonguet bread and the egg to the category of mystical objects. Some of our cheeses are just as heavenly and surreal, many having been created by visionary dreamers who stir in spirits to make tupí or wrap them in ash for Montsec. And when Christmas comes, the table is laden with every flavour imaginable of turró alongside the neules we use to drink cava to wash down the pota blava del Prat, a chicken with strange shoes that has its own Protected Geographical Indication.

Another apparent contradiction is the way we look up at the sky to celebrate the fruits of the earth. We do that with wine, the best elixir of our land, when we decant it into a porró pitcher with our family or friends, raise it high and drink it by pouring it into our mouth, with the sun’s rays passing through the glass. Also, with a càntir jug, the most perfect recipient in the galaxy for storing cold water; your best friend to take to the allotment or the stove – a popular, handmade earthenware pot that had scientists scratching their heads about its formula for many years. And calçots, barefoot from the garden, stripped of their black coat and dressed in romesco, which fly over our smiles until the back of our head kisses our back. Seny i rauxa in life as in cooking means having your head in the clouds but your feet on the ground.

I exalt the new and fall in love with the old

The verse by the poet J.V. Foix sums up a sentiment that chefs, gastronomes and diners in Catalonia feel today, mindful of the importance of traditional recipes as a testimony to the oral and written heritage of a people and of the tastes of memory and knowledge of the past; while at the same time being hugely excited about the most avant-garde creations and international acclaim.

When Ferran Adrià put sweet into savoury, it was a nod to medieval culinary manuscripts such as Sent Soví and the Llibre del Coch. When Carles Gaig improved on canelons, he upheld the esteem and excellence of the first restaurants in Plaça Reial and the lessons that Rondissoni gave to the chefs and teachers who studied at the Catalan Women’s Institute before the war. When Marc Ribes and Artur Martínez featured peus de porc, menuts and mandonguilles at Taverna del Ciri, the hubbub of 19th-century inns could be heard. When Nandu Jubany dared to adapt pijama, he proved the value of this Barcelona dessert created in 1951 by the Parellada family of 7Portes as a tribute to the legendary Escoffier’s Peach Melba. In the midst of these examples, a whole host of chefs struggled against the ravages of famine, distilled passing trends, and allowed the evolution to become a revolution. A fair few food writers and chroniclers also managed to codify all kinds of menu and trend. And many, many diners returned empty plates to the kitchens, which is the best medal you can give the brigade, according to Carme Ruscalleda. At the end of the day, Catalan cuisine is teamwork.