Bordered by the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, Catalonia is a region of Spain that is fiercely proud of its unique culture, especially when it comes to food. While travelers most often flock to Barcelona, a colorful seaside city with a world-class drinking and dining scene, the lesser known province of Girona holds its own gastronomic wonders.
At its heart lies Olot, a small village nestled among volcanos with a long standing history of producing some of the area’s best cured meats – a staple in Spanish cuisine.
We asked Ignacio Rodriguez Sáez de Ibarra, General Manager with Espuña Tapas Essentials and dedicated amateur chef, to tell us about the pleasures of the palate that await in Catalonia.
When you think of Spain, what is the first flavor that comes to mind? The first aroma?
Spain is loaded with multiple flavors and aromas, which vary greatly from region to region, so naturally a lot of things come to mind: intense, herbaceous, and spicy smells from the Mediterranean basin; fresh grass, rich dairy, and meaty flavors from the rainy North; and the salty, fishy smells from the seas in the South. There are also the scents from the dry, hilly interior where rosemary and sage impregnate the air.
That said, if I had to pick just three flavors that are representative of Spanish cuisine they would be:
- Garlic: without it, there would be no aioli, gazpacho or sofrito, the base for so many dishes.
- Paprika or Pimenton de la Vera: which is the definitive ingredient of true Spanish Chorizo, what gives flavor and the deep red color.
- Saffron: the necessary condiment in every paella dish.
These three flavors are the backbone of so many classic Spanish and Catalonian dishes and recipes.
How does Catalonian cuisine differ from the rest of Spain?
The Catalonian cuisine is purely Mediterranean, drawing flavors and influence from the geography of the territory, including the hilly interior of the Pyrenees. This diverse geographic influence is what sets Catalonian cuisine apart from the rest of Spain.
In a small area, you can experience an abundance of very different ingredients – from olive oil to anchovies, from plums to Marcona almonds, from terroir wine to pork – all of these different flavors and ingredients combine to generate the true Catalan mélange of flavors.
Spanish cuisine is known worldwide for such classics as Spanish Serrano Ham, Chorizo and other cured sausages, tapas, and Paella. But there are myriad more flavors and dishes that others will hopefully experience on their travels to Spain.
Which ingredients play a starring role in the region’s cuisine?
Catalonia is too diverse to point out just a few ingredients, however, pork in all of its forms, combined with the flavors of olive oil and garlic, is a top contender. Seafood is also one of the most popular ingredients used in Catalonian cuisine.
Does the region have a signature or defining dish?
Pa amb tomàquet (Bread with Tomato). Simply prepare a slice of bread, cut a tomato in half and rub it over the bread. Add a hint of salt and olive oil and enjoy.
Originating in Catalonia, this dish is a truly simple, yet delicious recipe you will find all over the region – not only in restaurants but in every household. You will often see that it accompanies meals alongside local dry-cured sausages like Fuet.
A famous Catalan writer and gourmand, Manuel Vazquez-Montalban, loved to compare Pa amb Tomaquet with the Neapolitan Pizza. Both are peasant ways to enjoy the dough and the tomatoes that are so popular, and so good, both in Southern Italy and Mediterranean Spain.
In addition to the Pa amb tomaquet, you will also find a long-standing history of producing dry-cured salamis such as Fuets and Botifarra.
Photo credit: Espuña Tapas Essentials
What can the local cuisine teach us about Catalonian culture?
Catalan people love to socialize and meet up with family and friends around food, which is why most classic Catalonian dishes are designed to be shared and enjoyed around a big table with plenty of wine and laughter. In Spain, these bite-sized dishes are known as tapas and are a definitive look into the Catalonian culture. (An easy way to experience this yourself is to take a tapas tour in Barcelona.)
How can a curious visitor connect with the people who produce the food?
The best way would be by visiting local bars and restaurants, which is the most direct way to experience our local gastronomy and those who produce it. Take a look at what the locals are eating and ask your server or bartender for the local specialties.
Also, most of the food manufacturers and wineries will have guided tours available, especially the smallest family-owned, rural-based manufacturers, who would love to show you around and share their love for what they do.
What food or food customs are unique to the area?
From the Leridan or Empordá olive oils of the Arbequina variety to the Salchichón de Vic (dry cured sausage), or the rice grown at the Ebro´s delta, food customs abound in Catalonia.
Also unique to Catalonian gastronomy are calçots – grilled green scallions with Romesco sauce. Once the season arrives, calcots provide a great opportunity to enjoy friends and family while eating outside beside a fire.
There are also the Coc or mona de Pascua, a bakery item that, combined with any topping you can imagine, is usually had as a snack during Easter. A fun fact: a godfather often brings his godson the mona on Easter Sunday.
Of course, the wine list is huge too. From the Cavas of Penedés that are enjoyed with meals (contrary to the rest of Spain, where Cavas are mostly enjoyed as an after dinner drink) to the tiny terroirs of Priorat, where a visionary wine family started to extract small batches from vines that are 150 years old. For those not into wine, there are also some local spirits like the Ratafia which is obtained from macerating green walnuts.
What food/dishes do you recommend?
Of course, you can’t miss the aforementioned Pa amb tomàquet with some dry-cured Salami – the staple in every Catalan’s diet.
Another local specialty would be the Mongetes, local white beans most commonly pan-fried or stir-fried with grilled Butifarra, the local recipe for fresh pork sausage.
And of course, anything that carries the signature mar I montanya (sea and mountains) – a truly Catalan way of combining ingredients from the sea and the mountains in the same dish.
What restaurants, bars, cafes do you recommend?
The list could be infinite. Mediterranean cuisine is very present in most of the bars, restaurants, and cafes.
To give some representative examples in Barcelona, I would suggest Cervecería Catalana for the Tapas, 7 Portes for the Catalan cuisine, Moncho’s for the Paella. But, as I said, the list is very long.
Basically wander around, do like the locals do and see what looks tempting.
A very good tip would be to visit the local markets as they always have great spots either within the market itself or very close by. Even La Boqueria, the Gaudí designed market in the middle of Barcelona´s Rambla, a hugely touristy place, has great eating spots within it. Don´t miss Quim de la Boqueria for breakfast!
Need a place to rest your head (and your tummy) when visiting Catalonia? Hotel Omm delivers and will only enhance your visit. Located in Barcelona, Hotel Omm is a very chic hotel, designed more for the trendier visitor. But its Michelin-starred restaurant, rooftop pool, and terrace appeal to everyone.
Any tips on how to snag a reservation at El Celler de Can Roca?
It’s easy and difficult at the same time, as you are trying to book at one of the best restaurants in the world.
Bookings at El Celler de Can Roca have to be made 11 months ahead of the desired reservation. What’s the tip? Connect on the 1st of the month at midnight (Spanish local time) and you’ll succeed.
What would you like our readers to know about Espuña Tapas Essentials?
The experience of Espuña dates back to 1947 when they started producing sausages using traditional recipes on a small farm in Olot. Today, Espuña has state of the art facilities that serve customers all over the world, while still keeping artisanship and craftsmanship within the DNA of the company.
The Espuña Tapas Essentials line of cured meats is now available in Canada so consumers can experience genuine Spanish flavors and taste from the comfort of home. A perfect way to do so would be to head to your local Metro or Longo’s Store and pick up your favorite sourdough bread. Grate a fresh Ontario tomato right over it and then drizzle some salt and olive oil on top (we won´t complain if it is Italian), add some slices of Espuña Fuet D´olot on top for the best way to travel to Catalonia without leaving your kitchen.
Photo credit: Espuña Tapas Essentials