There’s no denying that the Spanish tapas culture is desirable: small morsels of food readily available in every bar to quell your appetite at any hour of the day. Yet if you’re after something more substantial, or just a little of the classic Spanish tortilla and cured ham, then check out these local dishes that won’t disappoint.
This local version of a paella is made with small noodles instead of the traditional rice version. It’s not uncommon to eat a mar i muntanya version or ‘surf and turf’ blending seafood and meat. Seek this dish out in the smaller traditional eateries or on a local menu del día for a taste of the real deal.
This vegetable dish gets its name from the way the ingredients are cooked: escalivar means ‘to cook in ashes’ in Catalan and refers to the way that the onions, aubergine and peppers are chargrilled before being preserved in olive oil. Escalivada can be eaten as an accompaniment to meat or fish, or served on bread as a snack.
Cap i pota
Literally meaning ‘head and tail’, cap i pota is a hearty Catalan stew rich in pieces of meat and offal. A traditional dish, it’s made using morsels of veal and pork, including pieces of tripe which give it a distinctive flavour. Often on the menu of low-key neighbourhood eateries, it’s sometimes found ‘reinvented’ on the menus of high-end Catalan restaurants too.
The ultimate Catalan dessert, the crema Catalana has a close cousin in the french crème brûlée, although the Spanish version is typically given a slight orange flavour. A rich custard is poured into shallow ramekins before being finished off with a layer of caramelised sugar on the op.
Also prepared with fish instead of chicken, the ‘Catalan-style’ typically involves the use of raisins, prunes and pine nuts to prepare a sauce with a slight sweetness to it. Fried onions and white wine give the sauce its rich base and it’s not uncommon to eat the meat and sauce on their own without any vegetable accompaniment.
A humble dish, the fricando is made using thin slices of beef – from what’s known as the silverside cut – and a sauce which invariably features small local mushrooms. The sauce is made from a traditional sofrito: a fried onion and tomato base which is used in most Catalan dishes. Hearty, wholesome and comforting is how most locals would describe the fricando.
If the winter isn’t usually considered the most exciting of seasons food-wise, the winter in Catalonia reserves one special treat: calçots. These unusual alliums appear to be a cross between a leek and a spring onion, both in taste and size. They are eaten during feasts known as calçotadas where they are cooked over open fires, dipped in a rich sauce called romesco and gobbled whole.
Most countries and people have their own version of a sausage and the Catalans are no exception. The botifarra is a Catalan sausage believed to have its origins in the time of the Ancient Romans, made using a combination of raw pork and spices. Botifarra is usually served alongside white beans or potatoes and cooked over a grill for flavour
Suquet de peix
This is the Catalan version of a fish soup, similar in some ways to a French bouillabaisse but with its own distinctive mode of preparation. After frying the prawns and other bits of shellfish, fish stock and tomato puree are used to make a rich sauce which also features saffron for flavour and colour. The dish is finished off with a picada: mixture of dried bread, nuts, herbs and water.
Alcachofas a la brasa
Sometimes the simplest of dishes are the best and this is very much the case with alcachofas a la brasa: fresh artichokes cooked over the grill. Artichokes are native to the area and are particularly famous from El Prat, the area around Barcelona’s airport. Simply grilled and served either with a nutty romesco sauce or drizzled with olive oil.
A most Catalan of dishes, the escudella is a type of soup which is eaten over the course of a meal. A clear broth with vegetables, pasta shapes and a large meat ball called pilota, the broth and pasta are usually eaten as a first course while the meatball and vegetables are eaten as the main course afterwards. At Christmas time a special escudella de nadal is the traditional meal on Christmas day.
One of the oldest methods of preservation, salting is used on meat and fish in many places around the world. In Catalonia, salt cod – or bacalao as it’s called locally – is used to prepare a type of salad known as esqueixada which involves fresh tomato, onion and olives.
Churros con chocolate
Another sweet treat to watch out for, churros – a type of long, thin fried donut – are not exclusively a Catalan dish but you’ll find them on street corners in most Catalan towns or cities. There’s even a street in Barcelona, the Carrer Petrixol, which is famous for the quality of its churros con chocolate as it was the historic home of the chocolatier’s guild.
If a stuffed cannelloni doesn’t sound like the most likely contender for a traditional Catalan dish, the canelon is very much a local favourite. Said to have been brought to Catalonia by Italian chefs in the late 20th century, the canelon is stuffed with leftover meat and served with a rich béchamel sauce. Special occasions even see the addition of a little foie gras to the mix for extra richness.
Last but not least, not for the faint-hearted but certainly one for the culinary adventurous, caracols are snails. A Catalan delicacy, they are cooked either grilled or stewed, while the recipes vary and each cook has their own secret recipe for the sauce. A good snail should’t be too tough and certainly not slimy, just tender and full of flavour.