One thing that many of the heartier Catalan dishes have in commons is that they all begin with a sofregit – a preparation of tomatoes, onion and garlic, fried in olive oil and seasoned to the chef’s liking. This simple sauce is the basis for many a dish, such as the rich fish stew sopa de peix, or the popular paella. The key to a good sofregit is patience and a good quality olive oil, if you rush the preparation the onion will not have time to sweeten and if you use too much heat it might burn and take on a bitter flavour.
Here in Barcelona most chefs know that the key to getting flavoursome produce is to wait for the right time of year. Unlike in other countries where the majority of produce is imported, here in Spain the markets mostly stock what has been grown locally and seasonally. This means that the best time to cook asparagus is in May when they’re at their best, broad beans start appearing on the market stalls in March and come Autumn it’s time to start looking out for rovellons and other native wild mushrooms. The locals know that there’s no point eating something out of season or exported from abroad, it will never taste as good as something home-grown when the time is right.
If eating seasonal produce is important to the Catalan diet, so too is eating locally. Barcelona has a privileged position between the land and the sea, and enjoys the best of both worlds when it comes to the diversity of ingredients which fills its market stalls. Meaning there’s little need to import food or drink from far away lands. The Catalans are proud of their gastronomic heritage, most of which is based on local produce. Nature also has a way of creating its own matches, for instance the tannic red wines of Priorat are a perfect match for the flavoursome charcuterie of Vic.
One of the most striking features of Barcelona’s food scene is the blend of old and new. Traditional dishes that have survived the test of time co-exist with some of the most technically sophisticated cuisine in the world. The secret to this harmonious relationship is a deep reverence for the gastronomic heritage of the area, and at the same time an openness to change and innovation. The molecular gastronomy of Ferran Adrià‘s team at el Bulli undoubtedly changed the face of Barcelona’s dining scene forever. Yet look at the menus of some of the city’s most coveted restaurants and you’ll see dishes from days gone by – just with a modern twist.
The secret to that rich, wholesome flavour which is found in many Catalan meat-based stews and soups is that they are made using the less popular cuts of meat. They say that the only thing you can’t eat on a pig is its squeal and here in Spain it’s no secret that the best stocks and sauces use every last bit of meat they can for flavour – including pieces of tongue, ear, face or intestine. The same goes for fish stocks, where prawn shells and heads give a depth of flavour you would be hard-pressed to extract from the meat alone. However they are usually removed once the stock is prepared and not included in the final dish.
If using fresh, good quality produce is key to the toothsome flavour of Catalan cuisine, so is getting the seasoning right. For that it’s essential to have a few staples in stock at all times: saffron, smoked paprika and good olive oil are absolute musts. Often added as just a pinch or a dash to a dish, their presence is nonetheless essential to recreating the complex aromas of the local fare. Remember that the quality of these ingredients is just as important as that of the fresh produce, a Pimentón de la Vera is far superior to a supermarket alternative.
If the Catalan diet includes red meat, fried foods and cheeses, it also includes a lot of vegetables, salads and broths. The secret really is to keep the meal balanced and eat all things in moderation. If you’re having a more copious starter, such as a helping of paella or a Russian salad (potatoes and mayonnaise), opt for a lighter main course – a pieced of fresh grilled fish with a side of vegetables for instance. Most locals are well aware of the need for a healthy diet and tend to reserve the naughtier dishes – think patatas bravas – for weekends or special occasions. If eaten in moderation, a little of what you like can do no harm.
It’s also about how you eat. In Spain meal-times are an important part of the day: a time to relax, a time to socialise and a time to enjoy your food. A dish always tastes better when it’s savoured in the company of friends or family. At weekends most families will get together for a large sit-down meal at least once. Although in recent years there has been a growing trend towards Tupperware-lunches, many workers still sit down in a restaurant for a menú del día when they can. Company and atmosphere are two crucial ingredients to any good meal in Barcelona.