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The Catalan Table

by Kevin Hanek

While doing research for this book at the home of friends in Jafre—one of the many small, hilly medieval towns that dot the coast of Catalonia’s Baix Empordà, in close proximity to the beaches of the Costa Brava—I happened upon a copy of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook in their cookbook library. The philosophy I encountered therein helped to clarify some of the appeal of the style of cooking and eating I had been discovering on my travels throughout Catalonia (Catalunya in the Catalan language), the ancient kingdom which lies in the northeast of modern-day Spain.

My approach to cooking is not radical or unconventional. It may seem so simply because we as a nation are so removed from any real involvement with the food we buy, cook, and consume. . . . Food should be experienced through the senses, and I am sad for those who cannot see a lovely, unblemished apple just picked from the tree as voluptuous, or a beautifully perfect pear as sensuous, or see that a brown-spotted two-foot-high lettuce, its edges curling and wilted, is ugly and offensive. It is a fundamental fact that no cook, however creative and capable, can produce a dish of a quality any higher than that of the raw ingredients.

This would perhaps be a good way to express the guiding spirit behind traditional Catalan cuisine—la cuina catalana—the importance placed upon the raw materials for a particular dish’s success. The appeal of many of the most successful Catalan dishes is the typically straightforward manner in which they are prepared, the way in which the subtle, essential flavors of ingredients are revealed. It is a cuisine which is both practical and inventive, taking full advantage of the resources available in daily eating, while enjoying a rich history of special dishes, dictated by tradition and the bounty of the season, many tied inextricably to the festival calendar of the church. That Catalan cuisine managed to develop such a large repertoire of different dishes out of a comparatively small number of core ingredients, supplemented on occasion as circumstance allowed, attests to the ingenuity of Catalan cooks. That these dishes have not only survived but thrived, and continue to be enjoyed in the midst of revolutionary changes in food production and eating, is something of a miracle.

To be sure, Spain, like much of the world today, has experienced the proliferation—accompanied by a subsequent impact on cuisine and eating habits—of massive supermarket chains, filled with aisle after aisle of processed and packaged foodstuffs. Likewise, fast-food restaurants are increasingly pervasive, particularly in larger cities. But Catalonia remains a place with an equal proliferation of large town food markets and smaller, locally supplied green grocers, butchers, sausage makers, and fish mongers, all of whom convey their products, originating from within the extensive network of alimentary comarques throughout the region, directly to the end consumer. In Catalonia, it is still commonly possible to enjoy a meal unfettered by the reach of modern food-processing technology, where the fish on your plate may very well have been swimming in the abundant waters off the Costa Brava earlier that day, or where the wine in your glass may have come from a vineyard a few kilometers down the road from the restaurant in which you are enjoying it. In short, the cuisine of Catalonia is one that is rooted in the bounty of the land and waters of the region, and it is this insistence upon fresh, quality, and, to a significant degree, locally sourced ingredients that lends Catalan cooking, like other Mediterranean cuisines, one of its principal virtues.

The esteemed Catalan culinary historian Jaume Fàbrega, in the preface to his book, Traditional Catalan Cooking, suggests what makes this or any cuisine unique or noteworthy:

A cuisine is not defined solely by a collection of dishes—which, after all, are often interchangeable with other cuisines—but by other, more profound elements, such as a series of characteristic techniques, an assortment of products with specific sensorial values, and a distinctive history.

Cuisine becomes a sort of tabula rasa upon which an ongoing cultural statement is being written, subtly updated by subsequent generations and influences—culture and national identity as expressed through food.

Catalan cuisine is notable among Mediterranean cuisines in its peculiar affinity for embracing and integrating elements from other cultures and cuisines so wholeheartedly. Over time, a variety of groups, most notably the Arabs and the Jews, contributed ingredients and cooking techniques to the Catalan kitchen which, along with a significant infusion of new ingredients from the Americas, were enthusiastically embraced by Catalan cooks, readily absorbed into their culinary repertories and pantries. This infusion of new ingredients and methods exerted an influence on neighboring Mediterranean cuisines in turn, and before long were considered fundamental to the cooking of the region.

The relative stability of the Medieval age had begun to give rise to the development of a gourmand culture among the European nobility, and the appearance in the fourteenth century of the Llibre de Sent Soví (Book of Sent Sovi), a compendium of recipes and gastronomic advice considered to be the oldest surviving culinary text in Catalan, began to exert a significant new influence on European tastes. Catalan chefs, renowned not only for their culinary prowess but also their taste and sensibility, were prized among European royal courts. The recipes and techniques they carried with them across the continent would have a profound and long-lasting influence on the development of a European cuisine.

Recorded by an anonymous author, the Llibre de Sent Soví is a thorough and sophisticated guide to the finer points of gastronomy and the culinary arts, and offers a fascinating glimpse into the cooking and eating habits of the period as practiced in the households of the Catalan nobility. The two oldest surviving manuscript fragments include an abundance of annotations of observations, advice, and recipes from successive readers, providing a unique view of the evolutionary process of a cuisine.

In 1520, Mestre Robert’s Libre del Coch (Book of Cooking) was published, doing for Renaissance eating habits what the Llibre de Sent Soví had done a generation earlier.

The strong and lasting influence of Arab culture on the peoples of the Iberian peninsula is undeniable and far-reaching. During the Arab invasions of Spain in the [QUERY] xth century, [QUERY: List items and techniques here] were introduced into the cooking of the Iberian peninsula.

From the Americas arrived chocolate, peppers, and tomatoes, all of which were readily integrated into Catalan cuisine.

The Jews of Spain contributed dishes and ingredients like [QUERY], which also were readily absorbed, and in turn, influenced the creation of other dishes.

The reestablishment of Catalan as a literary language in the nineteenth century, and the resulting renaixença in Catalan arts and culture which that initiated, culminated in the appearance in 1851 of La Cuynera Catalana (The Catalan Cook), an attempt to make a record and summing up of the core recipes and concepts in Catalan cooking up to that time. The book’s subtitle, “Reglas Útils, Fácils, Seguras i Económicas per Cunyar Bé” (Practical, Easy, Safe, and Economical Rules for Cooking Well), shows the breadth of its intended mission, and it is generally considered to be one of the most important codifications of Catalan cuisine in modern times. The subsequent influence of Catalan cooking throughout Europe could be seen in a variety of popular dishes of the period prepared a la catalana.

A Gastronomic Tour

One of the immense problems I grappled with in conceiving how to proceed with this book was the question of its scope and how it should be organized. The most obvious answer—a traditional cookbook organization of first courses, main dishes, desserts—didn’t seem to encompass what I was trying to accomplish, which was to give the reader a sense of not only the dishes which constitute traditional Catalan cuisine, but how those dishes fit in to the larger view of how those foods have been integrated into Catalan life and culture, and the influence of the seasons, festivals, and traditions which have historically dictated their appearances on the Catalan table. Contemporary Catalan chefs like Ferran Adria and Carme Ruscilada have helped usher in a modern-day renaissance in Catalan cooking, some of it influenced by these traditional dishes, along with ingenious new preparations, which has served to make Catalonia a major destination of “foodies” from throughout the world, and they and their compatriots have issued an array of cookbooks dedicated to disseminating the virtues of modern Catalan cuisine. Food writers like Colman Andrews, both in his landmark English-language book, Catalan Cuisine, and through continuing features in Saveur magazine, have also brought fresh attention to Catalan cusine. So why another book on Catalan cooking? My experiences in Catalonia showed me yet another view of this cuisine, a wonderful melange of people and foods, the amazingly varied experience of Catalan gastronomy to be had while traveling throughout the països catalans, that convinced me that their was yet another aspect of Catalan cooking to be explored, another story to be told. Finally, the gastronomic tour—a roughly seasonal exploration of eating in Catalonia, pausing throughout to illuminate traditional preparations and cooking techniques, as well as the “theme and variations” aspect of so many of the dishes, along with an exploration of the extraordinary geographical variety of the land itself, from the coasts to the plains to the mountains, and the artisanal food producers scattered throughout Catalunya whose products influence and often define these dishes—seemed the most satisfying approach. Here is an opportunity to examine the gastronomy of Catalunya, not only the foods, but the manner of enjoying them, how they are woven into the lives of the ingenious people who wove this enormous variety of ingredients and cooking techniques, along with the occasional “foreign” influences that appeared in their midst over time, together with a practical spirit of making the best out of these available resources, into a unique culinary and cultural statement. Catalans are first and foremost a practical people, not easily swayed by passing fads and seemingly immune to the pressure to go along with the majority just because everyone else does. This cuisine is as much a statement of the resillience of Catalan culture, a respect for tradition and a practical approach to extracting the greatest possible enjoyment from this most basic of endeavors: the necessity to provide food for their tables, simultaneously marking the passage of time in their lives in a manner that resonates with their collective history, practicality, and ingenuity, and their unique answer to that most essential of questions which faces us all—the day to day sustenance of body and spirit. In other words, “what should we eat today?”