I dream of returning to Catalonia.
The last time I was there, in 2010, I crossed the border between France and Spain, and ended up about 30 miles northwest of Barcelona. I stopped for lunch at a small family-run place in a town whose name I can’t remember. The waitress wouldn’t speak Spanish, and all the “Xs” on the Catalan-only menu intimidated me. When I read “Canelones“, I ordered that, hoping I might end up eating something familiar.
And I did.
Canelones turned out to be air-light pasta wrapped around a ground meat filling, smothered in a béchamel sauce, a testament to the mixing of Italian and French foodways in northeast Spain.
Then it was back on the road gain, back to Foix and the ancient caverns of Gargas, where deformed red hand prints coat the damp walls of a seemingly endless cave. No one knows why the prints are there, or why fingers are missing, on every single print, all different.
Thanks to a previous, more extended journey of mine to Spain’s dry and foreboding Extremadura, I had crossed Spain off my bucket list for good. Or so I thought. My feelings about Extremadura echoed those of many Spaniards who signed on for voyages to the New World in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. There was nothing there for them in that place. So they left. Most never returned.
My short foray into Catalonia opened my eyes to a vastly different face of Spain. With the forested mountains of the Pyrenees and its close proximity to the sea, Catalonia calls to something in me that is missing. I am not sure just what that elusive something is.
Maybe I am spinning visions of castles in the air?
There’s another reason why Catalonia calls to me on so many levels: it is one of the most interesting culinary regions of Spain. Indeed, the world. For several years, Catalan chefs have taken top honors, the most famous of them being Ferran Adrià of elBulli.
But the preeminence of Catalan cuisine is nothing new.
Take the history of cookbooks.
Writing about Catalan cooking has a long and noble heritage. There’s Ruperto de Nola’s 15th-century Llibre del Coch – the first printed Catalan cookbook. And the even older The Book of Sent Soví, from the 14th century. Both feature Catalan cooking, which to this day manifests the influences of the French, the Italians, the New World, the Arabs, and the medieval courts of Catalonia.
A veritable feast awaits anyone who visits Catalonia and loves mixing history and cooking. Or simply eating!
Until the day I stand in La Boquería in Barcelona, market basket slung over my arm, or in a bar tipping a porrón of wine over my mouth, I’m going to be a dreamer, nothing more than an armchair traveler/cook.
The following list of references/odds and ends represents some of the material I’ve been dreaming over in preparation for that extended return to Catalonia:
Books on Catalonian Food and Culture:
Colman Andrews, Catalan Cuisine: Vivid Flavors from Spain’s Mediterranean Coast (1988)
Irving Davis, A Catalan Cookery Book / A Collection of Impossible Recipes (1969)
Rudolph Grewe, “Catalan Cuisine, in an Historical Perspective.” In Alan Davidson, ed., National and Regional Styles of Cookery (1981)
Nick Loyd, Forgotten Places: Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War (2015)
Nèstor and Tin Luján, La cocina moderna en Cataluña (1985)
Montserrat Miller, Feeding Barcelona, 1714-1975: Public Market Halls, Social Networks, and Consumer Culture (2015)
Daniel Olivella, Catalan Food: Culture & Flavors from the Mediterranean (2018)
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)
Jan Read, The Catalans (1978)
Rosi Song and Anna Riera, A Taste of Barcelona: The History of Catalan Cooking and Eating (2019)
Colm Tóibín, Homage to Barcelona (1990, 2002)
Josep Trueta, The Spirit of Catalonia (1946)