Barcelona, symbol of Mediterranean cuisine
The capital of Catalonia is well placed to compete for the title of Capital of Mediterranean Cuisine. It does not just boast exceptional variety in its gastronomy but also has great ingredients (eating habits and lifestyle) that reaffirm its position as a symbol of Mediterranean cuisine.
The first great value of the Mediterranean and Catalonia’s cuisine is the ingredients. Barcelona is privileged in that it has a wide variety of natural landscapes nearby: the sea, mountains, rich gardens land and drylands. Culinary prestige also represents praise for agricultural products and farmers, which means farmers can continue to develop work on the land. For example, gastronomy brings added value to quality wines, and this has been the catalyst for the rise of Catalonia’s wine business over the last few years. There are many other cases that show the value of products from Mother Earth, which are factors of territorial rebalance. Those foodstuffs that can be found in the markets are also in specialised shops in Barcelona, and this adds to the attractiveness of the city.
Traditionally, tourists’ main interest in major cities has focused on their cultural attractions and architectural heritage. But in this, the third millennium, a new
concept is being added to the traditional interpretation of cultural heritage: cuisine, and with it the way in which restaurants present their offerings to the public so that they can be understood, sampled and, above all, enjoyed. Gastronomy is, without a doubt, one of the star attractions of Catalan culture. Catalan cuisine is balanced, healthy and varied and one of the finest examples of the Mediterranean diet, which was given Intangible Cultural Heritage Status by UNESCO in 2010.
Its specialities range from the typical pa amb tomàquet (bread rubbed with tomato and garlic and drizzled with olive oil), a wide variety of cured sausages and meats, to fresh produce such as vegetables, game and fish. Be sure not to miss out on the desserts and sweets: creams, cakes, coca (a type of flat sponge cake), torrons (a nougat from the region) and confectionery in which dairy produce and chocolate are the main ingredients.
The wines and cavas (Catalan sparkling wine) of the region are also worth special mention. Some of them have already been granted the denominació d’origen (quality wine designation) and enjoy international renown. They make an excellent accompaniment to meals. This gastronomic wealth has helped establish Barcelona’s position as the world city where gastronomy offers the best value for money. The Catalan capital is a leader on the world stage due to its restaurants and eminent chefs, a factor which has earned it the plaudit of the first “Gourmande” city outside France and led to its appointment to the vice-presidency of the World Good Food Cities Network “Délice cities”. Not for nothing are Barcelona and Catalonia known for excellent dining and their Michelin-starred restaurants.
Barcelona has a fishing fleet which sells its daily catch at the Barceloneta fish auction and provides us with a prime-quality locally sourced product. We make traditional seafood dishes with these products from the sea.
Local corporations have held and exercised broad authority in matters regarding the provision of food ever since the Middle Ages. Over the years, municipal authority was supplemented in two ways. On the one hand, town councils supervised the sanitary conditions of the foods being sold in the markets. And on
the other, they controlled cities’ access to goods in order to levy consumer taxes.
In big cities, and Barcelona is an outstanding example in this respect, the legal authority and activities in this sphere came to occupy their own physical spaces: the municipal markets. Few cities in the world can boast a network such as that of Barcelona, where 40 food markets and 6 markets selling other goods form a unique heritage that should be maintained and preserved. Aware of this situation, Barcelona City Council, through the Municipal Institute of Markets of
Barcelona (IMMB), is actively promoting an improvement in the quality of the markets themselves and the services they offer in order to meet new consumer demands. The Municipal Council is striving to achieve competitive municipal markets where cultural and recreational initiatives, new technologies, modern facilities and other features are added to their traditional offering, with the aim of transforming them into retail centres which will provide a social, cultural and commercial hub in the neighbourhoods where they are located. La Boqueria, on La Rambla, is one of the city’s landmark food markets, which is known throughout the world. In 2005, it was named the world’s best food market at the Congress of the World Union of Wholesale Markets.
Eating out is by far the most practised leisure activity in Catalan and Barcelona society. You only have to take a walk round the city streets or those of the towns to realise just how many establishments there are. Catalan cuisine is seen through its restaurants, with a wide variety of different sorts of them. It is one of the main sources of wealth for Barcelona.
Mediaeval cuisine represented a golden age for gastronomy in Catalonia, according to Teresa Vinyoles in her book El menjar a la Barcelona gòtica: necessitat primària i ritu social. Probably much of the uniqueness of Catalan cuisine comes from the fact that it has managed to bring together, from the basis of its classical and visigoth heritage, the fine influences of Andalusian culture, thus guaranteeing the Mediterranean culture and transmission of oriental treasures.
The Arabs introduced or reintroduced many products to the Iberian peninsula, some of these still play a part in idiosyncratic nature of Catalan food, , like rice, spinach, egg plants, lemons, sugar or pasta (fideus), and there was a certain taste for greens, which the philosopher Ramon Llull identified as a source of health, especially taking into account that garden fruits had really undervalued until then by feudal masters. As well, the presence of fish and other products from the Mediterranean characterised this mediaeval Catalan cuisine. And there were also some exquisite sauces like ginestrada, a cream made with rise, saffron, with the milk of almonds, and costum —exported to a large extent— made by cooking poultry in citric fruits, as well as various dishes delicately scented with rose water and prohibitive mixes of far off spices. Remember that ginger arrived much before sushi, or coriander before guacamole, and that galangà came before the Tom Iam soup.
Catalonia shared this way of cooking with, firstly -and in a very special way- Occitània, as it did with serenading, the trobadors and an occasional heretic, and afterwards there were successful contacts with Sicily, Sardinia and the Italian Peninsula. In the moment when Catalan cuisine was really founded, it already showed its most characteristic trait: the capacity to incorporate the best of other culinary cultures, that for one or another reason, it had come into contact with. This was not a unique thing; anthropologists have shown that cuisine reflects societies quite clearly. So it is not at all strange that cuisine in Catalonia reflected the spirit of a place that was very much a thoroughfare and place of arrival, preferring to incorporate that than resist other styles.
With time ultramarine products from the Americas were incorporated into Catalan cuisine, which would look very different without them today. For example, sausages and beans (American), Egg plants with peppers (American), Soup of Cauliflower and potatoes (American), and tomato (American)-bread and even bread and chocolate (American) for an afternoon snack. But, as the historian Massimo Montanari said, «the history of food customs goes hand in glove with the vissitudes of power and politics», or to sum up with words from the Catalan writer Joan Perucho, «If we look at the cuisine of the past, the majority of times we can glean a good lesson from social history, as well as politics».
Modern times is not especially good —as everyone knows— for the production of Catalan culture, which was persecuted and occasionally had to hide even in convents or monasteries. Precisely it was in the monasteries where many of the recipe books of the time were written, faithful to the mediaeval tradition (there was still a fair mix of sweet and salty dishes that were so liked in the Middle Ages, for example), but also with the healthy meat restrictions as prescribed by monastery rules. And bit by bit the new incorporations began to bring the makeup of the dishes, despite not losing their character, to current day ones.
The first inns were Italian and arrived in the 18th century
The evolution did not stop there, and the first inns appeared. Sempronio explains in Quan Barcelona portava barret that the word «fonda» (inn) comes from the Arabic word alfòndec, sort of warehouse where, apart from storing merchandise, the men that transported the goods also ate and slept; a sort of urban, western caravan harem. Barcelona’s most well known alfòndec was in the Santa Maria del Mar quarter; later to become a hostel, which was what came directly before the fonda.
The first inn owners were Italians and they came in the 18th century. And they would advertise themselves on wooden boards with pictures of falcons or a sabre rather than with letters for those that could not read. In the book Vint segles de cuina a Barcelona, Nèstor Luján explains that the most famous inn belonged to a Sardianian who had arrived in the city in 1788. In 1815 he opened Beco del Racó, where you could eat rabbit casserole, potato stew, escudella, meatball soup, beef stew…; a whole series of dishes that we recognise as traditional Catalan dishes and that we included in the majority of recipes when, with the Renaissance, cooking books reappeared.
«At around the end of the 19th century, in the sisos inns, where you could eat for “sis quartos” (a small quantity of money), the food on offer was great, nice and very popular. But there was also a need for a different sort of offer dedicated to the new emerging social classes because the so called “golden age”, a name taken from Europe, was growing in Barcelona more and more luxury sweet shops, glove makers, cake shops and restaurants were setting up like under a spell», explains Narcís Oller in his famous novel La febre d’or. While the rest of the State was still crying at the loss of its colonies, in Catalonia, the flowering industrial and financial sectors had created a nouvel rich and made the already rich even richer. Barcelona became a cosmopolitan city. There were those who had a lot of money and a need to show it! One way was to go out and eat for a duro (a sizeable sum of money for the time) in the most exclusive and flamboyant French style restaurants opened between the 19th and 20th centuries. The restaurants, a figure that emerged with the French revolution, had become the height of refinement. Auguste Escoffier topped the evolution of the time with the sort of restaurant that took the top class French style restaurant to a new international height when he opened, along with Cèsar Ritz, a grand luxury hotel.
In Catalonia this exquisite and bourgeois cuisine, as only it could be, was also liked. And it left its mark on those that could afford it. Great Rondissoni -the great Rondissoni, through his work at the Escola de la Dona and the magazine Ménage, spread the message about this type of cuisine. Meanwhile, as Rusiñol explains, «the workers that could and their bosses would get out of town on Sundays to eat rice and conger with muscles or grilled lamb» Another great cook of the time, Ignasi Domènech, who had worked with Escoffier, said this part of traditional cooking, that we have seen, continued to be added to with outside influences.
The Spanish Civil War was horrible and the dictatorship a disaster. But many people from other parts of the State came to Catalonia, bringing new cultural riches. Franco’s dictatorship left Catalonia with the sensation of being a sort of cultural desert. Those that resisted, risked it all; amongst them, the writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who took on the urgent and necessary task of, that in his own words, «chronicling the signs of resistance of Catalonia’s gastronomic identity». If it was a priority to “to save the words”, as Espriu asked, it was also necessary to revitalise, while they still could, the culinary symbols of Catalonia that Francoism had tried to do away with. «It is all very well to be worried about the languages of nations without state, but what of cuisine without state?» he wrote. That is why he published L’art de cuinar a Catalunya, in 1977, a reference book for students of the history of Catalan cuisine, that was consciously written «with the intention of doing a cultural and political service (to the country)». As well as being a great writer, he managed to stop the pleasure of good food being penalised, which at the start of the move towards democracy was basically seen in a bad light, both for the parties of the left and right.
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