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Paella may be more famous, and pa amb tomàquet more ubiquitous but the national dish of Catalunya is actually escudella i carn d'olla. Award-winning local chef, Pau Arenòs, has often sung its praises, calling it: “Plat rebost. Plat pàtria. Plat caixa de sorpreses. Plat poti-poti. Plat fondo. Plat profund. Plat de plats." (“Pantry dish. Homeland dish. Box of surprises dish. Hotch-potch dish. Deep dish. Profound dish. Dish of dishes.”)
So what is it? Basically a slow-cooked, one-pot stew with meat and vegetables, escudella has a variant in most countries, from the bollito misto of Italy to the French pot-au-feu and even in other parts of Spain, notably, the Madrileño cocido, the Asturian and Galician pote and the Andalucian olla.
The everyday version of escudella is a thick soup of beans, turnips, parsnips, rice, garlic, chickpeas, celery and cabbage, cooked slowly with a chunky ham bone for flavour. However, the blow-out Christmas version is altogether meatier with pork (for Saint Anthony), beef (for Saint Luke), lamb (for Saint John) and chicken (for Saint Peter) along with a large pilota (meatball). All the meats are simmered to make a clear stock, the cabbage and the pilota going in last. When it’s cooked, the meats, vegetables and chickpeas are removed and enormous pasta shells known as galets are cooked in the stock and the resulting soup eaten as a first course. The rest is then piled high on a large platter for a substantial main course.
The escudella i carn d'olla makes up the bulk of the traditional Catalan Christmas dinner although there will also be grilled prawns, stuffed turkey and the like, followed by torrons (a type of nougat) and neules (tubular wafers). Note that in Catalunya Christmas dinner is at lunchtime on the 25th, as in Britain, whereas most of the rest of Spain feasts the might before.
A few places to try a superlative escudella made with love and years of experience include the aptly named Terra d'Escudella (Carrer Premià 20, Sants, 93 422 1613, www.tdk.cat) which champions all manner of traditional and obscure Catalan dishes. It's friendly, cosy and very economically priced and the owners are a mine of information on Catalan cuisine and culture—there's an escudella on the menu here every Friday (set menu: €8.70).
Stews are the speciality at Casa Julia (Carrer Enric Granados 14, Eixample, 93 451 8127, www.restaurantecasajulia.com) where they serve a full escudella i carn d'olla every Thursday throughout the year with a robust red wine and dessert; try their set escudella menu for around €20. It is also one of the very few places left in Barcelona that still serve the dish in the traditional manner as two separate courses.
More a more modern twist, Casa Varela (Plaça Molina 4, 93 415 4168, www.casavarela.es) has gone for a unusual way of combining the elements of the dish by serving galets stuffed with what they call escudella (although it is in reality more of a mini pilota) served in a rich broth (€10). Bon profit!