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Of these, sofregit, samfaina and picada are the easiest to handle and to a large degree represent the basis of all traditional Catalan dishes. If food were fashion, you could say that these are the bones on which all recipes are built, while allioli and romesco are but accessories—diamonds rather then rhinestones, mind you.
Sofregit (sofrito in Castilian) is probably the most used of all the sauces and the most widespread. It is used across all of the Spanish Caribbean, particularly in Puerto Rico and South America, as a basis for soups and stews. Andrews describes it as the 'once-upon-a-time of Catalan cuisine', the ritual opening, the jumping-off point. It can be simple: just oil and mild, sweet onions. Or more complex, melting chopped tomatoes and/or other vegetables into one harmonious stew. Whatever the recipe, the trick is in long, slow cooking so that the vegetables become a deeply flavoured, almost tarry base for whatever is to follow.
It is, for example, crucial to decent paella, fideu or arros negre; it forms the foundation of the deliciously waxy, oven-baked sliced potatoes that go with roast fish, or a suquet (seafood stew); it lends a dark unctuousness to Catalan dinner party classics like goose with pears, duck prunes or partridge-stuffed cabbage leaves (see Recipe below). Chef Jordi Artal at Cinc Sentits cooks his at impossibly low temperatures for at least 18 hours as a base for a bowl of intensely flavoured rice.
At the other end of the scale (and the finished dish), picada is a dry paste that most commonly combines almonds, hazelnuts, pine-nuts, fried bread and garlic with a drop of vinegar. But it might also include fish livers, chocolate, herbs and other dry ingredients. It must be pounded in a mortar–not ground in a food processor–to achieve a smooth, non-grainy texture that is used to finish a dish; to lend robustness, thicken and add subtle layers of flavour. Murcianos have something similar called la patagorrina which pulverises garlic, vinegar and fried bread and is served with roast meats. It goes exceptionally well, I am told, with lamb's lungs.
Samfaina, then, is more of a vegetable accompaniment than a sauce, adding depth and succulence to pot-roasted chicken, or providing an earthy base to anchovy tarts. Like the Provençal ratatouille, samfaina is a slow cooked, one-pot pan of Mediterranean vegetables discovered in the New World and enthusiastically adapted by the Catalans: aubergines, tomatoes, courgettes and sweet peppers on a base of onions.
None of this is terribly complicated, however, requiring time more than anything. Romesco and allioli on the other hand, unless you have the skills and patience of saint, can be devilishly difficult; liable to break, curdle and generally run amok without a firm hand, an iron will and buckets of love hurled at them. In both cases a blender is a no-no. These require a pestle and mortar and the shoulder power of an ox. "Without work the vessel of human life lacks ballast", as the French scholar and essayist Stendhal would have it. And, above all, both engender the utmost respect from Catalan gourmands. When you can knock up a decent allioli or romesco sauce, you have 'made it' in foodie circles.
Mayonnaise is a rather trickier subject. If you're in Maó the capital of Menorca, where mayonnaise is said to have been invented, then mayo is fine. Celebrated then. Where it gets complicated is when mayonnaise masquerades as allioli. These days many, if not most, restaurants commonly serve 'allioli' mixed with egg yolks giving it a softer, more rounded personality. Purists balk at this concoction, however, for it is the temperament emulsion of oil, garlic and salt with one drop–no more–of white wine or sherry vinegar that makes a true allioli. These folks like their condiments punchy and raw, and slather them with zeal over carns a la brasa (grilled meat), fish and seafood, snails, arroces and fideus. It tastes amazing amalgamated with tart fruits; green apples and quinces like the one made by chef Xavier Franco at Saüc.
Personally though, I think romesco should lord it above the rest. I is my absolute favourite of the Catalan sauces; hearty and complex with multiple layers of taste and texture. What calçotada (grilled onion festivals held throughout February and March) would be complete without the rich salbitjada that goes with it—a form of romesco that uses toasted hazelnuts as well as almonds in the mix.
True romesco hails from Tarragona–the most Roman capital of the Paisos Catalans–and most likely has developed out of something they would have invented. "The variations of this sauce are legion, secrecy surrounds the method and there is no common agreement among fishermen or cooks about its creation," writes Patience Gray in her book, Honey from a Weed.
I learnt mine from Jean Luc Figueras, who has a splendid restaurant of the same name here in Barcelona. Suffice to say it refused to amalgamate in the desire manner. But basically it consisted of a re-hydrated nyora chilli, the flesh scraped from the skin. A handful of toasted hazelnuts and almonds and a couple of squares of fried bread pounded together with the chilli, the flesh of a roasted tomato, s slow drizzle of oil, the tiniest drop of wine and the same again of vinegar (any more is guaranteed to assure your place in thee graveyard of doomed romescos). Good luck.