Photo by Patricia Esteve
A selection of Catalan sausage
“While not wishing in any way to belittle the culinary talents so lavishly bestowed by Providence upon the French, and so brilliantly cultivated by them, it should be observed that both housewife and restaurateur frequently lean heavily upon their local charcutiers…”
Elizabeth David, French Provincial Cooking
Ah, good old Liz. No doubt she ruffled a few feathers when she penned this little gem, but it’s no less true for that. I wonder how she would respond if she and I could sit down together today, and I was to tell her that I think the charcuterie is even better this side of the Pyrenees. I like to think she’d agree. Three times I visited France this summer, three times I came home more convinced than ever that if anyone knows a good sausage, it’s the Catalans.
The Spanish may have jamón all wrapped up, and I defy anyone to find a pork product superior to the pata negra de bellota of Huelva or Extremadura, but the variety of flavour, richness and succulence of Catalan embotits take some beating. At the time of year when our social lives exist more than ever for the pleasures of the table, what could be easier, or less stressful, than a board laden with a selection of local sausages, a wheel of cheese, some good olive oil, tomatoes and a loaf of crusty bread.
In Catalunya, you’ll find neatly tiled xarcuteries on every block of the cities, and scattered throughout the towns and villages of the region. Local markets have entire aisles dedicated to them where the butcher is as much the gourmand as a Michelin-starred chef. Vic is a market town about an hour north of Barcelona, nestled in front of the foothills of the Pyrenees. It’s also the spiritual home of Catalan charcuterie, which all aficionados, at some point or other in their lives, must gravitate towards. At the weekly Saturday market, you must now make the depressing trudge through forests of nylon knickers and plastic handbags to find the tiny corner still reserved for farmers selling fruit and vegetables, eggs and cheeses, mountain honey and baskets of wild mushrooms in season and, if you’re very lucky, a plump, prime sausage from the previous season’s matança (pig killing festival).
In an official capacity the matança is no longer considered acceptable behaviour under EU health-and-safety guidelines. In reality, many farmers still enjoy the feast of feasts for their own pleasure and nourishment in the year to come. In many villages it has become far more formalised. A qualified butcher is usually employed to do the killing on behalf of everyone who has a pig during the brief season that lasts from mid-December to February. Once the organs have been cleaned, the buckets of blood neatly arranged and the intestines washed ready for stuffing, samples of the flesh and innards are rushed off to the local vet to test for disease. All being well, the sausage-making rites then begin, and though most of what makes it to the kind of elegant, old-world, postcard perfect delis that writers wax lyrical about in food articles are commercially made, the process is much the same.
Catalunya boasts 17 different varieties of embotit (the Balearics, Païs Valencià and Roussillon add still more), and some 500 or so producers. Like most Spanish dishes, there are as many versions of each as there are people who make them. The only way to know what you like best is to gather your friends around you, and like the traditional matança meal (where the fresh liver, chops and lashings of hearty country wine are consumed) let the feasting begin.
A QUICK GUIDE TO CATALAN EMBOTITS
(NB: Unless otherwise stated, all of these sausages are used as cold cuts and not cooked)
A coarse pork sausage lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, letting the flavour of the meat speak for itself. Traditionally, it is grilled and served with stewed white beans and a dollop of alioli (garlic mayonnaise). Gourmet variations include sausages that are mixed with truffles, apples and even chocolate.
Popular in the olive-growing district of La Garriga near Lleida, the basis of this sausage is tripe and pork jowls. It is then highly seasoned and boiled to make a tasty cold cut.
More or less the same ingredients as for raw botifarra, bound with eggs (ous) and prepared as a cold cut in the same way as the botifarra blanca.
Botifarra catalana trufada
The king of Catalan sausages, it has its own D.O. and is typical of the Lleida region. The colour is an almost unbelievable pink, which tends to put some people off, but the sausage itself is beautifully tender, carefully seasoned and enriched with truffles.
A curiosity, and a speciality of the Empordà, the lean pork meat is cured with sugar instead of salt and is seasoned with sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. More unlikely still, it is traditionally served at the end of a meal, almost like a dessert, and in certain bars like Quimet y Quimet in Barcelona, regular customers will often be handed one, wrapped up in pretty paper, like candy, when they leave.
Not to be confused with the Spanish morcilla, Catalan blood sausage uses plain white bread crumbs and fresh pig’s blood as a base. Into this goes a little fat and, again, the most basic of seasonings: salt and plenty of freshly milled black pepper.
Typical of Girona, the humble bull is a true example of nose-to-tail eating. Everything goes into this one from the cheeks and jowls and face to the tongue and internal organs, blood and tripe; everything, in fact, except the prime cuts.
An unusual sausage in that it’s made from lamb or mutton, as opposed to pork, mixed into a base of rice. It’s stuffed into the intestines of the same animal, and traditionally breaded and cooked in a tomato or vegetable sauce. Your best bet of finding some is to head to Pallars in Lleida.
Arguably the region’s most popular cured sausage, the word means ‘whip’, and it’s so-called because of its long, thin shape. It’s made of about 60 percent lean meat to 40 percent fat. It’s also known by other names such as secallona (typically very thin), espetec and somalla depending on where it comes from.
Llonganissa de Vic
Probably the most commercial of all the sausages, it’s no less addictive for that on account of its mild taste and smooth texture. Made of about 85 percent lean flesh, 15 percent fat and a good dose of salt and pepper, few Catalan homes are ever without one.
Whole, it resembles a haggis, a bit of a misshapen lump. Cut into slices though it can be delicious and consists of the pig’s tongue, belly fat and the jowls, as well as nutmeg among other things, all chopped fine and stuffed into a pig’s stomach lining.
From the Lleida Pyrenees this sausage is dry-cured in the mountains, extremely dry and hard, almost like a jerky, and was conceived to provide protein and energy in the harsh mountain terrain.