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It is estimated that there are between 2,000 and 3,000 known species of prawn (the European term) or shrimp (the American term) worldwide. They live in fresh or salt water and range in taste, size and colour from fat to thin; translucent to cochineal red; hard shell to soft shell, forearm sized to microscopic, mild to pungent.
What they all have in common is looks. Every prawn has a long narrow body, five pairs of legs and spidery antennae for feeling their way through the water and sensing danger. They do not have pincers. But not all prawns are created equal. At least not in Barcelona.
Here the most revered of the kaleidoscope of prawns are those from Palamós—a port town some two hours north of Barcelona on the Costa Brava. This mid-sized, rose-coloured crustacean is the star dish of innumerable seaside restaurants along the coast, and among the most expensive tapas to be had in the city. But for aficionados, the expense is well worth it.
Tasting strongly of the sea, with sweet, almost sticky juices and a rich stew of offal in the head, which connoisseurs suck out with glee before devouring the body, supply is limited and availability through the year tends to wax and wane. They are most abundant and at their best from April to mid-June, during which time restaurants in towns from Calonge I Sant Antoni to Palamós boast extravagant tasting menus with Palamós prawns as the star ingredient. Contact the Ajuntament in Palamós (972 66 17 14) for further information. --TS
FENNEL, CUTTLEFISH AND ST. GEORGE MUSHROOMS
This is the last month for fennel (fenoll or fonoll in Catalan) before it takes its summer break. This native Mediterranean plant is noted for its aniseed-like aromatic qualities, which are particularly concentrated in its seeds. These play a large part in local Catalan food culture, particularly in cakes and sweet things such as bunyols or pa de pessic (a kind of sponge cake).
From mid-May the restaurants of El Vendrell and the Costa Daurada celebrate the Campanya de la Sípia (cuttlefish). In spring and summer, as the weather warms up, this mollusc comes into shallower waters to spawn, where local fishermen are lying in wait. I’m reluctant to promote the consumption of cuttlefish after getting rather too close to one on a marine biology course (I named it Cuthbert). But if you do want to chow on one of Cuthbert’s cousins, try to buy those caught in traditional traps, rather than in trawl nets, which can be very damaging to marine ecosystems and often produce large amounts of wasteful by-catch.
The bolet de Sant Jordi (St. George’s Mushroom) gets its name because it supposedly appears on St. George’s Day (April 23rd), but it generally lingers around longer than that, so you should be able to find some this month. An aromatic fungus, you don’t need many to add a sweet yeasty flavour to dishes. They’re a big favourite in the Basque country where they’re often served with scrambled eggs. --KF
As the garden veggies and the grape vines start to grow, so does the snail population. But how many of these little molluscs could you eat? In the gastropod heartland of Lleida, around 60 snails or so is considered normal for a main course but in the heat of the moment at Lleida’s annual Aplec del Caragol, or Snail Festival (May 21st to 23rd, 2010, www.aplec.org), it is not unusual to consume 300 or so at a sitting.
The use of snails (caragols or cargols) in Catalan cooking is recorded in cookbooks dating back to the 12th century. The Aplec del Caragol, however, started in 1980 as the idea of local gastronome Manolo Calpe, and the event now sees around 12 tons of snails brought in from the rest of the country, North Africa and South America to be guzzled down in just three days. Some 12,000 locals and 200,000 visitors crowd onto the banks of the river Segre and the Camps Elisis to try snails cooked a la llauna (on metal trays with salt and pepper and allioli to dip), a la catxipanda (with onions, aubergine and various pork products), a la brutesca (on a stone tile covered with burning straw) and any number of other methods.
If you want to try caragols a la llauna at home, buy smallish Bover Comù (hélix aspersa) live snails from somewhere like Petras Fruits del Bosc (stall 867 in the Boqueria) and wipe each one thoroughly before cooking. If you don’t have the outdoor space to cook them on vine cuttings (or any other hot-burning wood), then try using both the grill and the oven simultaneously to give them a good blast. --NF