Photo by Patricia Esteve
In an increasingly high-tech world it can be a relief to get back to the simple things in life. In the kitchen, the back-to-basics tools par excellence are the pestle and mortar and together they make arguably the most important ingredient in Catalan cuisine: the picada.
The pestle and mortar are my favourite kitchen implements. There’s something quite primal about crushing toasted spices to release their exotic fragrance, something alchemical about turning a solid clove of garlic into a creamy, fiery paste. Long before Jamie Oliver invented his slightly wussy ‘flavour shaker’, women with formidable forearms in kitchens everywhere were grinding stone against stone or wood against ceramic to make seasonings and sauces.
The yellow-and-green ceramic mortar and its wooden pestle have become one of Catalunya’s foremost tourist souvenirs, but thankfully they haven’t been totally relegated to the realm of ‘knick knacks’. They may not have the spice-grinding power of a Thai marble set, but they’re perfect for making the picada, one of the foundations of Catalan cuisine.
Catalan food blogger Nuria Roig (www.mediterranean-food-recipes.com) sums up the purpose of the picada thus: “The Catalan picada makes a dish more aromatic, binds the cooking juices together, and thickens the consistency of those cooking juices in a particularly delicious and healthy way.” As Roig points out, the picada is a much healthier thickener than cream or flour, as it uses nutritionally beneficial ingredients such as garlic, nuts and herbs.
The famous Catalan restaurateur Ramon Parellada has written a whole book dedicated to the picada, El Llibre de les Picades. In the introduction, he writes: “In the cuisine of this country the picada is an essential element, which gives personality to the dish, fills out the flavours, and differentiates it from other cuisines around the world.”
He fears that because the picada is invisible in the final dish, it has become overlooked and that the pestle and mortar may indeed become mere decorative objects. But it’s the deceptive humility of the picada that makes it so special. Perhaps it takes an outsider to truly appreciate its worth. Food writer Paula Wolfert got so excited when she discovered the picada that she called it “the future of cooking”.
Born out of poverty and hard times, the picada was the final touch that turned an everyday dish into something special for a feast day. Such simple ingredients as a sprig of herbs from the garden, stale bread and a head of garlic have a transforming effect on a dish and it’s a formula that’s been tried and tested through many generations. Mestre Robert, author of the first printed Catalan cookbook, the Libre del Coch, published in 1520, mentions a picada-like recipe consisting of toasted almonds crushed in a mortar with chicken livers and bread that has been soaked in orange juice or white wine vinegar.
So what is a picada? Well, there’s no fixed formula, but the cornerstones seem to be nuts, garlic and herbs. The ‘picada Catalana’ is often thought of as “the picada”, but really it’s just one of many combinations, and any cook should feel free to experiment with the ingredients and measurements of any picada to suit whatever dish they’re making, as well as their personal taste. Josep Lladonosa i Giró, in his bible of Catalan cuisine, El Gran Libro de la Cocina Catalana (Peninsula), lists the potential components of a picada thus: “garlic, parsley, saffron, almonds, hazelnuts, pinenuts, biscuits, chocolate, nyora peppers, fish or chicken livers, bacon, bread, etc…”
But the basic premise of all picades is that the ingredients are crushed together in a pestle and mortar, starting with the hardest ingredients and ending with the softest. Then some liquid is added (red or white wine, vi ranci, moscatel, stock, water…) and the picada is thrown into the stew, or whatever’s cooking, a few minutes before it’s ready, to add texture, to thicken and to enhance flavours.
This is the picada Catalana as described by Ramon Parellada. Toast some saffron threads (about a pinch) either in a non-stick saucepan or wrapped in foil and wafted over the flame of a hob, then grind the saffron with a pinch of salt in the mortar. Add four peeled cloves of garlic, half a dozen each of skinless roasted almonds and hazelnuts and some sprigs of parsley. Grind it all together to a thick paste. Parellada suggests using this picada in dishes such as peus de porc amb naps (pig trotters with turnips) and cap i pota, the emblematic stew of pig cheek and foot.
ALL I PEBRE
Logically, picada recipes vary throughout Catalunya, reflecting local products and ways of life. In the Delta de l’Ebre, they make an intensely flavoured picada called all i pebre, made with garlic and black pepper. When combined with local eels, it creates a dish that’s said to be capable of waking the dead. To make it, slice six cloves of garlic very finely, and heat them gently in oil until they turn golden brown. Remove from the pan, then in the same oil heat eight black peppercorns until they start to pop. Remove from the pan. Then fry six almonds, remove and, finally, fry four slices of bread (a long fat rustica with the crusts cut off would be good). When everything is fried, crush it all together with the flesh of a soaked nyora pepper. Parellada suggests using this picada in a dish with either conger eel or rabbit. Brown the meat or fry the fish in flour, then cook in stock for a few minutes, add the picada and cook for around 20 minutes more.
The picada can also act like a stepping stone in a recipe. Rather than the ultimate flourish, it can be the base for a sauce, such as the classic romesco of Tarragona. Antoni Adserà has written a book dedicated to romesco in all its glorious variety—like the picada there’s a different romesco for every dish and every cook. But Adserà manages to come up with a satisfactory standardised recipe that can be adapted for both cold and hot dishes, and serves five people nicely. Heat olive oil in a small frying pan and fry two romesco peppers and a bitxo (small hot pepper) until soft. Remove from pan and de-seed. Fry half a head of garlic and one small slice of white bread in the same oil until golden, then remove. In turn, fry 12 roasted skinned almonds, 12 roasted skinned hazelnuts and a good sprig of parsley. Then, in a mortar, crush the fried garlic with the uncooked half of the head, the chopped peppers, the parsley, the almonds, the hazelnuts and the bread, in that order. This thick paste can then be used to flavour stews, or as a sauce. If you want a thinner sauce for using in xató salad, for example, add the grated flesh of one large tomato, a good slosh of vinegar, olive oil and salt, and mix well. Then, if you want to dilute it further just add more olive oil and adjust the vinegar and salt to taste.