Chestnuts, an autumnal favourite in Catalunya
As the days get shorter and the weather colder, Catalans turn from sunning themselves on the beaches to one of their other passions—food. The coming months include some of the high points on the local gastro calendar so, where you can, it is certainly worth trying out some of these traditional specialities to get a real taste for the region.
One of the first products to fill the markets and restaurants of Barcelona this season are bolets, or wild mushrooms. In these parts, they are almost as prized as their Italian truffle cousins, although probably less well-known abroad. Those boletaires (mushroom-hunters) who have discovered rich sources for rovellons, girgoles, rossinyols and the like guard the location jealously. Bolets aren’t cheap to buy, but you are bound to find them in some form on the menus of many local eateries; they might simply be fried with garlic and parsley or served up in a more elaborate (and thus costly) style. If you’re a mushroom lover, you should give them a try.
Moving into October, street vendors appear around the city, set up in small green cabins and armed with a brazier with which to roast chestnuts (castanyes) and sweet potatoes (moniatos). Buy a paper cone filled with one or the other, to warm both your hands and your stomach on colder evenings—a dozen chestnuts (una dotzena) will set you back about two euros. On October 31st, you’ll see queues at these stalls, as locals buy up the two autumnal goodies for the traditional castanyada, when families get together to gobble them up.
The following day, All Saints, many people will eat panellets accompanied by moscatell, a Catalan sweet wine. Panellets are small, marzipan-like cakes that were once made with potatoes, moniatos, almonds and sugar, although nowadays many pastisseries use flour instead of the vegetables. Despite this, they are still impressively expensive, but if you’re visiting at this time of year, it’s worth treating yourself to one or two (they are sold by the kilo but no one minds if you do just purchase a couple at a time) to give them a try, especially if you have a sweet tooth. They come in a variety of flavours: traditional sorts include those covered with pine nuts (the most pricey), crushed almonds and coconut; more innovative options include fruit flavours and ones dipped in chocolate to look like chestnuts.
In November, the calçot season begins. Created in Catalunya during the 19th century by an enterprising farmer, these large, thin onions remain an exclusive local production. They are grilled over an open fire so that the outer layer becomes well charred. To eat them, this layer is carefully pulled off to leave the inner vegetable ready to be dipped in the accompanying romesco sauce (made of tomatoes, almonds, hazelnuts and olive oil) and then gulped down in a few big bites. Totally delicious and totally messy. Groups of friends and family get together for calçotades, which can see the hardier participants eat 30 to 40 calçots to be followed by grilled meats and vegetables accompanied by wine, and perhaps (if anyone actually has any space left) some kind of dessert.
Ideally, to enjoy a true calçot experience, you will head out to a traditional, stone-built countryside restaurant where they will bring you seemingly endless ‘teules’ (tiles in English; many restaurants serve the onions on terracotta tiles) of calçots, having first supplied bibs to keep your clothes protected from the dripping sauce, which inevitably runs down your chin. However, there are various Barcelona restaurants that also offer calçots, albeit in less copious amounts or ‘authentic’ surroundings.
And so into the festive season. Like every place that celebrates Christmas, Catalunya has developed its annual gourmet treats for this time of year, with turrons (a variety of nougat) and neules (long, (usually) hollow biscuits), popular with those who enjoy sweeter tastes. Both are widely available to buy in pastisseries, although neules are notably cheaper than turrons.
You should also look out for escudella on local menus. This broth is eaten at the start of Christmas lunch and is made from chicken and vegetable stock used to cook the ‘pelota’ (a rugby ball-size meatball), which in family homes is served after the escudella together with the vegetables cooked in the stock. To make the escudella more interesting, big pasta shells (galets) are added to it. In recent years, and presumably again this year, the city’s Christmas decorations have featured enormous galets positioned on various streets and lit up from within. Just another example of the Catalans' love affair with food.