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Unlike Americans, who associate September 11th with a tragic recent history, Catalans hold a longer historical view of the date. On September 11th, 2014, residents will mark the Tricentennial of the end of the War of Spanish Succession. On that day in 1714, the Catalan forces of Barcelona finally succumbed to the bloody, nearly 18-month siege of the city by King Felipe V, fatefully and involuntarily falling under the absolute control of the Spanish crown.
The period that followed the fall of Barcelona was one of militaristic rule by a mainly anti-Catalan monarchy. Though the story of the last 300 years in Barcelona is complex and dense—full of political struggle, war, rebellion, art, architecture, and industry—the take-away point is this: throughout oppression, modernisation and rebirth, the Catalan culture has persevered. Notably, many of the oldest examples of written recipes in the Catalan language come from convents and monasteries—the scholarly havens of a persecuted people—and within these ancient recipes, we discover the foundation of the current gastronomic landscape.
In modern Catalan cuisine, the Medieval combination of sweet and salty—as well as a strong reliance on seafood (due originally to monastic abstinence from carnivorous indulgence)—is hardly uncommon. To this day, language, art, writing, music, folklore, food and wine all continue to make this vibrant corner of Spain fiercely unique. Sadly, these unique aspects of local tradition can easily pass by the average visitor, whose expectations of tapas, pintxos, sangria, paella, tropical fruit, bullfights (which are actually banned) and flamenco music has turned much of old Barcelona into a tourist’s playground of questionable authenticity and warped international perception.
As an American myself, I am no stranger to the unfair stereo-type of ‘gastronomically-inept hamburger-eater’. Many people wrongly assume that Americans ‘don’t know how to eat’ and therefore don’t know any better than to over-pay for underwhelming food along Las Ramblas. However, Josep Ravell—second-generation owner of the Barcelona food and wine temple Can Ravell—tells a different (and refreshing) story.
“Even the ‘tourist food’ of the city is from here,” Josep explains when I ask him why tourists don’t eat more local, Catalan food while visiting Barcelona. “The paella, the pintxos, even the patatas bravas are usually made—even in the most touristy of bars—with local ingredients. Therefore, generic fare is as much ‘from here’ as any traditional Catalan botifarra, fuet, suquet, escudella, or escalivada.”
Despite Josep’s eloquence, the above statement must be taken with a grain of salt, in that beans, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and chocolate—all integral parts of local gastronomy—were brought to Spain from the New World and are relatively new additions to the region’s culinary larder. As such, the natural bounty of the Mediterranean more authentically represents the way in which people ate before the age of modernisation, colonisation, and conquest; meaning that seafood, along with pork, wild onions, almonds and garnacha wine would have made (and still make) for a more truly indigenous meal.
“We are snobs,” Josep continues with a smile. “We don’t go to Las Ramblas because it’s ‘for tourists’, but I wouldn’t mind drinking a beer on some terrace...if it weren’t so expensive. Many Americans come to Can Ravell and they all come to really eat. Every table orders the braised ox tail with mushrooms and pine nuts. Every table orders the garbanzos with chorizo. They love the rice of the day. Americans are quite cultured,” he concludes with a touch of empathy for our collective plight as mislabeled culinary cretins. In response, I just smile and nod, popping another one of the raw, green peas into my mouth that Josep has proudly carried out of the kitchen. Harvested just the day before at Horta Marco in Llavaneras, the spring peas are sublimely sweet and will be simply prepared. As always, the refrain is the same: Catalan cuisine is about the supreme freshness and quality of its products—just let the pea speak for itself.
Josep Ravell explains that his father’s gourmet speciality shop/restaurant has withstood the tests of time and war, located on Carrer d’Aragó since 1927. “We will always offer what the clients want, regardless of where their product comes from,” he tells me. “Catalunya’s independence from Spain wouldn’t change anything. Catalunya has always been a land of cogida—we have taken and borrowed so much from other cultures’ food traditions—France and Italy, the Arabs and Jews. Why limit products that we sell by where they come from? What we sell are the best products we can find. Period. Our products and our menu are dictated by the season and will continue to change and evolve, regardless of whether we are in Spain or not. And climate change,” he adds, “will surely affect how and what we are eating in the near future, too.”
When asked about the past and tradition, Josep offers a rather Zen musing. “The past doesn’t exist, it’s always subjective. Even though we are living this moment, tomorrow we will remember it differently. And the future doesn’t exist either. I try to live in the moment and adapt. In the end, it’s all about what people want (politics aside).” Essentially, Josep’s message is that it is impossible to remain exactly the same. Barcelona is an international city that loves food, and will always be that way, regardless of the political borders in which it falls.
That said, it’s hard to imagine losing some of the most popular and renowned elements of Spanish food to history’s forward march. For instance, tapas, which are said to have first gained a hold in Barcelona through the Old Port in the 1960’s. ‘Refugees’ from other parts of Spain flooded to Catalunya after the Civil War (1939), bringing their rich cultural and culinary identity (and little else) along with them to the work in the capital’s industrious ports and factories. The lower streets of the Barri Gòtic, mainly the now-bleak Carrer de la Mercè, were lined with bars that offered food and drink to weary shipyard workers, hungry sailors, eager johns, and thirsty students. In fact, many bars—including the character-drenched Tasca el Corral—currently operate from within former storehouses, evident from the rough-timbered ceilings and huge double doors that open onto the stone-paved streets.
Of the three most popular bars of the ‘golden-era’ of Carrer de la Mercè—La Xistorra, La Campana and La Plata—only the latter remains, a well-known institution that has served excellent fried anchovies on the same corner for 69 years. Pepe Gómez of Bar La Plata remembers some 22 bars thriving on the street between 1970 and 1992. “With the Olympics (1992) in Barcelona,” Pepe says, shaking his head, “that was the death of the street.” Before the Olympics, people always came to Carrer de la Mercè to eat tapas, drink, and be social. But, with the development of the city leading up to the Summer Games came a proliferation of tapas and other Spanish food throughout Barcelona, essentially rendering the formerly bustling and distinct street passé. “I think more these days about paying the bills at the end of the month than I do about independence,” he shrugs, his voice plain and matter-of-fact—a reflection of the 42 years at bar La Plata already under his belt. “I’m not much for politics,” he admits. “But ask me about football and I’ll talk all day.”
After my visits with Josep and Pepe, I’ve been left with a curious musing: With Barcelona earning tens of millions of euros from tourism each year, what happens if a city crammed full of imported ‘Spanish’ culture is no longer part of Spain? Could Catalan independence—a movement with every-growing momentum—drastically reshape the gastronomic landscape of a city that loves to eat?
As we mark the Tricentennial on September 11th, let’s remember that Catalan gastronomic tradition has been revived and protected multiple times throughout the history of Barcelona. We may wonder: would a community fighting for independence reject the culinary imprint that their adversary has indelibly left upon them?
In my opinion, I don’t think they would. In reality, many of the fundamental products that make up Barcelona’s signature cuisine have come from abroad—a fact that easily negates the assumption that foods from elsewhere would be any less embraced than those foodstuffs who’s lineage can be traced back to Catalan soil. And let’s remember that food can be delicious, authentic and accessible to visitors, all at the same time. So I say: “Let the food come from all corners, let us leave our politics at the door, and let’s eat! ¡Visca Barça, Visca Catalunya! Just please don’t take away my Spanish cheese!”
The top ten of classic Catalan dishes:
2. Mar i muntanya
(meatballs and cuttlefish)
3) Peus de porc amb espardenyes
(pig's feet with sea cucumber)
4. Bacallà amb samfaina
(salt cod with a tomato, eggplant, courgette sauce)
5. Faves ofegades
(baby beans stewed with sausage, pancetta and mint)
(cabbage with potatoes and bacon)
(stewed calf's head and feet)
(roasted aubergine, peppers and onion)
9. Cargols a la llauna
(garlic roasted snails)
10. Conill a la brasa amb all-i-oli
(grilled rabbit with aioli)
Paella is generally considered to be of Valencian origin, though rice, of course, came to Europe over-land from Asia around 300 B.C.E, and the essential paellera (wide, flat pan) was first introduced by the Romans. The provinces of Valencia and Catalunya share a similar language (Valenciano and Catalan), as well as important history, both at one time under the command of King James 1 and the medieval Crown of Aragon.Therefore, paella in Barcelona should be rightfully understood and duly respected.
Do as the locals and plan your meals around the fresh products at the market:
Spring: Peas, asparagus, artichokes, calçots, loquats (nísperos), strawberries, beans
Summer: Tomatoes, cherries, figs, melons, plums, peaches, watermelons, raspberries
Autumn: Wild mushrooms, chestnuts, almonds, pumpkins, squash, apples, grapes
Winter: Lemons, mandarines, thistles, swiss chard, persimmons, escarole