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Catalan first courses

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

First courses:

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

It is quite wrong to think of first courses as 'starters' in the British sense of the word. Here they are fairly substantial dishes in their own right and one should think of them as being part of a balanced meal. That is to say that if one is having a second course that is entirely meat or fish, albeit with a sauce one should consider having a carbohydrate in this course, rice or pasta for instance. Similarly it's worth thinking about having a vegetable based first course - most are vegetable dishes, veg are not served 'naked' here! - and building up ones carbohydrate with the ubiquitous bread, as the locals most often do (note that in some restaurants one may have a vegetable starter, a rice or pasta dish and then a 'meat' course - in Valencia, home of the paella, it's said that people eat a rice dish 365 days a year and never the same one twice! - paella is often served in small portions as a first course by the way) Note also that it's quite all right to chop and change amongst the courses, having two first courses instead of the usual progression, which is especially useful for vegetarians. The dishes really do have the same 'status'.

Amanides (ensaladas) - salads: these are normally served as a complement to the meal, i.e. a simple green salad. However in Catalonia they are more of a feature and an Amanida Catalana or Catalan Salad is a very substantial dish of a selection of meats and cheeses with a mixed salad, usually with at least two varieties of olives. Restaurants often have their own 'mix' and to an extent reputations are built on this. A good Catalan salad certainly shouldn't be just a few scraps of processed meats and packet cheeses, rather a smaller selection of embutits (the collective noun for dried sausages). Note that salad dressings are almost unknown, one helps oneself to oil, vinegar and salt as required (the quality of the oil is also the mark of a good restaurant).

Canalons (canalones) - cannelloni: Canalons a la Barcelonesa is the classic version originating from Italian immigrants during the nineteenth century, it is also worth noting that Sardinia was once part of the Catalan 'empire' (Catalan can still be heard in Alhero) although it would be highly pretentious to suggest earlier antecedents for this dish. It is similar but different from the version that you see in the UK . The stuffing is based on pig's liver and turkey meat and contains no tomato whatsoever, the dryness is made up for in an abundance of béchamel sauce and the dish is gratinated and always served red hot - so beware. A delicious spinach version, canalons d'espinacs , is also popular and suitable for vegetarians. You will see Canalons del meu Avi or 'granny's cannelloni' in some menus but it's effectively the same and doesn't contain even the tiniest bit of the proprietor's ancestor! Canalons are traditionally served on the feast of Sant Esteban, i.e. Boxing Day.

Celgas (hacelgas) - Swiss chard: the leaves are cooked with raisins and pine nuts, like spinach, or the stems are fried and served with either sausages, belly pork or black pudding or combinations of all three. Celgas are definitely the cuisine of granny's generation and young people now tend to spurn them - I don't entirely blame them!

Embotits (embutidos) - cured meats: a rich selection of the local specialities. In Catalonia these should be served with pa amb tomaquet . The range will obviously vary from place to place but it's worth having this dish for the impossibility of getting the range at home all at the same time. The meats are very substantial however so do consider what you're having to follow. It is common for two people to share this dish in a bar as a hearty tapas.

Escabeche * A traditional way of preserving game and fish is now rather a delicacy. Normally used with trout (here that means brown trout, even though they may be farmed they have a much better flavour and moister texture that the ubiquitous pink fleshed rainbow). The fish are cooked in olive oil. When the cooked fish are removed, a marinade is made by the addition of garlic, vinegar and herbs to the cooking oil. It is left for at least twenty-four hours and served cold. Quails, rabbit and other game are also served in this way, surprisingly the delicate flavour of the fish or meat survives the strong marinade. Escabeche is a popular tapas with a variety of ingredients, especially mussels.

Escalivada - Vegetable medley: a selection of fleshy vegetables, always including aubergine, with optional onions, red peppers, courgettes, etc. are grilled or roasted whole and then skinned and cut into strips. Served with good olive oil it is surprisingly subtle and delicious. It goes well with re-hydrated salt cod (quality is very important) and is often served with mild anchovies, i.e. from Figueres. These days as a torada is common, topping a big slice of toasted farmhouse bread, and it is also often used as a guarnició , i.e. to garnish second courses below and as tapas.

Espinacs al la Catalana - spinach with raisins and pine nuts: this doesn't really stand alone as a dish in itself, rather it's an ingredient in several others, e.g. canalons d'espinacs and panadons . However it can be served with various pork specialities, e.g. botifarra blanca , panxa de porc (belly pork), etc. or eggs in which case it is served in an earthenware dish rather than on a plate as a guarnició .

Esqueixada - salt cod salad: this appears in many guises, the essential is that the fish should be shredded (from the verb esqueixar , to shred) so it can apply to other ingredients, chicken for example, and then marinated in oil and vinegar. It often appears as a tapas.

Faves a la Catalana ( habas a la Catalana ) broad beans with belly pork and black pudding: it is best to eat this dish in spring when the beans are fresh, small, sweet and above all young. Otherwise this dish can be, shall we say, robust!

Formatges ( quesos ) cheeses: Spanish cheeses in general are a great unknown outside the country and have an undeserved lack of reputation. This may be because in Spain cheese is eaten as a starter, like the embotits above, usually as a selection. Indeed they are often part of the selection, or in a Catalan salad. They are never eaten with fruit after the meal. The one exception to this is mel i mato . I find, however, that the younger sweet cheeses do go very well with fruit. To summarise; the basic cheese, of which Manchego is the archetype, is a hard, salt cured cheese made from either goat's or sheep's milk or a mixture of the two, rarely with cows milk. They are categorised according to the curing and the mature ones can be very strong and dry. Until you know what you like experiment with a semi of half cured. It is quite usual to ask for, or be offered, a sliver to try for yourself. One buys it by the segment, like the slices of a cake, rather than weight, and the cheese seller will indicate with the knife how much you want. Smaller cheeses from particular villages are increasingly popular, the best way to buy them is at the artisan stalls at fairs, etc. where the producers themselves have stalls with lots of samples to try before you buy as shops don't tend to cut these little cheeses into samples. Cheeses preserved in oil make a good tapas, these will be strongly flavoured.

Pa amb tomaquet ( pan con tomate ) toasted rustic bread spread with squidgy tomato and olive oil: this is definitely a Catalan thing although it's catching on all over Spain - we've seen busloads of 'foreign' students, i.e. from other parts of Spain, being coached in the art of rubbing the cut tomato onto slices of bread and then liberally soaking with oil. It is the very thing to have with ham, meats or cheeses. (there are special thin skinned, juicy varieties of tomatoes for this - look out for them, they appear rather pallid and undersized - they are also very expensive!).

Revuelto * scrambled eggs: these are made with various additions and combinations thereof; wild asparagus, prawns, smoked salmon, etc.

Suquet - a hearty fish soup made with potatoes on a base of sofregit enriched with fish stock, only the best fresh fish should be used, cut into large chunks.

Trinxat - in effect bubble and squeak a la Catalana , normally served with black pudding and belly pork.

Truita* (tortilla) the universal is tortilla española made with potatoes but one often sees it made with spinach, amb espinacs, which should include pine nuts. Less often one sees truita de botifarra amb mongete,s which I've only seen in the form of a French omelette 'tortilla Francesa'. For the uninitiated, tortilla has nothing in common with a French omelette apart from the eggs. It's a sort of cake in which the eggs really just act as a binding for the copious filling. The skill is to cook it as slowly as possible and use a special plate, a tombetruita , for turning it over to cook the other side. It is completely wrong to finish it under the grill as some cookbooks have it. "I've got to turn the tortilla." is a handy excuse used by housewives to avoid tedious company! A good truita to learn the art with is made with courgette. It's almost foolproof. The filling is cooked first then while still warm, not hot, is mixed with the eggs before approaching the pan. A fresh tortilla española appearing on the bar each morning is a sign of a caring hand in the kitchen, wedges are served as tapas and amazingly one can have an entrepan de truita although more frequently this is made with a truita francesa . but on La Planxa rather than in a pan - a skill well worth observing! One of my favourite truitas is made with left over paella or baked rice, in fact in my household we make extra rice just for this purpose!

Xato - salt cod salad mixed with a romesco sauce usually with onion and olives, sometimes tomato



Breads and cakes:

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

As occurs elsewhere in Spain breads occur in two broad varieties: barras like more robust versions of French sticks (called baguettes ) or simply pa, bread, meaning the large round loaf, normally of a fairly coarse texture. As time goes on Spanish bread is getting more and more refined and baguettes are very popular. But this is no good for pa amb tomaquet, as it needs robust bread, day old bread is acceptable, even desirable, for pa amb tomaquet as it should be toasted slightly anyway. Many shops specifically call traditional bread pa de pagés or farmer's bread. However the local speciality in Tremp is called a croston , which has three slashes in the 'crust' before baking so it opens more and has a lighter texture while still being fairly robust. It is also more oblong than round making the slices more even from end to end.


Coques : these are a speciality. Basically a coca is an unleavened bread with a sweet or savoury topping. The sweet versions are usually called after a saint and traditionally served on that fiesta, the main one being Coca de San Joan ( St John ), which has a candied fruit topping. Others are just made with sugar or pine nuts. Coca amb xocolate has a stuffing of rich dark chocolate and makes a brilliant breakfast dish and general hangover cure! The savoury coques are eaten everyday and are usually made with samfaina with the addition of anchovies, sardines, sausages, etc. etc. Sweet coques are oblong in shape and large ones can be bought by the slice. Savoury coques can be either oblong or more frequently are made in baking trays and sold in squares.

Panadons - these resemble Cornish pasties in shape and are made with coca mixture stuffed with espinacs a la catalana (pine nut version) NB many bakers omit to put seedless raisins in their panadons , so beware!

Pinyons (panellets) - these are little cakes made with flour enriched with ground almond and covered with pine nuts. They are traditional fare on all saints day but in fact are eaten all the time.


Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.


Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.




See aslo a brief guide to Catalan food by Simon Rice


A guide to food in Spain

A brief guide to Catalan food by Simon Rice owner of this restored Casa Rabassaire which he rents out on the summer.

Cooking styles
Sandwiches & tapas
Special dishes
Rice dishes
First Courses
Main courses
Catalan desserts

See also Francis Barret's guide to food in Catalonia



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