Catalunya, often called Catalonia in old-fashioned English language guides (Ed: and by editor Nick Lloyd), is a lovely part of the world, with a glorious climate and beautiful scenery. Ancient Iberian, Basque, Celtic, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Visigoth, Jewish, Arabic, Berber, Frankish, Norman, Lombard and other cultural influences abound in the landscape, artefacts, architecture, traditions and customs of the territory. People from Andalucia , Galicia and other parts of Spain have flocked to Barcelona and other Catalan towns over the last century or more, and tourism has played a major role in the economy since the 1960s. Recent immigration from North and West Africa , Eastern Europe and Latin America has given Barcelona a cosmopolitan feel, and Spanish membership of the European Union is having a massive impact in many spheres, not least agriculture. With such varied influences, how could the local food not be interesting?
As my friends know, I love food. I adore good Chinese and Indian foods in all their varieties and I worship at the altar of French cuisine. My father's list of the top four great cuisines of the world also includes Turkish food; under this Ottoman heading I would include the fine dishes on offer in Greek and Lebanese restaurants. I would personally expand the list to include Italian, Mexican, Japanese and Thai cuisines, and I also rate Korean, Vietnamese and Indonesian gastronomies very highly indeed. I have feasted on recipes from Morocco , Egypt , Sudan , Ethiopia , South Africa , Argentina , Brazil , Columbia , Peru , Cuba and other islands in the Caribbean . I like Scandinavian and Russian food, and the German speaking countries produce lovely cakes. Swiss dishes are fun in winter, and Hungarian goulash can be superb. I can't think of anything nice to say about Dutch or Belgian food, but they do serve hearty rations! I have a soft spot for Venezuelan dishes, and I will also staunchly defend British food and its Irish and Antipodean variations and derivatives, especially pies. I have immense respect for North American food as a confluence of world cuisine, from the lowliest diner or pizza parlour to the poshest restaurants in Beverley Hills , though I have to admit that MacBurger joints are bad ambassadors. I love cross-cultural hybrids such as Tex-Mex, Cuban-Chinese, or (arguably) Chow Mein, and even what in English pub circles are called Pakistani curries (except the hottest ones). I'm always on the lookout for some new type of food to try. I've had some unfortunate experiences with East European, West African, and some Central American food, but I'm still willing to taste dishes from those parts of the world, along with food I've never tried from places such as East Africa , Central Asia , Nepal , Burma or New Guinea . Exotic foodstuffs such as kangaroo, ostrich, antelope or shark have always interested to me. As a child I used to refuse to eat certain things, but as a result of my travels I have learnt to be prepared to ingest almost anything edible, and I have tried brains, eyeballs, intestines, testicles, jellyfish and fried locust, although I can't honestly rave about any of them.
So much for my credentials. Unfortunately, I cannot claim to be a great cook, and most of my best eating experiences have been in restaurants or other peoples' houses. I am certainly no gourmet, but my girth entitles me to claim to be something of a gourmand.
Catalan nationalist types like to think of Catalunya as a separate nation between Spain and France , and make many extravagant, not to say silly, claims on its behalf. Some Catalanistas believe that Columbus was Catalan, or that Greek children still tremble in ancestral terror when they hear stories of Catalan raids on their shores in olden times (the best response I got in Greece when I broached the subject was "Cata what ?"). Another ill-informed notion is that Catalans invented pasta and pizza. (They may have a point when it comes to a Catalan having invented the submarine, but I have my doubts about that too, and think that in any event Jules Verne deserves the main credit).
While it is undoubtedly true that Catalonia has always been much influenced by the rest of Europe , many such folk will go to extraordinary lengths to distance all aspects of Catalan culture from the rest of the Iberian Peninsula . When it comes to food, Catalanistas like to talk about La Dieta Mediteranea as some kind of mystical approach to food shared with other shore cultures and not vouchsafed to landlocked Castilians. In my view this is due to a misunderstanding based on a too-literal translation of a fashionable American notion called The Mediterranean Diet, which refers to a food regime suitable for people with health or weight problems, involving olive oil, garlic, fish or poultry, tomatoes, peppers, and certain other vegetables. In Spanish and Catalan, such a diet would be called a régimen , whereas the word dieta is used to mean what people normally eat, as in the traditional Eskimo diet of fish and whale blubber.
The idea of Mediterranean cuisine is very attractive, but does not stand up to close scrutiny. Logically, all Mediterranean countries eat Mediterranean fish, and chicken and lamb are common ingredients, as are certain herbs such as thyme, rosemary, parsley, oregano and anis. The Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans carried the trinity of bread, olive oil and wine to all the lands around Mare Nostrum , aubergines and oranges arrived with the Arabs, and tomatoes, peppers and courgettes from the Americas feature prominently in typical dishes from many Mediterranean countries. However, the enthusiasm of the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula for ham, pork and pork by-products is not widely imitated by Jews or Muslims (although, curiously, a friend living in Tunisia tells me that there is excellent local bacon!). Nor do Muslims drink alcoholic beverages. Some degree of homogeneity may well exist in Arabic or North African / Southern Mediterranean cuisine. A case could also be made for The Eastern Mediterranean Diet, but perhaps it would be more honest to call this gastronomic style Ottoman or Turkish, even though the Israelis would have several objections, the Serbs and Greeks would have a hissy fit at the notion, and Lebanese dishes could be regarded as in a different league in terms of sheer quality. I'd settle for a Northern Mediterranean Diet, with many ingredients common to typical dishes from Greece to Portugal , but I fear that this would represent considerably less than the full range of foodstuffs in any one country or region, to say nothing of cooking methods. It would certainly be a grave oversimplification of French cuisine, and I would expect Italians to be a bit miffed too. While it is hardly surprising that several traditional Catalan recipes are similar to recipes in nearby parts of southern France and northern Italy, I am quite sure that most Provençals and Tuscans think of Parisian or Burgundian, Roman or Sicilian dishes before considering recipes from south of the Pyrenees. Similarly, the reality is that people in Catalunya have long looked far more to Castile , Navarre and Galicia for gastronomic inspiration than to the further shores of the Gulf of Lyon .
It is true that people here live longer than in most other parts of Europe except the Aegean islands, but it seems to me that this is due mainly to the climate and despite, rather than because of, the food and drink most of the population consumes. Although there is nothing like the traditional British or Irish "heart attack on a plate" breakfast, and American-style fast food is not highly regarded, all Spaniards undoubtedly love chips, and a great deal of food is fried. It is true that a lot of cooking is done with olive oil, but lard is also extensively used, and there is evidence that most shoppers buy cooking oil of whatever origin purely on the basis of price.
A case could perhaps be made for Iberian gastronomy. Spanish and Portuguese dishes tend to be simple and unpretentious; the people of both countries are inordinately fond of beans, ham, pork and all its by-products, fish, shellfish and other seafood, and share a general tendency to either fry, boil or stew rather than bake or roast. These culinary attitudes are echoed in many former imperial territories of the two peninsular kingdoms. However, it is the lack of olive oil that most distinguishes Latin American national cuisines from that of their former colonial masters, as much as the use of local ingredients such as plantain, yucca, frijoles and chili peppers. The Spaniards seem to have influenced the cuisines of their former colonies less than the Portuguese impacted on those of theirs, which seem to have also strikingly affected each other, judging from some impressive Afro-Lusitanian meals I enjoyed in Macao.
But by far the most striking aspect of sub-Pyrenean cooking is the difference between it and much more elaborate French cuisine. North of the mountains, even the bread is more sophisticated! French cake shops have mouth-watering displays of delicious looking gateaux of every conceivable variety, while their counterparts south of the Pyrenees tend to be, um, rather basic
Most Catalan dishes are, of course, regional variations of Spanish cuisine, with an emphasis on Catalan versions of typical Spanish produce, plus a few local specialities and occasional foreign influences.