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Catalan sauces

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

Five sauces:

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

Traditional Catalan cooking is often described as 'Gothic', which is just as well as some theorists claim that Catalonia itself descends from the word 'Gothalonia' or Land of the Goths. What this refers to, however, is that many Catalan dishes are based not only on old world ingredients, oil, garlic, wine, etc. but have a general gloomy 'Gothic' feel due to their dark brown appearance. This is due to the basic sauce element upon which many dishes are built. Indeed many dishes have an architectural quality as they are assembled by the addition of various combinations of pre-made sauces. So here we have the essential key to the cuisine: five sauces, a selection of which, having been made separately, are assembled in differing combinations to make a dish from ingredients indigenous to the region. In contrast, contemporary Catalan cuisine takes these themes and transforms them into culinary fantasies. While taking note of this, and the fact that Catalonia has more Michelin three starred restaurants than anywhere else in Spain , this guide concentrates on traditional aspects. On to the sauces:

Sofregit or sofrito: comes from the verb, fregir, meaning to fry. This is the foundation of the whole cuisine. Onions are fried very slowly, repeat very, very slowly, in olive oil until they form a caramelised gloop. This not only gives many Catalan dishes their dark 'Gothic' quality but a sweetness upon which the later addition of picades add the sour. Sometimes tomatoes are added. Although to many tastes no dish seems complete without tomatoes I think this addition is more to add moisture than any other effect, as with so many caramelised onions the sauce remains determinedly brown. As the sauce predates the discovery of the New World purists would argue that the tom is definitely verdura non grata in a sofregit ! Moreover, the presence of tomatoes can lead to the conundrum of when a strong sofregit becomes a weak samfaina (see below), but I'll leave that one to the obsessive recipe collector! The making of the sofregit is often a weekly task as it keeps well and this is very handy as it is the basis of so many dishes.

Samfaina : a vegetable medley that should include tomatoes and aubergines. It can either be based on a sofregit and included in other dishes as a well cooked down gloop or made specifically for one dish, especially those named samfaina , in which the vegetables are left more solid and identifiable. Coca amb samfaina (a sort of pizza in which the samfaina forms the topping) or Samfaina amb bacalao (with pieces of salt cod 'cooked' in it) are good examples of this.

Picada : picades come from the word picar meaning to prick or stab in both Spanish and Catalan. A picada is used as a seasoning to add spice to a dish at the end of cooking. The standard picada is a mixture of raw crushed garlic and parsley, often mixed with olive oil and stored ready for use. The picada is traditionally made in the characteristic yellow and green mortar using its wooden pestle to crush the ingredients, but a modern hand blender is just as good. Crushed nuts (usually almonds or hazelnuts but may be pine nuts) can be added or used on their own. More exotic still, strong chocolate is added in some recipes like Conill amb herbes al vi negre (see main course dishes below). Other sauces, like Alioli and Romesco , are also used as a picada, this is one reason Catalan dishes have such enormous variety.

Alioli : garlic and olive oil. Garlic cloves are pounded in the mortar with oil being added little by little, this results in a pungent viscous pulp in which experts proudly leave the wooden pestle upright, indicating the required consistency. Alioli can be eaten raw as a relish, for grilled meats for example, but its main use is as a picada . Alioli is not the same as garlic mayonnaise, although these days it often appears so; the addition of egg makes the essential emulsion much easier to make - and less lethal on the tongue! Therefore creamy alioli is very popular, especially as a relish with a wide variety of dishes, especially Fideua (see rice and pasta dishes below). However this form is not suitable for a picada as the eggs curdle in hot sauces and the emulsion breaks up, ruining the appearance of the dish.

Romesco : a spicy relish made with crushed nuts - hazelnuts or almonds - and a special variety of pepper called a noria or niora depending on exactly where you are. This is a stand alone sauce served with fish, grilled meats or vegetables, but used as a picada it constitutes the essential ingredient to a Romescada (see below). Strictly speaking romesco belongs to the City of Tarragona and its surrounds, but it is found everywhere in Catalonia . If Tarragona might be described as the epicentre of its use, the nearby town of Valls , with its amazing Mostra de Calçots (see Calçotada , below), is the actual geological fault! There are numerous variations to this sauce depending on which use it is to be put and debates rage as to whether almonds or hazelnuts are the correct ingredient.

Some sauces in combination

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

An old recipe from the remote Pallars Jussà area in the Pyrenees exemplifies a 'typical' Catalan peasant dish of stewed wild boar. This dish can also be made with beef; the local cut, cresto , is specifically recommended. Note how two separate sauces are made and combined with the meat, which has also been prepared separately, although in this case not completely cooked. The finished dish has a homogenous smooth gravy as the onions have completely disintegrated during cooking. The tomatoes are used to add sweetness and moisture, not colour, which is a reddish brown due to the onions having caramelised.

Wild boar (porc senglar) stew

Ingredients (the quantities are my suggestion):

500gr. wild boar meat

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt to taste

2 large onions

2 tomatoes

Fresh parsley

6 whole garlic cloves

Shot of brandy

Bunch of fresh herbs; thyme, rosemary, sage or large teaspoon dried 'Herbes de Provence'


•  In a casserole suitable for serving fry the onions and five garlic cloves slowly in the oil. Once they are beginning to soften add the tomatoes and cook very slowly until the whole mass is a dark viscous mixture. You have the sofregit .

•  Meanwhile seal the meat quickly in a separate pan then add the meat, the brandy and the herbs with a little water to the sofregit . Cover the pot and cook slowly.

•  Once the stew is done make a picada by crushing the almonds, parsley and the remaining garlic together to form a crude paste. Add this to the stew and serve. A dish like this is usually served alone with bread to soak up the sauce.




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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