This summer, I spent six weeks working as an au pair with a traditional Catalan family in Lleida, a rural town in the west of Catalonia, and during my stay, the family taught me a lot about Catalan cooking and the Spanish attitude towards food in general. I’m working on incorporating some of their principles into my life back at home, so here are some of the main lessons I learnt if you too fancy capturing a little bit of Catalonian culture in your cooking…
Take your time
There’s a reason why Jamie’s Fifteen Minute Meals haven’t taken off in Catalonia. The Spanish know how important mealtimes are – with businesses closing for several hours in the middle of the working day, families have time to get together for their main meal, and they make the most of it with slow-cooking recipes to get the most flavour out of simple ingredients. A simple Spanish tortilla, the potato omelette staple of a Catalan lunch, can take up to an hour in itself, whilst larger dishes such as Catalan stew or paella are often left to cook all morning. Grabbing a sandwich at your desk, as is the norm for the British working adult, would be unheard of in Spain – not least, because it would prevent you from enjoying the all-important post-lunch siesta.
Below: Eating snails with my host family – a traditional Catalan delicacy eaten with alioli
Stick to your roots
Catalan cooking prides itself on being just that: traditional recipes based on the staple ingredients used for generations to guarantee success every time. In Britain, our cookery can be hard to define –modern kitchens here are often an eclectic mix of global influences, with Asian spices, Mediterranean herbs, and American brands filling our cupboards. I often start cooking dinner for my family here without having any idea what shape or form the eventual dish will take, whereas the Catalan cuisine I experienced during my stay in Lleida was simple but effective; they knew what they were doing and they did it well.
Make the most of what you’ve got
…and eat your greens! Seasonal fruit and veg are a vital part of any Mediterranean diet – eating what is grown locally when it is naturally available is not only cheaper, but tastier and more nutritious as well. One of Lleida’s main sources of income is fruit farming, and so during my stay I’d often have had my five a day by lunchtime; the difference in quality between the nectarines you can buy from Tesco’s in England compared to a sun-warmed nectarine picked straight from the tree is unbelievable. Whilst we might not have the advantage of the climate (or the space, if you live in a student house in Selly) to grow our own exotic fruit trees, local food markets make eating with the seasons a definite possibility here as well.
Don’t be afraid of oil, salt and garlic
Aceite, sal y ajo: the three most fundamental characteristics of any Catalonian dish. Whilst that in itself might sound like the recipe for a smelly-breathed heart attack, it made for some of the most flavoursome and healthy cooking I’ve ever experienced. Investing in good oil (or pressing it yourself if you’re that way inclined, like the family I stayed with) is worthwhile, as it can be a much healthier option than the mounds of butter favoured by English chefs. Seasoning is essential in Spanish cuisine – they are experts and seem to know instinctively how much salt takes a dish from bland to brilliant, without running to an excess. And as for garlic, it can be an acquired taste, but one which I’d suggest acquiring before a holiday to Catalonia as it’s hard to escape when you’re there!
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