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issue 18: may - june 2000 

Surf, turf, fin, skin, feet and bleat: Catalan food and Arrs Negre


Only a victim of a cruel medical experiment would be stupid enough to try to summerise a nation’s cooking and eating habits in a few paragraphs and only one who then needs a meat cleaver smashed into his skull would attempt to do it on Catalan cooking. But to get where I need to go quickly I’m going to have to tread on some sensitive toes.

Surely Spanish regional cooking?
No, like the Catalan language there are enough distinct differences and unique ideas to give it its individual place and identity; if anything, it is closer to French cuisine than that of the Iberian peninsula. To drive the point home that their cuisine is not only different but also highly inventive the Catalans lay claim to allioli - beaten garlic and oil - as well as mayonnaise (minus garlic and plus egg), named after Ma (Mahn in Castilian), the capital of Minorca. They also site their cogue as the forerunner of pizza and would dearly love to prove they invented crme Brle (crema catalana here); however, the earliest mention is actually from England. The dish that is synonymous with Spain, paella, originated in Valencia, part of ‘els pasos catalans’. And though it comes from the north, England or Iceland, what the Catalans do to salted cod (bacall) is close to a miracle. They have also borrowed pasta, practically making canalons their own, and created a tiny pasta called fideus that has nothing to do with Italy or the Italian method of pasta cooking. The Catalans virtually ran the Mediterranean at one time and even had a king on the Athenian throne, so influences and ideas have been bounced back and forth for some time, thus making true origins of many dishes a bit hard to place. It doesn’t really matter in the long run anyway; the Greek dish supis pilfi bears a similarity to the dish we are looking at below but is a distinctly simplified version.

So, what’s a typical Catalan dish?
As in any country there’s no such animal. The area taking in the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean coast throws up too many variables, but there is a recurring theme: odd mixtures of ingredients. Some examples:  rabbit with snails, cuttlefish and prawns, swordfish with raisons and pine nuts, goose with turnips, and salt cod with honey. At first sight one might think that fish/seafood and meat are regular combinations, but closer inspection reveals that just about anything can successfully be put in the ‘pot’ - meat, poultry, offal, pigsfeet, chocolate, beans, nuts, vegetables, fruit, wine, anis....

So a sort of surf, turf, earth, fin, skin, feet and bleat..?
.... possibly the heart and fart?
Not quite that bad.

Doesn’t paella sort of sum it up then?
Well, yes and no. I have a bit of a problem with paella. Its own success has robbed it of whatever it should be. The paellas found in Barcelona restaurants (mostly the seafood variety) leave a lot to be desired and the price is over the top for what is basically a simple meal of rice, chicken and seafood. A more honest and sometimes closer-to-the-soul version of the dish is served up as part of a menu del dia in cheap backstreet bars but is not called paella because it possibly wasn’t cooked in the utensil called ...er...a paella. What has happened is the original paella Valenciana,- mainly snails, chicken, rabbit, (possibly pork) and various pulses but no seafood - has acquired so many additions that it is now a bit of a Frankenstien’s monster and close to the feet and bleat statement. Many say 'blame the tourists', but tourists don’t usually cook.

If there is not one standard dish, there is a reasonably typical meal that follows the Mediterranean tradition, harking back to more impoverished times where the eater filled up on the first (salad of some sort) and second course (pasta, rice or potatoes) and therefore didn't pig out on the tasty, more expensive third course. It’s a cultural difference. For example, in Catalunya a second course could be potatoes and green runner beans covered in olive oil (a lot nicer than it sounds); the third, two slices of pork and a roasted green pepper. I do prefer the ‘English’ combined plate and having a selection of ingredients in front of you as it gives the eater the chance to create lots of different tastes - especially that last mouthful. Here when one is served duck with figs one gets duck and figs, plus, possibly, a token garnish, often a sad sprig of parsley. This means the first mouthful will taste like the last . No matter how wonderful it is, it still gets a little boring. Trends are changing and if you’re lucky there may be a second item - a potato or a green vegetable - but don’t expect it. Even now if you serve the average Catalan a ‘mixed’ plate, it is amusing to watch them eat each part separately and miss out on that last mega-tasty bite.

Is there a common taste, a herb that is always there like oregano that seems to be in every Italian dish?
No, in fact American or British palates might find the food a little bland. This is due to the Catalans not throwing in tons of herbs but relying on very subtle things like using nuts to thicken sauces or cooking onions for hours until they turn to a sweet goo. This, called a sofregit, is the basis for many creations but doesn’t produce the same flavour each time - versatile in other words. Taste buds here seem a lot more sensitive and a very mild Chicken Korma can send many a Catalan into cartoon contortions as they race for the water jug. If you like your food hot and spicy and you smoke, you may well miss out on the subtleties of Catalan food.

Arrs Negre

Some of the points raised above are the reason why I chose arrs negre as a fine example of  Catalan food at its best while at the same time showing one of its weaknesses. Catalan food is not strong on presentation - a sort of muddy brown is a fairly common colour and worse can happen to arrs negre if there is not enough ink....a dull grey is not sexy. It’s a weakness that is easy to defend as the food is meant to be eaten and not looked at but in the many expensive restaurants ‘pretty’ food, a.k.a. nouveau cuisine, is still hot news here, years after the rest of the world saw it as a huge con that left you starving. If it’s fiddly, pretty and can be eaten in ten or less mouthfuls it's not what I’d call Catalan. It is worth pointing out that it is actually very difficult – but not impossible - to find genuine down-to-earth Catalan cooking inside Barcelona. One would expect arrs negre to also be a fine example of a dish that tastes the same from the first mouthful to the last - and I have to admit there is no mega-last mouthful -  but I rush to its support and say that it is in no way boring considering how little actually goes into it.

Arrs negre nicely demonstrates the lack of herbs, the flavour coming from the cuttlefish, stock, the onions and the ink. I add a little sherry because my first ever arrs negre experience, in Mallorca, had sherry. It also demonstrates that a rice dish like this doesn’t need a million additions. In this version, based on Janet Mendel’s recipe in Cooking in Spain (Mirador Books),  I use only cuttlefish, but you could add  monkfish or tiny peeled shrimp for a different flavour and texture, but just one or the other. Additional flavours come from the decorations. Mussels work fine if you cook them first (save the water for stock); their shells and yellow flesh add to the ‘look’.  Roasted red peppers (put in oven or under broiler/grill until black, peel off skin) look great but can add a very sweet taste that somehow doesn’t taste ‘black’. I use them, but let your taste dictate. I used prawns as decoration in this example, but I usually leave them out as hot, steamed prawns somehow remind me of dishwater.

The recipe is for two hungry people, but you can easily expand it. You’ll need a large frying pan and a cooking ring, or heat diffuser, to distribute the heat evenly. This is not a paella but if you have one it’s ideal.

1 medium sized cuttlefish (or 2 or three squid). The fresher the better but frozen is OK.
Olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 small peppers, one red the other green, chopped
2 medium tomatoes (these should be peeled, seeded and chopped but the goodness in tomato skins means I chop them very finely unpeeled) or kg drained tinned tomatoes
1 cup of short grain rice
4+ cups of water or stock or follow cooking instructions on rice packet.
1 tsp salt
Pinch of cayenne pepper
50ml sherry
8 – 12 cooked mussels 4- 6 cooked prawns (shells on)
A couple of sprigs of flat-leafed parsley, minced, with one for decoration if wanted.

First clean the cuttlefish and cut into small pieces, saving the ink sacs. For a pictorial guide on how to do this click here. If you bought the cuttlefish ready-cleaned or frozen you will need to buy the ink in little plastic sacs from an Asian or Hispanic market. The cuttlefish I used for the photos had a very small ink sac so I had to add ‘farmed’ ink. This is quite rare as the natural sacs usually contain enough ink. Heat the oil and saut the chopped onion for a minute or two then add the peppers. Cook for a few minutes, though the longer the better. Then add the cuttlefish and cook for a few minutes more before adding the tomatoes. Leave this to gently cook until the tomatoes are mushy – about five or more minutes. Then add the rice, stirring it around to get as much oil, etc to cover it. A word on the rice:   genuine Spanish or Italian short-grain rice is water hungry and can absorb up to four times its amount of the stuff. Most rice comes with its own instructions but just add a bit more water anyway – you will be cooking it uncovered so you lose more water than usual. Don’t use Basmati or expensive long-grain. Slowly add the stock/water until the rice is well covered (you may need to add more), bring to boil then to a simmer. In a small bowl crush the ink sacs in the sherry then stir into the rice, add the minced parsley, salt and cayenne, and simmer on low heat, uncovered, until the rice is just about cooked (approx. 10 mins), adding stock or water as necessary.

Remove from heat, garnish with prawns, etc. and leave for 5 to 10 minutes. I usually cover it to retain the heat, and being able to leave your main course ‘cooking’ without burning while you, the cook, enjoy the starter is an added advantage of this dish. Unless you are a control freak or there is no space, put the dish in the middle of the table and let people serve themselves while you have a glass of wine.
As they say here....Bon profit!

2000 The Barcelona Review

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navigation:                         barcelona review #18                     may - june 2000
-Fiction Jess Mowry - One Way
Richard Weems - Curbside Mailboxes
Adam Blackwell - The Louis Agency
Deirdre Maultsaid - Puppy Dogs' Tails
Javier Calvo - Ned Flanders
-Poetry Dolors Miquel - Two Poems
-Article May and June in Barcelona
-Quiz William Faulkner
Answers to Jorge Luis Borges Quiz
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