Written by Ricardo Colina / Photo by lifeforstock
Our foreign correspondent Ricardo Colina takes us on another culinary and political journey through the regions of Spain. Part two of our series takes us up to Catalonia, a fiercely independent region boasting of world-class architecture, delicious tapas restaurants, vibrant nightlife – attracting swarms of tourists world over. So, come with us on this journey, and we’ll guide you around the tourist traps and take you straight to the local cuisine.
Serves 4 people
400 ml of whole milk
140 ml of cooking cream
16 egg yolks
1 large cinnamon stick
1 orange rind
100 g of sugar
Extra sugar for the caramelised top
Catalonia, and more specifically its capital city Barcelona, is one of the most popular holiday destinations in the world. Its attractions are many, and listing them would just be enumerating one cliché after another, but the truth is that Catalan culture is immensely rich in all of its aspects, whether it’s history, art, architecture or food.
This north-eastern region of Spain, which approximately half of its people wish it was independent from the rest of the country, has always done things its own way – whether it is conquering large parts of the Mediterranean region in the 13th and 14th centuries, forming an alliance with France to stick it (unsuccessfully) to the King of Spain in the early 18th century, or leaving behind the lacklustre country that Spain had become after 39 years of General Franco’s dictatorship, and hosting the 1992 Olympic Games, an event which modernised the whole city of Barcelona and finally put it on the world map.
Let’s be honest: most people under the age of 50 (unless your background is Anglo-Saxon, in which case age doesn’t matter) visit Barcelona because of the good weather, nice beaches, cheap booze and successful soccer club, but it’s these people who usually overlook Catalan culture as a whole, preferring to spend their money in Irish pubs and eat in overpriced, tourist-trap restaurants that serve disgusting excuses for paella and sangría. Hey, Barcelona caters to everyone. If there was a list of what not do in Barcelona, those two would be at the top. Thankfully, it isn’t hard to avoid them, but you do have to look carefully.
The most attractive part of Barcelona is its old town; three different neighbourhoods that provide most of the city’s charm and take it all away at the same time. This paradox is caused by the high concentration of tourism combined with elevated levels of petty crime and neglect from the street cleaning services. And yet, despite all of this, there is an undeniable attraction stemming from these narrow streets, mostly named after medieval crafts, which are lined with balconies that proudly hang the Catalan independence flag. The food and bar scene, one of the pillars of Catalan culture, comes alive in the city’s old districts – a mixture of small cafés that can barely fit in a dozen people door-to-door with unpretentious bars that have been there for the better part of a century. These are the spots where locals flock to if they want to indulge in something special, which is usually a deep-fried speciality that goes mind-blowingly well with a glass of wine or a beer on a warm afternoon or evening with friends. This handful of bars and cafés, together with the fast-disappearing craft shops and specialised grocery stores spotted around the old town, are the only places that can give you a real taste of Catalan culture in a city that is slowly but surely losing its identity.
Catalonia has always been a region (or country depending on who you talk to) that has had its own identity, its own language and its own idiosyncrasies, something that many people use to make a case as to why it should be Europe’s newest country. The objective truth though, is that there is something different about Catalonia and Catalan people in comparison to the rest of Spain, a uniqueness not found in other Spanish cities and peoples. This is neither positive nor negative, but rather a tangible difference and a complete distancing from the features that are common throughout most of Spain. This is especially true in relation to personal character, religion, work ethic, open-mindedness and the monarchy – continuing the long-lasting tradition of Catalonia being the head of state’s least favourite place to visit.
Another part of Catalonia’s tangible uniqueness lies in the variety of its landscapes, with the snowy Pyrenees mountains being just two hours away from the beaches of Barcelona. This is what gives its visitors so many options when they visit, unless of course your idea of fun in Barcelona is wearing a Mexican hat and drinking pints of Guinness. In any case, though, it would be extremely unfair to boil down Catalonia’s attractions to just Barcelona.
If you want to find out what Catalonia is really all about, you could do a lot worse than visit Girona, one of Catalonia’s four main cities, home to one of the most stunning Gothic cathedrals in the world and to a web of medieval streets lined up with independent craft shops and local eateries. Until its recent appearance on a highly popular TV series about families fighting over monarchic furniture, it used to fly under the radar of most of Catalonia’s visitors, so one can only hope that its newfound popularity will not come at the cost of its character. One part of Catalonia which has never struggled with popularity, however, is the Pyrenees and its ski stations. But if it’s sun and not snow that you want, half an hour south of Barcelona is the coastal town of Sitges, an idyllic spot home to one of Europe’s most popular carnivals. In the summer, it turns into a smaller version of Ibiza and its history as one of Spain and Europe’s most popular LGBTQ spots played a huge role in the country’s gay rights movement and its acceptance after almost four decades of fascist dictatorship. For a truly unique combination of history and good food, check out the city of Tarragona – famous for its ancient Roman ruins and out-of-this-world seafood restaurants by the port that serve the famous locally-caught shrimp.
This brings us around nicely to the topic of food. While the Basques probably have the upper hand when it comes to bragging rights in terms of cuisine and famous chefs, the Catalans are not far behind. The previously mentioned variety in landscape means that Catalan cuisine combines red meat and fish, hearty stews and fresh seafood and everything in between. However, one of the most famous Catalan dishes doesn’t fall under any of those categories and its ingredients and preparation are as simple as they are unspectacular: the famous pà amb tomàquet. Bread and tomato, which is the literal translation of this dish, is just that: tomato spread on bread with a dash of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt on top. If the bread is toasted, you can also rub garlic on it before you spread the tomato. It is usually served as a starter with charcuterie and cheeses to go with it, although locals usually reach for the tomatoes every time they’re making a sandwich.
It would be wrong to talk about Catalan cuisine and not mention their rich tradition of desserts, which come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of sweetness that range from very sweet to “holy shit, that’s really sweet”. As a local, you actually get to sample most of these desserts throughout the year, since many of them are usually associated with a popular festivity and consumed whenever it comes around, although perhaps none of them has achieved the popularity and reach of crema catalana.
Crema catalana, also known as Crema de Sant Josep, is a traditional Catalan dessert that used to be a delicacy many centuries ago due to the exclusivity of some of its ingredients, like sugar, which used to be very expensive and difficult to obtain. It’s also similar to the French dessert crème brûlée, although the different ingredients used make this similarity mostly a visual one. There are two ways of making crema catalana, but this recipe will follow the more traditional way; the other way is quicker and cheaper, the ones that most restaurants use to cut corners and costs, but the flavour isn’t as intense, so do the right thing and follow this version.
To start off, pour the milk and cream in a pot and then add the orange rind and the cinnamon stick. Leave it uncovered on a medium heat until it boils. As soon as it starts to boil, take the pot off the heat, cover it with a lid and leave it to rest for 40 minutes so that the mix gets impregnated with the orange and cinnamon flavours.
Meanwhile, put the 16 egg yolks in a bowl, add the sugar and beat it all together until you obtain a uniform, thick-ish, light-yellow mixture. You can use a whisk if you fancy the exercise, but an electric mixer will get the job done nicely. Remove the rind and cinnamon stick from the milk once it has rested for 40 minutes, add the mixture you have just made to the pot with the milk and cream and mix it well with a whisk.
This is where the tricky part comes, make or break time for your crema catalana. Put the pot on medium heat and whisk it non-stop until you start seeing little bubbles on the sides of the pot. When that happens, take it off the heat but continue whisking, and after a minute or so put it back on the heat until the bubbles come up again. Repeat this process for about 6-8 minutes until you notice that mix starts to get thicker and the colour a bit darker. Remember: Never. Stop. Whisking. Once that is done, gently slam the pot on the counter to get any air in the mix to rise to the top. This will ensure that your crema catalana has no bubbles.
Serve it in small, terracotta casserole dishes and let it chill in the fridge for 3-4 hours. After they’ve had time to chill, take them out of the fridge, spread a spoonful of sugar on the top and use a kitchen torch on the sugar until you get a thin, crispy, caramelised layer that will contrast nicely with the smooth cream beneath when you eat it. Bon profit!