Food and Wines

Even in Spain, whose seventeen autonomous regions have their own distinctive cuisine, fiercely defended by their native aficionados, Catalan cuisine is a byword for quality, diversity, and above all innovation. With its head in the high Pyrenees, its feet in the Mediterranean and its belly in some of the richest agricultural land in the peninsular it’s no surprise that food is a Big Thing in Catalonia. Apart from some very special dishes like Calçotada, Escudella and Romescada, the cuisine is based around several essential sauces using local ingredients like anchovies, almonds, hazel and pine nuts, spicy peppers, and, of course, olive oil! One other feature that must be mentioned is the propensity for startling combinations like fruit and meats, or poultry and seafood or even snails and tuna fish! The ‘national’ TV channel, TV3 sponsors a daily cookery show, ‘Cuines’ (Cat.), which well illustrates both everyday and more ambitious dishes – in Catalan! English speaking readers may find the new TV series Spain – On The Road Again a little more accessible. This light hearted show features Gwyneth Paltrow and friends exploring Spain through the medium of its cuisine and surely it can’t be an accident that three of the six episodes feature Catalonia and its unique cooking!

In a reflection of a certain national characteristic that values common sense, Catalan cuisine is very much based on principles of home economy and good housekeeping. So seasonal food reigns supreme in the region. One friend described the cooking as ‘organic’, not meaning in the ‘green’ sense of the word, although that is also an important recent trend, but in that Catalans are very much in touch with nature and the seasons generally; even if most of the population live in Barcelona’s huge conurbation they never lose touch with their roots – a visit to any of that city’s fabulous markets, especially the world famous Boqueria on Las Ramblas, bears this out!

In contrast to cosmopolitan Barclona, our mountain cuisine tends to concentrate on hearty country cooking, making the most of the superb quality ingredients close to hand, like river trout and wild mushrooms, and farm produce like mountain reared lamb, free range poultry and especially the charcuterie. But local chefs have got some surprises up their sleeves and let their hair down on occasions such as the Jornades Gastronòmiques del Pallars Jussà, an annual culinary festival held during the autumn. Several local restaurants devise menus combining traditional dishes often with a new slant or twist – a very typical feature of modern Catalan cooking – as well as happily importing some classics from other regions. The Jornades have been going since 1993 and each year dishes and restaurants vary. The printed guides at Casa Rafela include details of these and many other restaurants in the locality – plus a glossary! While the everyday cooking may not quite be as extravagant as some of the concoctions found in the Journades they do give an idea of the variety and interest of Catalan cuisine as it is prepared in our ‘remote’ area!

Matters Vinous!

The wines of Catalonia are well known abroad, principally in the form of Cavas, sparkling wines from the Penedès region. But there is much more to Catalan wines than cava. Not counting special wines like sherry, perhaps the most prestigious wine in all Spain is that of the Priorat area near Tarragona. Indeed, one Priorat wine, Clos Erasmus, 2004, is one of the few to attain 100% rating by top wine expert, Robert Parker. Falset, the ‘county town’ of Priorat, is about a three-hour drive from Casa Rafela, but serious enologists will find the journey well worthwhile! One can’t mention Spanish wines without reference to La Rioja, however. The region, which is about four hours drive from Fígols, has three distinct areas and extends into the Basque Country, at the western end of the Pyrenees. Its world class reds, like the Priorat wines mentioned above, are probably more readily available abroad than even in Spain, let alone a small town like Tremp, but even ordinary wine-buffs would find a trip to either region a fascinating experience. As well as offering the possibility of visiting the wineries themselves, the small wine towns and villages have excellent cellers where less well known wines are waiting to be ‘discovered’, often at amazingly reasonable prices!

New wine bodegas such as Torres and the up-and-coming Castell d'Encus are making the Conca de Tremp and new destination for wine buffs. Talarn celebrated its first fira (fair) dedicated to Pyrenean wines in 2011

Much closer to home is the up-and-coming Aragonese region of Somontano, which is just over an hour away from Casa Rafela. This area of rolling countryside overlooked by the Pyrenees was made a Denominación de Origen (D.O.) in 1984 and has been described by leading British wine expert Julian Jeffs in his book ‘The Wines of Spain‘ as being one of the most exiting prospects in the future Spanish wine scene. Furthermore, it is available both locally and abroad! A day trip to the region, centred on the lovely ‘city’ of Barbastro (like many Pyrenean towns it has a tiny cathedral!) makes a lovely day out as the scenery, architecture and ‘Spanishness’ is in marked contrast to Catalonia! The local goat’s cheese is a speciality and makes an ideal accompaniment to a tasting session!

Much, much closer to home, and within a gentle stroll of Casa Rafela itself, our local D.O., Costers del Segre, is rather more homely in outlook. But it is well represented by two famous wineries; the internationally renowned Bodegas Miguel Torres and Viñas Raimat. Torres was the first Spanish winery to introduce Cabernet Sauvignan and, more importantly perhaps, the first to export wines to the United States. They have a deserved reputation for innovation and have recently invested heavily in the Conca de Tremp, including a new vineyard at Fígols, which was planted with Merlot grapes in 2002, ostensibly to make brandy. Torres’ public relations statements vary from wanting to revert to more traditional varieties, now that Cabernet wines are so commonplace that seems wise, to planting at our higher altitudes to avoid the impact of climate change. Perhaps the truth lies in a combination of the two ideas as blending varieties from differing altitudes and climates is a speciality of Torres’ native Penedés D.O., whose excellent red and white wines are somewhat overshadowed by the huge ‘cava’ production there. Meanwhile Raimat wines, from the flat agricultural plains near Lleida city, make an excellent range of wines including several ‘cavas’ and are easily obtainable in Britain – their Abadia red wine is certainly worth trying. In combination with a trip to explore the historic city of Lleida a visit to the Raimat bodega makes a great day out.

As well as looking for perhaps more humble producers in the Denominació, it’s always worth exploring the local markets and the various country fairs where home made products and specialist ‘imports’, like Vermut from the Tarragona D.O., add to the variety and quality of foods and drink available to Catalans – and exploited to the full we can assure you!

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