The Spanish region of Catalonia is well known for its magnificent landscapes, turbulent history and friendly people. It is also a treasure trove of culinary gems, influenced by France and Italy, and well within the guidelines of the healthful Mediterranean Diet. Here, TravelingMom’s guest author shares ways to experience food in Catalonia and tips to participate in a traditional family meal celebrating the regionally cultivated onion (the calçot).
Essential Guide to Catalan Cuisine and the Calçotada
Catalan cuisine abounds in the unique region of Catalonia that stretches from the shores of the Mediterranean into the Pyrenees. A region my family finds both multi-faceted and totally addictive, this border is shared by Spain with France.
My husband and photographer, Simon Lock, my guide dog, Otto, and I have barely scratched the surface of Catalonia, despite several visits to Barcelona, Tarragona, and Girona. Catalonia marches to the beat of its own drum in its determination to preserve its language, culture, and cuisine.
Moderate climate, proximity to the sea and traditional cooking methods enable Catalonia’s cuisine to stand out among neighboring culinary giants like the rest of Spain, Italy, and France.
In general, food in Catalonia is intensely flavorful without being overly spicy. Our two adult sons have always been adventurous eaters. When we brought them as teenagers to a small Costa Brava town north of Barcelona, they took to the local food like garlic to olive oil. Variety and freshness trumped any offerings from the area’s small selection of American fast food chains.
When Dining in Catalonia, Timing is Everything
Are you accustomed to breakfast at 7:00 am, lunch at noon, and dinner at 6:00 pm? If so, you’re in for a gastronomic attitude adjustment in Catalonia, as we discovered on our first visit.
In general, Catalan meals are consumed later in the day than just about anywhere else. Breakfast is usually eaten at 8:00 am or later. This light meal often consists of a croissant, toast with butter or tomato puree, and washed down with coffee, tea, hot chocolate or juice.
Special offers of coffee and a pastry are readily available but watch those sweets. They’re fresh, delicious, and hard to pass by.
In Catalonia, lunch time is between 2:00 pm and 4:00 pm. This is the largest and most important meal of the day. Most businesses are closed during this time. So if you can’t shop, you might as well eat. Right?
From an economic perspective, enjoying a menu del dia (menu of the day) is a great value. The standard meal offers several choices for appetizers, main dishes, desserts, and beverages. Bread and coffee are often included as well.
We take advantage of the menu del dia when in Catalonia, but make sure to look for restaurants at least three blocks from main attractions. Establishments along side streets where the majority of diners appear to be local tend to have the best food at the most reasonable prices, averaging about €10-12.
How to Find Catalan Cuisine For Dinner
We discovered that trying to find dinner before 8:00 pm, bar food, and those ubiquitous fast-food chains were our only options. In Catalonia, a light dinner is the norm.
In fair weather, most restaurant meals are eaten at outdoor tables where people gather to chat over assorted tapas (small plates), salads and sandwiches.
We prefer restaurants in pedestrian areas where it feels as if we step into a party to which everyone is invited.
Street musicians and other entertainers angling for tips are everywhere, accompanied by talk and laughter coming from all directions. Tables are often placed close together, and it is not unusual to find ourselves engaged in conversation with fellow diners.
Another dinner option we favor is to pick up some bread, cheese, fruit, vegetables and a bottle of wine for a “room picnic” at our hotel. When traveling with small children, this may turn out to be a practical and fun pre-bedtime activity.
For those long gaps between meals, folks in Catalonia enjoy a snack of coffee and a pastry or small sandwich. Ice cream and Italian gelato are definitely kid pleasers, and on a hot day, there’s nothing like it.
Introducing the Building Blocks of Catalan Cuisine
Catalonia is truly blessed when it comes to feeding its inhabitants. The Mediterranean offers up a variety of fresh seafood, including shrimp, squid, and some of the tastiest fresh anchovies we’ve ever eaten.
Pork, lamb, beef and flavorful sausages are gifts from Catalonia’s interior. The region’s rich soil produces grains, nuts, fruits, vegetables, as well as olives for munching and for making olive oil.
And Catalonia’s varieties of superb cheeses and creamy butter are rich with flavor and freshness.
We have walked through residential areas around lunch time and found ourselves intoxicated by the aroma of garlic simmering in olive oil. This simple step is the foundation for many Catalonian dishes.
A combination of seafood and meat make for an unforgettable Catalonian surf and turf. Some sweet and savory foods are married, and when the balance is just right, they made our taste buds do a happy dance.
Join in the Catalonian Family Tradition of Calçotada
The calçot is a vegetable grown in the Catalonian region of Spain. It looks like a large green onion or small leek. and is at its peak between December and March. This humble member of the onion family is celebrated at a feast known as Calçotada by the people of Catalonia throughout the season.
According to legend, the calçot is the result of agricultural experimentation by a Catalan farmer in the late 18th century. His efforts yielded a new kind of green onion that was longer, juicier, and unbeknownst to the farmer, the future centerpiece of an annual Catalan celebration.
In early 2018, my husband and I were invited to a private family Calçotada by a former student in an English immersion program for which we volunteered the previous year. We learned that it is considered a true honor to be included in this family celebration.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, our student and her husband drove us to Cal Victor, a restaurant in Canyamars, a small village in the hills northeast of Barcelona. There we met up with members of their family and some of their friends. After beers and introductions that lasted an hour, it was time to eat.
When the restaurant owner saw my guide dog Otto, he tried to gently encourage me to leave him outside on the deck.
Despite having both Spanish and EU accessibility laws on our side, service animals are permitted in all public places, and violations can lead to hefty fines. We didn’t want to cause any embarrassment for our hosts.
So what did we do?
We waited until the owner was otherwise occupied and walked in. Within seconds, Otto was comfortably invisible under our long cloth-covered table.
Okay, Open Wide To Savor Calcotada
The restaurant was crowded with long tables packed as closely together as possible. For Catalonians, it’s all about family, friends, eating, talking, laughing and eating some more, and the closer the quarters, the better. For me, it was also the perfect environment for concealing a 60 pound yellow Labrador retriever.
The intense aroma from the grilling calçots permeated the air. Traditionally, calçots are charred over an open flame until the outer layer is completely blackened, wrapped in newspaper to keep them warm and served on curved terra-cotta roof tiles.
This is how calçots are eaten:
- You will be given a bib. Put it on or risk ruining your clothes.
- Use your fingers to pick up the Calçot by the leafy end with one hand and pull off the blackened outer layer with the other.
- Dip the entire calçot in salsa romesco, a spicy sauce consisting of finely ground tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, almonds and olive oil.
- Now, tilt your head back, open your mouth, and suck in the whole delectable mess.
- Sigh with contentment.
Our student demonstrated the technique. We must have been doing it correctly because before long, our fingers and bibs were as messy as everyone else’s.
But Wait, There’s More Catalan Cuisine
Although the calçots were the main event, the meal also included individual platters of assorted delectable grilled meats and local sausages (my husband’s choice) and assorted even more delectable grilled fish and seafood (my choice).
The finale was a traditional crème Catalan, and the entire meal was complemented by a rustic Catalan red wine.
As our afternoon of leisurely culinary indulgence drew to a close, we all waddled down a dirt road to an abandoned ice house. The children ran and played while the adults chatted. This, too, was an integral part of the Calçotada experience.
For the Catalan people, without the element of close-knit families and friends gathering to celebrate a regional onion, Calçotada would simply be another scrumptious Catalan meal.
The entire cost of calçotada for two was €70, which was more than reasonable for the amount and quality of food and drink we enjoyed. The kinship and camaraderie? Priceless.
How To Find Calcotada Gatherings
Don’t have any family or friends sharing Catalan cuisine in Catalonia? You and your family can still participate in the tradition of the calçotadas.
After all, what child wouldn’t want to eat with their fingers and make a beautiful mess.
Ask around. Anyone from hotel staff to shopkeepers will be glad to point in the right direction. Information on restaurants offering calçotada menus can also be found on local websites or from the nearest tourist office.
Since long tables are the norm for a calçotada, don’t be surprised to end up chatting with others at your table. Catalonians value family and friends, but enthusiastically encourage strangers to share in their enjoyment.
Restaurante Cal Víctor
Carrer Major, 70, 08318
Canyamars, Barcelona, Spain
+34 937 95 50 10
Treats to Eat As Catalan Cuisine
The cuisine of Catalonia is varied, fresh and flavorful. Here are just a few of the foods you absolutely must try when visiting this unique Spanish region.
- Escalivada: A hearty salad of roasted eggplant, red peppers, tomatoes, onions, salt, olive oil, and vinegar. Makes a fabulous first course or accompaniment to grilled meat or fish.
- Pa amb tomàquet: This simple and versatile concoction is eaten any time of day anywhere in Catalonia. It consists of bread – toasted or not – rubbed with garlic and the cut side of a fresh tomato. Add a drizzle of olive oil and a tiny pinch of salt, too. You can easily recreate this when you get home.
- Coca: This is Catalonia’s version of pizza. Typical toppings include peppers, artichokes, tomatoes, cheese, and – if you’re lucky locally caught anchovies. But as with pizza, just about anything goes. A sweet version spread with almond paste is also available.
- Suquet de Peix: This is a Catalan fish stew typically made with hake or monkfish, and shellfish like clams and mussels. But the secret ingredient that gives this stew its unique flavor and the warm color is saffron.
More Catalan Cuisine Treats
- Crema Catalana: This signature Catalan dessert is reminiscent of crème brûlée. The custard is creamier, the flavor is enhanced with the addition of cinnamon and lemon zest. Caramelized sugar topping is typically created under a broiler instead of with a torch.
- Cava: Cava can be found in almost every Catalan home, and is somewhat similar to champagne. Cava is usually drunk chilled on its own but is also used as the base of a uniquely Catalan sangria.
- Tapas: Although not of Catalan origin, tapas have become a staple in Catalonia. A group of diners can order an assortment of tapas from the menu and share. The more diners, the more tapas you can sample. Typical tapas include Patates braves (potatoes, in a spicy sauce), manchego cheese, Iberian Ham, marinated olives, garlicky grilled squid. You’ll also find shrimp, deep-fried croquettes filled with ham or chicken and cheese. Be careful, these are molten when they first come out.
Former TravelingMom Dee Dean shared her insights about travel in Andalusia, Spain.
About the Author
Penny Zibula is a freelance travel writer and blogger based in New Bern, North Carolina. Along with her husband and photographer, Simon Lock, and guide dog, Otto, she travels far and wide to find informative and entertaining stories to share with her readers.