A warm sea breeze dances its way around you as the sound of the accompanying waves from the Mediterranean break upon the coastline in the eastern province of Barcelona in Catalonia, Spain. A plethora of colourful foods adorns the table, and the sunlight playfully glistens off the wine glass in your hand. The most common of foods that sit before you are the Catalan Tomato bread or Pa amb tomàquet, which holds its origins as far back as the 18th century where, in rural Catalonia, tomatoes were in abundance and farmers used them to soften the dry and crusty bread, finished off with sea salt and olive oil.
The Catalan-style tomato bread now sits as one of the more iconic dishes in Catalonia, an everyday food for nearly everybody in the region that is often served with meats, cheeses and vegetables.
This simplicity and rustic home style of coastal Catalonia cookery is what Head Chef Jordi Donadeu of the Neighbourhood Brew bar in Central Auckland is putting forth to the public. Traditional Catalan style foods are bountiful on his new menu where he strives to bring Catalonia to the New Zealand restaurant scene.
“Nobody does this kind of thing here!” exclaims Jordi. He has friends who come from Spain and get excited about the ability to have local foods reproduced for them in Auckland, which undoubtedly brings the feeling of home back for them.
I must admit, the number of traditional Spanish restaurants is dwindling, and if you can find a place with classic and perfectly re-created authentic food, then you have found the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Jordi’s heart lies with the kind of foods that he grew up with, and he says that while you can push for new ways to adapt dishes and try new things, there is always a place for comforting and home styled foods that are executed faultlessly.
Served with the Catalan tomato bread is a 36 month aged jamón ibérico, or Iberico Ham, which is made from the Black Iberian pig that roams mainly in the Southern regions of Spain and is one of the most expensive hams in Spain, retailing for around $100 for a kilo. Fat is marbled through the dark red meat that lays thinly sliced upon a small plate, and when it touches your tongue the fat melts away to bring forth the more delicate flavours of the cured ham, not too salty and slightly nutty with a hint of sweetness that develops and deepens as it falls apart in your mouth.
Salted Cod is another one of the popular dishes in coastal Catalonia, where there were many fishermen in the area bringing them back for what became part of the staple diet for the coastal communities. The house-cured Cod and Crab Croquetas which are part of Jordi’s Tapas menu feature the flavours beautifully, with the Salted Cod being prominent throughout the Croquetas, which also include a mashed potato and béchamel sauce and are then co
ated in breadcrumbs and deep fried.
Carrying on the traditional theme in Jordi’s menu, he includes a Basque Chickpea and Chorizo stew with pickled chillies. Using ingredients found along the Mediterranean coast, vegetables are a predominant feature in most Catalan dishes, The dish starts with a Sofrito – usually the most popular base – which includes garlic, onion, leek, capsicum, tomato and white wine that is sauteed off before the feature point of the dish is added, in this case a specially made Spanish Chorizo. Paprikas finish it off. The chillies are grown in the summer climate and pickled for the winter months which keeps them crisp and flavoursome as well as adding to the general texture.
One of the dishes that caught my eye was the Suquet du Peix which is a Catalan-style market fish, potato & clam stew. The Suquet du Peix is a hearty mixture, also cooked with a Sofrito base, and then finished with a Picada (pronounced ‘picatha’ in the Catalan dialect) sauce, including almonds, parsley and garlic. Hapuka was the fish of the day, briefly seared on a hot plate and then added to the Sofrito in a pan along with the potatoes and clams. Jordi uses a prawn base in his Sofrito to give it a stronger seafood essence and to compliment the fish at the focus of the dish.
The Suquet du Peix is a warm winter style dish, quite comforting in these colder months, and the aroma that twists its way through the air is welcoming and distinctive. Small juicy clams decorate the bowl around the Hapuka and small cubes of potato sit upon the Sofrito. The flavours work well together, with each part of the dish complimenting the others and the Hapuka is cooked perfectly, coming apart at the touch of the fork and falling into the stew. The dish originates from the coastal villages of Catalonia where the fisherman would bring in whatever they had caught that day along with the many vegetables that grow in the area and put it together into a simple meal of the kind often seen on the dinner tables of many homes among the villagefolk.
All of these offerings, apart from the Suquet du Peix, are meant to be a small tasting dish which encompasses the tapas style famous in Spain, but there are a couple of theories as to the introduction of tapas – which actually means ‘cover’. Originating in the southern province of
Andalucia, tapas is thought to have been a small slice of ham covering the top of your wine glass -easy to carry around and eat as well as giving you the added benefit of keeping a hand free for greeting and interacting with guests and companions.
Tapas were also used as small fillers in between meals for farmers and other workers before their main feast, which was usually followed by an afternoon siesta to digest the hearty and fatty meal. From these humble peasant origins, tapas have successfully migrated into the bar scene to accompany various beers and wines as well as giving a shared plate option for groups and couples
dining together; they get a chance to experience a broader range of food and to give a more immersive dining experience for everyone involved.
In recent years, there seems to be a growing trend of tapas on bar and restaurant menus with many chef’s trying to re-create and improve on the old tried and true recipes. Ranging from the more expensive tapas items including Black Truffles to the traditional cheaper items, Spanish tapas
have definitely found their place in the modern Western cuisine scene and have become a popular choice for many out for a small bite to eat.
Another tapas item at the Neighborhood Brew bar is Txokos (pronounced – Cho-kos) – a Catalan style calamari coated in a couple of different types of flour and some sumac and cooked until they are very crispy, served only with some fresh lemon as, due to the style, they do not need to be served with a sauce.
For a sweet finish to the meal, another traditional dish is Crema Catalana, usually served for the feast on St Joseph’s Day where in Spain it is also observed as Fathers day or El Día del Padre, though now it is eaten at all times of the year. It is similar to the Creme Brulee from France but it is not as dense and is usually flavoured with spices.
Made with egg yolks, sugar and milk rather than cream, the Crema Catalana includes lemon or orange zest and cinnamon. It is still prepared the same, with a layer of caramelised sugar on top, but can also be used as a filling for numerous desserts and pastries.
Spanish food and culture has spread far and wide around the world as travel became more accessible to the masses, and has also given us some of the best chefs in the world with the likes of Ferrán Adriá, the man behind renowned restaurant El Buli, which resides just off the coast in Catalonia. Ferrán is a revolutionary in the way we cook foods in fine dining restaurants today by bringing Molecular Gastronomy into the public eye and going on to create many of his own techniques, which many other chefs now use. Or Santi Santamaría who was the first chef in Catalonia to earn 3 Michelin Stars at his restaurant in Sant Celoni, Barcelona.
Recipe: Suquet du Peix
3 tbsp olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
2 tomatoes (about 200g), peeled and chopped
500g waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm-thick slices
125ml dry white wine
about 350ml fish or chicken stock
a good pinch of saffron threads
¾ tsp sugar
250g firm white fish fillet (eg cod, haddock, hake), cut into 2-2.5cm
250g medium or large raw peeled prawns
For the Picada:
10 blanched almonds
1 large clove of garlic, peeled
½ tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp chopped flatleaf parsley
Heat the oil in a wide casserole or pan, put in the garlic and tomatoes and cook, stirring often, over a medium heat for about 10 minutes until the tomatoes are reduced to a chutney like texture. Put in the potatoes and add the wine and enough stock to cover the potatoes. Add salt, the saffron
and sugar, and simmer, covered, over a low heat for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the potatoes are just tender.
Whilst that is cooking off you can make the Picada. Fry the almonds and the whole clove of garlic in the oil until both are slightly brown, then drain on kitchen paper. If you have a Mortar and Pestle you can use this to grind together the garlic, almonds and parsley or if you don’t you can use
the blender quickly. Add around 150mL of hot stock.
Put the fish in the soup and three to four minutes later put in the prawns and the picada. Cook over a low heat until the prawns turn pink.