What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the words ‘Spanish food’? Paella? Or maybe tapas? These would be on the top of everybody’s list when visiting Spain, but I am not going to bore you talking about that. I’d rather share some of my recent discoveries I pinned on my food map to remember.
Calcots are large sweet spring onions grown around Catalonia, which are in season between January and March. I was lucky to witness ‘Calçotada’ – the traditional Catalan celebration of almighty onion – and try some calcots myself. Watching the whole process was highly amusing. The calcots were cooked on a flaming barbecue and then wrapped into newspapers to steam. Hot clay roof tiles were used for serving to keep them warm.
Being a bunch of foreigners with no clue what to do with those blackened onions, we were lucky to have some locals assisting us with the process. The burnt outer leaves of the onions were peeled away, the calcots dipped into salbitxada sauce (a mixture of tomatoes, peppers, garlic, almonds, vinegar and olive oil) and dropped into ones mouth with head tilted back. Things can get pretty messy while eating those onions with the sauce dripping all over you, so the eaters were provided with bibs.
Very tender and mild in flavour calcots were an interesting thing to try and surely great fun to watch while business colleagues were being fed. I made a mental note to visit Valls during the annual Calçotada festival in January, when the whole town gets engaged in onion cooking and eating festivities.
I was getting tomato bread (called pa amb tomaquet in Catalan or pan con tomato in Spanish) just about everywhere I went: in tapas bars, in restaurants, during wine tasting or parties. It is one of the simplest and most widely eaten dishes in Catalonia. The bread is toasted and then rubbed with fresh garlic and ripe tomato and drizzled with olive oil and a bit of salt. It takes minutes to prepare and goes perfect in combination with ham or cheese, so I encourage you try making it yourself just like I did right after coming back from Spain.
Everybody knows Iberian ham and so did I, but this time I learnt something new about it. There is Jamón Iberico and there is Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. Both are made of black-hoofed Iberian pigs, but some chosen pigs are set to roam free in oak forests and munch on acorns or ‘bellota’ during the last months of their hedonistic lives. Believe it or not, each pig can eat up to ten kilos of acorns a day. Such a nutrient diet has a significant impact on the quality of Jamón Ibérico: antioxidants from acorns and large amounts of fat allows an extra long curing process, which results in dark red, marbled meat with smooth texture and rich savoury taste. I came across bellota ham in Enrique Tomas shoppe in Barcelona, where they had a good selection of bellota hams as well as sampler size cones filled with ham cubes or shavings.
Black rice was something I had never heard of before. First thing which came to my mind when I was told about it was wild rice, but it wasn’t the case. It is regular white rice, cooked in the same manner like paella, just adding squid ink to it, which supposedly enhances seafood flavour. I went looking for this dish specifically and I am glad that I did: not only I discovered a nice restaurant (you can read more about it in my other post), but the meal was really good and I enjoyed it a lot. The rice served was pitch black, with thick, sticky texture. There were some crunchy pieces of seafood in it, but it was hard to tell what exactly it was, because everything was of the same black colour. Usually some squid or cuttlefish is used for cooking this dish, but there can be some other seafood added depending on the creativity of the chef.
I stumbled upon Torta de La Serena – the disc-shaped cylinder of cheese with creamy centre – during a party. Having a feeling it’s something unique to Spain, I started asking some questions and here’s what I found out. Serena cheese is one of the finest and most expensive Spanish cheeses produced in Extramadura region. It is made from unpasteurised Merino sheep milk, using vegetable rennet found in wild artichokes, which gives a light bitterness to the flavour. The older the cheese is, the creamier its centre gets, which you can scoop out with toasties like a natural fondue with no extra preparation. It was a perfect match with Rioja wine, which tannins perfectly cut down the herbal sharpness of the cheese.
As hard as it is to pronounce the name of these crunchy almond biscuits (I had to ask a passer-by to write it down for me), carquinyolis are essentially Catalan biscotti. Normally they come in oblong shape, but the ones I found had rather irregular shapes and were smeared with candied sugar on the top. Maybe that’s why they were labelled as “Sitges specialty” when I spotted them there, otherwise that was a big claim, because carquinyolis is a Catalan thing in general. Even if there was something setting them apart from the Catalan carquinyolis, I couldn’t find it out due to the two old ladies working in the bakery, who were not speaking a word in English, so I just gave them a friendly smile, waved goodbye and continued my journey along the narrow streets while sampling the biscuits.