Spanish chef José Pizarro recommends touring the fields, mountains and coastline of north-east Spain in search of clams washed down with cava, and meatballs cooked slowly with cuttlefish
Catalonia has a rich and fascinating history, which is why there’s much more to see in this region of north-east Spain than the beaches of the Costa Brava, the mountains of the Pyrenees and the tapas bars of its most famous city, Barcelona. I’ve travelled from Roses, in Girona, to Balaguer, in Lleida, from Vilafranca del Penedès, in Barcelona, to Sant Carles de la Ràpita, in Tarragona, all the while enjoying dishes that, for me, reflect the heart of both traditional and contemporary Catalan cuisine (sometimes, even, learning recipes or methods that stretch as far back as medieval times).
Catalonia has such a diverse range of farmland and climates – from the green mountains of Pirineo de Lleida to the wet marshlands of the Delta del Ebro – that it’s easy to find meat with incredible provenance and amazing flavour. It is also largely a coastal region, with some beautiful bays and beaches, so it’s a great place to find examples of mar y montaña – sea and mountain – dishes (think Spanish surf ’n’ turf: lobster with chicken, or meatballs with cuttlefish).
The Delta del Ebro is also where you’ll find some of the best rice in the Iberian Peninsula. Arroz negro is a very popular dish, normally made with squid ink, squid and prawns, topped off with aïoli. Perhaps surprisingly, pasta dishes have also been an intrinsic part of Catalan cooking since the 17th century; some of the region’s oldest recipes for cannelloni and galets (pasta shells) are still in use today.
Wherever you are, make sure you always head straight to the local markets. La Boqueria, in Barcelona, is where you’ll find the best clams; enjoy them with a glass of cava. Another popular beverage is vermut – Sundays are vermouth days in Catalonia, and people drink this alongside tinned seafood or fish and a plate of crisps.