What Distinguishes Catalan Cuisine from the Rest of Spanish Food

Photo excerpted from Catalan Food by Daniel Olivella and Caroline Wright

Editor's Note:

In collaboration with David Joachim, Catalan cuisine authority Daniel Olivella serves historical narratives alongside 80 carefully curated Spanish food recipes, like tapas, paella, and seafood, that are simple and fresh in Catalan Food.

Literally “sea and mountain,” mar i muntanya is the ultimate symbol of Catalan cuisine. It’s not as common in the rest of Spain, but mar i muntanya is quite prevalent in the homes and restaurants of Catalonia today. Its sim­plest expression is in our “surf and turf ” dishes such as langoustines with chicken or cuttlefish with meatballs, two recipes included in my new cookbook, Catalan Food. This tradition of combining food from the “sea and mountains” is directly linked to the region’s geography and history, both of which differ slightly from the rest of Spain.

Catalonia sits in the northeast corner of Spain with more than 350 miles of Mediterranean coast­line stretching away from the eastern seaport of Barcelona. Right out our back door, the Mediterranean Sea infuses the cuisine with an enormous array of seafood from cod, salmon, and monkfish to octopus, squid, anchovies, oysters, and clams.

The northern border is dominated by the ice-capped peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains, which separate Catalonia from France and the rest of Europe. In the pine forests there, you’ll find more wild mushrooms and truffles than anywhere else in Spain, particularly our prized rovellons, meaty red-capped mushrooms that my parents and I foraged every September. This alpine terrain also fills our tables with aromatic herbs, cheeses, and other flavors more commonly associated with southern France than with Spain. For instance, we use béchamel sauce in classic Catalan dishes such as canelones, another recipe included in the book. You don’t see much béchamel used elsewhere in Spain.

Catalonia’s southern border is home to mile after mile of fertile river deltas, the perfect environment for growing plump grains of paella rice such as bomba and Bahía. Taken together, this unique geography of vast Mediterranean Sea to the east, tall Pyrenees Mountains to the north, and sprawling river deltas in the south and southwest has created Catalan food traditions that differ from those in the rest of Spain. Mar i muntanya embod­ies these differences and allows a single dish to feature foods and flavors from every corner of our region’s diverse gastronomical treasure chest.

History plays a part as well. Since the Middle Ages, when mar i muntanya originated, Barcelona has been a major port along the trade routes, connecting ports as far away as Alexandria in Egypt and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Over time, Barcelona’s trading relationships helped to carry ingredients as varied as hazelnuts, sugar, pasta, cinnamon, and saffron into Catalan homes and restaurants. The region’s longtime occupation by Muslims also made spices like caraway and cumin part of our culinary vernacular, even though these ingredients are not as popular elsewhere in Spain.

Mar i muntanya brings everything together. From the sea to the mountains and from ancient history to the present, the Catalan cook weaves together bold flavor combi­nations fully expressing the region’s culinary diversity, incorporating ingredients and cooking methods gained through bartering and preserv­ing, foraging and fishing, or raising and harvest­ing the region’s incredible local foods.

With its emphasis on seafood, mar i muntanya, in my opinion, epitomizes the Mediterranean Diet, widely recognized as one of the healthiest diets in the world. Catalans eat an abundance of fish along with plenty of plant foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and nuts. And, of course, extra-virgin olive oil pressed from our buttery Arbequina olives. Mediterranean Diet studies often note the importance of leisurely meals, and we Catalans make a point of taking time to fully appreciate our gastronomic riches. Vermouth hour (l’hora del vermut) is a good example of how this takes place. This old tradition of gathering with family and friends for vermouth and tapas before lunch, the main meal of the day, has recently been revived in Barcelona. It brings everyone together to chat and nibble in a relaxed fashion, something people around the world should do more often.

This combination of abundant seafood, plant foods, olive oil, and a tranquil style of eating is why I say the Catalan diet is the best representation of the Mediterranean Diet. Catalans limit red meat and deep-frying (a technique more common elsewhere in Spain), drink wine in moderation, get plenty of exercise, and enjoy leisurely meals with loved ones.

Mar i muntanya brings the entirety of this gastronomic approach to the plate: it is the essence of Catalan cuisine. To learn more about mar i muntanya and to discover many more unique Catalan dishes, come to one of my restaurants in Texas or Catalonia, or check out my new book, Catalan Food. Salut!