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`Catalan Cuisine, Vivid Flavors from Spain's Mediterranean Coast' by the very notable culinary journalist and editor, Colman Andrews, contributes to Spain's cuisine's being the third best documented European cuisine, after Italy and France. Andrews is an important figure in culinary reporting less from his books than from his position as editor of the excellent `Saveur' magazine which, with `Cooks Illustrated', should be one of the two magazines a foodie really should be reading.
`Catalan Cuisine' is as good or better than Andrews other ethno-culinary volume, `Flavors from the Riviera'. Like the earlier volume, its strengths lie primarily in history and a focus on ethnographic accuracy (without loosing too much in the way of practical cookery). For example, Andrews' recipe for the Catalan version of `tortilla espagnole' (potato frittata or omelet) is different from every other recipe I have seen from Spanish culinary experts such as Penelope Casas and Janet Mendel in that it contains no onion. This omission makes the dish a lot less interesting to me as food, but it reveals something which sets Catalan cooking apart from the rest of Spain.
In `Delicioso', Ms. Casas identifies Catalonia as the land of the casseroles. On first blush, there is little evidence of this attribution in Mr. Andrews' book. `Casserole' doesn't even appear in his index. But then, we recall a paragraph early in the book where Andrews identifies the most important cooking utensils in Catalonia. After the ubiquitous paella pan, there is the `cassola' (in Catalan, or `cazuela' in Castilian), an earthenware dish with deeper, straighter sides than a paella and an inside glaze. I really regret that Mr. Andrews didn't find his way clear to give us a picture of this dish, as I visualize it as a sort of `Tarte Tatin' dish a bit over 12 inches in diameter and about two inches deep.
One of the more interesting aspects of Andrews' books is that he always illuminates interesting historical and geographical aspects of his subject. On the Riviera, we learned that for a large part of its history, the French Riviera was politically a part of Italy. Here, we learn that the Catalan influenced region, `paisos catalans', extends into southwestern France, Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Andorra, and even a corner of Italian Sardinia. The evidence of this influence is the range of the Catalan language (`Spanish' is actually Castilian, one of the four official languages of Spain, including Basque and Galician), which is not simply a Spanish dialect, but a language of its own, as similar to Italian and French as to Castilian. This is due to the fact that Catalonia was the center of Roman influence in their province, `Hispanolia', and Barcelona was the principle Roman seaport to this region, through which was introduced olive and grape cultivation techniques.
Andrews' primary premise in this book is that Catalan cuisine is at least as distinctive in European food as, for example the cuisine of Campagnia (Naples and Southern Italy). To this end, his organization is highly analytical rather than simply being a collection of representative recipes. The flagship of things distinct about Catalan cuisine may be the four classic sauces of the region, `allioli', `sofregit', `picada', and `samfaina'. While each has some similarities to sauces well known to French and Italian cuisines, the real importance lies in the differences. `Allioli' in Catalonia is made exclusively with garlic and olive oil plus salt (All Catalan food is heavily salted). Other minor ingredients such as vinegar and herbs are allowed (making it seem very much like vinaigrette). The similar Provencal sauce, `Aioli which includes eggs is dismissed as `fancy mayonnaise' which, by the way, Catalans claim was invented in Minorca and not the French city of Mayenne. `Sofregit' is similar to the Italian `soffritto' and the French `mirepoix'. `Picada' is very similar to the `pesto' of nearby Liguria in Italy. Samfaina is similar to ratatouille, cooked down to the consistency of a relish.
Next, practically a third of the book is taken up by `Part Three: The Raw Materials', in which Andrews discusses and presents recipes for the fifteen most important ingredients, which are eggplant, nuts, anchovies, rice, poultry, salt cod, mushrooms, wild game, snails, legumes, organ meats, olives and olive oil, eggs, seafood, and `the pig'. To the logical among us, this may seem a bit messy since one would think that anchovies and salt cod would fall under `seafood', and that organ meats would fall under `the pig', but it all works well enough, as the categories are a way of organizing recipes and not a guide to the Barcelona commodities market.
I really like the fact that aside from having an excellent bibliography, the book refers to several important books on related subject not only to support a point, but also to refer one to important recipes Andrews does not include himself in this book. His most important references are to Penelope Casas' `The Food and Wine of Spain' for recipes on sausage making. This is symptomatic, in that Parsons has no recipes for `basic' techniques such as pasta, pastry, bread, or charcuterie (sausages), in spite of the fact that both pasta and sausage and ham are important Catalan culinary products.
Andrews makes up for his unusual organization by providing an excellent Appendix of `Recipes according to Category' and other useful sources for Spanish tourism and shopping.
I think it's ironic that at the top of the cover is a blurb by the famous Barcelona chef, Ferran Adria praising the book, while there is not a single reference to Adria or El Bulli in this 1988 original book.
A superb culinary essay. Excellent for lovers of Spanish food and foodies in general.