Catalan Food: Culture & Flavors From The Mediterranean, by Daniel Olivella with Caroline Wright
There was something about this book that I found particularly troubling, and that was that while I was looking in this book for a glance at a cuisine I’m not particularly familiar with, I ended up finding a lot more about politics than I was interested in. Even to think of Catalan food as a national cuisine of its own, as the author, a native Catalan himself, does, is to engage in a political act. To see Catalan food as something of its own apart from Spanish cooking, as this author does, is to assert that Catalonia is a nation and deserves national standing. The same is true if one reflects on Catalan art as being separate from the art of Spain, or to think of the Catalan language as a national language of its own that merits study . And feeling the heavy weight of politics while reading an enjoyable and vividly photographed cookbook was a bit more than I was seeking to take on, especially when the author talked about his own youthful encounters with Spanish repression on behalf of his homeland.
After an introduction, this book of more than 250 pages, with some amazing photography, is divided into various chapters and many sections focusing on different aspects of the food of Catalonia. The author begins with a discussion about Catalonia through the ages and a discussion about the book, before looking at the cookware that is important and the little bites of food that one needs to make and keep around in order to make Catalan recipes easier, and tapas like salt cod fritters (yes please). After that there is a discussion of bean and vegetable dishes, some of which sound very tasty–fresh favas with peas, wrinkly potatoes, and braised kale with pine nuts and stewed chickpeas with spinach. There is a chapter on paella, rice, and noodles, most of which have unclean seafood in them, and a chapter on Catalan surf and turf recipes, at least one of which, tonyina amb escabetx (tuna in escabeche) looks worth trying, as well as salted cod. There are foods from the corral, which include some chicken in vinaigrette, brisket canelones, and oxtail in red wine sauce, all of which sounds yummy, as well as some tasty lamb dishes. The book contains an entire chapter on pork dishes (no thanks), along with some ideas for tasty breads and desserts as well before closing with some conversions between metric and standard units and acknowledgments.
Ultimately, I am of two minds when reviewing this book. On the one hand, I support the author’s desire to make Catalan food known as a national cuisine, even with the political implications of that view, which are likely to be unpopular in the rest of Spain. That said, when one looks at the cuisine on its own terms, it is clear as well that Catalan cuisine does not correspond well with biblical food laws. A large portion of the recipes involve lard and shrimp and even octopus and squid and rabbit. Even assuming substitutes for foods I cannot or will not eat (some of them, like peppers, because of mild food allergies), there are still not very many dishes here that I could eat, although there are some which sound fantastic. Catalan cuisine is not likely ever going to be my favorite cuisine, but there are some dishes here that are worth knowing, and that on a whole makes this book worth reading, and even apart from the food, the photographer of this book deserves some major props for showing the beauty of Catalonia and its food so well.
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