Text: Sophie Keller
“The cuisine of a country is its landscape put in a pot.”
This quote by writer and journalist Josep Pla perfectly describes what Catalan cuisine is all about. Mar i Muntanya (sea and mountain) is a Catalan type of cuisine that combines ingredients from the mountains (generally meat and sausage) with typical ingredients from the sea (generally fish and seafood).
A unique concept that was born in Catalonia
There are two theories about how this type of food was created and how it became such a hit and the traditional food of Catalonia. The first theory is based on the lack of transportation, which was from slow to non-existent, and local products usage was necessary in the kitchen. To achieve this combination of meat and seafood, the fishermen and the farmers had no choice but to trade or share their products with each other, creating their own variety of flavors, tastes, and contrasts.
The second theory explains that these exchanges did take place, but they were done strongly during the black market era, where villages had little money to buy and it was necessary to resort to this practice. Nowadays the product mix in Catalan’s daily meals isn’t really hard to obtain. The products can be found fresh within a short distance from the sea in the coastal line (Costa Brava) and the mountains (Pyrenees).
Supposedly the recent appearance of the dishes “Mar i Muntanya” on restaurant menus was due to the fact that professional Catalan chefs started researching into their family traditions to incorporate recipes mixing meat and fish. Examples of meals under this creative and unique concept are “pollastre amb llagosta” (chicken with lobster), the “pollastre amb escarmalans” (chicken with crayfish) and “arròs mar i muntanya” (rice with meat and seafood).
Beyond the Mar i Muntanya
Even though we truly believe the true essence of Catalan cuisine is the mixture of meat with seafood in the same dish, Catalonia has also other amazing dishes and sauces that mark a stand. The kitchens are filled with a wide variety of ingredients including vegetables (especially tomato, garlic, eggplant, bell peppers and artichoke), wheat products (bread and pasta), olive oils, wines, legumes (beans and chickpeas), mushrooms, all sorts of pork preparations, cheeses, poultry, lamb and many type of fish like sardine, anchovy, tuna and cod. This diverse lot of ingredients is the reason why some –if not most- Catalan dishes are known worldwide. Pa amb tomàquet (bread with tomato), crema Catalana (Catalan crème brulée) and botifarras (Catalan sausage) are just a few worth mentioning.
There are also some dishes not very known that are worth knowing. I’ll leave a little list below so you can try whenever you’re in town:
Author: Gerard Romans Camps
This is a season dish and you can only eat in winter (January and February). Calçots are a variety of scallion that is larger than typical green onion. The way to cook them is to grill them on the barbecue wrapped in newspaper which makes them tender. Before you eat them you peal the burned layer and dip it in Romesco sauce.
Author: Emy Yanez
Panellets are small cakes or cookies in different shapes, mostly round, made mainly of marzipan (a paste made of almonds and sugar). It’s a traditional dessert of the All Saints holiday (Nov. 1st).
Escudella i Carn d’Olla
It’s a traditional soup and stew. It is characterized by the use of a pilota, a very big meatball spiced with garlic and parsley. There’s a particular version of this soup that’s called “Escudella de Nadal (Christmas soup) and it’s very typical on Christmas Day.
The tastes of Catalan cuisine at home
It’s a guarantee that once you try these mar i muntanya dishes, you’ll always want to have them, event at home. So here is the recipe of our favorite Catalan dish. Enjoy 😉
Chicken Mar i Muntanya
(that delicious dish from the picture at the top!)
With shrimp, mussels, green beans, piquillo peppers, and chorizo. Serves 6.
From Ad Hoc at Home, by Thomas Keller. Artisan, 2009.
- One 4-pound chicken
- 1/2 recipe Chicken brine (see note), cold
- 12 extra-large shrimp (12-15 count), shells on
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- Piment d’Espelette
- Canola oil
- Saffron rice (see note), warm
- 3 piquillo peppers, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-wide strips
- 1 cup thin green beans (haricots verts), blanched
- 1/2 cup chicken stock, warm
- 1 Spanish chorizo sausage (about 4 ounces), cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
- 1/4 cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
- 18 small mussels, preferably Bouchot or PEI
- Flat-leaf parsley leaves
- Fleur de Sel
- Cut the chicken into 10 pieces.
- Pour the brine into a container large enough to hold the chicken, add the chicken, and refrigerate for about 12 hours (no longer, or the chicken may become too salty).
- Preheat the oven to 400F.
- Remove the chicken from the brine and rinse under cold water, removing any herbs or spices sticking to the skin. Pat dry with paper towels or let air dry. Set aside. Without removing the shells, using a small pair of scissors or a paring knife, make a shallow cut down the back of each shrimp from head to tail. Gently open up the shrimp and, with your fingers or the paring knife, remove the vein. Rinse the shrimp under cold water.
- Combine 4 cups water and 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons salt in a medium bowl and stir to dissolve the salt. Add the shrimp to the brine and let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes.
- Remove from the brine, rinse, and drain on paper towels.
- Season the chicken with salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of Espelette.
- Heat some canola oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the dark meat skin-side-down, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook until the skin is a rich golden brown and crisp, about 8 minutes. (If you turn the chicken too early, more moisture will be released from the meat and you will not get the crisp caramelized surface you are looking for.)
- Turn the pieces and brown for another 6 minutes, or until golden brown on the second side.
- Remove from the heat, transfer the dark meat to a plate, and set aside. Return the pan to medium-high heat and add more oil as needed. Add the breasts skin-side-down and cook until the skin is crisp and golden brown, about 8 minutes. Turn the chicken and cook for about 5 minutes, until almost cooked through. Remove from the heat.
- Spread the rice in the bottom of a large heatproof serving dish or baking dish. Arrange half the piquillos and half the green beans over the rice. Tuck the dark meat and the breasts into the rice, pour the stock over the ingredients and put the dish in the oven. Heat some oil over medium heat in a frying pan large enough to hold the mussels in one layer. Add the chorizo and cook until browned and crisp on the edges, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the chorizo to a plate and pour off the excess fat, leaving just a coating in the pan. Add the shrimp to the pan and sauté until just cooked through, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes per side. Transfer the shrimp to a plate.
- Add the wine to the pan, bring to a boil, and boil for 30 seconds. Add the mussels, cover the pan, and cook until the mussels have opened 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.
- Arrange the chorizo, shrimp, and mussels in the baking dish; set aside in a warm spot. Return the frying pan to the heat, add the remaining peppers and green beans, and heat through.
- Arrange them over the chicken and shellfish, garnish with parsley leaves, and sprinkle with fleur de sel.
- Chicken Brine
- 5 lemons, halved
- 24 bay leaves
- 1 bunch (4 ounces) flat-leaf parsley
- 1 bunch (1 ounce) thyme
- ½ cup clover honey
- 1 head garlic, halved through the equator
- ¼ cup black peppercorns
- 2 cups (10 ounces) kosher salt, preferably Diamond Crystal
- 2 gallons of water
- Combine all the ingredients in a large pot, cover, and bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute,
stirring to dissolve the salt. Remove from the heat and cool completely, then chill before
using. The brine can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
(header photo from Salon.com)