Archive for November, 2012

Cooking in Catalan

November 26, 2012

For someone who’s not terribly fond of mushrooms – I like their flavor, don’t get me wrong; it’s the texture that wigs me out – I was quite happy with the mushroom soup I made for Thanksgiving dinner last week. I was even happier that I made it from a recipe in one of the Catalan-language cookbooks I brought back from Spain in October.

I can’t speak Catalan and my reading skills in that language are comparable to, say, a four-year-old just learning to read at all but, thanks to Google Translate and my Catalan-English dictionary, I managed quite nicely, thank you. And the soup was quite good, too.

Cooking is not unlike sociology and learning one’s way through the cooking of another culture is rather like a sociology intensive. Language and food and taste and the various oddities that surround the cooking style of a culture all offer glimpses into a culture. Bring those elements together and you come away with more than just a nice bowl of soup; you’ve learned a bit more about the world around you.

Take, for example, Thanksgiving’s soup: Sopa de Bolets or, mushroom soup. The Catalan are supposedly quite wild about mushrooms. Certainly, every book I read about the food of Catalonia went into some detail about the vast expeditions undertaken by the average Catalonian to favored, secret mushroom gathering grounds in the deepest, darkest reaches of the country. I spent three months there over the summer – hardly prime mushroom growing season – so I wasn’t able to experience that aspect of Catalan culinary life, but I will say that mushroom recipes abound in Catalan cuisine.

The problem with making recipes from other cultures, too, is that you can never quite get all the ingredients called for. When cooking time arrived, I wasn’t without anything but nothing I used was actually from Catalonia. The recipe, for example, called for rossinyol and dried cama mushrooms, neither of which, to the best of my knowledge, grow here in California. But, for that matter, it’s not as if I used Californian mushrooms, either. The dried mushrooms I used – porcini and morels – I actually purchased last year in Mexico City’s San Juan market (I did use fresh creminis and another type – I forget which). I used Italian olive oil rather than Spanish or Californian, for that matter, although the tomatoes were from California, as was the garlic and the almonds and the bread and the onions.

The soup was lovely and I took particular pleasure in making the sofregit – Catalonia’s answer to the sofrito – but, of course, one wonders how the ingredients might have tasted in a Catalan-made version. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through increased opportunities to travel the past few years, familiar foods do taste different in different countries. Terroir, I suppose, with different soil conditions and weather and any additional factors all coming together to determine whether or not an onion is sweeter or more pungent than its relatives overseas or the valley over the mountain range.

And, yet, reading through the recipe in Catalan, and cooking it up and serving to it my family and friends, did – if only briefly – transport me back to Barcelona. Struggling with Catalan (“What is ametlles again? Oh, right. Almonds.”) and then tasting the rich, earthy results in a holiday meal let me share my Catalan adventure with friends while giving me a chance to review some of the Catalan language I might have otherwise forgotten.

And, if nothing else, it made me think of Barcelona, and Catalonia, and Spain and, maybe, just maybe taste a little of the place again.