It is only June but we have already clocked up five trips to Catalonia, one to Paris, one to Croatia and two weeks in Vietnam, which is pretty impressive by anyone’s standards (though, I hasten to add, not the norm). Half of these were work trips but in our profession the definition of business and pleasure is always blurred.
We often take our waiters and chefs on food and wine trips abroad. For years, our cava producers Raventós have wanted us to go a calçotada festival in Catalonia, which celebrates the harvest of the calçot – a cross between a spring onion and a leek.
Once there, we soon stumbled across row upon row of the revered vegetable lined up neatly on wooden trestle tables in the town’s main square. We scooped up a bundle and headed to where thick wafts of smoke signalled the vast charcoal barbecues of the grilling station. Fifteen minutes later, the calçots were given back, wrapped in newspaper to finish cooking.
We peeled the charred skin and dipped the soft flesh in a small tub of romesco – the famous Catalan almond and pepper sauce. The whole lot was washed down with copious amounts of red wine and Catalan vermouth. Somewhat merry, and with black fingers, we moved on to another square, where we found more grills, sizzling away with botifarra, Catalan sausage.
The food was hearty and simple, perfect for the joyous atmosphere of the festival, where all social barriers are brought down by the humble grilled onion. A return visit has already been planned.
Last February, a friend invited us to stay in Girona. The purpose of the trip was to eat at the famous El Celler de Can Roca, which she had seen rise from modest beginnings to its stellar position today. As she knew the family, it only took us six months to secure a table, rather than the usual 12. But sometimes the spontaneous ideas are the more memorable.
For lunch we decided to go to Palamós in search of its famous prawns. With no restaurant in mind, we wandered around the port until a local directed us to a spot beyond the fishing nets.
Arrós amb llagosta
- Put the celery, carrot, onion, parsley stalks and peppercorns into a large pot, cover generously with water and bring to the boil. Add the whole lobster(s) and simmer for five minutes. Remove and set aside. When cool enough to handle, cut the lobster in half lengthways. Transfer the flesh from the tail and the meat from the claws to a plate and set aside. Return the head and any shell and claws to the pan. Simmer for a further 20 minutes. Remove, strain and keep aside 800ml of the stock. Add the white wine, brandy and saffron to the stock.
- Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-based pan over a medium heat. Add the chopped onion, garlic, fennel, peppers, bay leaves and thyme and a pinch of salt and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally until soft and caramelised. Add the blitzed tomatoes, season with a little more salt and pepper and cook for another 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add the rice to the pan and stir for a minute to coat it. Pour the hot stock over the rice, stir once, check for seasoning and simmer over a low heat, without stirring, for another 15-20 minutes until just al dente. Divide the lobster meat into bite-size pieces and add to the pan with any juices. Remove from the heat. The rice will continue to cook a little after it is taken off the heat. Transfer to a plate, sprinkle with parsley and serve with the garlic mayonnaise and lemon.
Tomato toast with anchovy
- Lightly toast the ciabatta, rub gently with the garlic and spread the tomatoes on top. Drizzle with the olive oil and season with salt. Place an anchovy fillet on top of each toast and sprinkle with chopped chilli if using. Serve immediately.
Grilled onions and romesco
- Preheat oven to 200C. Place the tomatoes in a small roasting tray with a pinch of salt and a drizzle of olive oil. Roast until soft. Place the almonds and hazelnuts in another tray, making sure not to mix the nuts, and roast for 10-15 minutes until golden. Remove and cool. If the hazelnuts have husks, rub off as much as possible.
- If using the dried guindilla and ñora peppers, put them and the sun-dried tomatoes in a bowl, cover with boiling water and leave to soften. Heat 150ml olive oil in a small pan over a medium heat and fry the pitta pieces until golden brown. Remove from the pan and place on kitchen paper to absorb excess oil. Pulse the nuts and pitta bread in a food processor, leaving them fairly coarse. Set aside.
- To make the paste, place the soaked dried peppers or bird’s-eye chillies and/or piquillo peppers and sun-dried tomatoes in the food processor with the roasted tomatoes and garlic and blitz until smooth. Scrape the paste into a bowl and fold in the vinegar and oil. Fold the nutty pitta into the sauce.
- Grill the onions, leaving any long green leaves attached, over a hot barbecue or griddle until charred all over Alternatively, place the whole onions on a baking tray and cook in the oven at 200C for 20-30 minutes until soft. Shake the olive oil and vinegar with a pinch of salt and pepper in a lidded jar. Peel the onions, discarding charred skin and leaves. Transfer to a bowl, pour over the dressing and mix gently. Serve with the romesco sauce.