Catalan Food Guide – What Catalan Cuisine To Eat In The Costa Brava
Catalan Food Guide
We’ve been living in Catalonia, and in the Costa Brava, since 2017. That’s a lot of time to learn about Catalan cuisine. Although I am learning new things each and every day, I’ve also learned the difference between typical Catalan food and typical Spanish food. In this post, we share our tips on what to eat in the Costa Brava, with a focus on Catalan dishes. It’s our attempt to shine some light on our adopted home.
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What To Eat In The Costa Brava
Our focus here is to share what traditional Catalan dishes you are most likely to see on a Catalan menu when traveling in the Costa Brava. We will also dispel some myths about Spanish food in the region and introduce travelers to some traditional dishes that they are probably not all that familiar with. The goal here is to help travelers find some of the most typical Catalan food when traveling to Girona and the Costa Brava.
Catalan Travel Blog Pro Tips
Girona is one of four provinces in the Spanish region of Catalonia. Barcelona is one of the other four. The Costa Brava is the stretch of Coastline that starts just north on Barcelona and runs to the French border. The Catalan dishes in this guide are found throughout the Costa Brava. Many of them can also be found in Barcelona and throughout Catalonia.
What About Catalan Tapas?
We often get asked by travelers to Girona and to the Costa Brava about what tapas they might find on a Catalan restaurant menu. Here’s the rub. Spain has a regional cuisine. The food in Catalonia is entirely different from the food in the Basque Country in the North or in Andalusia in the South. I understand that tapas happen to be one of the most famous Spanish foods, but they are not really a Catalan thing. Not in the same way they are in Andalusia, like the tapas in Seville or Malaga, or in the Basque country, like the pintxos in San Sebastian or Pamplona.
There are tapas on Catalan bar menus, often including a mixture of the staples of a Catalan diet. These tapas include patatas bravas, plates of jamon or cheese, or even chicken strips, which are common at almost every bar. That said, the notion of tapas hopping in the evenings is just not a thing. Instead of looking for typical Catalan tapas, try some of the main courses and dishes we recommend here.
What is Catalan Cuisine?
Many travelers to Catalonia and the Costa Brava are probably unfamiliar with the cuisine of the area. The cuisine is influenced by Spanish food, Mediterranean food, and even French food. There are also some dishes that are entirely unique to the region.
Spanish cuisine is just not well understood in much of the world. It doesn’t have the same exposure as Italian food. Everyone knows pizza. Everyone knows pasta. Spanish cuisine is different. And add in the complication of attempting to understand Catalan cuisine. It’s a challenge.
Catalonia is known for the sea and the mountains – great fish and seafood alongside locally grown grilled or cured meats. To be sure, jamón will be on the menu, as will patatas bravas, croquetas, and in the summer, gazpacho. But there are regional specialities, the truly Catalan dishes, which show off the best of the area.
Catalan Cuisine Pro Tip:
One of the best ways to learn about a local cuisine is to visit one of the local markets. While in Costa Brava, try stopping by Girona and visiting the Mercat del Lleó. They are open Monday through Saturday before 2 pm. It’s a great way to not only explore the local products but also to get a look at some of the most typical dishes from some of the prepared food stalls.
Must-Eat Traditional Catalan Foods And Dishes
After living in the Costa Brava for two years, we’ve come up with one of the most extensive lists of the must-eat dishes in Catalonia. Some of these are dishes you are likely to find in Barcelona and elsewhere in Catalonia. Some are unique to the Costa Brava, Girona, or even to particular fishing villages along the coast.Traveling to Spain? Check out our Spain Packing List - What To Wear In Spain
Embotits – Cured Meats and Jamón
Charcuterie, or embotits in Catalan, are quite popular in the Costa Brava and throughout Catalonia. Plates of cured meats and sausages are often enjoyed before a meal, or as an alternative to a meal in the form of a pica pica. Pica pica is essentially a slang version of picar, to pick, and often includes bread with tomato, cured meats and cheeses, olives, and perhaps potato chips.
Jamón is produced predominantly in Andalusia, including Sevilla and Cordoba. As much as jamón is not Catalan, it’s very popular and is eaten almost daily throughout the Costa Brava. In addition to jamón, look for fuet, a dry-cured sausage, which is extremely popular. It is made with minced pork meat and fat along with seasonings, including salt and pepper. Or, look for llonganissa, or llonganissa seca, or dry. This sausage is made from cubed or minced pork loins, which are drained of excess liquid. It is seasoned with salt and pepper, encased, and hung to dry.
When visiting a butcher, you can also find a bowl of fried, tasty, pork bits right on the counter. These are pork llardons or greixons. They are sort of the left-overs of the pork processing, including the fat. They are pressed and fried. They are most like chicharrónes, which are fried pork belly or pork skin. Llardons, however, are slightly less crunchy, but just as tasty.
Everyone associates olive oil with the Mediterranean diet but it is also a staple of Catalan cooking. There are different types of olive oil for different purposes. Some olive oils, often of lesser quality, are used to cook. Others are used for flavor and should not be cooked. Although there are about 10 companies producing olive oil in the Costa Brava, only five can use the DOP “Oli De L’Empordà” label of quality. Two of the most common olives grown in the Costa Brava are the argudell, which is native to the area, and the arbequina, which is an international olive variety that grows well.
Look for olive oil with the DOP label on restaurant tables or in gastronomic shops. It makes a great souvenir. Like many other Catalan kitchens I am sure, we have several types of olive oil at home. Some for cooking and some just for eating. We will dip bread into olive oil, drizzle it on cheese, or even drip some onto cooked, grilled meats before serving.
One of the best ways to eat olive oil is in aioli, a macerated mixture of olive oil and garlic. It is used to top many dishes or can be eaten as a spread on toasted bread. Aioli is made by crushing garlic and olive oil in a mortar and pestle until it becomes creamy. It is sometimes referred to by travelers as Catalan mayonnaise, but it is so much better than that. We add it onto sandwiches as well at home.
Pa Amb Tomàquet – Bread With Tomato
It’s impossible discuss Catalan cuisine without talking about pan con tomate, or pa amb tomàquet in Catalan. A seemingly simple dish of bread with tomato it is a staple of the Catalan diet, served at almost every meal, including breakfast.
Tomatoes weren’t introduced to Europe until the 18th Century. In the late 1800’s, bread with tomato started as a way to repurpose two-day-old bread. The stale bread was rubbed with tomato to soften it, and then drizzled with olive oil. When ordering jamón or cheese in Catalonia, generally it is served with a plate of bread with tomato. It also is often ordered as a starter during lunch or dinner. And it is normally served on the breakfast buffet at hotels.
Botifarra Sausages – Botifarra And White Beans
Botifarra at its most basic is a Catalan pork sausage, but there are many varieties. Botifarra Catalana is a lean pork sausage that is pink in color, but more white when cooked. It is only made with lean pork. Another version is botifarra de perol, which is made in the pot (perol).
Whereas botifarra Catalana is more similar to a sausage in the US and elsewhere in Europe, botifarra de perol is made from head and shoulder meat and bacon rind, and also might include offal and blood. It’s more fresh tasting with a slightly stronger taste. And it tends to have a fattier consistency than botifarra Catalana, but fat is flavor.
Both sausages are served a la plancha, or grilled, often with Santa Pau white beans. But, it is more likely that botifarra de perol would be served boiled. Botifarra can also be prepared as a blood sausage, known as botifarra negra. Sometimes it includes a bread mixture inside the sausage to help with the consistency.
Another form of botifarra that is perhaps more difficult to find on restaurant menus is botifarra dolça, or sweet pork sausage. It is sold both raw and dried, the latter being similar to a sweet fuet. It’s a unique sausage in that it is sweetened with sugar, along with lemon and perhaps cinnamon. The raw botifarra dolça can be found at butchers and food markets and is eaten raw, perhaps an acquired taste.
Anchovies and Boquerones
If there is one food product that is quite popular in Catalonia, but that many travelers, particularly Americans, would be hesitant to try, it’s anchovies. Anchovies are eaten fresh as well as salted and cured. The fresh version is usually prepared either fried or served simply in vinegar and often lemon. The fresh versions are normally referred to as boquerones on menus, or as seitons in Catalan. These are some of my favorite things to eat in Catalonia. I enjoy a plate almost every weekend with a little vermut in Girona.
The cured anchovies, or anxova in Catalan, are the ones people are more familiar with outside of Spain. These are salted for a period of time. Once cured, they are cleaned and packed in jars or cans in olive oil to keep them moist. In the Costa Brava, they are often served on a plate in olive oil as a tapa or are draped across a piece of bread with tomato. Don’t be afraid of these Catalan dishes. They are must-eats in Catalonia.
Duck – Confit And Foie Gras
Being so close to France, duck and duck confit are both popular on Catalan restaurant menus. A duck confit is a duck breast and leg that has been softened and cured in duck fat until tender and soft. It is roasted often leaving a crispy skin. We’ve eaten some amazing duck confit living in Girona and often prepare it at home as well.
The French influence is also felt by the variety of foie gras available. There are some top producers in Catalonia. It is common to find foie on many restaurant menus, even on menús del día, which are the three-course-lunch menus often found for less than €15 per person. For many Americans, this is surprising. To be served three courses for less than €15 where one of them includes foie gras! For us, it’s the benefit of living in a region so close to France.
Cargols – Snails
Snails, or cargols in Catalan, are a typical Catalan dish found in the Costa Brava. In Catalonia, the snails are smaller than a typical escargot in France. They are prepared in different ways. Cargols are normally cooked on the stove in a sauce similar to the start of a Catalan rice dish, including tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and onions, sometimes with a little botifarra pork sausage.
Or, they are prepared by dusting them in salt and pepper (my favorite) or cooking them in olive oil, garlic, and parsley, known as cargols a la llauna. They are normally served with toothpicks to pick the snail out of the shell, perhaps with a little aioli for dipping. They are juicy and flavorful and nothing to be afraid of.
Bacallà – Salted Codfish
Bacalao, or bacallà in Catalan, is a salted cod fish that forms the backbone of many typical Catalan dishes. It can be considered part of Catalonia’s culinary heritage. Cod arrived in Catalonia as early as the 16th Century. It became so popular because it is easy to salt and preserve meaning it lasted a lot longer than other fresh fish. Salted cod might not sound too appealing to many culinary travelers, and it can be an acquired taste. But, when used in salads and other dishes the bacalao is tender, juicy, and sometimes even a little sweet.
Another popular starter is prawn carpaccio, sometimes using Palamós prawns. Carpaccio is traditionally an Italian dish made with sliced, raw beef. Although not a traditional Catalan dish, it is commonly featured on contemporary restaurant menus throughout the Costa Brava. In Catalonia, the raw prawns are sliced ultra thin, almost like tissue paper. It’s normally drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with sea salt and other flavorings, perhaps even topped with edible flowers. Prawn carpaccio has a unique texture to it, and can take some getting used to. It normally has a strong taste of the sea, but is worth trying.
Arròs – Catalan Rice Dish
Many of the main dishes in the Costa Brava are considered mar i muntanya, or sea and mountain. This is because the Costa Brava is sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees Mountains. There are Catalan rice and pasta dishes that fall within this category, but they can be confused with dishes from elsewhere in Spain.
Travelers assume that all travel to Spain involves eating paella. Paella is a rice dish traditionally from Valencia, an area that also has Catalan influences. But, not all rice is paella. Arròs, or rice in Catalan, is not paella. There are many differences between the two. In the Costa Brava the rice dish is more brown-colored, often using rice from Pals.
In the end, what is important is that rice dishes should be referred to as arròs on menus in the Costa Brava to ensure it is the authentic Catalan version. If there is a sandwich board in front of a restaurant with photos of different types of paella, find someplace else to eat. These are often commercial paellas made by a corporation and shipped frozen to restaurants around Spain.
Fideuà – Catalan Noodles
Fideuà is like arros but with short pieces of vermicelli noodles instead of rice. It is served in a paella-style pan, and topped with prawns and other seafood. The noodles are not boiled ahead of time, but instead are browned in olive oil directly in the pan. Then, the noodles are cooked in a fish or seafood broth, added a little at a time. Fideuà is normally served or topped with aioli. We often pick up fideuà from our local butcher for an easy dinner at home.
Eating In Catalonia Pro Tip:
If traveling in the Costa Brava on a Thursday, find a restaurant with a menú del día with rice. The Catalans eat rice on Thursday – it’s tradition. This is the best way to find authentic rice on a Catalan menu in the Costa Brava.
Suquet And Cim i Tomba
Two of the most uniquely Catalan dishes to try in the Costa Brava are suquet and cim i tomba, two different versions of a Catalonia seafood and potato stew. Suquet de peix is a potato-based seafood stew. Originally a fisherman’s’ stew it was a way for the fishermen to use up the fish they were unable to sell at the market that day. It uses a fish broth as its base, along with a picada mix that could include nuts, crusty bread, garlic, and chili powder. It’s normally prepared with monkfish and prawns. This is one of my favorite Catalan dishes, but it sometimes difficult to find. If you find it on a Catalan menu – order it!
Cim i tomba is another Catalan seafood stew, but one that is most commonly associated with the seaside town of Tossa de Mar. Fishermen would bring a small stove with them on their boats when they were out to sea all day. They would bring a basket with potatoes, onions, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, oil, and spices to make their own stew on board with the catch of the day. In order to eat cim i tomba head to the coastal town of Tossa de Mar.
There is more to Catalan pasta than fideuà. The cannelloni, or canelons in Catalan, are served stuffed with minced meat and lathered in a creamy béchamel sauce. Sometimes the sauce is spruced up with mushrooms or truffles in the fall or creamy foie gras in winter. Cannelloni started as a dish typical around Christmas, but now can be found almost all year round. This has become a comfort food for us. We often have it at home after traveling.
Catalan Desserts and Sweets
We are not huge dessert people, often finding ourselves filling up on starters and main courses. But, there are a handful of Catalan sweets and desserts that are worth trying when in the Costa Brava.
There is no pastry more “Girona” than the xuixo, a custard filled pastry topped with cinnamon sugar. They are generally big, but also come in a smaller version, called xuixo petit. Some bakeries offer two varieties, crema and nata. Crema has almost a crema catalana filling, or like the filling of a Boston cream donut in the United States. Nata is more like a white, light whipped cream filling.
There are other pastries and sweets that traditionally were made during a particular season or in conjunction with a particular holiday. One of the most Catalan pastries is a bunyol, which were generally eaten during Lent and around Easter. Bunyols are similar to a small donut or fritter, round in shape. Normally they are made with a little bit of anise to add a special flavor and sprinkled with sugar when warm.
In addition to these pastries and sweets, there are few typical Catalan desserts that feature prominently on restaurant menus. Most popular is probably crema catalana, most like a French crème brûlée. Some Catalans, though, argue that crème brûlée is the French version of crema catalana. The main difference is that crema catalana is made with milk instead of cream. Other typical Catalan desserts include recuit, a Catalan cheese similar to a fine ricotta cheese. It is usually served with a little honey or other fresh preserves or jams. Another unique dessert to try is a cake called taps, which are shaped like cava corks and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Where To Learn More About The Food Of the costa brava
Over the last two years of living in the Costa Brava (we are based in Girona) we’ve researched a lot about how to travel for food in the region. This Catalan food guide only scratches the surface. In 2019, I published The Food Traveler’s Guide to the Costa Brava to help travelers to the area learn more about what to eat and what to drink in the Costa Brava.
The book dives deep to help traveler’s avoid the trap of eating nothing but “paella” and patatas bravas during a holiday in the Costa Brava. It also includes recommendations on what towns to visit, where to stay, and how to explore the Catalan wine region of Empordà. Definitely check it out! It’s available in paperback and as a Kindle download.
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