It will soon be summer and that means salads (think of Mallorca’s trampó), cold soups (like Andalusia’s gazpacho), and long cool drinks (cañas or a tangy gin and tonic while chatting on a terrace in the Paseo Mallorca). But it also means hot soups. Hot soups? In the summer? Yes, at least along the Mediterranean coasts of Spain, France and Italy.
If you visit fresh fish places in Puerto Andratx, Palma, Ciudad Jardín, Playa de Palma, Puerto Sóller, Puerto Alcudia, Puerto Pollensa (and many other parts of the island) you will see visitors digging into parrilladas de marisco — huge platters of grilled seafood including lobster, gambas, cigalas and other crustaceans.
But you will also see Mallorcans (and mainland Spaniards as well as visitors from France and Italy) being served elaborate soups made with thick slices of white fish as well as the full range of bivalves and crustaceans.
These soups frequently have a rice or pasta base and although they are referred to as soups most of them are eaten as a main course. It’s a bit like the paella: on paper it’s a starter but more often than not it’s the meal.
Wherever there are Mediterranean fishermen you will always find fish soups and casseroles, some of them very basic, others rather elaborate. It depends very much on the day’s catch.
But whether simple or on a grand scale, these fish soups are always extremely tasty, thanks to the flavour of the wide variety of fish, but also the subtle use of herbs and spices.
The Mediterranean fish stew is one of the world’s great culinary delights, exemplified best of all by the bouillabaisse of Marseilles, a dish of world renown. But on the whole I think Spanish fish soups and stews are more varied and interesting than those of France.
And in Spain it takes a lot to beat the fish soups of Catalonia where they is an amazing variety of versions along the Costa Brava, some of them with a very long pedigree.
If I had to limit myself to the fish soup of only one area in the Mediterranean (which is where you will find the world’s best fish soups) then I would definitely choose the top Catalán versions.
The Cataláns are fortunate in having a tremendous range of the fish that are ideal for fish soups and stews. These go from the small ones full of bones that are extremely flavoursome and are ideal for making stock, to the finest firm-fleshed specimens that are essential in all fish stews. They can also select from the best squid, cuttlefish, molluscs and crustaceans.
What distinguishes the Catalán version of fish stews from most others is its secret ingredient — which isn’t all that unknown. It’s our old friend the picada which we have already come across in so many other Spanish regional dishes.
The picada was invented to give body, texture and an explosion of flavour to an enormous range of dishes that takes in soups, potages, stews as well as fish, poultry and meat dishes.
A picada’s ingredients vary— they depend on the dish and the area — but they always include a thickener such as nuts, fried bread or savoury or sweet biscuits.
There will also be the addition of something sharp and acidic, usually in the form of some kind of wine or vinegar. Other powerful injectors of taste include garlic, saffron and parsley or other fresh herbs.
The picada is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years and can be found in Rupert de Nola’s Libre de Coch cookbook that was published in Barcelona in the 15th century.
In it there is a recipe for ‘potage de calamars i de sípies (potage of squid and cuttlefish) which has a picada similar to those used today. It consists of toasted almonds pounded in a mortar with a little vinegar and some of the potage stock.
Spanish and Catalán fish soups are superior to those of other countries partly because of another old friend whose name and ingredients have been seen on these pages over the past 30 years: the sofrito. A good sofrito is made with onions (sometimes spring onions), tomatoes, garlic and parsley sautéed slowly in virgen extra olive oil for a long time — anything from 40 minutes to an hour.
By that time and with frequent stirrings, the ingredients are reduced to a thick jam-like consistency that is the rock-solid base of so many Spanish gastronomic delights. Both of these techniques are used in two of the greatest Catalán fish stews: the sarsuela de peix and the suquet de peix.
Both dishes are such splendid fish stews that they take a well deserved place on the Olympic podium on either side of the bouillabaisse.
The suquet usually contains a variety of fish and shellfish, when it is known as suquet de peix, or fish suquet. But a suquet can also be made with only one fish, so we have suquet d’escorpora (made with scorpion fish, Mallorca’s cap roig), suquet de rap (monkfish) and many others, depending on which fish one likes best.
It’s very easy to make a suquet although there are dozens of different methods and, as so often happens in Spanish regional cooking, there is a never-ending controversy involved: whether the suquet contains potato or not.
Some cooks insist on the potatoes, others consider them to be a total heresy. People with no axes to grind and who have tried it both ways, usually have no personal preferences. A suquet is always made in an earthenware cazuela, so a Mallorcan greixonera of a suitable size and shape is ideal.
Some cooks make the sofrito in the cazuela, add the cleaned fish cut into pieces and five minutes before the suquet is ready they stir in the picada.
Others skip the sofrito and compensate by doing a more elaborate picada containing the liver of the fish (if it has one) plus a glass of rancid wine, a popular Catalán cooking wine available in some of the bigger supermarkets. They also add a little flour and sweet paprika, plus the usual toasted nuts, fried bread, garlic and parsley.
Either way, the fish and shellfish are cooked for only a short time with a lid on the cazuela. Just before the suquet is served, some cooks stir in three or four tablespoons of allioli (home-made garlic mayonnaise). Others prefer to serve the allioli on the side.
A zarzuela is a traditional Spanish operetta which gets that name because the first one was performed in the old Real Sitio de la Zarzuela, now known as the Palacio de la Zarzuela. It is the home of King Felipe and his family.
A zarzuela on stage is teeming with singers in bright costumes and this name was given to the Catalán fish stew because it also looks most colourful with its several kinds of white fish, black molluscs and pink crustaceans.
It’s not at all surprising that this Barcelona dish was given a name connected with the theatre because Cataláns have always been great fans of the opera as well as operetta. And it’s no accident that some of Spain’s greatest opera singers are Cataláns.
A zarzuela, or sarsuela de peix to give its full Catalán name, always contains a good variety of white firm-fleshed fish as well as crustaceans and molluscs. I have seen recipes with only one fish that were called zarzuelas, but this was an aberration and a complete misuse of the word: a zarzuela must have plenty of fish to provide a wide range of colours.
There is no absolute classic way of making a zarzuela, meaning that an authentic version can vary from area to area and from cook to cook. Some cooks add a little flour to the sofrito, others don’t. Some coat the slices of fish with flour before frying them in the cazuela, others wouldn’t even consider doing so.
Most cooks use a picada that contains the traditional toasted nuts or fried bread, so it is also a thickening agent. But other cooks prefer the dish to be on the thin side, so their picada contains only garlic, parsley and saffron, plus a little of the flour-based sauce. And some famous Catalán cooks like to put the zarzuela into a very hot oven for a few minutes just before serving it.
Whatever method is used, a zarzuela is never a soup. It should always have only a smallish amount of a thick and tasty sauce. And great care must be taken not to overcook the fish.
Zarzuelas invariably contain a mixture of dorada (gilt-head bream), rape (monkfish), mero (grouper), rascassa (Mallorca’s cap roig or scorpion fish) and sometimes merluza (hake). I have never seen a zarzuela without rings of squid. Gambas, cigalas and mussels on the half shell are also traditional.
One doesn’t need a vivid imagination to see that a cazuela packed with golden pieces of fish, crustaceans of various shades of pink, and the blue-black shells of mussels, is going to look pretty and colourful — just like the main characters and chorus on stage during the performance of a zarzuela.
As a zarzuela has so many ingredients that could break up if handled roughly, a wide flat cazuela is best for making it and presenting it at table. The fish and crustaceans should occupy the cazuela in a single layer.
It’s also a dish that calls for the very best raw materials — that means fresh fish, not frozen. The extra cost is worth it because a well made zarzuela is a superb dish that is as entertaining and enjoyable as…well, a night at the operetta.
In the 1960s and 70s (and before) zarzuela was on the menu at every fish restaurant on the coast as well as a few in urban areas that didn’t specialise in seafood.
The best zarzuelas I knew in those days were actually in Palma: at El Tritón in the Born just after Calle San Felio, where the original Bulletin offices used to be, and also at Casa Eduardo in the fishing port, which is still there, although no longer the modest place it used to be. It had an old-fashioned wood-burning stove in the dining room and on cold winter days and nights everyone’s favourite tables were those near the stove.
My favourite zarzuela wasn’t at Casa Eduardo or at El Tritón, but just round the corner from Casa Eduardo and half way down the street leading to the main door of the Real Club Náutico and the quay where Errol Flynn’s sailing yacht Zaca was moored.
This place was called La Cantina and, as the name suggests, it was an even humbler place than Casa Eduardo. It was on the first floor, was small, and was run by the wife of a fisherman. She did the cooking and must have had some help in the kitchen and the dining room, but my recollection is that she took our order and brought the zarzuela to the table.
In all the years I ate there, I would have a simple starter such as mussels, calamares a la romana or deep-fried boquerones and followed it with the zarzuela.
Never once did I order one of the paellas or any of my favourite fish a la plancha or baked whole in the oven. The zarzuela was so memorable that to go to La Cantina and not order it was totally inconceivable. I could eat marvellous paellas and fish a la plancha elsewhere, but no other restaurant I knew of could do zarzuela like the cook at La Cantina.
With La Lonja, Palma’s wholesale fish market literally on the other side of the street, the raw materials at La Cantina were always supremely fresh, and the zarzuela sauce thick and very smooth. What was truly unique about La Cantina’s zarzuela was its incredible flavour of fennel.
I was forever questioning the cook about this exquisite taste. Did she achieve it in the mortar with fresh fennel leaves or perhaps with anise seeds with all the goodness pounded out of them and into the picada?
But this was her little secret and she refused to reveal it. On one occasion when I was being particularly insistent, she laughed and said: “If you never mention it again I’ll tell you when I retire.”
Well, the day came when she was retiring and the restaurant was closing for good. When I went for what would be my last zarzuela at La Cantina I reminded her about promise to reveal the secret of the zarzuela’s fennel flavour.
She told me and it was a most simple way of achieving maximum results. Just three minutes or so before the zarzuela was ready to go to table, she dotted the surface with drops of Marseilles pastis and popped it into a very hot oven.
That was time enough to burn off the alcohol and leave behind the aniseed essence of the pastis that was the hallmark of La Cantina’s unforgettable zarzuela.