In last Saturday’s page I mentioned that I consider Basque and Catalán cooking to be the finest and most appealing in Spain. After many decades of study and careful thought, I have put both cuisines on a par, but above the other marvels that make up Spanish regional cooking.
It is no accident that Basque and Catalán cooks are the tops. Their culinary supremacy is not in their DNA, they have it because cooking and eating are important parts of their cultural heritage and they start learning at an early age.
Basque food is a fascinating subject and one that is always on the move because Basque cooks are constantly trying to say something new with old recipes.
Basque cooks have a long history of traditional recipes to draw on and provide inspiration. They also have technical flair and they seldom get a dish wrong.
One of the reasons Basques are such fine cooks and so interested in everything culinary is that as children food becomes an integral part of their daily life and they are very much aware their gastronomic traditions.
This early interest in the pleasures of the table starts off with parental guidance but it also continues in the classroom because it forms part of the school curriculum. Schoolchildren from the age of 10 are taught about the wild mushrooms that grow in their area and are given instruction in the classroom and also in the field.
In class they learn about the varieties available in nearby woods and also about their culinary possibilities.
They are taken on hunts when they learn how to spot wild mushrooms and identify those that are edible and those that could be poisonous. They are also taught the proper way to cut them at the stem so they will regrow for another day.
The result is that Basques grow up to be wild mushroom gourmets who go on hunts and then cook and eat whatever they are lucky enough to find.
Another reason for Basques’ culinary awareness can be found in their gastronomic societies — clubs where men meet to cook and eat. These societies are known by the Basque word txoko, which means little corners.
They are retreats where Basques cook a meal for their friends and eat it on the premises. A txoko could have anything between 30 and 100 members, depending on the size of the premises and the capacity of the kitchen.
The members of a txoko are not wannabe cooks on an ego trip and playing at gastronomic games in a kitchen that any professional cook would be glad to have. Most of them are splendid cooks and some txokos have even published books that give the ingredients and methods for their best recipes.
These txoko members are really steeped in their culinary traditions and by cooking and eating together they become more knowledgable about food and at the same time hone their technical skills.
Txoko cooking has a pay-off that benefits all Basques and visitors to the Basque Country. Restaurant cooks throughout the Basque Country know that most of their customers are well-informed gourmets and if a restaurant wants them as regulars they will have to produce high quality dishes at all times.
It is because of this that Basque restaurant cooks are extremely conscious of their duty to provide high cooking standards — and that is what they are very good at doing. That is why visitors to the Basque Country return raving about the restaurant meals they ate and the incredible quality of the food at even modest little eateries.
Basque cooks like to travel and Palma has been lucky in attracting several who have put down roots here over the years, much to the delight of everyone who is interested in eating well.
The best known of the Basques cooks who made Palma their home is Koldo Royo, who started off at the old Portopi restaurant and then quickly went on to open his own place in the Paseo Marítimo. He was there for 18 years and had a Michelin star.
Although Koldo closed his restaurant a few years ago he is still active in the local culinary scene, often behind the scenes and promoting the work of other island cooks.
The cooking of Catalonia is so rich and varied that we cannot talk about Catalán cuisine — we must say Catalán regional cooking or the cuisines of Catalonia — because they are many and they are most diverse.
Cataláns are lucky in that the sea and the land provide them with everything a well-stocked larder needs. Cataláns are also splendid cooks so they have been able to make the most of this vast trove of gastronomic treasures.
Catalán cooking can be divided into two basic types: that found in coastal areas and those dishes associated with inland towns and villages. The difference has more to do with the obvious one of fish on the one hand and meat on the other.
The cooking of fish is exemplified by that found in the kitchens of the villages and towns that stretch along the long coastal line — such as fish soups like zarzuela and suquet.
The other basic cuisine is that of country people — shepherds, farmers and other rurals in the valleys and mountainous areas who grow and hunt for an amazing variety of foods.
One of the big differences between these two types of cuisine can be seen in the main cooking medium. Along the coast, which is Mediterranean par excellence, most of the cooking is traditionally done in olive oil — and the Cataláns make some of Spain’s finest virgen extra olive oils.
If fish dominates the cooking along the coast, then it’s the pig that reigns supreme in rural areas. That means the main cooking medium is lard and that many country village dishes are robust and guaranteed to keep us warm in the harsh winter months.
Cataláns have always been renowned for their cooking and have produced some fine cooks and food writers. The first cookbook published in Spain was in Catalán and was printed in Barcelona.
Restaurants specialising in Catalán have always been scarce in Mallorca, although in some Spanish restaurants you find the occasional Catalán dish such as exqueixada or escalivada, both salt cod recipes.
Catalán cooks excel in so many facets of culinary delights that it is difficult to pinpoint greatest qualities. However, they handle wild mushrooms with great panache and they are better than most at game dishes, some of which contain just a hint of bitter chocolate to give them a very special flavour.
They also work wonders with bacalao (salt cod) and Catalonia forms part of the triángulo del bacalao — the imaginary triangle drawn between Bilbao, Barcelona and Lisbon that denotes the three areas where the cooking of bacalao is at its best: the Basque Country, Catalonia and Portugal — and in that order, in my opinion.