Catalonia has always made the most of the resources offered by the sea. The Mediterranean has given to the Catalans a great variety of marine species, up to 120. The most popular fish are small hake, sardines, John Dory or tuna. Nearly everything is used: heads and skeletons, small and ugly rock fish, crustaceans, ‘not very noble’ molluscs and urchin’s gonads. It can be said that the Catalans are one of the most ichthyophagous peoples in the world.
As a Mediterranean country, Catalonia has always looked to the sea and made the most of the resources of the ‘Mare Nostrum’. Fishing, and mainly that which is carried out without moving too far from the coast (deep sea fishing was out of reach), has been one of the most relevant sectors in the Catalan economy. Nowadays, however, the fishing fleet is in decline: in 2007 it had only 2.492 registered boats.
For centuries, the diet of most of the population – which was concentrated in the coastal villas of the region – depended in good measure on the catches. Such is it that the Catalans are one of the most ichthyophagous peoples in the world. With a consumption of 30 kg per person per annum (with white fish playing a greater role than blue), only Japan and Portugal surpass us. In spite of the fact that since the forties, fish consumption has decreased – there used to exist the social perception that eating fish was an exceptional luxury –, little by little it has started to recover its popularity.
According to a recent report by the Observatory of the Mediterranean Diet, which has analysed the consumption habits over the last twenty years, since 1999, the presence of fish in our shopping baskets has increased. To satisfy the demands for this market, obviously there is not enough with just autochthonous catches: in 2007, the catches in the ports of Gerona were 14 tonnes, while 8,5 tonnes was landed in Barcelona and 5,5 tonnes in Tarragona. Therefore, during the latter years there has been a growing tendency towards importation, especially from the Gallegan and Basque fleets but, also, increasingly, for cheaper species fished on the other side of the world.
Yet, this necessity to meet demand has encouraged aquiculture and local fish farms, which allows for a better control of the marine biodiversity and has even opened up an important exportation route, as in the case of the Delta de l’Ebre mussel and oyster and, for example, the Aran Valley caviar.
One of the explanations for the reasons that the Catalans’ prefer sea products is the enormous variety of species which, as we have already said, come from the kilometres of our Mediterranean coast, or from the lodges and markets of other points of the Spanish coasts, or even from far away seas.
In the Catalan Mediterranean we find 120 species of fish, crustaceans, cephalopods and shell fish. The most consumed fish are, by order, small hake, sardines, John Dory, tuna, European anchovies, anchovies and conger eel. However, the range of fish that plays a principle role both in homes and in hostelry covers a wide variety of species of the animal kingdom: hake, monkfish, sole, common mackerel; prawns and spiny lobsters, Norwegian lobsters; mussels, cockles, ‘rossellones’; and even urchins, sea cucumbers…Atlantic cod requires an individual explanation: eaten in our land since ancient times, when its preservation turned it into the interior region’s choice of fish, which turned it into the protagonist of a rooted integration in our cuisine, with quite emblematic dishes (Atlantic cod in honey, cooked in the Catalan style, with samfaina [spicy vegetable sauce], cooked in the ‘llauna’ [baking tin], in shredded cod salad, etc.).
A separate mention is warranted by river fishing. During the principle times of shortage amongst the Pyrenean communities, the river trout has, in truth, been practically the only fished species in our region, leaving to one side others. Cooked on the slab, they have become a part of the Catalan recipe book and, nowadays, fishing for them has a greater role due more to active touristic and gastronomic reasons, than for their incidence in fishmongers.
A second factor, other than the availability and variety of species, which explains the Catalan preference for marine produce, is the validity of a rich and solid recipe book. Once these products are snatched from their environment, Catalan cuisine has known how to make the most of them, with an admirable variety of techniques: some of them very simple (boiling those more difficult to peel, oven cooking the whole ones, grilling…), and other methods with a need for greater attention, which identifies the great dishes of our cuisine. Amongst these specialities we must point out stews cooked in sauce, enriched with the juices of the fish, and the dishes cooked in iron or earthen pots, which is often a fishermen version who, in this way, made the most of the catches that were more difficult to sell, like rock fish. The multiplicity of cuisines dedicated to the sea is, in this sense, significant. On an illustrative, imaginary sea crossing quite, they would depart from a mess kitchen on the boat itself; once on the beach, a grill on the sand could be the backdrop to ‘sardinada’ [barbecuing of many sardines] (which would, once again be a social gathering with the excuse to have a social meal), after an exciting auction of the catch, part of the fish goes to the markets and makes its way into domestic cooking, while another part, especially the coastal catch, ends up in the restaurants to be served to foreign guests. In both ambits, the small marine delicacies can, with a toss of the pan, become ingredients served in vermouths and aperitifs (which again is an excuse to chat around a table or lean on a bar).
With regards to Catalan eating habits of marine produce, the essential ability to make the most of things in our own cuisine is significant enough. We consume almost everything from the sea: heads and skeletons serve to make broth; small and ugly rock fish is used to make fish-stock; we eat crustaceans with delight, not very noble molluscs like mussels or wedge shells, and even urchin’s gonads. We even fry anchovy fillets with milk and serve it as an aperitif! We are always aware of the maxim of need turned into virtue and of our ability to preserve we must mention anchovies, European anchovies, tunas and, the long missed herrings, once the post-War shortages had passed. In some cases, even the humble catches have attained recognition and prestige: the ugly monkfish, the slippery sea cucumbers, the uncomfortable spiny lobster, being some examples of these sea fruits that social changes have turned into jewels of our gastronomy.