How did this project to trace the history of Catalan and Occitan cuisine come about?
I was interested in cookery from a young age and over the years I bought the few books there were on traditional cuisine. After I had acquired a few of them, I began to see that while what they said was fine, it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, as they didn’t talk about the history of the dishes. I began to sift through libraries and those I couldn’t get to, such as Barcelona, Paris or Palma, I asked for the books I wanted on microfilm. They were very expensive, but I accumulated a vast amount of data and I began to write. I still haven’t finished, and I’ve been doing it for over 40 years so far.
You’ve been called “the Coromines [Catalan linguist] of the kitchen”.
Cookery is, most probably, what would be left after a catastrophe, but language is much more important, it’s the greatest asset we have as a people. Joan Coromines was a sage, and I write books about cooking. You can’t compare one with the other.
What defines a country’s cuisine?
The climate and the local products. Occitanie and the Catalan Countries are neighbours. It rains a little more there but the climate is very similar, the animals and plants we eat are the same, and we share a history that was unfortunately brought to an end by the Battle of Muret (1213), but a lot of traces remain.
You’ve listed recipes and their local varieties and historical background. What’s the strangest dish you’ve found?
El Niu, no doubt, and not because we are in Palafrugell. It’s a very baroque dish, with five or six ingredients you wouldn’t think would go together. [Catalan writer Josep] Pla said that it seemed like an impossible dish but made well was magnificent. It cannot be compared to any other dish.
Is Catalan cuisine baroque?
Not in general. Perhaps we could talk about dishes from Empordà being baroque, because there’s a tendency to mix things, meats, fish and fruit. Mar i muntanya dishes are an example.
Have we imported many dishes?
Not that many. Apart from noodles (fideus), which are ancient, there is pasta, such as cannelloni or spaghetti, which were brought over by Italian chefs in the 19th century and who settled in Barcelona. They made Italian dishes, but over time they were adapted to local tastes.
Being from Valencia, I imagine you have a special interest in rice dishes?
We’ve just published the second volume. The third volume, which is written and will come out next year, is devoted to rice, pulses and pasta. I’ve documented some three hundred rice dishes of all types.
Are we talking about paella?
Valencians are very sensitive about this issue, to the point of sending death threats to Jamie Oliver for coming up with a recipe that included chorizo. In general, the paelles people make are terrible. Paella has to be made in a large recipient and it is better if it’s made on a wood fire. Dry rice is delicate. It’s easier to make caldosos [rice broth].
Do you like today’s cuisine?
I like it a lot. If I had the time, I’d do another book on molecular or creative cuisine. It’s a great cuisine, although perhaps not for eating every day.
Is traditional cookery disappearing?
It’s disappearing due to the pace of life. People don’t have the time for it. This history is like a handbook of past cuisine.
How big will it be?
There will be 10 volumes, of which four are already written. The first was launched in October and the second has just come out. We want to bring out one volume a year.
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