This blog is an ode to the beauty of a Mediterranean kitchen with a Catalan heart. Since I moved to Barcelona seven a half years ago, I have been traveling all over the world, discovering new foods and new ingredients to cook with. Each memory I have of place is connected in some way to what I’ve eaten there. I’ll never forget the rich and savory lobster bisque I had in Helsinki or the crispy platter of fritto misto that I shared with a friend in Venice, the rich and creamy labneh I ate along the water in the Jaffa neighborhood of Tel Aviv, the warm sweet custard of a pastéis de nata from Portugal. The excitement of a new dish or a new taste was a large part of what made living abroad a self-renewing and deeply gratifying experience. However, each time I returned home–to my new home–it quickly became clear to me that I never really needed to leave my backyard to make new discoveries.
The region of Catalunya is full of ingredients and recipes that were foreign on my tongue. Standard ingredients became suddenly alluring. Lima beans were suddenly seductive when I knew them as favas, paired with salty chunks of ham and tiny flecks of mint. Chickpeas (or cigrons), which at one time I could only envision as an edible food when they were pureed in hummus, suddenly become a winter staple in my life, cooked in a warm, savory broth made from onions, tomatoes, and garlic. Apricots found their way into roast chicken alongside prunes, served in a dark rich jus. I realized very quickly that this wasn’t Spanish food–there were tapas, of course, but there was also so much more. Once I understood that, I spent time teasing apart the traditional Spanish foods–much of which was brought in for the benefit of tapas-hungry tourists unaware that visiting Barcelona means visiting a place very different from the country in which it resides–from the local Catalan recipes. I memorized the sometimes complicated names for what we ate and when and how and why.
I am partial to the idea that your first words in a foreign language become that which defines your experience in a place. My first fluency in the Catalan language was in food, and it seems no mistake that my world now revolves around the one thing that gave me currency in a place in which I often felt so out of place. Living in the world as an outsider made it habitual for me to want to catalog the world around me, perhaps as an exercise in seeing where I fit into the familiar and the sometimes uncomfortably unfamiliar environment around me. First I did it in quiet reflection, and then with my camera.
So, it seemed only natural that I would eventually put these ideas into “print.” With the recipes I’ve included in this blog, I have also shared stories about living abroad and reflections on the art of eating well in a foreign place, sometimes easier imagined than done. While not all the recipes are Catalan, nor even strictly Mediterranean, they are nevertheless built around the endless bounty of fresh ingredients that are easily found in this region and which inspire my daily cooking.
Ingredients–no matter how seasonal and fresh and beautiful they are–are only part of the experience of understanding Catalan cuisine. The other is how we eat here: gathered together around the table, sharing in the communal experience of sustenance, life-giving in all its meanings. The name Ataula has the table (taula) at its heart. As a whole, it means ‘to the table’, and I chose it because it signifies to me that sense of togetherness that makes eating in Catalunya such a special experience.