Has Catalan peasant food always been nouvelle?

February 23, 2009

I lived in Barcelona for a few months in early 2006, and explored the food culture there as much as I could on a modest budget. Catalan food has been much-vaunted thanks largely to the molecular wizardry of chefs like the brothers Adrià and their disciples. There was no chance I was getting into their restaurant El Bulli, whose waiting list is years long. But there is so much food ferment to be had—both artisanal and nouvelle—that even the standard €10-prix fixe lunches were moments of revelation.

Across Spain even upscale restaurants offer reasonably priced two-course lunches, which are an excellent way to experience everything on offer for much less than what  dinner costs. This was how, at a restaurant in our neighborhood of El Raval called Carmelitas, I first tasted trinxat (pronounced trin-SHOT). It was a green lump whose ingredients were mashed beyond recognition, drizzled with oil and served on a square plate with two slabs of salt pork on top. Everything about it suggested a newfangled dish, almost a parody of astronaut food.

Of course it was delicious: savory and garlicky. Though obviously a puréed vegetable mix, I couldn’t tell of what exactly. Later I asked my friend Jeff Koehler, an American food writer living in Barcelona and author of an authoritative paella cookbook, about it. Jeff was skeptically amused: “They’re serving trinxat at Carmelitas?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Is it new?”

“Nah. Trinxat is peasant food! It’s just a cabbage and potato mash, about as traditional as it gets.”

That revelation was the key to just about everything else I’d sample in and around Barcelona. Even completely over the top avant-garde dishes—for example a cod crème with artichoke foam topped with raisins and chive that comes in separate layers in a shot glass and has to be mixed together before eating—have a taut underlying structure. Whether the food is highbrow or low-born, there is a shared meticulousness that is essential, never fussy or frivolous. Trinxat has five ingredients: cabbage, potatoes, garlic, oil, and salt pork. That you can plate it well and present it in a chic restaurant speaks to the inherent sophistication—and I suggest, design sensibility—of Catalan food.

As food writer Colman Andrews put it in his Catalan cookbook, it was the last secret cuisine of Europe. But that was years ago, and the secret is out. Here’s Jeff Koehler’s trinxat, “a very rough and quick un-recipe-like rundown for 4 people.” Put it on the fanciest plate you own and see what I mean.

Trinxat de la Cerdanya amb rosta

Halve and rinse a large winter cabbage and put it into a large kettle of boiling water. After it has boiled about 15 minutes, add two pounds potatoes (peeled) and continue to boil both until the potatoes begin to break apart. Transfer to a colander and drain well.

Heat some oil in a large cazuela or sauté pan and fry a bit while chopping/ mashing (“trinxtar” is a Catalan verb meaning to cut up with utensils into small pieces).

Meanwhile, in a small sauté pan or skillet, heat more oil and brown some garlic. Remove and discard the garlic. In the same pan, fry the salt pork; remove. Pour the garlic-scented oil from the pan over the vegetables and work in a bit.

Divide the vegetables among 4 plates and lay the salt pork on top.


One comment

  1. […] Designed food should equal cheap eats March 3, 2009 Further to my meditation on the inherent nouvelle qualities of peasant food, I’m wondering why this stuff is always perceived as highbrow and expensive. It doesn’t […]

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