Know your Catalan onions

Gerald Frost reviews Nourishing the Nation: Food as National Identity by Venetia Johannes

In 2010 Catalonia passed a law banning bull fighting. Since the legislation permitted the bou embolat, a form of bull-running in which lighted ares are attached to the bull’s horns, there is reason to suspect that the legislation was as much a reflection of Catalan identity as an expression of concern for animal welfare. Asserting national identity is often a matter of stressing what you are not: on this, as on other occasions, Catalan nationalists wished to dissociate themselves from an activity regarded as quintessentially Spanish.

Nourishing the Nation: Food as National Identity by Venetia Johannes Berghahn Books, £92; ebook £35.54

“Catalonia is not Spain” was one of the most frequently-used slogans during the illegal 2017 referendum campaign on independence. Catalans seek to demonstrate the difference between the two in a variety of ways: most importantly through the promotion of the Catalan language, but also by replacing Spanish names, flags and symbols with Catalan ones, as well as through the preservation of Catalan traditions in art, dance, sport, and cuisine.

Venetia Johannes’s Nourishing the Nation: Food as National Identity is a fascinating and mostly well-written study of Catalan gastro-nationalism, a term used by anthropologists to describe ways in which food production, preparation and consumption can be used to sustain the emotive power of national attachment. Since Catalonia has some of the best chefs and restaurants in the world, and the general standard of cooking in the home is extremely high, the author’s field work could not have been an ordeal.

Like political Catalonia, the region’s cuisine looks outward towards Europe and the Mediterranean, rather than back into the Iberian hinterland. It constitutes a complex and sophisticated system of recipes and techniques first codified centuries ago but demonstrating a readiness to absorb external influences, to adapt and evolve while retaining its distinctive character. As Johannes shows, fears that globalisation would destroy distinctive regional traditions of cuisine have proved groundless in the case of Catalonia, as it is in several other countries; it may even have had the opposite effect as efforts have been made to protect traditions and customs deemed to be under threat.

Fifteen years ago, my wife and I bought a house in a Catalan village 17 miles north of Barcelona. The moment we return there I am reminded of the extent to which food, and the festivals and celebrations in which food plays a central role, along with communal outings to identify and purchase the best olive oil or Cava, dominate conversation among all classes. Our participation in all of this is appreciated not merely because the Catalans, like most Spaniards, are naturally gregarious, but because our involvement is taken as a sign of sympathy for activities which, like the ban on the corrida, are meant as an expression of cultural differentiation.

Whether consciously or instinctively, or both, Catalans choose to prepare, cook and serve food differently from their neighbours, decisions that provide direct links to the nation’s history, traditions and geography. Many of the ingredients may be shared with other parts of Spain but are Catalanised — to use the author’s term — and in this way the resultant dishes become bearers and symbols of national identity. Catalan cuisine consequently has as little to do as possible with the Castilian culture which has given Spain its identity, but which Catalans regard as a brake on their advancement.

As the author shows, the attitudes of Catalans in relation to food are not without their ambiguities. The two food items which the foreigner is most likely to associate with Spain are paella and tapas. Both are served throughout Catalonia, but neither originates there. Tapas, the small appetisers which often precede a main meal, originate in Andalusia. ere are wonderful tapas to be found in Barcelona, and other cities and town in the region, but because such dishes did not originate there many Catalans like to give the impression that tapas are really only for tourists, which is obviously untrue. As a further act of differentiation Catalans make a point of serving tapas at the table, rather than at the bar, as in Andalusia.

Paella originated in the neighbouring region of Valencia but the Catalan version differs because of the greater use of onion. The Catalan tortilla differs from that served in other parts of Spain for the same reason. “We are of the onion,” is a phrase that has been long been used in Catalonia to indicate a strong attachment to the region’s cultural identity, but as a result of the strengthening nationalist sentiment over the last decade has come to indicate a strong commitment to national independence, perhaps even a form of it pursued fanatically.

There are parts of Nourishing the Nation which are likely to appeal primarily to the academic anthropologist but most of this diligently and intelligently researched book will also intrigue those interested in Catalonia’s long, fraught and so far unsuccessful bid to become an independent nation.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover