The shepherd, the siren, the sea and the mountain.

Sa Riera Begur |
The legend has it that the northeastern Catalan region of L’Empordà was born out of the union of a shepherd and a Siren.

It was Joan Maragall, one of the greatest Catalan poets, who back in 1900 composed a poem illustrating this love fantasy. Still today, it remains one of the finest descriptions of what this stunning little corner of the world is all about… a perfect love affair between the sea and the mountain.

We know geography exerts a strong influence on any local cuisine. It doesn’t come as a surprise then to find many Catalan dishes combining both meat (chicken, rabbit, pork, snails) and seafood (prawns, spiny lobsters, etc). Locals call them ‘Mar i Muntanya’ which is Catalan for ‘Sea and Mountain’ but refers to what we know as ‘Surf ‘n turf’ recipes.

Back in the times, during the Roman occupation and for centuries afterwards, the idea of adding seafood to the meat was to somehow extend the meals and make them larger. The abundance of shellfish and the lack of refrigeration techniques made seafood a broadly available and cheap ingredient that had to be consumed locally, whilst the meat was a more luxurious product that couldn’t be afforded by most people on a regular basis. As a consequence of this, shellfish was used as the main base for these recipes whilst meat would be added to enrich the dish.

Chef Santi Santamaría once said: “In Catalonia, we practice a type of cuisine that to some it might sound extravagant. However it comes from centuries of tradition, from a time when lobster was as cheap as chicken. What a wonderful time!

Needless to say, today is the other way around and the more expensive seafood is normally used as a complement to enhance the less expensive meat, mainly chicken.

There are many different ‘Mar i Muntanya’ recipes which we can find along the Catalan coast. Perhaps the most popular ones are ‘chicken with langoustines’ (pollastre amb llagostins) or ‘cuttlefish with meatballs’ (sèpia amb mandonguilles) but there are also many others that combine pork with crayfish, rabbit with prawns, snails with shellfish or chicken with codfish and cuttlefish.

As writer Josep Pla said: “A regional cuisine is nothing else than the landscape of that region being cooked in a pot”. If that is true, then the ‘Mar i Muntanya’ recipes are the best demonstration of that truth.