12 October 2011

Andorran Food

Andorran food could easily be called Catalan food, but we are going to make a strained distinction. It's mountain cuisine, with lots of sea-brine. It's simple - but by concept instead of necessity. It's served in busy bars, quiet restaurants and lunch taverns. We didn't expect this, but the food in Andorra had us more excited than any other culinary stop in the past several months.
Meals here start with tranches of toasted bread and halved tomatoes. The protocol: rub the tomato (and garlic, if it's also served) onto the bread, salt and eat. Some people drizzle olive oil over the slice, everyone leaves piles of smushed tomato on their bread plate.
The status of escargots - called, in Catalan, "cargols" - approaches that of national dish. They are typically served as an appetizer, almost charred in wood or coal ovens, sometimes sauced, usually plain. It's interesting that these little snails are so popular here - sometimes difficult to find in France, escargots might be an Andorran destination food for the curious.
Catalan spinach, at its simplest, is sauteed greens with raisins and pine nuts. In a small bar-cafe in Ordino, high up along a remote valley fork, we ate "espinacas" baked with egg, its edges crispy, its flavor intense.
A dish of legumes and fried pork, presented modestly in a young-persons restaurant in Andorra la Vella. The kind of plate that feels more elemental than spartan, it was served after an utterly uncomplicated hors d'œuvre of steamed mussels, brought to the table by a lanky boy in a tank-top - his mother was the cook, he was friends with all of the customers.
It's difficult to pass up clams, especially at a bar. They're a perfect compliment to the kind of elongated, cocktail-hour joviality of pyrenees evenings. Small, savory, smelling of salt and wine, they are easily picked-at or ignored for stretches.
The most surprising thing about Andorran food is the emphasis placed on seafood. Certainly there is a lot of trout - mountains always mean trout - but the food here, even at this elevation, is more attuned to the coast than to the stream. Far from feeling distant, the mediterranean is ever present; squid and octopus - "calamar i pop" - are very popular, as are cod ("bacallà"), and anchovies ("seitons"), the Atlantic staples.
Having lived in New York City for many, many years, we witnessed the advent and the market-saturation of tapas and "small plates." I would only reluctantly, at this point, go to a tapas restaurant in America. But here, in the high mountains, with Spain below us, tapas seem somehow unadulterated and re-appealing. Here, tapas are what they are supposed to be: unassuming accompaniments to an evening. We work and eat, talk and eat, drink and eat. It's been a welcome and sudden revelation - descending into the Iberian peninsula, discovering a cuisine that we knew but had somehow forgotten.
Above: sardines, codfish fritters and a plate of "pica pica." This last thing is something meat-addicted people should order... and everyone else should avoid.

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