Cultural Fundamentals: La Picada
If you have looked at the recipes we have here on EatCatalunya, you may have come across a term that appears in nearly all of the entries for dishes that are of a stewy or soupy variety, and also in some rice dishes: picada. Picada — which literally means “chopped up” — is one of the holy grails of Catalan cuisine, a pillar of its tradition dating back to medieval times. The term refers both to the method used to make the final result “fer una picada” (make a picada) and the picada itself, which is a mixture of several ingredients made into a paste through the use of a mortar and pestle. Uses for the picada include flavoring a dish, helping hold together a sauce or making it more consistent.
While pundits will argue out what constitutes a “real” picada – some say a picada must contain some kind of nut, such as almonds, while others say that bread or garlic is inescapable — what it really comes down too is a series of dry ingredients (such as garlic, nuts and/saffron) mashed together with some liquid (olive oil and/or vinegar) with a mortar and pestle. But there is at least one version without any liquid: the basic picada for paella in these parts, for instance, which consists in mashing together parsley and garlic (I add a little sea salt to soften it up and it actually ends up getting pretty liquidy). Picada purists might condemn me for the simplicity of this version, but hey, that’s the way I was taught by a Catalan teacher. So there. A simple picada like this, when combined with olive oil, is perfect for finishing off grilled fish or seafood.
Ramon Parellada, owner of the famed Senyor Parellada restaurant in Barcelona, published an entire cookbook of picades in the late 90s with some 100 recipes. The mixtures range from a standard bread, garlic, nut and olive oil to concoctions containing cinnamon, anis, cumin and rosemary. According to Parellada, the quintessential picada consists of the following:
4 garlic cloves
6 toasted almonds
6 toasted hazelnuts
And who would argue with such an expert on the topic? I am no expert, but I can offer you one piece of key advice: to make a picada, you need to use a mortar and pestle. No food processors. No blenders. No chop-0-matic gadget. Which brings me to this: while it’s refreshing that there is an entire book on picades, I am convinced that this culinary gem in its true form might be on its last legs. While I have no problem whipping out my mortar and some elbow grease, I believe that I am in the company of few. Most home cooks here resort to some other mechanism for making the picada, or worse, they buy some version of it (particularly the parsley and garlic one I mentioned earlier) pre-made at the supermarket. Or even worse — they forego the picada all together (gasp!).
Yes, even in places like Catalunya where ancient culinary traditions persist, the temptation to get things done fast is hard to resist. As for me, I’m trying to get my hands on Mr. Parellada’s book so I can work up a little sweat while making some of his more obscure picadas. When I do, I’ll tell you all about it.