Espatlla de xai al forn/Cordero asada - Catalan roast lamb

“Dishes are passed on like Chinese whispers, ever-evolving, but never new.” Joe Trivelli – The Guardian


Or in this case they don't even start out the same but somehow end up with the same name, more or less. The concept is the same - roast lamb, and the area of origin is the same - Catalonia, and yet there doesn't seem to be any agreement on what this dish is.


I really know very little about Spanish cooking but today for David's special meal he asked for roast lamb and Catalan. Of course, when he asked I had no idea whether such a thing existed but as always Google came up with several suggestions, all of them claiming to be Catalan roast lamb and all different. I could not really see any particular common element so I just picked one - this one - Espatlla de xai al forn from a book called The Catalan Kitchen by Emma Warren. It looked to be the most interesting, and besides the title of the recipe was in Catalan - and all of the others were just in Spanish. Very important to the fiercely nationalistic Catalans, so I decided to go with that.


There was also one other interesting version called Slow-cooked lamb shoulder with asparagus & samphire from another Catalonia focussed cookbook called, simply enough, Catalonia by Jose Pizarro, but asparagus is not in the shops yet and there is no way that I shall find samphire anywhere.


There is very little in common between these two recipes. The one I have chosen involves rubbing your lamb with a coating of rock salt, rosemary, cinnamon and bay leaf, all ground together and marinading it for a couple of hours, before discarding the salt - there was a lot of salt, and cooking in an oven on a grid above, eventually potatoes in wine and water. Different. The second is a rather more conventional Mediterranean stuffing of herbs, garlic, anchovies and capers in a rolled shoulder of lamb which is then roasted with some sherry. More normal It's just the samphire and asparagus that is very different really. I could have done it I suppose, with different vegetables, but I was rather intrigued by my more complicated version. Besides it also uses lemons and I have a lot of them. Now I've just got to find some vaguely Mediterranean way of doing Brussels sprouts - if indeed the Mediterraneans ever do anything with Brussels sprouts.


The now defunct Feast Magazine had a very tempting looking version that they called Cordero asado, which they translated as Catalan roast lamb, and as Feast Magazine was also pretty authentic with, mostly, recipes from immigrants to Australia, I have no reason to believe that it also is a genuinely Catalan dish. In this one the lamb has a paste of garlic, parsley and salt rubbed into it, and is roasted with white wine poured into the base of the dish - like my original one. So at least there seems to be a bit of similarity there.


And finally there is Catalan garlic lamb which I found on Winekiki but also - the identical recipe - on another website. This looks the least tempting, but it is the simplest, and it involves a lot of garlic and a bit of tomato purée. The French have a similar dish I think. Well France is just next door to Catalonia.


Catalonia - from my reading of Claudia Roden's The Food of Spain, and my rather old Time/Live The Cooking of Spain and Portugal - is quite possibly the area of Spain with the best food. It has the oldest cookbooks - that go back the fifteenth century, and of course, it had Ferran Adrià who is responsible for a massive revival of interest in haute cuisine in Spain. I think Catalonia may have the restaurants with the most Michelin stars in Spain, although I do vaguely remember that San Sebastian also claims that honour.


According to Claudia Roden the starry rise of Ferran Adria was also seen by many Catalans


"as a tragedy because young chefs in thrall to Adrià only wanted to make mousses, gelatines and terrines of everything and to be on television. A group of food historians, gastronomes, nutritionists, sociologists and others got together with chefs to form the Fundació Institut Català de la China in 1996m dedicated to researching the history and roots of Catalan cooking and to collecting and recording recipes from professionals and home cooks in every town, village and fishing port before the disappeared. The Institute is also encouraging chefs to revisit and update traditional Catalan dishes (to make them lighter and simpler.)"


Some people take these things very seriously. It's a bit like language, well everything cultural really - it's a constantly evolving thing - and perhaps the wide range I found of Catalan roast lamb dishes demonstrates this. On the side of the experimentalists like Adrià somebody (sorry I've forgotten who now) said:


“even the most abstract of dishes tie back to something already understood”.


Actually according to Claudia Roden the Catalans don't really 'do' lamb. They're really into fish - with their most famous dish being Zarzuela de Mariscos - a huge fish stew overflowing with shellfish of all kinds. Then there's also Romescu sauce and Cream Catalana which is a kind of Crème Brulée. According to the cookbooks, meat doesn't seem to be a big thing, with perhaps chicken being the exception.


My lamb is cooking now. It smells different although there is an all-pervading smell in the kitchen of David's failed experiment with vinegar roasted almonds which drowns it out a bit. So far it looks very uncooked and not very appetising, but I am hoping that this will change, that the liquid sloshing around in the bottom will gradually disappear into the potatoes which will go into the dish soon and hopefully in the end it will all be syrupy and tasty.


I don't think I have learnt much that I didn't know about Catalan cooking, but it always seems to me that most cookbooks that concentrate on a particular cuisine always go for the tried and true - the dishes we all know about anyway. Can anyone write a truly new and interesting book on Italian food for example? Can you write an Italian cookbook without having recipes for bolognaise and lasagna and pizza?


I'm just hoping that this particular dish is not going to be one of those that promises much and delivers little.

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