My technique was all wrong. ‘Don’t grind, pound,’ said Alicia Juanpere firmly, taking the large ceramic mortar from me and demonstrating how to wield the wooden pestle. ‘Like this. Pom, pom, pom!’ The almonds and hazelnuts were swiftly transformed into a smooth paste, which was mixed with garlic and saffron to make picada, one of the basic sauces of Catalan cuisine. Later on, the resulting brown gunge was stirred into a huge earthenware casserole containing prawns and chunks of hake. I was learning to make suquet de peix, a dish typical of the Mediterranean coast of northeastern Spain. Alicia showed us how to break up slices of potatoes with her fingers. ‘My grandmother always did it this way, and I learned from her.
I was in a restored stone house in the hilltop village of El Masroig, near the market town of Falset in El Priorat. About 20 miles inland from the city of Tarragona, the region is renowned for its wines – particularly dry, elegant reds. The house is the base of Catacurian, set up by former ballet dancer Alicia Juanpere, to teach not only the rudiments of Catalan cooking but also something of the traditions of El Priorat.
El Priorat resembes a giant doughnut. There is a mass of craggy slate mountains, the Serra de Montsant, in the centre, surrounded by gentler hills of red soil. From a distance, Montsant is a seemingly endless ridge of ochre rock stretching across the landscape.
A dish of black rice glistened on the table. It would never have happened without Alicia’s expertise with cuttlefish. ‘I’ve been preparing cuttlefish since I was eight,’ she told us, pouring us glasses of wine made at the cooperative just up the road. ‘I started helping my mother in the kitchen when I was five. I used to stand on a stool, and make my own mini version of whatever she was cooking. Then, at seven years old, she sent me to the market across the street. She never gave me a list, just some money, and said to buy fish, meat, fruit and vegetables. She told me to talk to the stallholders and decide what to get. It was quite a steep learning curve for a little girl.’
Later on, Alicia heated some milk in a pan with lemon zest and cinnamon while we mixed egg yolks with cornflour and sugar. We were making crema catalana, the ubiquitous Catalan custard dessert. After stirring it all together, the pan went back on the stove. ‘When it starts going blop blop, it’s time to pour it into the earthenware dishes and leave it to cool.’
A couple of hours later, I was sprinkling the dishes with sugar when Alicia handed me a hot iron. Although custard must rate as the softest of targets, I approached my task with considerable trepidation and leapt back as flames shot into the air. The surface of the custard miraculously turned into a crunchy brown topping – a good enough excuse for yet another glass of cava….