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Lleida: Catalonia's gastronomic paradise

Lleida: Catalonia's gastronomic paradise

by Great British Chefs 06 February 2019

We explore the beautiful Catalonian region of Lleida to discover a bounty of outstanding olive oils, wines, fruits and vegetables – with a couple of interesting surprises along the way. Get to know more about this beautiful part of north-eastern Spain and the dishes that make it such a fantastic place to eat your way around.

With its fascinating history, beautiful architecture and incredible food scene, Lleida has everything you could ever want in a city break. But for whatever reason, it still isn’t a tourist hotspot – certainly not in comparison to nearby Barcelona and Tarragona, which sit happily on the east coast. As more of us get to grips with Catalonia’s diverse and regional food scene, however, the city (and surrounding province) of Lleida is set to become a must-visit for intrepid foodies across Europe.

Cast yourself back a couple of millennia, and Lleida was a city of considerable importance. It was frequently battled over by the Romans and Carthaginians, eventually becoming a crucial outpost in the Roman Empire – indeed, the battle for ‘Ilerda’, as it was known back then, is one of the most famous pieces of Julius Caesar’s own writings. Lleida flourished under Roman rule, and would be fought over for the next 2,000 years. The city has belonged to Visigoths, Moors and French rebels, then later on was bombed extensively during the Spanish Civil War. From a history that has often involved war, modern-day Lleida has risen from the ashes with a patchwork of influences that makes it intriguing, inspiring and completely unique.

Lleida has always been a city of great culture and art, and remains so to this day. The University of Lleida – originally founded in 1300 – was the oldest in Catalonia until it was closed in 1717, though it was re-established in 1991. There are numerous museums and monasteries throughout the city, each of which contain important artworks and artifacts from the last 2,000 years. The awe-inspiring Cathedral of St Mary – La Seu Vella, as it is called in Lleida – is one of Spain’s most important buildings and a revered religious site for Christians, particularly those who are travelling on the Camí de Sant Jaume, the pilgrimage route towards Santiago de Compostela.

Lleida is bursting at the seams with history, but this inland city also boasts another trump card for visitors. The agreeable climate (famously known for its fog, which is a tourist attraction in itself!) makes the southern parts of the province of Lleida a paradise for Mediterranean-style produce – not just the olives and olive oil which make the area famous, but also a bounty of wine, fruits, vegetables, sweets, pastries and much more. In the northern reaches of Lleida you’ll find the rugged mountains of the Pyrenees, where wild boar roam free and more rustic, hearty dishes are enjoyed. Read on to acquaint yourself with the incredible food scene of this enchanting destination.

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To the north of Lleida are the beautiful Pyrenees, where you'll find rustic hearty fare and woodland ingredients such as mushrooms and wild boar
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Further south the climate turns more arid and Mediterranean, with olive groves and vineyards peppering the landscape

Flavours of Lleida

Olive oil

Olive oil is by far and away what Lleida is most famous for, and it has a long and storied history with olives that stretches back to the city’s Roman period. The Romans were the first to make olive oil here, but it was the Duke of Medinaceli in the seventeenth century who introduced the Palestinian olive trees – now called Arbequinas after the nearby town of Arbeca – that define Lleidan olive oil today. The Arbequina olive oils made in Lleida today have won countless awards and are regarded as some of the best in the world. Many of these come from a group of villages in the south of Lleida province known as Les Garrigues – now a DOP-protected area for olive oil. Olive oils made in Les Garrigues are deeply complex, with a flavour spectrum that ranges from green apple and artichoke to banana and aniseed, depending on how early in the season the olives have been harvested.

Wine

Lleida is notable not just for the quality of wine produced in the region, but also for the diversity of the grapes. Six sub-zones – Artesa, Vall de Riu Corb, Les Garrigues, Pallars Jussà, Raimat and Segrià – make up the Costers del Segre Denominación de Origen (DO) which you’ll see on most bottles produced in Lleida, and each zone has subtle differences that result in different styles of wine. A wide variety of grapes are grown here, but white wines mainly focus around the traditional Macabeu and Parellada varieties, which result in a light, fruity finish. The climate is relatively dry and arid for vineyards, and that makes it ideal for red varieties like Tempranillo and Garnacha, which result in powerful reds with plenty of body and tannins.

Fruit

As you would expect from this sort of Mediterranean climate, Lleida is a haven for fruit growers. A huge range of different fruits and vegetables grow happily here, making up a great deal of the local diet, but the weather and soil make Lleida particularly good for stone fruits. Nectarines, apricots, peaches and cherries all thrive here, many of which are considered to be so exceptional that they’re exported all over the world.

Mushrooms

The forests of Lleida are home to an incredible variety of mushrooms. This is thanks to the climate and altitude of the Pyrenean meadows, which create perfect conditions for a wide spectrum of fungi, many of which are quite rare (saffron milk caps – called pinetells locally – bloody milk caps and blue spot knights are good examples). Every autumn, mushroom hunters descend upon Lleida in their thousands to seek out their favourite varieties or to attend conventions and gastronomic fairs in the region.

Cheese

The arrival of phylloxera in Lleida was a disaster for some of the region’s winemakers – the microscopic insects fed on the roots and leaves of grapevines, destroying huge swathes of vineyards in the province in the early twentieth century. At the time winemaking was Lleida’s main agricultural industry, so many vineyard owners who had lost their grapes started turning to dairy farming instead. The Catalonian Pyrenees makes for excellent grazing pasture, so they soon found out that the fresh milk was of fantastic quality. This, of course, led to some excellent cheeses, and the likes of l’Alt Urgell and Cerdanya de Lleida are now DOP-protected. These soft washed-rind cheeses have a pleasant buttery flavour, without the usual farmyard pungency.

Sweets

The people of Lleida have an undeniable sweet tooth, and that becomes apparent as soon as you arrive in the region. In Urgell, just outside the city of Lleida, confectioners make the famous Agramunt torró (nougat) or – a product that is PGI-protected, meaning it can only be made in this small area. A huge range of other sweets can be found all over Lleida, from sweet ear-shaped orelletese pastries, to almond-flavoured sweets called granados.

Honey

There’s a huge variety of exceptional quality honey made all over Lleida province and locals eat it not just because it’s delicious but because of its various health benefits. Wild aromatics like lavender, thyme, sage and rosemary grow unabated in the alpine foothills of the Pyrenees, and the bees thrive here, producing natural honeys with different scents and flavour profiles. Keep an eye out for traditional honey must cake – a typical Lleida delicacy.

Meat

The people of Lleida are big meat-eaters, and while pork is arguably the most popular item on local menus the vast number of sheep grazing on the province's fertile pastures means you'll see plenty of lamb too. Further north in the Pyrenees hunters track the abundant wild boar that make the forests and woodlands their home, before returning to the city to cook civet, a type of boar stew.

Dishes of Lleida

Escalivada

A typical Catalan dish of smoky grilled vegetables, the name originates from the word escalivar, which means ‘to cook in the ashes’ – a reference to the traditional way that the vegetables would be cooked in the dying embers of a fire. Aubergine and pepper make up the base of a traditional escalivada, but tomato, onion and garlic are often included too – the vegetables are grilled until black, then peeled and served with plenty of Arbequina olive oil alongside grilled meat or fish.

Fricandó

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When the people of Lleida return from the forests with baskets full of mushrooms, many of them will head towards the nearest pot of fricandó – a hearty, rustic stew made with beef or veal and mushrooms. This is typical autumn fare in Lleida – the meat and mushrooms are browned to give the stew bags of umami flavour, then cooked in white wine and tomato sauce. A final Catalan flourish comes with the addition of picada – a paste made from almonds and stale bread which thickens the sauce before serving.

Bunyols de vent

Bunyols are traditionally enjoyed on All Saints Day in Lleida (and the rest of Catalonia). They’re made much like doughnuts – spoonfuls of batter are dropped into hot oil and left to puff up and expand before being dusted in sugar and eaten. They’re often served with a glass of ratafia – a herb-based liqueur that is made in Lleida and nearby Girona.

Snails a la llauna

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Eating snails is very much a French stereotype to most Brits, but Lleida prides itself on being the European capital of snail cookery. One of the simplest ways to eat them is ‘a la llauna’ – roasted in the oven, then enjoyed with a simple aioli or vinaigrette.

Tupí

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Tupí is fermented cheese that is totally unique to the province of Lleida. The tradition started with shepherds in the mountains, who would mix their cheese with strong liquor and store it in pots to ferment. It’s usually eaten with bread and wine but can also be mixed into sauces for an intense flavour.

Farcit de carnaval

This sausage is specially made to celebrate the local carnival, and uses up Lent foods like eggs as well as bread, raisins, pork jowl, pancetta and other offcuts. It’s one of the few cold meats in Lleida that is prepared after the traditional matança del porc (or ‘slaughtering of the pig’) on 11 November, when the Feast of St Martin takes place.

Cassola de tros

Translating roughly as a ‘smallholding stew’, cassola de tros uses ingredients one would expect to have on a small farm. Because farmers would work on their smallholdings from sunrise to sunset, they would take whatever they could find around them and add it to a stew at the end of the day. There’s a summer version and a winter version; the former contains aubergine, peppers and onion, whilst the latter has spinach and potatoes. These seasonal ingredients are added to a base stew of pork ribs and bacon, botifarra sausage, snails and beans.

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