Travel to the windy coastal regions of Baix Penedès, Alt Penedès and Garraf, south of Barcelona, in the colder months between November and April, and you might find yourself running into throngs of people dressed in traditional Catalan costume (funny red barretina hats and all) and gathering for a festive celebration of an important cultural icon: the xató salad. “A salad?”, you ask?
What is xató?
Yes, a salad. Curled endive or seasonal escarole with bacalao (salt cod), flaked tuna, anchovies and local olives. But what makes the dish stand out is its bright orange sauce, piped over and folded vigorously into the greens. The recipe can change significantly from one family to another and geography also has a lot to do with it. The five towns famous for authentic xató are Calafell, El Vendrell, Sitges, Vilanova i la Geltrú and Vilafranca del Penedès. Also, each of the latter has a slightly different recipe for it. They each also claim and fiercely dispute the origin of the recipe yet there has been no consensus thus far.
Basic xató sauce is made by grinding up almonds, hazelnuts, ñora and guindilla peppers, bread, garlic, roasted onions, tomato, olive oil and vinegar in a ceramic mortar with a pestle. It is the sauce, in particular, that varies by region. In El Vendrell the garlic is roasted. In Calafell it is raw. And in Sitges the sauce includes bread. Cooks in Vilafranca del Penedès prefer to use a brand of sweet tea biscuits. Family traditions dictate whether the salt cod is desalted, marinated or smoked, and whether the anchovies are salted or pickled. The famous Arbequina olives of Catalunya, however, are always present.
La Ruta de Xató
Although the 5 rivaling towns can´t seem to agree on which one of them actually invented xató they do all share a mutual love for the dish. La Ruta de Xató is a popular path connecting the towns where xató tradition is kept alive and well. The route also offers visitors a brilliant opportunity to discover the expansive vineyards and beautiful natural landscapes of the region – the Mediterranean beaches and hilly interior, both echoed in the ingredients of the dish.
The Ruta del Xató has always had a famous chef-ambassador to lead cooking demonstrations, share recipes and help promote the region´s gastronomy. Starting in 1998 with Ferran Adrià, ambassadors have included Michelin chefs Carles Gaig, Carme Ruscadella, Joan Roca and Fina Puigdevall. In fact, Ruscadella offers a bite-sized version of the salad as part of her tasting menu in her 2-Michelin restaurant “Moments” in the Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona as a reminder of her Catalan background.
How to get your fill of xató salad
“Xató season” runs from November to April each year with xatonades populars (one-day xató celebrations) taking place throughout this time. At these events teams of xatonaires gather to line long tables with their mortars and pestles and prepare their salads. The city hall also prepares xató for festival-goers in exchange for an inexpensive food ticket. The Exhibició de Xatonaires Infantils teaches children about the importance of traditional dishes to maintaining Catalan identity. Join the party by attending one of the events happening this year:
Besides these events, the Ruta del Xatço proposes a wide range of activities, including festivals, museum tours, hiking, tastings, classes and outings which you can enjoy with friends or family. All participating restaurants will make the salad available in a tapa version so you can try figure-friendly portions.
Or how about joining us for a fascinating Full Day Bike Wine Tour of Penedès and then heading over to Vilafranca, the capital of the wine region, for a fantastic meal of xató and truita variada (Spanish omelet) at one of the many fabulous restaurants in the Ruta?
Catalans are a people fiercely proud of their food culture, their escalivada, escudella, suquet de peix and calçots. Locals associate many of the region´s counties with particular ingredients or dishes – the hazelnuts of Reus, the sausages of Vic, the potatoes of Prades, the white beans of El Maresme, the Trinxat of Cerdanya, and also the famed Bomba rice of the Ebre Valley…
To learn more about Catalan culture and live an authentic foodie experience, try a bowl of xató. Or, participate in one of the fantastic festivities celebrating this delish dish!
Feature Image: revelandomisfuentes.com