Albóndigas con Sepia

cuttlefish with meatballs

Cuttelfish with Meatballs (mandonguilles amb sipia) is a typical Catalan dish, where meat and seafood, Mar i Muntanya, are cooked together. This Sea and Mountain style of cooking is said to have originated in Empordà, in the north of Cataluña, where the Pyrenees Mountains come down to meet the sea. Legends say that Empordà was born of a marriage between a shepherd and a siren, though in reality, the region takes it’s name from the Ancient Greek town of Empúries, meaning “the markets”. Empúries was once an important Greek (later Roman) colony on the Costa Brava, which was eclipsed by Barcino (Barcelona) and Tarraco (Tarragona), falling into disrepair in the 3rd Century AD and abandoned by the 9th Century.

Mar i Muntanya itself, is said to have been invented in the town of Calella de Palafrugell, however, the Romans were definitely know to have cooked shellfish with poultry and in classic French cuisine there is poulet à la Nantua – chicken garnished with prawns or crayfish. The real regional origin may relate to a time before refrigeration, where farmers and fishermen traded meat for fish and combined the two. As far as I can tell, there are no strict rules regarding the sea and mountain combination, but the type of dishes often seen are Pollo con Gambas (chicken with prawns), Patacó Tarragoní (tuna fish stew with snails) and Albóndigas con Sepia (cuttlefish with meatballs). My recipe is a recreation from memory, of a dish I’ve eaten several times at the Victoria in Barcelona.


The cuttlefish is a mollusc in the class cephalopod, which makes it a distant relative of the snail and closer cousin of the octopus and squid. The large white cuttlebone (loved by budgerigars, inside the cuttlefish), is in fact an internal shell filled with gas, used to control buoyancy. This cephalopod has a large brain, is highly intelligent, can change colour to camouflage itself, shoots out a cloud of ink when threatened and lives on small fish, crabs, prawns, etc. The cuttlefish has a distinctive taste and smell, it’s slightly pungent and liverish, a little bit sweet and of the sea. It’s less popular in the UK than squid and octopus and is therefore considerably cheaper. In Spain, however, cuttlefish is a very popular ingredient in soups, stews, paella and fideuà. I bought the above cuttlefish from Steve Hatt, where they cleaned it for me. It’s not a difficult job, but removing the ink sac can be messy. Chop the cuttlefish body into chunks and the tentacles into short lengths.

Albóndigas (meatballs) recipe:

300g pork belly slices
500g veal leg meat (or beef)
1 small onion (chopped)
6 cloves garlic
1 egg
a dessertspoon parsley (chopped)
a piece of stale brown sourdough bread (cubed)
sea salt and cracked black pepper (to taste)
2 dessertspoons plain flour (for dusting)

carne de panceta

I recommend making your own meatballs – the packets sold in supermarkets contain little or no flavouring. If you don’t have a mincer, buy the meat minced and chop the vegetables finely before mixing together. If using pork belly, do remove the skin.

pan de masa fermentada

Roughly chop the vegetables and cube the bread.


Put everything solid through a mincer and sprinkle on a generous amount of salt and pepper. Stir the egg in after the meat has been through the first time.


Mine was mixed up by hand and got minced 3 times to thoroughly combine the flavours. Take a small pinch of the mince mixture and fry it to check the seasoning. I was cautious with the salt and pepper and it took 3 taste tests before I was satisfied.


Roll about 20 meatballs in the palm of your hand, then dust with plain flour. Refrigerate for 30 minutes before frying. Veal is cheap and common in Cataluña, but beef makes a very good substitute. Other ingredients that are often used, include sour wine, milk, almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts and chicken.


Brown the albóndigas in hot olive oil and reserve, before starting on the sauce.

Sepia (cuttelfish) Sauce recipe:

1Kg cuttlefish (about 600g when cleaned)
the meatballs
2 large onions (chopped)
4 tomatoes (grated)
10 pods of new season broad beans (or peas)
1/2 pint fish stock
a large squirt of anchovy paste
a large glass of Albariño (or other dry white wine)
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and cracked black pepper (to taste)
a teaspoon chopped parsley


Using the same olive oil and pan, make a sofregit –  gently fry (sofreír – to underfry) the onions over a low flame until they become soft and caramelised. The onions above may look overcooked, but the dark colour comes from the meatballs, previously browned in the same oil. This adds to the flavour as per a roux in gumbo.


When the onions are soft and sticky, grate in 4 tomatoes – cut them in half and grate the wet side, discard the skin.


Add the garlic, anchovy paste, parsley, wine and a splash of stock. Season with salt and pepper (to taste) and let the alcohol in the wine evaporate for a couple of minutes.


Mix in the cuttlefish pieces and turn the heat down – cephalopods need to be cooked very quickly or very slowly, otherwise they become tough.

albóndigas en salsa

Return the meatballs to the dish and pour on more stock, so that they are almost submerged. Cover with foil or a lid and cook at a low temperature on top of the stove for an hour, stirring occasionally. Don’t adjust the seasoning after this point.


After a hour, scatter the broad beans on top (10 minutes before adding the picada), re cover the pan and the beans will steam. Fresh peas are more common, but this year’s peas were one week away and I had some lovely new season broad beans from Perry Court Farm, which were pea size. Broad beans are, after all, the original Mediterranean bean.

albóndigas con habas

Picada recipe:

10 toasted almonds
2 large cloves garlic (chopped)
a dessertspoon parsley (chopped)
a slice of fried sourdough bread
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
3 dessertspoons cooking liquid

In Cataluña, many dishes are finished off with a flavour enhancing thickener called a picada. This usually contains nuts, dry bread, garlic, vinegar, herbs and some cooking liquid.


Toast a handful of blanched peeled almonds in a frying pan.


Grind the almonds, fried bread, garlic and parsley with a mortar and pestle, before adding the sherry vinegar and three dessertspoons of the cooking liquid to make a smooth paste.


Combine the picada with the stew 5 minutes before serving – this should give it a burst of flavour and thicken up the sauce.

albóndigas con sepia

Sprinkle on a little chopped parsley for decoration and serve with boiled or fried potatoes and homemade allioli on the side. I recommend a glass of chilled Albariño as a suitable accompaniment.

About Mad Dog
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4 Responses to Albóndigas con Sepia

  1. Eha says:

    Heavens above ! This is exciting !1 You mean there was ‘surf and turf’ all that time back ! I always thought that idea came from the so-called New World 🙂 ! Having been around people and places associated with food for so long I find it very exciting to find a recipe totally new to me . . and this one is. Yes, cuttlefish is used less often than squid and octopus here also, but I can easily get it. Love your picada also as I have not made one with fried bread. Well, cannot get the ingredients until late next week, so to a fascinating history lesson in the interim . . . thanks Mad . . . and take care . . .

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