“Do you know how to eat that bread?” he asked from the next table over. I was in the middle of slicing a small tomato to top onto crusty hard bread, so hard that I wondered if it was stale, and in doing so committed a foodie faux pas on one of the most traditional Catalan dishes within the first two hours of arriving into Barcelona.
We were at La Taperia inside El Nacional, a multi-space restaurant that is really just a fancy food court complete with a cava bar in the middle. At La Taperia there are two ways to order food: from the paper menu and tapas al cante which is a task of flagging down the server who passes by announcing the specialty tapas on their tray. It was late, I was hungry and not in the mood to fight with other hungry diners in attracting servers with their trays quickly depleted of arroz negro, bacalao frito, navajas a la donostiarra (San Sebastian style razor clams) and fideua con alioli (paella made with noodles served with garlic sauce). So while the Brit and I waited for the tapas we ordered off the menu I turned to the basket of bread and tomatoes.
“Rub the tomato onto the bread then drizzle olive oil over it,” the good samaritan tourist suggested. How many ways are there to eat tomatoes with bread I wondered but politely thanked him and carried on with my tomato slices. Hunger, it appears, has the ability to amplify my stubbornness and limit reason.
Exploring Catalan food culture with Devour Barcelona
We were in Barcelona for a romantic long weekend trip in 2009, back when the Brit and I were doing the long distance thing. Among the most memorable parts of our first visit was seeing Park Guell which reminded me of the board game Candyland, Casa Battlo with its whimsical roof terrace and a day long cava tasting tour in the Penedes region.
For this second visit to Barcelona I was determined to scratch further than the surface in exploring the city and understanding its food culture. With a recommendation from my friend Giulia I signed on to the Tastes, Tapas & Traditions of Barcelona tour with Devour Barcelona.Food tours are not all created equal. The great ones are insightful and offer far more information on cuisine and local life than one would gather by doing research on the internet, which is what I found with Devour Barcelona. The 3.5 hour food crawl led by the very knowledgeable Victoria introduced me to the vermouth culture in Spain, a homemade fideua (explained to us as a Catalan cousin to paella) that I still crave three months later as well as a spicy and salty “Gilda” banderilla.
Our tour included a cheese and jamon tasting at Santa Caterina market, Barcelona’s first covered market that was built on top of a 13th century convent. We noticed an older generation of Catalans going about their shopping and learned that there’s an age discrepancy between those who shop at traditional markets and those who shop at supermarkets. As an initiative to draw younger shoppers supermarkets have been added to the city’s markets which also helps as added convenience for one stop shopping.Of the seven stops we made on the tour I returned to three of them with the Brit in tow. We started our last day in Barcelona at Pasteleria Hofmann for mascarpone stuffed croissants coated with light sugar icing. While this is not a treat native of Spain anybody with a fondness for pastries could be driven to madness by the delicate layers and lightly sweet creme cheese filling. So great was my love for these stuffed croissant that I packed six to take back to London and finished them within two days with very little help.
In La Barceloneta, a neighborhood in Barcelona with access to the city beach, we embraced the city’s vermouth culture. While vermouth has always been a traditional apertif drink, it has come back into fashion over the last five years. Vermouth is tawny in color, sweet to taste and served in a small glass with an orange slice & green olive and typically enjoyed in a social setting before lunch. With our apertif I introduced the Brit to the “Gilda” banderilla, a small skewer of plump olives, peppers and anchovies. The name Gilda is attributed to Rita Hayward’s character in the 1946 movie Gilda because like the character a gilda is loosely translated to “spunky, sexy and a bit spicy”. I found it to be the perfect snack to enliven one’s palate before lunch. Where I failed in retracing the steps of the Devour Barcelona food tour was forgetting that with a homemade fideua an order needs to be called in at least 30 minutes ahead of time at Cal Papi. A fideua is similar to paella in that it’s cooked in a paella pan but instead of rice it is made with vermicelli noodles. On the tour we were told that the secret of a good homemade fideua is in the broth which is why the restaurant needs advanced notice in order to prepare. The fideaua prepared by Mama Carmen, proprietor of Cal Papi, was made with shrimp, cuttlefish, peppers and onion. It’s a lighter dish than a paella because of the silky noodles and made even better with a dollop of aioli which manages to brighten up the dish.
We also managed to visit a few of the highest billed tourist attractions in Barcelona. La Sagrada Familia and La Pedrera, both works by Antoni Gaudi, were both otherworldly in different ways. On the roof terrace of La Pedrera I could have been on the set of Star Wars. In La Sagrada Familia while I stood amongst a forest of columns that seemed to stretch out into tree branches high above the rest of us I could not take my eyes away from the basilica’s divine light that radiated between warm and cool depending on which corner you’re in.
I highly recommend booking tickets for both of Gaudi’s works in advance, 24 hours ahead of time worked well for us.Our last stop was at the Barcelona Zoo. Whenever we’re doing a city trip the Brit insists on either visiting a zoo or an aquarium – without fail. A quick stop at the zoo lasted for two hours and was actually a lot of fun. A first for me was seeing a Mandrill, a species of monkey with a rainbow coloured bottom and nose. I was fascinated to no end. And after my failed flamingo sighting in Morocco I took solace in seeing the different shades of pink birds in Barcelona.
Barcelona is the 3rd most visited city in Europe after Paris and London. Like Paris and London it is a city that manages to entice travelers to visit then revisit. Matt Goulding, one of my favorite food writers and author of Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture summed it best, “Barcelona will do that to a (wo)man. Inspire travel from the corners of the globe for a small taste. Make perfectly brilliant destinations elsewhere feel dim by comparison.”