|Terrific tomatoes – Mercat Santa Caterina.|
Oh Barcelona, how I have missed you! It’s been over ten years since we last experienced your cultural, architectural, and − possibly most importantly − culinary delights. As I have previously eluded to on Scrumptious Scran, it was Barcelona that ignited my love of Spanish cuisine, and probably made me realise how it was possible to cook really good food with simple ingredients purchased from a market just hours previously.
So visiting once again over a decade on, would Catalunya’s capital still be so alluring? And what new food and drink-related experiences might be awaiting discovery? Here’s what I found…
Tapas, cava, and vermut
|Pa amb tomaquet, fried fish, Bormuth, Barcelona.|
Like everywhere else in Spain, Catalunya seems to have an obsession with the myriad of bite-size morsels that constitute tapas, and this possibly reaches an azimuth in Barcelona. Even when wandering down the most insignificant back street it would be almost improbable not to encounter a diminutive neighbourhood bar offering at least five or six choices of tapas to accompany a cold glass of caña (draft beer). Yet the city abounds with numerous venues that succeed in turning simple small plates of food into a culinary art form, whilst still maintaining an air of unpretentiousness.
A case in point is Bormuth in the now achingly trendy, but still utterly charming, El Born/La Ribera district. Seemingly always bustling, it’s little wonder that punters frequently crowd outside this compact bar/restaurant to feast on tapa stalwarts such as the utterly moreish croquetas laced with Ibérico ham, and the oh-so-simple, but totally delicious pescadito frito – literally little fish fried – which is a superb Iberian take on whitebait. They also turn out a splendid version of the Catalan staple of pa amb tomatoquete (more of that later). But also available are new twists on what might be thought of as a tapa, such as char-grilled peppers combined with goat cheese in a mini gratin.
|Salmorejo, La Mar Salada, Barcelona.|
Yet the food is not the only attraction of Bormuth, as a wee tangential consideration of the name might suggest. For this is a fantastic place to enjoy a glass or two of the traditional, now voguish, tipple that is vermouth. Mention vermut (as it is referred to in Catalan) to Brits of a certain age, and memories of Great Aunt Maud’s sickly-sweet festive tipple are often invoked. We are not talking about mass-produced, Italian brands here, however. Whilst Sherry may be king in southern Spain, it’s maybe surprising to learn that northern Spain has a long-standing tradition of producing fortified wine infused with herbs and other aromatics.
Traditionally, vermut was consumed as an aperitif, especially before Sunday lunch. Thankfully, these days, locally-produced varieties of the drink can now be enjoyed at any time across Barcelona with glasses often being theatrically poured from large oak barrels nestling behind the bar. At Bormuth I enjoyed a couple of glasses of the superbly aromatic Vermut de Falset (produced close to Tarragona, in southern Catalunya) which combined honeyed sweetness with lovely herby notes and a great balance of earthy-bitterness. Fantastic with tapas and a bargain at just €2.60 for a generous glass.
|Confit of cod on a bed of samfaina, La Mar Salada, Barcelona.|
And whilst speaking of drinks that are natural companions for tapas – or indeed the reverse – no visit to Barcelona should be complete without a ‘copa’ (bowl like champagne glass) of cava. This superb sparkling wine – whether in white or rosé form – probably needs little introduction, given its massive popularity in the UK, but nothing can compare to consuming a really good vintage in the region it was produced. And if you get the chance, do try and sample cava in one of the bars that specialises in serving it in combination with a delightful tapa or two.
El Xampanyet located in the El Born barrio looks as though it has scarcely changed since before George Orwell was paying homage to Catalonia in the 1930s. Even the house cava served here is excellent, especially when combined with a plate of delicious boquerones – anchovies in vinegar – or pintxo of tuna loin with padron pepper – a word of warning, the ‘picante’ version is ‘muy picante’! Authentic though El Xampanyet is, given the popularity with tourists of the area in which it is located you may struggle at times to hear a word of Catalan or even Spanish being spoken amongst the clientèle. So for possibly a more authentic experience seek out Can Paixano secreted in a lane heading towards Barceloneta. Reminiscent of the neighbourhood bars that used to abound around the old port area, this is frequently a standing room only venue – albeit you’ll be standing under a forest of hanging Serrano hams – thanks to its excellent rosé cava and selection of tasty plates of charcuterie, cheeses and tinned (yes that’s right) produce tapas.
|Flam (flan), La Mar Salada, Barcelona.|
A final mention in terms of tapas has to go to a great bar located in the Eixample district that, despite being round the corner from our hotel, we only discovered on our final evening. Kserol is a trendily-relaxed neighbourhood venue with a tapas menu that’s a wee cut above – this is the Eixample, after all! Salt-cod (bacalao) croquetas are sublime, the stalwart that is patas bravas is creatively flavoured with rosemary and paired with a sophisticated spicy sauce. However, the simplest of Catalan tapas that is pa amb tomaquet – quite literally bread and tomato – is simply superb at this place. Beautiful sour-dough lightly toasted and rubbed with a garlic clove, then rubbed again with acid-sweet tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with sea salt. So straightforward, just so delicious.
Menu del dia
|Curdcheese mousse, rosemary ice cream, honey, La Mar Salada.|
For those not familiar with the idiosyncrasies of dining in Barcelona – or even more widely in Spain – the menu del dia (literally ‘menu of the day’) may be a neglected culinary delight. For lunchtime has customarily always been when the main meal of the day is consumed, thanks in part to the continuing – and extremely civilised – tradition of a one and a half to two hour lunch break (the Spanish working day does extend into the evening to compensate). In order to attract hungry workers seeking lunch, historically restaurants began offering a pared down, three course menu which changed daily depending on what ingredients were available. Accompanied by bread and often a drink, the menu del dia frequently offers excellent cooking at an extremely reasonable price.
A case in point is La Mar Salada (roughly translating as ‘to sprinkle with sea salt’) which is a jewel that stands out amongst the throng of – not so cheap and sometimes less than cheerful – tourist-orientated restaurants located along Barceloneta’s Passeig Joan de Borbó. As the name eludes to, the place specialises in serving seafood dishes that wouldn’t be out of place in a Michelin-listed establishment, so at €18 for a three course lunch their menu del dia represents incredibly good value.
I absolutely love the classic cold tomato, garlic and bread soup that is salmorejo, but at La Mar Salada this simple entrée was inventively enhanced by the addition of white shrimps and a quenelle of goat cheese ice cream, taking it up a couple of notches. Equally superb was JML’s starter of fresh fusilli pasta with baby broad beans, asparagus, roast cherry tomatoes, and courgette and rock squid tagliatelle.
|Empadrat, Casa Amalia, Barcelona.|
Fish and vegetables were excellently paired in the ‘segonds’ (mains courses), consisting of confit of cod served on a bed of samfaina – a sort of Catalan ratatouille – infused with Ibérico ham; and megrim (a type of flatfish) deep fried and set atop artichokes bathed in suquet – Catalan fish stew – and shrimp broth. Pudding (postres) may have been deceptively simple-sounding, but a mousse of cottage cheese paired with fragrant honey (and I am usually not of fan) and rosemary ice cream was subliminally excellent. Flam (flan, or crème caramel) was sumptuously gelatinous and creamy, all bathed in a dark, bitter-sweet caramel sauce. An excellent example of, what is possibly, Spain’s national dessert.
There actually wasn’t a day during our trip when JML and I didn’t avail ourselves of the menu del dia, not least because it is often an excellent way to discover local dishes. I have Casa Amalia – a bistro that nestles in the shadow of the Eixample’s Mercat de la Concepcio and is renowned for offering uncomplicated and tasty Catalan cuisine – for introducing me to ’empedrat’. A quick search on Google translate indicates this equates to “pavement” in English! Fear not, as there is not a flagstone in sight with this delicious, and deceptively simple combination of tender haricot beans, bacalao (salt cod), tomato, olives, and onion, all beautifully dressed to form a starter ideal for al fresco dining. And then there is ‘arroz a la Cubana’. Eaten in many Spanish speaking countries it’s a combination of rice (as the name suggests) with a rich tomato sauce, plantain, and topped with a fried egg. Uncomplicated, certainly, but definitely tasty.
|Squid and potato salad, Rosa Pinky, Barcelona.|
Heading to the quaint and character-full Gracia district we happened across a delightful restaurant Rosa Pinky, nestled down an unremarkable side street, and (bar ourselves) seemingly entirely populated by Barcelonans. This provided another menu del dia insight into how reasonably-priced food, composed of a few simple ingredients, can be really flavoursome. Combine steamed potatoes with parsley, garlic, paprika, olive oil and octopus and the outcome is a super salad which is certainly greater than the sum of its constituent parts. Similarly the simplicity of perfectly baked dorrada (a fish not often found on menus in the UK), confit potatoes, and red peppers roasted until soft and sweet was uncomplicated but a really great dish as a result. So the moral of the story is, if you are in Catalunya – or even elsewhere in Spain – eat like a local and make lunch your main meal, reserving the evening for grazing on tapas. You certainly won’t regret it.
|Jamon, Mercat Santa Caterina, Barcelona.|
If you love food, you will find the markets in Barcelona utterly wondrous. When I last wrote about the city I made mention of the place’s biggest and most renowned ‘mercat’ – La Boqueria located halfway down Las Ramblas. It offers food retail on an almost industrial scale, and the range of produce to be found there is unimaginably diverse. There are, however, some mumblings that – like a lot of places in central Barcelona – it is becoming overrun with tourists, who food gawk rather than buy something for dinner. So for a somewhat less crowded experience – especially if you are looking to fill your shopping basket – there are a number of smaller, yet equally impressive, market venues that are certainly worth checking out.
At the heart of the El Born / La Ribera / Sant Pere district is the beautifully stylish Mercat Santa Caterina. The original market building was inventively renovated a decade or so ago by the architectural team behind the Scottish Parliament building and the sinuous roof-line and slatted timber façade they bestowed upon the building is just as striking as many of the city’s Modernista structures. Or head to the Dreta de l’Eixample to find the beautiful, 19th century, wrought iron structure that houses the Mercat de la Concepcio, ornately fronted by picturesque flower-vending establishments.
Take time to wander around either of the above markets and you will find pretty much any type of foodstuff you might wish to cook with and consume. Stalls piled high with great Spanish and international cheeses, a bewildering array of fish and seafood, tubs full to bursting with a multitude of different olives, the freshest fruit and vegetables, including a dazzling range of tomato varieties. I could go on and on…
|Bacalao, Mercat Santa Caterina, Barcelona.|
Yet in any market in Barcelona there are two types of vendor I always seem magnetically pulled towards, because what they have on offer is so typical of Catalonia, and indeed Spain. I’m always mesmerised by stalls serving a plethora of Ibérico, air-dried hams of various origins and appellations. And I love the ghostly-white produce on offer at those stalls that specialise in bacalao – or salt cod, to give it it’s much less glamorous Anglicised moniker – both as bone-dry fillets, or re-hydrated portions that are ready to cook with. Both are ingredients that lend themselves to inclusion in a plethora of dishes, especially crisply coated, silkily smooth-filled croquetas.
So a decade since my last visit, is Barcelona still a ‘must visit’ location for anyone who is a lover of food and drink? The simple answer to that question is ‘absolutely!’ So if you have never ventured to the city before, or even if it’s a while since you have, do think about spending at least a long weekend there. Wander round the wonderful architecture, lose an hour or two in one of the city’s superb markets, discover an unfamiliar dish courtesy of a menu del dia, and graze on excellent tapas accompanied by a chilled glass of vermouth or cava. For it is true to say that for food lovers everywhere, Barcelona never ceases to be one of the best culinary destinations in the world.
This post is dedicated to families of all types, everywhere. Treat them with love, and never take them for granted.