Barcelona. This was a very different proposition to my road-trip, a city break with my girlfriend, also a chef, which was inevitably structured around eating, and took in a far greater variety of eateries, from scuzzy diners to deceptively posh-looking restaurants. The one thing that seemed to unite them was an abundance of ludicrously cheap wine.
We started out at the more comfortable end of the scale, at Senyor Parellada, a restaurant that is all white tablecloths and ties, but with a cheap and robust menu of Catalan dishes and – yes – a very cheap house rosé. We had a gigantic plate of snails, sharp and sweet with garlic, oily, rich and earthy, and a comically large octopus tentacle – it must have been at least 8 inches long – that had just the right amount of resistance, sitting in a creamy pool of mash. Maybe it was the wine (or the gigantic cocktails that followed), but this is held in my mind, in a hazy sort of way, as one of the nicest meals I’ve eaten. Everything was so perfectly itself, from the tiny purple olives we were brought with our drinks to the deep, nutty coffee and the just-so crema catalana, fragrant with cinnamon and orange, we finished with. Catalan cuisine, I subsequently learnt, largely does without the backbone of smoked paprika that defines Spanish cooking in my, and I guess most people’s, minds, a restraint which allows the main ingredients to express themselves more freely.
That restaurant was a lucky find, just round the corner from our apartment, but for our next night we ventured a little further, to the much-recommended Lolita Taperia. Clean, tiled, definitely cool, this is at the lower end of the more up-market tapas bars (the top probably being the Adrias’ Tickets) that are the hip thing in Barcelona. Just as Paris’ modern bistros find top chefs applying their skills to more casual cuisine, so Barcelona’s bright young things (many of whom trained with Adria) are turning their attention to plates of food that are small, accessible, and fun. Not that there was any molecular gastronomy on display at Lolita – the considerable skill of the kitchen was confined to getting a number of small things very right. We had little meat and potato bombas with a deep and satisfying crunch, and a beautiful burrata with that wide, rich blandness elevated by pitch-perfect seasoning. There were pleasingly trashy chicken strips tossed in crushed-up crisps, and, best of all, tender little rabbit ribs, deep-fried in a KFC-style coating. It wasn’t perfect – the burrata came with a distractingly bitter tapenade that overpowered the excellent cheese, and, more worryingly, they seemed to be using Hellman’s as the base for all their sauces – and it certainly wasn’t cheap, although that was partly our own fault for treating tapas as dinner. Pretty damn good, all told, although we resolved to be a little more frugal with our remaining meals.
Having started off in this upmarket fashion, we went more local the next day with one of the excellent Culinary Backstreets tours. My girlfriend had been on one of these in Istanbul and found it a really good introduction to the city’s cuisine, and so it was in Barcelona. The tour took us round the slightly less known Gràcia district, focussing on local cuisine and neighbourhood haunts, and involved more food than I can easily remember. We had churros and hot chocolate by way of breakfast, then coffee, nougat and ‘gypsy’s arm’ cake – I forget the reason for that name – at a long-established patisserie (everywhere we went was at least decades old and family-run), the simple Moorish sweetmeat and the elaborate cake showing two very different strands of Barcelona’s history; after that we went straight on to brunch, or “fork breakfast” as they call it, another favourite of hip young chefs. In a bare room with industrial lighting, we had jellied pig feet and head terrine, fried until crisp and served with soft white beans, and a plate of sobrassada (a sort of spreadable chorizo, rather like the Calabrian n’duja) topped with eggs and honey. The salted minerality of Vichy Catalan water settled our stomachs, and after a quick jaunt around the market (and a tasting and explanation of Iberico hams) it was time for lunch.
This took place in a rather stately old neighbourhood bistro (or whatever the Spanish equivalent is) and was a deliberately unusual menu of of traditional Catalan dishes. We had some sort of aubergine salad to start (I forget what exactly – I had stopped taking pictures by that point, and we had already taken in a lot), then snails, cooked the same as at dinner the first night. This time, though, we learned that in Spain (or at least in Barcelona) they don’t purge or clean their snails before cooking, instead just not eating the guts – which explains the occasional grittiness of the first ones. These were accompanied by a pale, fluffy allioli and a punchy salsa verde. Our main was a hefty chunk of salt cod, coated in more allioli and browned under a hot grill. This was both weird – I’d never seen cooked allioli before – and incredibly delicious. The grilling gave the sauce something of the texture of baked bèchamel or a soufflé, while the cod, insulated from the direct heat of the grill, came away in soft pearlescent flakes. A dish of breathtaking simplicity.
After that we went for vermouth (apparently the coming thing in young Barcelona) and pickles; we picked up some horchata, sweetened tiger-nut milk; and we stopped in another local bar for pan con tomate, warm, just-cooked tortilla, and some sheep intestine, wrapped around twigs, grilled, and served with lemon. A glass of cava in a wine shop stacked 15 feet high with bottles and casks rounded off the tour. I haven’t done justice to either the knowledge or the fierce pride of our tour guide – she peppered the trip with personal and historical anecdote – but we left with an impression of a cuisine that was both deeply rooted in the land and strongly tied to national cultural identity, every dish a little snapshot of history. We also left incredibly full, and I don’t think we had any dinner that day.
The next two days were almost as varied, if not quite as greedy. Both dinners were in small, slightly grotty diners, the first near the sea in Barceloneta, the second in a street off the Ramblas. These were neither trendy nor particularly traditional, at least in the deep historical way the previous day’s lunch had been. What they were was “authentic”, perhaps, and certainly cheap and popular – especially the first, Can Maño, where you queue outside with tourists and locals for a small table in a busy room, around which waiters dash, barely making eye contact as they slam down plastic bottles of wine and plates of grilled or fried vegetables, fish and sea-food. You can get meat dishes, but what’s the point? No-one else is. We had a fat tender cuttlefish and juicy, blackened sardines, scattered with parsley and garlic, fried aubergine, the apparently obligatory pan con tomate, and a salad of sorts. It was hot and fast and loud, and a great meal.
Looking for brunch the next day, we wandered into a food festival on the Ramblas, featuring chefs from a few dozen top restaurants offering tapas-sized dishes at €4 a pop. I’ve been to similar things in London, but they are usually both ticketed and tucked away in odd yards and corners of the city – this was right on the main tourist drag, where you could wander in and out as you pleased. Imagine ambling down Oxford Street or through Leicester Square and finding chefs from St. John, L’Enclume, Polpo, the Fat Duck, whatever, lining the streets and offering their signature dishes for a fiver to whoever was passing through! We had a few bites – salmorejo with anchovies and cheese, a deep broth of ox cheek and chickpeas, an astounding bun from Tickets, stuffed with the meat from a pig’s double chin – and wandered off past the still-busy tourist-trap restaurants feeling smug. Wanting to make the most of this opportunity, we came back for pre-dinner tapas, focussing on the “auteur” section of the festival – higher-end dishes from Adria’s disciples (still only €4 though). Yes, there were foams and things, a something of something on top of an escabeche of mackerel, but there was also a steak tartare of great depth and piquancy and some calamari that was just really, really good calamari. Our meal in the afore-mentioned diner, the Romesco, was something different again – although coming mainly from the grill and the fryer, and accompanied by rough white wine, the ingredients were, in the main, of the land – although we did have some enormous prawns. I had a crisp and succulent rabbit, and to start, half a sheep’s head, which I think had been braised and then deep-fried. Eating this was an extremely enjoyable activity that I would recommend to anyone. From the caramelised shreds of the cheek, to the juicy and fibrous tongue and the cloudy pap of the brain, it was like getting the whole hands-on nose-to-tail experience in one neat package, and, somehow, a fitting last meal.
If this all seems quite exhaustive, it’s because I wanted to convey the sheer variety of food available in a cuisine that has not ossified, as you sometimes find in France or Italy, nor lost the thread of its own tradition, as it has here. Yes, I know Barcelona is a major city, and I know you could find a similar variety if you knew where to look in London, say – but not, I think, in the same top-to-bottom and nose-to-tail way, where food is traditional and varied and good and accessible to all. We didn’t even eat a single paella.