If there’s any country where understanding it’s food is key to understanding its culture, Spain is it. Whether you have one day or one year to spend in Barcelona, a three hour introduction to its food culture by way of Devour Europe’s Tastes and Traditions of Barcelona is a pretty good way to start – and I mean it when I say you should schedule it at the start of your trip.
It may be somewhat surprising to be greeted by a non-Spanish guide for a Spanish food tour, even one who has been living in Barcelona for eight years, but our Polish guide Paulina brought a Spanish enthusiast’s attention to tiny details that may actually be somewhat hard to match by a native who is used to their home. She was warm and enthusiastic and took us along at a brisk but still comfortable pace. Our food tour was a very small group of only two other guests (making four in total including the guide) so it was a very personalised experience as Paulina was able to accommodate specific requests to stay longer in one store (to shop for food souvenirs) and answer questions.
Mercado de Santa Caterina
As a Spanish grandmother, you always need a minimum of two hours at the market, Paulina told us as we took a seat at La Torna: thirty minutes to buy your food and then one and a half to chat with friends and storeowners, who are manning stalls that have been passed down through generations of families.
Mercado de Santa Caterina (or Saint Caterina Market) makes up one of the 39 local markets in Barcelona. They are the beating heart and congregation point of each neighbourhood. This market, renovated in 2005, is much quieter and comfortable to navigate than the colourful bustle of Barcelona’s more famous La Boqueria market, but only about a 15 minute walk away.
We were to enjoy the second meal of five in the traditional Spanish diet: Tortilla de Patata, a hearty potato and onion omelette, and slices of pan con tomate, a thin, crispy sourdough with olive oil, covered in incredibly juicy crushed tomatoes. Fun fact: the tomatoes are so juicy they’re hung on strings because stacking them would damage them.
We washed it down with a glass of cava or sparkling wine made from Spanish grapes (yes, the day drinking is real), which is lower in calories than white and fermented twice to be bubbly, a little fruity and refreshingly cold on a hot day.
Xarcuteria Carles and Antonio Iberics
A second meal wouldn’t be complete without cheese from Xarcuteria Carles and ham from Antonio Iberics and we got some to takeaway and eat outside.
The goat’s cheese is from the Pyrenees mountain from Catalunya, incredibly creamy with a bite to it. The Manchego sheep’s cheese is the most exported cheese from Spain, with a subtle clean flavour and hard texture due to being cured for 10 months. My favourite however had to be the Maon, a cheese made from cow milk from Menorca island. The sea salt on the grass is eaten by the cows and, cured over 15mths, made for a dark, punchy pungent cheese that I could easily see myself eating as chips during a movie. Paulina, having visited the island, could personally confirm the grass was actually salty (yes, she did eat it).
Then it was time for a crash course on Spanish pork. The first we tried was the fuet and longanisa, which are types of cured salami with solid, salty taste without too much of a lingering meaty umami. The Spanish aren’t about spicy foods so the black pepper onl gave the tiniest of kicks – a graze if you will.
You probably have heard of jamón serrano, which is dry-cured meat from the hind legs of white footed pigs, thinly sliced by jamoneros, who are specially trained butchers. The serrano was light and salty, with a touch of sweetness.
Then it was time for the jamón ibérico de bellota, which is cured meat from free range black-footed pigs. It’s very important when buying jamon iberico in Spain to look for ‘de bellota’ which indicates the pigs were fed exclusively on acorns. This gave the jamón a noticeably deeper, sweeter and slightly more pungent flavour from the folic acid of the acorns. It was my favourite of the lot by far and something you must try in Spain – if you’re looking in stores, Joselito & 5js are the best brands according to Pauline.
Pauline then led us on a longer walk through the winding streets of Barcelona’s Born neighbourhood, pointing out landmarks like where the sea had once reached and receded, and where old medieval mansions for the rich have now been converted into museums.
The best croissant in Barcelona is apparently the mascarpone croissant at this, which boasts a generous cream cheese center and a light covering of sugar glaze like a Krispy Kreme. I don’t know if it’s directly comparable to my Paris croissant but it was definitely the burst of sugar that we needed at that point of the tour. The entire store is full of intricate pastries, chocolate and biscuits, well worth a longer visit.
This general store, with its traditional dark wood interior, feels like it’s been frozen in time since its 1861 opening date. Like something from the hull of a ship, it sells various Spanish spices, oils and nuts by the wooden boxful. We sampled almonds baked in a special oven from 1861 and learnt tips like how to find the best olive oil (buy the ones in cans, not bottles!).
We visited the Santa Maria Del Mar, an austere church once burned by fire, the memorial of the Siege of Barcelona. Pauline had photos to show us of the site on September 11, which happens to be the national day of Cataluna. We moved from there to Barceloneta, originally a fisherman’s working class neighbourhood that now leads to Barcelona’s famous beaches.
Bodega la Peninsular
“You never eat without drinking and you never drink without eating,” Paulina warns us as we stepped into Bodega la Peninsular for ‘vermouth hour’. Vermouth, originally from Italy, is a type of white wine, fortified with caramel, spices and herbs. It tastes mellow and honey-like, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. True to the Spanish eating-drinking ethos, we accompanied it with ‘La Bomba’, a ‘bomb’ of delicately fried smashed potato and mince covered in a sour, slightly acidic tomato sauce and aioli that really does ‘explode’ upon fork-contact.
The final flourish of the tour was to return to the roots – literally, to Barceloneta’s first restaurant Can Ramonet, opened in 1753. We where we were to feast on De la Abuela olives (roughly ‘grandmother’s secret recipe’), brined in herbs, paprika and garlic which were very moreish and whetted the appetite well (tip: always buy pitted olives because olives are de-pitted using chemicals).
Paella derives from the name of the pan and was a dish originally made with chickens, rabbits and snails but this homemade version we tried was of the more stereotypical kind – you could smell the hearty seafood umami from a mile away, full of generous portions of mussel, prawn, calamari and other seafood, browned due to squid ink in the rice and sauce. As someone used to soft rice, the hard nature of paella rice caught me by surprise, but the rich flavours helped a lot with getting used to the unexpected texture.
Tastes and Traditions of Barcelona works as a really great introduction (not to mention a very hearty first meal) to Barcelona and gives you time to return to any store that caught your eye. Paulina wrapped up our tour with an incredibly helpful information pamphlet, listing a bunch of suggestions for further dining options, cultural gems and souvenir stores, so you can keep devouring.