First Written for FreeB&B, July 2017
With a population of over one and a half million, Barcelona is the capital of the Catalonia region as well as Spain’s second largest city. As such, it’s only natural that Barcelona has become a veritable melting pot of people and cultures, which is reflected more than ever in its diverse culinary scene. Whilst traditional Catalonian cuisine stills lies at the very heart of the city’s identity, world-class fare from other regions of Spain, and indeed the world, continue to pulse in the background. As a major tourist destination, Barcelona has more than its fair share of over-priced restaurants serving questionable food to the throngs of tourists that pass through its streets all year round. However, this in no way means that It’s impossible to find an authentic meal for a reasonable price; It simply means that those unfamiliar with the cities winding streets must work that little harder to find the local experience.
To truly understand the Catalonian approach to meals, one must first understand the structure of a Catalonian day. For a culture with such a rich gastronomic background, it should be of little surprise that the day is largely defined by meal-times – which are numerous and somewhat different to those in other parts of the European mainland. Thanks to the predominantly warm climate and distinct beach culture, meal times generally happen comparatively late in the day, and with pleasing regularity for someone with my considerable appetite.
Having spent the majority of my life working in hospitality, I’ve become entirely used to starting my day with nothing but a strong cup of coffee or two, followed by a more substantial morsel later in the morning once the day’s operations were underway. As luck would have it, nothing could have prepared me better for adjusting to life in Catalonia. Having risen, a dreamily light ‘Café con Leche’ is the first order of the day for many locals, perhaps accompanied by a slice of toast or a biscuit. This double shot of espresso is topped up with generous amounts of hot steamed -milk and provides a silky-smooth drinking experience. The coffee scene in Barcelona is world-class, and I must say I have come to favour the shorter, more intense hit of a ‘Cortado’ – a large espresso with just a dash of warm milk.
Around 11am comes the first ‘real’ meal of the day. Arguing whether this still constitutes ‘Breakfast’, or whether it has transgressed the boundaries of space and time into ‘Brunch’, is entirely academic. What matters is that this mid-morning carb hit is all that you have to carry you through until your lunch later in the day. Turning off the main tourist thoroughfares and into Barcelona’s veritable maze so side street and alleyways, you will be met with a multitude of small cafes serving a variety of bread-based delights. Whilst the humble croissant is not uncommon, many locals prefer the heartier option of a rustic sandwich, laden with the cured meats for which Spain is famous. ‘Elias Forner’ have 6 outlets across the city, including on the Avinguda d’Icària, and with over 80 years of baking heritage they are a long-term favourite with locals seeking the very best in freshly baked bread.
Lunch time is almost sacred to the Catalonians, and usually takes place between 2pm-3pm. Generally a three-course meal, many consider lunch to be the most important meal of the day and eating out is both common and affordable. The numerous backstreet restaurant burst into life and offer dizzying array of tempting options. To find the best value for money, seek out the restaurants offering a “Menú del día”, or Menu of the Day, which typically includes a starter, main course, desert, bread and a drink – coffee is almost universally charged as an extra. Chilled Gespatxo soup, salads, cured meats and home-made croquettes are all staples of the first course. For a typical Catalonian main course, search out the ‘Botifarra amb mongetes’ – spicy barbecued sausages served with fried beans and a garlic aioli sauce. Hearty and satisfying, this is the epitome of simple Spanish cooking and demonstrates the virtue of quality fresh ingredients cooked well. To finish, fresh fruits, cheese, and honey are the order of the day, often accompanied by a small glass of sweet wine. Whilst this veritable feast may seem an extravagant midday meal, portions are generally small and the emphasis is on enjoying the meal and socialising, rather than simply satisfying a hunger-pang. If you feel more comfortable eating earlier, then this is entirely possible too – Just be prepared to dine exclusively with your fellow tourists!
Dinner & Drinks
Despite Spain being a major wine producing country, Barcelona’s beer scene is significant and constantly evolving with a number of new micro-breweries popping up across the city. Come 7pm, the streets will be filled with after work drinkers socialising over a chilled ‘Cerveza’. Estrella is the major beer favoured in Barcelona and is found almost universally, whilst newer brands such as Moritz have also established a significant following. Ordering ‘una cerveza’ will generally get you a bottle of the house beer; for lovers of draught beer, ‘una cana’ will yield pleasing results. These small glasses of cold beer are perfectly suited to Barcelona’s hot climate as they do not have the time to get too warm as they are consumed quickly.
As a great man once said – “What’s a beer without a nibble?” The Spanish are famed for their love of Tapas and Barcelona is no exception to the rule. For one or two euros per dish, you can from a vast selection of both hot and cold dishes ranging from locally caught calamari rings, spicy roast potatoes in an indulgent tomato sauce, to strong cheeses and fried seafood. Standing on a cobbled street, sipping beer and grazing on an assortment of tapas is an essential part of any visit to Barcelona and an experience that certainly should not be missed. Rather than trying to decipher the menu – if there is one – simply approach the counter and point out the dishes that look most appealing to you. Not being entirely sure of what you’re ordering is all part of the fun and you will rarely be disappointed!
If you are seeking something more substantial, head to the beach front restaurants around Barceloneta around 9pm and join the throngs of locals dining on freshly caught seafood just meters from the sandy beach. Despite being originally a dish from Valencia, Paella is held in high regard and eaten regularly by many locals. Practically every restaurant in Barceloneta serves it’s take on this classic dish of rice and seafood with lemon and saffron, although quality can vary dramatically. Take your time to walk along the seafront and see which restaurants are busiest and don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations! Since 1903, ‘Can Sole’ has been pleasing groups of locals and tourists alike with it’s fresh, home cooked food, served in a charming two storey house.
Ultimately, it would be entirely possible to spend a month simply wondering the various districts of this vast city and exploring the vast culinary scene. Another month could be spent exploring the fresh produce on offer at the numerous markets and yet another attempting to master the skills involved in delivering the world-class fare that has become synonymous with Barcelona. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t get an authentic taste of the city in just a day or two – Explore the backstreet, order blindly from menus you may not be able to read, and embrace ever pulsing moment you have in this vibrant city! Salud!
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