At 7pm, no one is home in Barcelona. Instead, each and every one of the city's 1.5 million inhabitants have migrated en masse to the old town, where they pack the narrow streets in slow-moving throngs: laughing, gossiping, window shopping, popping into bars for a quick drink - and a bite to soak it up - before rejoining the tide of ambling humanity. For agoraphobes, it's a nightmare. For everyone else, it's a party, a chance to drink in the last warm rays of the sun, a chance to socialize, a chance to unwind after work. And of course, it's a chance to get ready for dinner.
Manuel and I were witnessing this daily ritual gog-eyed, a factor of our lack of both sleep and food, thanks to our early-morning flight from Newcastle (itself a two-hour drive through predawn darkness) and no meals along the way. Budget airlines have many points to recommend them, but general comfort in getting to your destination is unfortunately not one of them. Anyhow, our amazement at this sea of humanity was only momentary, because what we were really concerned about was food, and where to find it quickly.
If you have spent much time in Spain, or anywhere else on the Mediterranean for that matter, you know that mealtimes are a bit different from our cold northern climes. In Spain, for example, you wouldn't even think about thinking about dinner until around 10pm, and often upon thinking about it, you would decide to postpone it for another hour or two. Knowing this, we were in a bit of a quandry. We knew we wouldn't make it until Spanish dinnertime on our mounting sleep deficit. On the other hand, the only places open to serve dinner at 7pm are usually those that deal exclusively with tourists. So what to do? I skimmed through our guidebook, prepared to confirm what I already knew about restaurant opening times, except that instead that I encountered a surprise. A restaurant we had heard about in connection with its famous paellas, the venerable Set Portes, was open all day.
After battling out the other tourists for a table, we found ourselves in a palace of a restaurant, being led through a labyrinth of cavernous rooms, dodging waiters in impeccably crisp uniforms who were ferrying around table-sized paella pans at breakneck speed. They have several different kinds of paella at Set Portes, including paella de mariscos (seafood paella), paella parellada (lazy man's paella, i.e. all bones and shells removed for your eating convenience), and fideua, which is basically paella made with tiny noodles instead of rice. They have other food as well, but I didn't even stop to look. We ordered a two-person dish of their 'normal' paella, which had meat and shellfish and sausages and the tenderest, most succulent langoustines I've ever tasted, nothing peeled or boned and thus requiring some serious finger-licking. It was unbelievable. And it was easily enough to feed four people. I don't know how we ate it all, but there was no question about leaving any of that garlicky, saffrony goodness to end up in the trash. And as if that weren't enough, we finished things off with another local specialty, mel i mató, a mildly tangy ricotta-like goat's cheese drizzled with local honey. I told Manuel it was quite possibly the best meal I'd ever had.
For me this trip and the food involved had particular significance, because I was making good on a promise I had made myself last time I visited this city, exactly ten years ago. Last time I was here I was only seventeen, fresh off the bus from the northern Spanish province of Bizkaia (otherwise known as the Basque Country), where I had been living for nearly a year as an exchange student. I was setting out on a round-Europe adventure and although I had enormous appetite and enthusiasm, I had painfully little money. At the beginning of each day I would count out my tiny food budget and make a trip to the neighborhood supermarket to buy what I could – usually a loaf of bread, some pungent Pyrenean cheese, a couple of oranges or tomatoes, yogurt and a pack of cookies. I would survive on that, consoling myself as I longingly passed those innumerable restaurants and bars in Barcelona that seem to exude from their walls the ethereal smell of garlic frying in olive oil, with the thought that some day I would return, and someday I would eat everything I could.
Over the next few days we made good on that vow, and ate our way through the entire city. Catalonia has some seriously good food, and it's a wonder it still languishes in obscurity for so many of the world's gastronomes. I have in fact heard it said recently by those in the know that Barcelona is giving Paris a run for its money as the culinary capital of Europe. This may be so, but in contrast to Paris, the culture of food and restaurants in Barcelona is largely devoid of snobbery, and has stayed true to its Spanish roots in remaining hearty, honest and tremendously good value. And if it's not, you won't find locals eating it. Apart from this grounding in Spanish no-nonsenseness, however, the food you will actually encounter in Barcelona bears very little resemblance to the rest of Spain. Have you ever eaten squid with chocolate sauce in a Spanish restaurant? How about goose with pears, or salt cod with honey? Catalans make chile- and nut-thickened sauces, stuff meat with seafood and vice versa, and love to put sweet and salty in the same dish probably more than anyone else on the Mediterannean. And the quality of their food is unsurpassed. Just visit the Boqueria market, off the Ramblas, to see how fantastic the produce is that these local cooks have at their disposal. I promise you'll be jealous.
If you're going:
As for what we learned about choosing a good restaurant, probably the best advice is to look at a place at Spanish mealtime and see how crowded it is. The more people dining there, the better it'll be. You'll might have to make a reservation for the following day, however, because if it's really so good, you probably won't get a table on the spot. And if you're new to the Spanish restaurants be prepared for two things:
(1) Since tipping is not customary, your waiter may make no extra effort to charm you. Don't be put off by aloof service - that's just the way it is.
(2) Everyone smokes. Constantly. Ask for a table in the non-smoking section and you'll be met with blank stares. Just vow to breathe a lot of fresh air when you're back home. A funny story, however, which proves there's an exception to every rule is that one day at lunch Manuel and I had just been served our post-meal coffees and he lit up a cigarillo. There was an audible sigh of relief from one of the women who had just sat down at the table next to us. "I'm so glad he did that," she leaned over and said to me, "we were holding back because we didn't want to disturb you." They then proceeded to smoke half a pack before their first course arrived. That was the first and probably last time a Spaniard has ever refrained from smoking in my presence!
Regional dishes to add to your 'must try' list:
Romesco sauce (salsa romesco)- thick pungent sauce made from dried or roasted peppers, tomatoes, nuts, garlic, bread, oil and vinegar. Usually served with seafood or vegetables - but delicious on everything under the sun.
Alioli - similar to the French aioli, which is a mayonnaise-like sauce with garlic and olive oil, but much more potent. Also, the Catalans often add quince (membrillo) or apple (manzana) to their alioli.
Salt-packed anchovies (anchoas en sal marina) - see my previous post about these little gems, and take home a jar or two.
Marcona almonds - flatter and thinner than California almonds, these are fried and salted and usually served as a tapa.
Pimientos stuffed with salt cod brandade (piquillos rellenos de bacalao)- Another dish far more than the sum of its parts. Sweet piquillo peppers stuffed with a potato-salt cod paste and covered in luscious pepper cream. Often available in bars as a tapa.
Salt cod with honey (bacalao con miel)- you'll never believe this could be good, but it is. Culinary genius.
Paella - it's technically from Valencia, but who's splitting hairs? Probably the best place (okay, aside from Valencia) to get the real thing.
Spinach with raisins and pine nuts (espinacas con pasas y piñones) - who ever thought spinach could taste so good?
Goose with pears (oca con peras) - an ancient dish, cooked for hours until the goose and pear seem to fuse into a single substance.
Zarzuela de Mariscos - a spicy shellfish stew, the western Mediterranean version of Bouillabaisse.
Black rice (arroz negro) with alioli - This is sometimes listed with the Paellas, but it is really quite different. The rice is black from squid ink (delicious, honest!), it's often served with squid or other seafood, and should come with a dish of pungent alioli on the side. Maybe gilding the lily, but hey...
Mel i mató - dessert consisting of local goat's milk cheese with honey.
Crema Catalana - Catalan version of creme brulee, custard and crunchy sugar.
Here is a very biased list of places we would highly recommend submitting your stomach to in Barcelona.
Set Portes - the Godfather of paella. Any kind you try will be good. 14 Psg d'Isabel II, Tel. 319 30 33.
Pitarra - Listed in the guidebook as expensive, but actually encompassing an enormous range of prices. Wild boar with chocolate, or rabbit with cherries, anyone? Carrer D'Avinyo, 56, Tel. 301.16.47.
El Gran Café - Fantastic value lunch with three courses and wine for around 10 Euros. The food on the lunch menu was pretty good; supposedly the more-expensive dinner menu is exceptional. Wonderful old Europe atmosphere. Carrer d'Avinyo 9, Tel. 318 79 86.
Can Culleretes - Our favorite lunch spot. Get there by 1:30 if you don't have reservations. The place is enormous, but manages to retain a cozy character in its multiple rooms on multiple levels. They serve huge portions of rustic local food, at very very good prices. Most of Barcelona seems to be eating here on any given day. Carrer Quintana, 5, Tel. 317 30 22.
Senyor Parellada - another famous Paella place, more elegant and expensive than Set Portes. We didn't eat here but have heard a lot of good things. Carrer Argenteria, 37. Tel. 310 50 94.
Also don't miss:
La Boqueria Market - whatever you want to buy foodwise, you'll find it here. Off the Rambla about halfway down.
Xocoa - a chain of boutiquey chocolate shops serving cakes and the most wickedly good hot chocolate in the world. Several locations around the city, including Carrer de Petritxol 11.
Give it a wide berth:
Estevet 15 - listed in Lonely Planet, which probably explains a lot. Warm welcome, but steep prices for the 'someone's living-room' experience that it is. Food is okay, but very high prices and an owner who suggests additions to your meal without indicating the steep hike they will cause in your bill. Ate with the Japanese tourists and left with a bad taste in our mouths. Calle de Valldon Zella, 46.
El Hostal Pintor - a tourist trap we somehow got sucked into. We should have known when they were out of Paella at 10:30pm. Really nice candlelit atmosphere inside, but very snooty service and fussy dishes whose taste did not justify the prices we paid. Carrer St. Honorat, 7.