There are many ways of getting to know a place, as many, possibly, as there are places, and it would be nigh impossible to rank them in an objective hierarchy. Some people like shopping, others prefer museums, others still chose to speak to locals and get the insider scoop. All of them, however, need to eat—and there’s nothing like a good meal to set the right tone for this process of discovery or reacquaintance with any destination.
If there’s one city that merits in-situ exploration that is Barcelona. Mediterranean, fashionable, and simply irresistible the capital of the Spanish region of Catalonia owes much of its current identity to Charlemagne’s vision for the Christian world back in 8th century. Reclaimed from the hands of the Emirate of Córdoba in the year 801, Barcelona became one of more than a dozen territories along the Pyrenees invaded and stabilized by Charlemagne to create the Spanish March, a buffer zone protecting the Frankish portion of the Carolingian Empire from invasion by the Muslim state.
A true crossroads, therefore, of overlapping but singularly different cultures, Barcelona’s mixed heritage is evident in its culinary traditions. Hugely influenced by its location, at the foot of the mountains, facing the sea, Catalan cuisine falls within the so-called Mediterranean diet—with a twist. Fruit and legume are main components of the menu, not mere side dishes, and sauces such as alioli, romesco and xató, are often the most important elements on the plate. Broad beans are a mainstay in spring, and calçot, a type of scallion, is to Catalonia what asparagus is to Germany. Catalans are crazy about peppers, as they are about a variety of mushrooms, known broadly as bolets, though the local butcher will stock extraordinary delicacies, such as botifarra, a type of sausage that can contain boiled blood and therefore resemble black pudding, as well as fuet, a flavorsome dry cured pork sausage. It’ll be a tall task to get through an evening in Barcelona without tasting seafood, though, either octopus or calamari, crayfish, crab or some other shellfish, such as sea urchins or the local favorite espardenya, a rare kind of sea cucumber. Yet if Barcelonans are addicted to fish their fascination with meat is just as dogged, which might sound like a contradiction, but is nothing other than genius, for the trademark mar i muntanya dishes—a blend of flavors from land and sea that can feature chicken and crayfish or hare and king prawn—make for an absolutely heavenly combination.
True to the commercial origins that turned this Mediterranean port into an important urban center, Barcelona still boasts a large density of street markets. Visitors will flock with religious regularity to the premises of the famous La Boquería, conveniently located near La Rambla, the main pedestrianized road linking Plaça de Catalunya with the old harbor. With dozens of other markets scattered across the city, though, a tour of them is an interesting way of discovering different neighborhoods. Santa Caterina market, for instance, just a few streets away from the gothic Cathedral of Barcelona, is an early example of the trend of regeneration of markets that has transformed much of the city over the past decade. One thing to bear in mind is that many of the markets preserve their name and little more from their original design. Thus, the vast Mercat del Born has been turned into a cultural center after staggering archaeological remains were found during its remodeling, while the beautiful Mercat de les Flors, the old flower market in Poble-Sec, is certainly worth a visit, even though it has been transformed into a theater—if it’s flowers you’re really after you’d be better off heading towards the Mercat de la Concepció in L’Eixample, the 19th century expansion of the old city core.
Going back to the important things in life, i.e. food, a quick glance at the Michelin guide reveals a single three-star restaurant in town, Martín Berasategui’s newly renovated Lasarte, which for the past 15 years has stood out as one of the beacons of fine dining in the city. That, however, is far from the whole story. Pride of place among local chefs is undoubtedly claimed by the Adriá brothers, who have singlehandedly revolutionized the world of food, not only in Catalonia. Together with the Iglesias brothers, they have embarked on the rehabilitation of the Paral·lel neighborhood of Barcelona with the creation of elBarri, a number of connected establishments in the area ranging from the vermouth bar Bodega 1900 to the surprise dining experience Enigma and the tapas restaurant Ticket, recently included among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Other noted chefs include Jordi Cruz, of MasterChef renown, whose ABaC restaurant boasts two Michelin stars, Raül Balam, in charge of Moments, the Mandarin Oriental’s exceptional restaurant, and Cristian Escribà, arguably Spain’s most famous patisserie chef.
Over the past decade Barcelona has become the epicenter of the hipster revolution, with chefs spearheading the cultural scene and gaining the sort of celebrity status generally reserved for football players or rock stars. But not every meal has to be radical and restless: away from the fickle wanderings of fashion the long-standing tradition of the set menu remains rooted in Barcelona, even in the trendiest neighborhoods. The so-called menú del día is designed to target local workers on their lunch break, which translates into abundant and inexpensive meals with a homely feeling. So all the contrary to a three-star Michelin guide dining experience—but sometimes that’s precisely what is needed.
Halfway between the extremes of molecular cuisine and the menu del día there are a number of restaurants of high repute in the city which have resisted the temptation of shifting toward postmodern dining, sticking instead to what through the years has seen them grow into true Barcelonan landmarks. One of them is the famous Botafumeiro in the delightful neighborhood of Gràcia, which specializes in Galician seafood and has featured prominently among the culinary elite of the city for decades. Another one is the immensely popular Cerveseria Catalana toward the bottom of Rambla de Catalunya in L’Eixample, an ample and relaxed venue with a fabulous array of tapas and main courses—just the place to sit and take in all the fullness and the diversity of traditional Catalan cuisine.
Barcelona hasn’t grown into one of the most popular destinations in the world—up to eight million people visit the city yearly—for no reason. Breathtakingly beautiful and effortlessly international, this regional capital is a joy on all levels: friendly and fun, intellectually stimulating and culturally diverse, it has also become one of the most noted gastronomic centers in Europe, on a par with Paris or London. Discovering the hidden (and not so very secret) delights it keeps in store could easily become the vocation of a lifetime—and a succulent one at that!
A longer version of this piece was published in the 2018 edition of Crystal Living.