Barcelona is known as a foodie paradise. I expected to love the food there, but my eating experiences on a recent vacation were decidedly mixed.
First, the wonderful: The Barcelonians celebrate eating and drinking. There are restaurants, cafes, tapas bars on every street (according to Trip Advisor, there are 5,883 restaurants in Barcelona), and every night, they’re full of people feasting and drinking delicious Riojas and Albariños, crisp glasses of Cava, refreshing pitchers of red and white Sangria, and wonderful beer and spirits. Whether by the glass or the bottle, the prices are better than comparable beverages in Boston.
Simple salads with arugula (known as rocket on all the menus), basil, mozzarella, tomato, and sometimes avocado were delicious because of the freshness of the ingredients and quality of the olive oil. My only disappointment in the salad department was the tomatoes; they had more flavor than the average supermarket varieties, but they didn’t match a homegrown summer tomato.
Despite my disappointment with the whole tomatoes, I was delighted by the fresh creaminess of the gazpacho (enriched by a drizzle of olive oil) and the pleasure of eating pa amb tomàquet. This Catalan specialty, grilled bread slices that have been rubbed with tomato, olive oil, garlic and salt, is on every menu, but every restaurant makes it a bit differently. It tasted even better with the whole white anchovies marinated in olive oil that I ordered for lunch one day. I’m looking forward to trying this recipe for tomato bread as soon as my tomatoes ripen.
Hotel Bagues, the boutique hotel where we stayed, is right on La Rambla, just steps away from Barcelona’s famed food market, La Boqueria. As you wander from stall to stall, eyeing colorful cups of fresh fruit and juices, sprays of rosemary and thyme, spice stalls, ready-to-eat oysters, cheeses, and candies, it’s impossible not to be dazzled by this cornucopia of food. The market bustles with camera-toting tourists as well as locals from morning to night.
Unlike a farmers market, however, the food is not necessarily local. I didn’t spot any large, international brands being sold, but I couldn’t tell which items were Catalan or even Spanish, because most didn’t have any product information, and, given how busy the market was, I didn’t try to get into conversations with the vendors. I suspect that the best food in the market might have been offered at the many small tapas bars and restaurants, where people were lined up three-deep to get a seat; if I go back, I’m definitely going to try one of them.
In contrast, we stopped at a small Sunday market on the harbor in Barceloneta, where vendors offered everything from fresh crepes with Nutella to bread, cheeses and craft beer. Unlike the crowded Boqueria, there was plenty of time and space to taste and ask questions about the products. The honey vendor was selling nearly a dozen types of honey (lavender, thyme, wildflowers, and more), but we were intrigued by the beautiful bottles of honey with whole nuts and dried fruit. The vendor explained that Barcelonians mix this with yogurt or cheeses for breakfast and dessert, and after one taste, we ended up dragging four bottles of the stuff home. It’s divine!
While I try to be flexible when on vacation, I found the variety of pescovegetarian foods was somewhat limited in Barcelona. My biggest challenge was not the famed late hours for dining (many restaurants will serve you throughout the day), but finding food that I wanted to eat. It was almost impossible to find whole wheat bread or whole grains, and the Barcelonans sure love their ham. It’s everywhere: in tapas, sandwiches, and sliced up and served in little to-go cups (with a fork). They even have a whole tourist center devoted to learning about and tasting Iberian ham, called The Jamon Experience.
Sadly, we were too busy seeing the sights to get to the famed restaurants or tapas bars recommended by friends and guidebooks, so I’m sure we missed the best food in Barcelona. On one of our first nights, we trekked to Can Majó in Barceloneta, with a beautiful, romantic beachfront location straight out of a movie set. I went in quest of seafood paella, but was disappointed; although elegantly plated, our seafood paella lacked the distinctive crust and earthy flavors of other paellas I’ve tasted in Spain and elsewhere.
Fortunately, we enjoyed the rest of the meal, including oysters and the white wine our waiter suggested. Michelle ordered a Bacalao (rehydrated salt cod) salad that was fabulous. The cod was soft, but still firm, and had a mild salt flavor that complemented the slight sweetness of the cod and the richness of the olive oil. She ordered Bacalao several times while we were there, and it was delicious every time.
In addition, the complementary olive plate included one of the best olives I’ve ever eaten. This large green olive tasted as though it had been marinated with a spicy paprika, because it had a slight kick that I loved. Unfortunately, our waiter was too elusive for me to ask what type of olive it was. While none of the other olives I ate during the week was quite as good, I gained new appreciation of how much flavor a simple olive can offer.
On our last night, we had concert tickets at the gorgeous Art Nouveau Palau de la Musica, so we made reservations at the gastro bar at the nearby Ohla Hotel. I was skeptical about eating there, as it looked like the food might be more stylish than tasty, but it proved to be both. I was wowed by a small plate of charcoal grilled mussels with a fresh tomato sauce that I would happily eat again and again, while Michelle loved her grilled whitefish, sautéed with garlic and radicchio.
After a week in Barcelona, I felt like I was only beginning to understand and appreciate the cuisine. I already miss the simple pleasures of dining al fresco, soaking up the olive oil in my salad with a slice of tomato bread, and washing it down with a nice dry cava.
Despite the challenges of eating local, healthy, and pescovegetarian in Barcelona, I’m already looking forward to visiting again.