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Flavors of Barcelona
Long before the molecular gastronomy craze made Catalonia a culinary funhouse, Barcelona and its surrounding hinterlands had their own lush tastes and textures, including sausages and charcuterie, wild mushrooms, spring onions with romescu sauce, and hams from acorn-fed pigs from southwestern Spain, all happily irrigated with sparkling wines from the Penedès. These items represent the "must eats" that every visitor should try—the quintessential flavors of this city.
One of Catalonia's most beloved and authentic feasts is the winter calçotada, with the calçot (a sweet, long-stemmed, twice-planted spring onion) as the star of the show. Originally credited to a 19th-century farmer named Xat Benaiges who discovered a technique for extending the scallion's edible portion by packing soil around the base, giving them stockings or shoes (calçat), so to speak, Valls and the surrounding region now produce upward of 5 million calçots annually. Calçotades (calçot feasts) take place in restaurants and homes between January and March, though the season is getting longer on both ends. On the last weekend of January, the calçot capital of Valls holds a public calçotada, hosting as many as 30,000 people who come to gorge on calçots, sausage, lamb chops, and young red wine.
During the festival, you can learn how to grow calçots, how to make the accompanying salbitxada sauce (romescu) and, most important, how to eat them. The culminating event is the calçot-eating competition, when burly competitors from all over Catalunya swallow as many as 300 calçots in a 40-minute contest as the crowd cheers them on. Once the winner is decided, large grills set up all over town roast calçots over sarmientos (grape vine clippings), as red wine and Cava are splashed from long-spouted porrons.
Casa Félix (Ctra. N240, Km 1.5 km south of Valls 977/601350 www.felixhotel.net) is the classic Valls calçotada restaurant, with entire dining rooms enclosed by enormous wine barrels.
L'Antic Forn (Pintor Fortuny 28 93/412–0286 www.lanticforn.com) serves calçotadas in the middle of Barcelona a few steps from Plaça de Catalunya.
Restaurant Masia Bou (Ctra. de Lleida, Km 5 977/600427 www.masiabou.com) serves typical calçotades in a sprawling Valls masia (farm) an hour and a half outside of Barcelona by car.
Restaurant Masia Can Borrell (Ctra. d'Horta a Cerdanyola Km 3, Sant Cugat del Vallès 93 692 97 23 www.can-borrell.com) in the Collserola natural park can be reached by taking the train from Barcelona to San Cugat and hiking through the park to reach the restaurant.
When in Barcelona, don't order Champagne or you might get anything from French bubbly to dirty looks. Cava is the local sparkling wine, produced mainly in the Penedès region, 40 km southwest of Barcelona. Cava was created in 1872 by Catalan winemaker Josep Raventós after the Penedès vineyards had been devastated by the phylloxera plague and the predominantly red vines were being replaced by vines producing white grapes. Impressed with the success of the Champagne region, Raventós decided to create a dry sparkling wine, which has since become the region's main success story. Cava comes in different degrees of dryness: brut nature, brut (extra dry), seco (dry), semiseco (medium), and dulce (sweet). The soil and micro-climate of the Penedès region, along with the local grape varietals, give Cava a taste of its own, a slightly earthier, darker taste than Champagne, with larger and zestier bubbles.
Under Spanish Denominación de Origen laws, Cava can be produced in six wine regions and must be made according to the Traditional Method with second fermentation in the bottle using a selection of Macabeo, Parellada, Xarel-lo, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and Subirat grapes.
Xampú Xampany (Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes 702, 08010. 93/265-0483) has an extensive range of Cavas to choose from.
La Barcelonina de Vins i Esperits (València 304 93/215–7083) is a sprawling Eixample saloon with 1,001 wines, especially Cavas.
La Vinya del Senyor (Pl. de Santa Maria 5 93/310-3379) offers top Cavas and wines by the glass from a continually changing list.
The ham of the Ibérico pig, a descendant of the Sus mediterraneus that once roamed the Iberian Peninsula, has become Spain's modern-day caviar. Jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn-fed Ibérico pig) is dark, red, and tastes of the acorns, grasses, roots, herbs, spices, tubers, and wild mushrooms of southwestern Spain. The defining characteristic of this free-range pig is its ability to store monounsaturated fats from acorns in streaks or marbled layers that run through its muscle tissue. This is one of the few animal fats scientifically proven to fight the cholesterol that clogs arteries. Also the taste and aromas, after two years of aging, are complex, and so nutty, buttery, earthy, and floral that Japanese enthusiasts have declared Ibérico ham umami, a word used to describe a fifth dimension in taste, in a realm somewhere beyond delicious. In addition, jamón ibérico de bellota liquefies at room temperature, so it literally melts in your mouth.
Caveats: Jamón serrano refers to mountain (sierra)-cured ham and should never be confused with jamón ibérico de bellota. What is commercialized in the U.S. as Serrano ham comes from white pigs raised on cereals and slaughtered outside of Spain. Pata negra means "black hoof." Not all ibérico pigs have black hooves, and some pigs with black hooves are not purebred ibéricos. Jabugo refers only to ham from the town of Jabugo in Huelva in the Sierra de Aracena. The term has been widely and erroneously applied to jamón ibérico de bellota in general.
For heavenly ham, try one of these spots:
Café Viena (Rambla 115 93/317–1492) is famous for its flauta de jamón ibérico (flute or slender roll filled with tomato drizzlings and Ibérico ham) described by the New York Times as "the best sandwich in the world." The price and the use of the ham (in a mere sandwich) would indicate less than the top level of ham, but it still might be the best sandwich in the world.
Jamonísimo (Provença 85 93/439–0847) provides top quality hams and a tasting course, "texturas de ibérico," that compares cuts from different parts of the ham.
Mesón Cinco Jotas (Còrsega 206 93/321–1181 or Rambla de Catalunya 91–93 93/487–8942) serves a complete selection of ham and charcuteria from the famous Sánchez Carvajal artisans in the town of Jabugo, Huelva.
Catalonia's variations on this ancient staple cover a wide range of delicacies. Typically ground pork is mixed with black pepper and other spices, stuffed into sterilized intestines, and dried to create a protein-rich, easily conservable meat product. If Castile is the land of roasts and Valencia is the Iberian rice bowl and vegetable garden, Catalonia may produce the greatest variety of sausages.
Botifarra: pork sausage seasoned with salt and pepper. Grilled and served with stewed white beans and allioli (garlic mayonnaise). Variations include botifarra with truffles, apples, wild mushrooms, and even chocolate.
Botifarra Blanca: typical of El Vallès Oriental just north of Barcelona, made of tripe and pork jowls, seasoned and boiled. Served as a cold cut.
Botifarra Catalana Trufada: a tender, pink-hue sausage, seasoned and studded with truffles.
Botifarra de Huevo: Egg sausage with ingredients similar to botifarra but with egg yolks added.
Botifarra de perol: made with head meat boiled before stuffing.
Botifarra dolça: cured with sugar instead of salt and seasoned with spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg, served as a semi-dessert, this sausage is typical of the Empordà region.
Botifarra negra: Catalan blood sausage made with white bread soaked in pig blood with fat, salt, and black pepper.
Fuet: means "whip" for its slender shape, made of 60/40 lean meat to fat, also known as secallona, espetec, and somalla.
Llonganissa: classic pork sausage, made with 85/15 lean meat to fat, and ample salt and pepper.
Page of de Fetge: liver bread, made of pig liver and lean meat, coarse ground, mixed with egg, milk, pepper, and nutmeg.
Ready to have a sausage extravaganza? Stock up at these places:
La Botifarreria de Santa Maria (Carrer de Santa Maria 4 93/319-9123) next to the Santa Maria del Mar basilica displays an anthology of Catalonia's sausages and charcuteria, along with top hams from all over Spain.
La Masia de la Boqueria (Mercat de la Boqueria 93/317-9420) is one of the finest charcuterie and ham specialists in the Boqueria market.
Xarcuteria Margarit (Cornet i Mas 63, Sarrià 93/203–3323) up in the village of Sarrià has an excellent charcuteria (xarcuteria or cansaladeria in Catalan) on Cornet i Mas just below Plaça Sant Vicenç and another in the Sarrià market on Reina Elisenda.
Wild mushrooms are a fundamental taste experience in Catalan cuisine: the better the restaurant, the more chanterelles, morels, black trumpets, or 'shrooms of a dozen standard varieties are likely to appear on the menu. Wild mushrooms (in Spanish setas, in Catalan bolets) are valued for their aromatic contribution to gastronomy, a defining element in the olfactory taste process. Although the black (or white) truffle is a delicious and extreme example, the musty, slightly gamey taste of the forest floor, the dark flavor of decay, is the aroma (hence, taste) that the wild mushroom imparts to the raw materials such as meat or eggs with which they are typically cooked. Most barcelonins are proficient wild-mushroom stalkers and know how to find, identify, and prepare up to half a dozen kinds of bolets, from rovellones (Lactarius deliciosus) sautéed with parsely, olive oil, and a little garlic, to camagrocs (Cantharellus lutescens) scrambled with eggs. Wild mushrooms flourish in the fall, but different varieties appear in the spring and summer, and dried and reconstituted mushrooms are available year-round. Panlike Llorenç Petràs retired in 2010, but his Fruits del Bosc (Forest Fruits) stall at the back of the Boqueria market is still the place to go for a not-so-short course in mycology. Petràs and his sons supply the most prestigious chefs in Barcelona and around Spain with wild mushrooms. If morels are scarce in the hinterlands of Catalonia but abundant in, say, Wisconsin, the Petràs family will dial them in. His book Cocinar con Setas (Cooking with Wild Mushrooms) is a runaway best seller presently in its 10th edition.
Petràs—Fruits del Bosc. (Mercat de la Boqueria, stands 867–870 93/302–5273 www.boletspetras.com) in the back of the Boqueria shows and sells the finest wild-mushroom collection in Barcelona.
Barcelona is in the same league as other major European destinations in terms of cost. And depending on where the euro is, that exchange rate can take a bite. But remember that there are such things as discounts, and if you can live like a local you save like a local.
Although your pocket might feel the pinch, greenbacks can punch above their weight with a few well-chosen tips. Travelers posting on the Travel Talk forums at Fodors.com recommend the following budget-saving tips:
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