What to Eat in Barcelona
Chockablock with celebrity chefs and starred restaurants, Catalonia has become a foodie’s dream destination. But long before that, there was traditional country cooking: a lush palette of 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 paired with sparkling wines from the Penedès, or rich reds from nearby Montsant and Priorat. These are the quintessential flavors of this city.
One of Catalonia’s most beloved and authentic feasts is the winter calçotada: a celebration of the sweet, long-stemmed, twice-planted spring onions called calçots. These delicacies were originally credited to a 19th-century farmer named Xat Benaiges, who discovered a technique for extending the scallions’ edible portions by packing soil around the base, giving them stockings or shoes (calçats), so to speak. Valls and the surrounding region now produce upward of 5 million calçots annually. 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 town of Valls itself holds a public calçotada, hosting as many as 30,000 people who come to gorge on onions, 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 importantly, 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 glass pitchers called porrons.
Casa Félix (Ctra. N240, Km 17, north of Tarragona977/601350 www.felixhotel.net) is the classic Valls calçotada restaurant, with small private dining rooms encased entirely in enormous wine barrels.
L’Antic Forn (Pintor Fortuny 2893/412–0286 www.lanticforn.com) serves calçots in the middle of Barcelona a few steps from Plaça de Catalunya.
Restaurant Masia Bou (Ctra. de Lleida, Km 21.5977/600427 www.masiabou.com) offers typical calçotades in a sprawling Valls masia (farmhouse) an hour and a half from Barcelona by car.
Restaurant Masia Can Borrell (Ctra. d'Horta a Cerdanyola, BV1414 km. 3, Sant Cugat del Vallès93/692–9723 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.
Catalan sparkling wine, called cava, is produced mainly in the Penedès region, 40 km (25 miles) southwest of Barcelona. Cava was created in 1872 by local winemaker Josep Raventós after the Penedès vineyards had been devastated by the phylloxera plague and the predominantly red varietals were being replaced by vines producing white grapes. Impressed with the success of the Champagne region, Raventós decided to make his own dry sparkling wine, which has since become the region’s runaway success story. Cava comes in different degrees of dryness: brut nature, brut (extra dry), seco (dry), semiseco (medium), and dulce (sweet). The soil and microclimate of the Penedès region, along with the local grape varietals, give cava a slightly earthier, darker taste than its French counterpart, 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.
La Vinya del Senyor (Pl. de Santa Maria 593/310–3379) offers top cavas and wines by the glass from a continually changing list.
Jamón ibérico de bellota, or ham from free-range acorn-fed Ibérico pigs, descendant from the Sus mediterraneus that once roamed the Iberian Peninsula, has become Spain’s modern-day caviar. The meat is dark and red, and tastes of the 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. The tastes and aromas, after two years of aging, are so complex—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-cured ham (from sierra) and should never be confused with jamón ibérico de bellota. What is commercialized in the United States 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 11593/317–1492) 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." Mesón Cinco Jotas (Rambla de Catalunya 91–9393/487–8942 ) serves a complete selection of ham and charcuterie 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 casings, and dried to create a protein-rich, easy-to-conserve 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. Below are some of the most common:
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-hued 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 cook? Try these markets:
La Botifarreria de Santa Maria (Carrer de Santa Maria 493/319–9123) next to the Santa Maria del Mar basilica stocks a compendium of Catalonia’s sausages and charcuterie, along with top hams from all over Spain.
La Masia de la Boqueria (Mercat de la Boqueria93/317–9420) is one of the finest charcuterie and ham specialists in the Boqueria market.
Xarcuteria Margarit (Cornet i Mas 63, Sarrià93/203–3323) up in the village of Sarrià has an excellent charcuterie (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 mushrooms 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; they impart a musty, slightly gamey taste of the forest floor—a dark flavor of decay—to the raw materials such as meat or eggs with which they are typically cooked. Many locals 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 parsley, 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 whatever they need; if morels are scarce this year in Catalonia but abundant in, say, Wisconsin, the Petràs family will dial them in. Llorenç’s book Cocinar con Setas (Cooking with Wild Mushrooms) is a runaway best seller presently in its 10th edition.
Petràs—Fruits del Bosc. This shop (Mercat de la Boqueria, stands 867–870 and 962–96593/302–5273 www.boletspetras.com) in the back of the Boqueria shows and sells the finest wild-mushroom collection in Barcelona.
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