Barcelona: Culinary Capital

Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008

What strikes 21st century visitors to Barcelona is no doubt what struck their counterparts in the Middle Ages—the nearly incredible dynamism, verve, and exuberance that has characterized this Mediterranean capital since its earliest history. Blessed with a delightful climate and a population celebrated for intelligence and progressive ideas, linked through trade, commerce, and cultural exchanges with France, Italy, and the entire eastern Mediterranean, Barcelona is renowned as a city of great art and architecture, as well as great food. Throughout Spain and throughout their history, Barceloneses (people native to Barcelona) have been known for a unique combination of industry, culture, and the arts—especially the culinary arts. Drawing on the abundance of the sea, the fertile coastal plain, and the mountains that seem to hover protectively over the urban cluster, the Catalan capital boasts a cuisine that, while inventive and often playful, is still firmly rooted in Catalan identity and the traditions of this very special territory. And in recent years, the revolutionary cuisine that has brought the world to Spain’s restaurant tables has also found a happy home in Barcelona. The daring, sometimes downright wacky, culinary notions of Ferran Adrià, himself Catalan, have provoked a broad and enthusiastic group of followers, at the same time that the foundation cuisine remains strong.

There’s no better introduction to what this means than Barcelona’s vibrant Boqueria market, the best-known of the town’s six public marketplaces, which opens right off the main tourist drag, the Rambla. Here, any morning but Sunday, you’ll find an amazing display of edibles, from ornate piles of tropical fruits to heaped mounds of local peaches and plums, oranges from farther south in Valencia, apples from the mountains, humble potatoes and onions, elegant purple eggplants and vivid red and yellow peppers, cabbages, greens, whatever is fresh and in season. At many stands you’ll find the most gorgeously plump salt cod you’ve ever seen, with the entwined salted tripe of the fish hanging above it. In another corner is the mushroom man, a legendary figure, with his 15 or 20 different varieties of fresh, wild-harvested funghi on display. Next to him are stalls selling embutidos, all the varieties of cured, dried, salted meats and fish, from the prized jamones, whether serrano or iberico, to dried and fresh sausages, to cured tuna (mojama) and mullet roe (bottarga). In the center of the teeming market are the fresh seafood stalls, gleaming arrays of whole fish, molluscs, squid and octopuses, lobsters, langoustines, fat red shrimps, and the great Catalan specialty espardenyas (sea cucumbers). But even more impressive than the food of the Boqueria are the throngs of people, pinching, hefting, sniffing, buying. When you see restaurant chefs, some of the most renowned in the city, vieing with home cooks and housewives for the offerings of the mushroom man, you know you’re in serious food turf. This Barcelona is a place where people care—and care deeply—about what they eat.

The Barcelona marinaThe Barcelona marinaFortunately, visitors can sample a lot of this provender at the various chiringuitos or mini-restaurants distributed throughout the marketplace. Pull up a stool to a diner-like counter and point to what is wafting felicitously from your neighbor’s plate. It’s bound to be good, and may very well be something you’ve never had before. Two of the best-known (and constantly being written up in the food press) are Pinotxo, right near the main Ramblas entrance to the Boqueria, and Quim, farther toward the interior of the market. In both cases, genial, apparently unflappable owner-manager-chefs provide an abundance of food to hordes of insistent diners from early breakfast right through the late mid-day meal. Another recommended chiringuito is Geminis, a tiny bar tucked along one of the side alleys, described as “a haven of untrendiness... for an extremely good value three-course lunch.”

Barcelona eating doesn’t start with chiringuitos and end in fancy restaurants, however. The city offers visitors and locals alike a range of possibilities, from crowded tapas bars like the ever popular Cal Pep near the Barri Gotic, the old part of town, to waterfront seafood shacks in Barceloneta, the former fishing port, and long-established fish restaurants like the venerable Set Portes; and from granjas like Viader, where the fare is decidedly milky and sweet (the best place, Barcelonans say, for thick hot chocolate topped with whipped cream), to xampanyerias (cava bars) where the toast of the day is made with crisp, sparkling cava produced in the Penedes, just south of Barcelona. Chocolate shops are another local specialty, since fine chocolate is one of Barcelona’s claims to culinary fame—they range from standard, and delicious, chocolate bonbons to the wildly inventive range of an Enric Rovira or Oriol Balaguer.

Eating is a favorite activity in this town, closely followed by talking about eating, which itself is followed by cooking. One of the earliest European cookbooks that we know, the early 14th century Libre de Sent Sovi, is a Catalan production, and many of the recipes show up a hundred years later in the first Italian cookery manuscripts. So Barcelona had a jump start on the rest of Europe. And if there have been dark years in Barcelona’s history—especially during the Franco dictatorship when any hint of Catalan nationalism was severely repressed—today, in the lively cafés, bars, restaurants, markets, and indeed home kitchens of Barcelona, all that has been forgotten as a revived cuina catalana, or Catalan cuisine, springs to vibrant life here in its capital.

Read more about the restaurants of Barcelona»

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