BarcelonaWords Paul Dring
Photography William Meppem
Day 1, evening, the Eixample district
First stop on my crash course in tapas, De Tapa Madre. This name, I learn from my Catalan friend Marta, is something of a pun, De Tapa Madre sounding, albeit loosely, like an Iberian term of abuse. I am hungry, for what will be the only time over the next three days, which gives me a chance to practise my limited Spanish – ¡Tengo hambre! – which means I am hungry. Marta is impressed, I can tell. DTM is curiously empty, but then it is early – 8.30pm or so – and Catalans don’t go out to eat much before half nine. The food is good though, baby chorizo and artichoke fritters barely touch the sides before it’s time to move on.
We duck into La Bodegueta, a cavernous subterranean bar. Unlike DTM, it is hugely busy, not a table to be had, so we prop up the bar. I accidentally kick the shin of an elderly, impressively moustachioed waiter. He glowers, equally impressively. Over anchovies and tortilla, I chat with a local on the qualities of Majorcan tennis player Rafael Nadal. It becomes apparent that Catalan people are friendly and welcoming, just so long as you don’t kick them.
Next stop, Cervesería Catalana. We order navalles, or razor clams. I really like these. Fat, fleshy tubes of shellfish, fresh as you like, slathered in garlicky olive oil, which I mop up with a slice of pa amb tomàquet. This, a simple preparation of bread rubbed with ripe tomato, drizzled with oil and sprinkled with sea salt, is emblematically Catalan. Marta tells me that when she was a girl she imagined the whole world ate bread this way and thought it weird the first time she heard of bread and butter. We try another Catalan speciality. Calçots are big spring onions, hugely popular for the short time they’re on the menu from late January. They are grilled, then dipped into a romesco (red pepper) sauce, dangled over the mouth and duly lowered in. As Marta says, “They are very messy but that’s part of the fun.” I proceed to demonstrate the accuracy of this assertion.
The last stop of the first day is Tapaç 24. This is an offshoot of the Barcelona restaurant Comerç 24, which was set up by Carles Abellan, who worked with Ferran Adrià in the kitchens of El Bulli. While Comerç 24 specialises in tapas-sized versions of the kind of experimental flavour combos you’d expect from an Adrià old boy, here at the bar Abellan plays it straight, with well-executed favourites. These and the knowingly kitsch décor (paintings of smiling prawns on the windows) attract an ultra-cool crowd of young folk. I chow down on crisp-outside, soft-inside potato croquettes while scanning the room and try to pinpoint when I stopped being cool and started being old.
Day 2, lunch, Eixample, Poble Sec, El Raval and Barceloneta
Still in Eixample, Bar Mut provides a wonderful ‘fork breakfast’, as the Catalans refer to the artery-furring bowls that used to provide farm workers with their mid-morning lunch. Marta suggests I try cap i pota, which contains hairy bits of pig snout, chunks of tripe and other unmentionables and is richly, gelatinously savoury. Chef Albert Mendiola comes out to say hello and insists we try the creation he’s most proud of, which he calls fried-egg carpaccio. This comprises a thinly spread yolk from a fried egg, topped with straw-fried potatoes, fat little prawns and chorizo oil. People come here especially to order this dish. I can see why.
We hop in a cab and are off to Quimet & Quimet, in the Poble Sec district. Run by the unfailingly cheerful Joaquim and his wife Carmen, this tiny lunch-spot-cum-deli specialises in montaditos, little open sandwiches of crunchy rolls with all kinds of toppings. We work our way through bacallà (salt cod) with caramelised tomato, black olive tapenade and pickled cucumber, langoustine with caviar, yoghurt and piquillo pepper, and sardine with tomato and sea urchin. The deli sells a wide range of fancy goods including, rather curiously, Convivial Yorkshire Crisps (God’s Own County not being especially noted for the hail-fellow-well-met quality of its bar snacks).
After dropping in at Mam i Teca, where the affable Alfons whips up confit pork ribs fried with chickpeas and morcilla (Spanish black pudding – am beginning to dread my next cholesterol check), it’s off to Barceloneta, the hard-working port district. At La Cova Fumada, lunch is in full swing. The small, spit-and-sawdust room is packed: workers with paint-spattered overalls prop up the bar, old men smoke and talk politics at the tables, and owner Josep and his brother Magi flit between open kitchen, bar and tables. LCF prides itself as the birthplace of the bomba – pebble-sized potato croquettes enclosing pockets of chilli sauce. Top marks also go to the cod fritters and the fried artichokes, which are prepared by the boys’ mother, Maria, from her frying station in the corner of the room.
Thus fortified, we make our way to Bitácora, a crustily boho joint with a glass shrine affixed to its outer wall that encases an effigy of Christ in a football shirt. Am surprised to learn that the Lamb of God is not, to judge from his choice of colours, a Barcelona fan. It being, ooh, all of five minutes since we last ate, we order patatas bravas and diced veal with goat’s cheese. The veal is rich with the flavours of oregano, lemon and olive oil, and reminds me rather inappropriately of Greece in springtime.
Across the road, El Vaso de Oro is styled, I observe over piquant pimientos de padròn, like a Catalan outpost of Mittel Europa. There are pewter steins on the shelves, Prussian eagles on the floor tiles and, on this afternoon at least, the sort of carousing you’d expect at a bierkeller. When I ask the waiter (faultlessly turned out in a starched white tunic replete with gold-braid epaulettes) about this Teutonic influence he appears mildly offended. His cloud is dispelled by the arrival of a colleague who is clad in a crash helmet and is brandishing a child’s plastic guitar. To the carousers’ vocal encouragement, he launches into a lusty rendition, so Marta tells me, of a Catalan novelty hit of the 70s.
Day 2, evening, Born and Barri Gòtic districts
We start early in the Born district at Cal Pep, which provides exception to the Catalan late-dining rule. You either get here for when they throw the doors open at 8pm or you wait an hour or more to secure one of the few counter-side stools for tapas. The simple plate of battered and fried shrimp, calamari and baby hake that we try offers a clue as to why the place is so popular. We follow this with faultless cuttlefish and chickpea stew along with a beautifully oozing potato tortilla. When we leave, some 30 minutes later, the queue is stretching out the door.
Our next port of call, Can Paixano, is universally known as the Champagne Bar; dispel any notions of louche glamour this suggests. The pink drink it dispenses to its mostly student clientele may be fizzy, but that’s where the similarity ends. This it serves in champagne saucers, a now rather old-fashioned style of glass with a wide, shallow bowl that is hugely impractical when one’s elbow is continually being jogged. Though this is primarily a drinking bar you have to order food too, so we plump for morcilla and chorizo, which arrives chunked, with toothpicks in place of cutlery. And so it is that I stand in a roomful of baying students, plastic glass of pink drink in one hand, paper plate of pig pieces in the other, hardly daring to move for fear that I spill it all down my front. It is only after we leave that I realise this was actually quite fun.
At La Plata, they do just three things – butifarra (sausage), sardines and tomato salad – so it’s a good job they do them well. Wine is similarly straightforward, with three big barrels behind the bar bearing the words ‘Vino Tinto’, ‘Vino Blanca’, and ‘Vino Rosada’. This brightly lit, smoky, one-room joint is a real locals’ place, a glimpse of life as it is lived in Barcelona and during the summer people spill out into the alley outside and place orders through the hole in the wall to the kitchen.
By contrast, neighbouring Bar Celta offers an insight into how life is lived in Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain. A self-styled pulperia, or octopus house, Celta specialises in the tentacled cephalopods for which Galicia is best known, which are boiled, sliced and dressed with pimentón (smoked paprika) and olive oil. Back in the day, Galician fishermen would tenderise octopuses for the pot by thwhacking them against the harbour wall. These days, things are much more civilised, waiter Pepe tells us as he pours us some Galician albariño wine into little china bowls, and a few days in the freezer usually suffices to break down their tough, sinuous meat.
We round off the day at El Xampanyet, which means ‘little champagne’ and refers to their trademark carbonated wine, a glass of which owner Juan-Carlos presses into our hands. “We’re not really called Xampanyet,” says Juan-Carlos. “When my granddad open this place in the 1920s he called it Can Esteban. But then as soon as we started selling that drink…”
Day 3, lunch, Barri Gòtic, Sant Pere
Bar Pinotxo is a Barça institution. This little tapas bar has been running in La Boqueria – Barcelona’s central produce market – for 55 years. “It started with just my mum,” says owner Juanito. “Then it was mum and my sister, then me and my sister, now it’s me and my nephews,” he says, indicating Jordi and Albert behind the counter. Over the years, Marta tells me, Juanito has become something of a star in Barcelona and his broad smile and thumbs-up gesture and are regular fixtures on TV and in the paper.
Today, we visit at 9am, though Juanito has been at work since the market opened at six. Remorselessly cheerful and smiling, he is nonetheless having a bit of a bad-hair day and is being ribbed by his customers on account of his unruly mop. Meanwhile, Albert whips up a couple of wonderful dishes for us to try. The baby squid flash-fried with white Santa Pau beans is simple, fresh and delicious, while morcilla and chickpeas is savoury and hearty. A macchiato really hits the spot, then we bid farewell to Juanito, who returns the valediction with raised thumbs.
Pinotxo is not the only place to eat in the market. El Quim de la Boqueria is well known for its egg dishes. Quim (as I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you) is short for Joaquim, who owns the place and insists we try his fried egg with llanqueta (tiny fried fish). Then there’s Kiosko Universal, with great seafood and a three-course menu – outlandishly good value at only €14. After eating, we wander round the market. The Boqueria offers a dazzling variety of fresh produce. I dally at a butcher’s stall displaying the world of the carnivores, red in tooth and claw. There are chickens with their feet still on, coxcombs for the pot, ox hearts, hares, sheep’s brains, billowy blankets of tripe and the unmistakeable sight of bull’s testicles.
It is while I’m marvelling over these resplendent reproductive orbs that a German tourist sidles up to me and introduces herself with the words, “They are ever so tasty, you know.” Really, I say. “Ja,” she reaffirms. “You know how you cook them?” There follows a disquieting exposition, which features the phrases “slip them out of their sac” and “slice with a sharp knife”. I beat a tactful retreat before she invites me back to hers to share a plateful.
From the market, we strike out through the old town, the Barri Gòtic, where we slalom past groups having Barcelona’s wonders relayed to them in German, Japanese and English. After two quick but unremarkable stops, Onofre and El Portalón, I'm no longer feeling hungry but steel myself for one more call. As I mentioned, Comerç 24 is not a tapas bar but a restaurant that does tapas-sized portions of wonderfully inventive food. Moreover, as we discover, it’s also a place where you can bowl up and score a table on a Friday afternoon, without having to put your name down for a lottery six months before you want to eat, like you’d have to at El Bulli, where owner Carlos Abellan learnt his trade. Alas, Abellan is not around this lunchtime, but chef Arnau Muñio is happy to run us through a few highlights from the €54 festival menu. We try a consommé in which float little, thin-skinned beads enclosing liquid centres flavoured with egg, parmesan and truffle, and a wonderfully elegant, fragrantly savoury saffron rice with parmesan, liquorice and lychees. This is as far away from the snout and tripe of Bar Mut’s cap i pota as it gets.
What has this 48 hours of gluttony taught me? Well, that Barcelona’s tapas scene, which runs the gamut of traditional to groundbreaking, is a celebration of seasonal produce and Catalan food culture in which it is rooted. And that I should decline dinner on the plane home.
Bar Celta C/Mercé 16, Barri Gòtic; +34 93 315 0006
Bar Mut C/Pau Claris 192, Eixample; +34 93 217 4338
Bar Pinotxo Mercat Sant Josep (La Boqueria), La Rambla 89, Barri Gòtic; +34 93 317 1731
Bitácora C/Balboa 1, Barceloneta; +34 93 319 1110
La Bodegueta La Rambla, 1 100 Eixample; +34 93 215 4894
Cal Pep Plaça de les Olles 8, Born; +34 93 310 7961; calpep.com
Can Paixano (Champagne Bar) C/Reina Cristina 7, Barceloneta; +34 93 310 0839; canpixano.com
Cerveseria Catalana C/Mallorca 236, Eixample; +34 93 216 03 68
Comerç 24 C/Comerç 24, Sant Pere; +34 93 319 21 02; comerc24.com
La Cova Fumada C/Baluard 56, Barceloneta; +34 93 221 40 61
Kiosko Universal Mercat Sant Josep (La Boqueria), La Rambla 89, Barri Gòtic; +34 93 317 8286
Mam i Teca C/Lluna 4, Raval; +34 93 441 3335
Onofre C/Magdalenes 19, Barri Gòtic; +34 93 317 6937
La Plata C/Mercè 28, Born; +34 93 315 1009
El Portalón C/Banys Nous 20, Barri Gòtic; +34 93 302 1187
El Quim de la Boqueria Mercat Sant Josep (La Boqueria), La Rambla 89, Barri Gòtic; +34 93 301 9810
Quimet & Quimet C/Poeta Cabanyes 25, Poble Sec; +34 93 442 3142
Tapaç 24 Diputacío 269, Eixample; +34 93 488 0977, carlesabellan.com
De Tapa Madre C/Mallorca 301, Eixample; +34 93 459 3134, detapamadre.com
El Vaso de Oro C/Balboa 6, Barceloneta; +34 93 319 3098
El Xampanyet C/Montcada 22, Born; +34 93 319 7003