A gustatory tour of the great Spanish city.
The fact that the cuisine of Spain has lured travelers over the decades is no surprise, but if one takes a look closer, it’s pretty clear that most of the food chatter is coming from one particular region: Catalonia. Geographically, Catalonia has it all. Mountains, the Mediterranean coastline, dry areas, and wetlands, helping to yield a variety of fresh vegetables, seafood, wheat products, cheeses, and meats. But what is it about this community’s cuisine that has the world talking?
First, it doesn’t hurt that Catalonia is a crossroads between France and Spain, with a few influences from Italy—European countries with globally celebrated cuisines. Second, Catalonia and its capital city, Barcelona, have been serving farm-to-table meals decades before it ever became a trend.
Catalan cooking steeps itself in serving the best ingredients that the Mediterranean region has to offer. The food is uncomplicated, straightforward, and holds a high respect for the freshest ingredients, letting natural flavors shine. Simply stated, Catalan cuisine is the traditional, healthy food that today’s modern palate craves. It’s quite rare to find meat and fish drowned in heavy sauces or creams, vegetables aren’t steamed or boiled past recognition (or texture). Instead, proteins are served seared, roasted, or poached in olive oil, and vegetables are lightly steamed or sautéed. Cuisine is a vital part of Catalan culture, filled with emotion, history, and reverence for the Mediterranean Sea. There is no trickery, no major fusion of East meets West. What you see is what you get.
Since dining is one of the best ways to experience a destination, get ready to explore Barcelona through your taste buds.
Starting with the Basics
To embark on a discovery of Catalan cuisine, the first stop has to be the food markets and the vendors where the Mediterranean ingredients are sourced. Although individual farmers and fishermen provide their fare to all of the best restaurants in Catalonia, all roads essentially lead to Mercat de Sant Josep, also affectionately known as La Boqueria. Located in the heart of the city just off Las Ramblas, the artery avenue of Barcelona, La Boqueria is a feast for the senses. Nothing compares to the energy of a European food market, but La Boqueria takes things to the next level. Part raw-food market and part casual-dining arena, La Boqueria offers everything from rare produce, whole chickens and rabbits, and live shellfish, to piping hot tapas and fresh squeezed fruit juices.
Known as the emblematic market of Barcelona, La Boqueria dates back to the thirteenth century when it was first an open-air market located in front of the old gates to the city. Fruit, vegetable, and pig farmers from local towns and nearby farms traveled to Barcelona to sell their products, a tradition that still continues today. By the nineteenth century, the market unofficially expanded to include shops for fish, poultry, and butchers. Then on St. Joseph’s Day in 1840, the first stone of the city-approved market was placed. Over the course of the next seventy years, the market grew to include fish shops, fruit, vegetable, and flower stands, electricity, and a metal roof. In 2003, La Boqueria added a culinary classroom where children and adults can take cooking classes and attend culinary events.
Long-standing history aside, the true draw to La Boqueria is its vendors. Most of the current merchants are third- and fourth-generation salesmen who combine new, innovative products like frozen items and foreign artisan delicacies with traditional foods like charcuterie, eggs, wine, and handmade pastas. La Boqueria has such a plethora of offerings—everything from canned mussels to fine chocolates—that it’s said if you can’t find it at La Boqueria, it can’t be found. If you prefer to sample Catalan fare without preparing it, La Boqueria has a variety of restaurant booths and counter bars, the most popular of which is Bar Pinotxo. Bar Pinotxo has been around for more than seventy years and draws everyone from tourists to Catalan chef extraordinaire Ferran Adrià. There’s no menu, but guests are invited to inspect the display platters or ask for the daily specials like tortilla, garbanzos, and cocido de carne.
Catalonia’s Culinary Rise to Fame
The question of how Barcelona and its surrounding area became the pulse of the food world could be debated for years, and there are plenty of Catalan Spaniards ready and willing to share their opinions. That said, there are a few irrefutable names when it comes to Catalan cuisine: Ferran Adrià, Santi Santamaria, Carme Ruscalleda, and the Roca brothers, all award-winning chefs whom have contributed to the boom of the Catalan dining scene over the past thirty years.
Barcelona is home to more than twenty Michelin-starred restaurants, while the region of Catalonia is home to more than sixty. Of the country’s eight 3-Michellin star restaurants—the highest Michelin honor—two are located in Catalonia. So how and when did all this fine dining start? A brief look at Spanish history shows that most of these white-tablecloth establishments credited for bringing innovation and creativity to Spanish cuisine opened in the early to mid 1980s. The end of Francisco Franco’s almost forty-year dictatorship in 1975 birthed a new middle class of Spaniards with money to spend on luxury experiences. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that places like El Racó de Can Fabes, El Celler de Can Roca, and Sant Pau opened in 1981, 1986, and 1988, respectively, and that Ferran Adrià began his career at El Bulli in 1984, but perhaps not.
All of this culinary talent had to fight for moments in the spotlight, but no place was able to shine like El Bulli. From its first Michelin star in 1976 to its closing date on July 30, 2011, the small, Spanish restaurant on Catalonia’s Costa Brava was the mecca of a food pilgrimage for diners all over the world. Known for head chef Adrià’s inventive, futuristic, and often magical cuisine, El Bulli peaked the curiosity of diners and critics all over the world. He is one of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy, particularly the technique of spherification, which utilizes the chemical reaction between a juice or liquid flavor combined with sodium alginate, and a calcium chloride bath. The reaction yields a thin membrane around the juice forming a spherical shape, like El Bulli’s famous spherical liquid olives that explode in the mouth. He was also one of the first to use liquid nitrogen to flash-freeze certain dishes, a common technique used by chefs today.
Although the famed restaurant closed its doors in 2011, El Bulli’s legacy lives on. It is still the only restaurant to receive the prestigious title of Best Restaurant in the World five times (four times in a row) by Restaurant Magazine, and in 2010, Adrià was named the Best Chef of the Decade by the same worldwide committee of five hundred food critics, chefs, and gourmets. That same year, Ferran and his brother Albert opened Tickets, La Vida Tapa, and 41º, a tapas and cocktail bar in the L’Eixample neighborhood of Barcelona. Taking on the same whimsical theme of Adrià’s cuisine, Tickets is a tapas bar made of six areas that represent different sides of Barcelona: Mediterranean, industrial, formal, and more.
A Look at Dining in Barcelona Today
Living up to Catalonia’s elite culinary predecessors from the eighties and nineties was a challenge that today’s dining community in Barcelona was ready to accept. The restaurant scene is more vibrant than ever, with some new faces as well as former faces with new projects. For example, the aforementioned Adrià brothers have opened, and are in the process of opening, five new restaurants in Barcelona since 2010, and are preparing to unveil the elBulli Foundation—an umbrella enterprise encompassing everything from an Internet search engine of gastronomy to a food laboratory and visitors center. Picking up where El Bulli left off, the three Roca brothers, Joan, Josep, and Jordi of El Celler de Can Roca, located in Girona, Spain, about an hour northeast of Barcelona, have taken the culinary world by storm. In 2009, they earned their third Michelin star and in 2013, received the title of Best Restaurant in the World. Restaurant Magazine also named the youngest brother, Jordi, the Best Pastry Chef in the World, in 2014.
Also making waves is Chef Jordi Cruz of ABaC, the youngest chef in Spain to earn a Michelin star at the age of twenty-five. ABaC follows the tried-and-true formula of innovative cooking techniques rooted in fresh Mediterranean ingredients and flavors, enticing diners with dishes like roasted sea bass with artichokes, oysters and fish-stock gravy infused with butter, or roasted Iberian pork shoulder with spiced vegetables and dried apricots. Adventurous diners can sample a variety of Chef Cruz’s specialties with the eleven-course ABaC tasting menu for the fair price of 135 euros without wine pairings. Michelin-starred Cinc Sentits, run by self-taught Chef Jordi Artal, offers a seven-course tasting menu for eighty-five euros, an attainable price point for the budget-friendly foodie.
Not all dining in Barcelona is fancy fare. Tapas still reign king, and Quimet y Quimet is one of the most popular places in the city, due to their delectable montaditos—slices of French bread topped with everything ranging from smoked salmon with cream cheese and honey to foie gras. Even better, Quimet y Quimet offers the full Spanish tapas experience, complete with no menu, a tiny venue, and a specialty list of vintage wines and vermouth. No foodie trip to Barcelona would be complete without a sampling of cava—the Catalan version of champagne—so check out El Rincón del Cava for a four-euro bottle of the good stuff. El Rincón also specializes in traditional Spanish tapas like patatas bravas (fried potatoes with spicy sauce), pimientos verdes (roasted green peppers), and albóndigas (meatballs in tomato sauce with peas).
From inexpensive, traditional tapas to groundbreaking, three-star Michelin dining, Catalonia and its capital city Barcelona have mastered the art of creating new relationships with food, while maintaining and respecting Catalan recipes of the past. The region’s ability to set trends within the food world doesn’t seem like it will slow any time soon.
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