Saturday, 18 July 2015

10 things I learnt about Catalan cuisine with Devour Barcelona

Just like Spain's geography, its cuisine is diverse. So when I visited Barcelona recently, I was excited to learn more about Catalan gastronomy with Devour Barcelona. The second city to hold a Devour Spain food tour, the Barcelona route focuses on the Gràcia neighbourhood north of key city artery Passeig de Gràcia. Unlike this busy boulevard flanked by designer stores, Gracia is best-known for its local vibe – so much so that it's often referred to as a 'village in the middle of Barcelona'. Knowing how crowded the Catalan capital can get, I was sceptical of this claim: disproving it wasn't the only surprise I had in store that morning.

Founded by food and travel blogger Lauren Aloise of Spanish Sabores, Devour Spain began life as Madrid Food Tour. I was lucky enough to try out their Tapas, Taverns and History tour last year, so when they expanded to Barcelona in 2014, I couldn't wait to try their food tour. Running every morning from Tuesday to Saturday, the Barcelona tour takes you all the way from breakfast through to post-lunch coffee & cake, with 9 stops dotted around gorgeous Gràcia. I met friendly tour guide Renée on Passeig de Gràcia, and our group headed up to the barrio of the same name. En route, Renée explained that Gràcia actually once was a village, cut off from the city itself, which at the time centred around Barceloneta and El Born. Passeig de Gràcia was built to link the two, and the rest is history. In my opinion, this pretty barrio is perfect food tour territory: it's still largely off the tourist itinerary, and is home to plenty of family-run businesses which Devour Spain likes to support.

But enough about Gràcia: my mission was to eat. So, here's what I learnt during one food-packed morning with Devour Barcelona.

1) Drinking cava for breakfast is encouraged

Feeling decadent with cava for brekfast

At stop number one, wood-panelled, family photo-bedecked Can Tosca, I tucked into a green garlic omelette sandwich washed down with a glass of the sparkling stuff. At 10am, No, I'm not a secret daytime drinker or a decadent type – Renée reassured us that quaffing cava with your breakfast is totally normal in Catalunya. The Spanish version of more famous sparkling wine champagne, cava is made with different grapes to its French cousin, but the process used is the same (unlike Italian prosecco). Its price tag is lower than champagne as the conditions in Catalunya are more favourable, so a higher volume can be produced. If that means cava from 85 cents a glass, I'm not complaining. It made quite a change from my usual coffee or tea, and got the tour off to a great start. Can Tosca has been run by the same family since it opened in 1961, and the friendly crew certainly know how to cook – my omelette (butifarra sausage for the meat-eaters) was flavoursome and served on fresh, crusty bread. 

2) The Mercat de la Boqueria isn't the only Barcelona market worth a visit

Taking a bite out of Barcelona

Tour founder Lauren is of the opinion that the best way to get a flavour for a city is through its markets. Entering Gràcia's market, the Mercat de l'Abaceria Central, I could see why: locals thronged the aisles picking up daily groceries, selecting the best produce. We made our way to Josep's olive stall (aka Selecció d'Olives i Conserves Glória) where the owner sells olives and marinated vegetables to take away, as well as serving up tasty skewers loaded with different flavour combinations – apparently inspired by Madrid's own Mercado de San Miguel. We polished off a huge mouthful of green olive, pepper and salt cod before making our way to cheese stall La Trobada del Gourmet, where we sampled three varieties of Spanish and Catalan cheese accompanied by membrillo, or quince jelly. La Boqueria may be impressive, but if you'd rather see a snapshot of regular city life, the Mercat de l'Abaceria is a great spot to try.

Cheese heaven at La Trobada del Gourmet

3) When it comes to olive oil, 'cold pressed' means nothing

At chic oil boutique Oli Sal, Renée explained the process of producing extra virgin olive oil. This highest quality golden liquid is the only variety stocked there, and after our guide's explanation I understood why. Extra virgin is to other oils what freshly-squeezed orange juice is to from concentrate: the one that you want. I found out that the term 'cold pressed' means nothing – heat is never used in the olive oil making process. Still, not all extra virgins are created equal: we tried a selection of flavours, running from smooth and light to a deeply fruity number. I skipped the traditional tasting method of using a spoon and tasted the oils on crusty bread instead. Two varieties we sampled were from Catalunya; the most punch-packing was from Jaén, Spain's main olive-growing region.

Olive oil boutique Oli Sal

4) There's an art to pa amb tomàquet

Almost any meal in Catalunya comes accompanied by a healthy helping of bread rubbed with fresh tomato and doused with olive oil. It's at once incredibly simple and delicious. At Gràcia tapas bar L'Anxoveta, owner Carlos demonstrated with flair how best to produce the perfect pa amb tomàquet using fresh pan de cristal, tomatoes purchased at the market that morning, local olive oil (and optional garlic). After watching the process, we each had chance to try making it ourselves – and savouring the results.

5) It's possible for patatas bravas to be genuinely spicy

All too often, patatas bravas are served with a tomato sauce that's more soso than spicy. Not so at L'Anxoveta: chef Iqbal is originally from Pakistan, so knows his stuff when it comes to spice. The potatoes themselves were perfectly cooked, and the sauce was to my taste, although it's no doubt a bit too picante for the average Spaniard. The meat-eaters among us tried a bomba: a round potato croqueta with ground beef served with ali oli and the same spicy sauce. This tapa originated in the Barceloneta area, but is now popular all over Spain. Here at L'Anxoveta, we learned more about the tradition of tapas and how to order – very useful for those visiting Spain for the first time.

Gorgeous Gracia, where the Devour Barcelona tour takes place

6) Outside influences are welcome

Despite the name, our sixth stop was far from a traditional Catalan bakery: Pastisseria Príncipe is a Syrian pastry shop in the heart of Gràcia. Owner Mustafa came to Barcelona on holiday 30 years ago, and within two months was married to a local lady and set up his business. His shop seemed a cornerstone of the community, with a queue of customers selecting their Friday treats. Príncipe has an on-site kitchen which produces 2000 pastries a day. To be honest, my cashew number was a bit dry and the least interesting bite of the tour – perhaps I should have gone for the pistachio, chocolate and almond instead.

7) When it comes to aperitivo, Catalan granddads are trend-setters

Vermut at Ca'l Pep

In recent years, vermouth has been embraced by hipsters, but Catalan granddads were in the know about this aperitif years ago. La hora del vermut falls before lunch time, when hipsters and avis alike enjoy this fortified wine laced with caramel and herbs. The city of Reus in Tarragona is Spain's key vermouth producing area, so understandably it's a popular tipple throughout Catalunya. We tried some accompanied with a refreshing spritz of sifón (soda water) at classic 'old man bar' Ca'l Pep, whose doors opened around a century ago. As is typical, we accompanied our vermut with boquerones en vinagre (pickled anchovies), the marinated taste offsetting the sweetness of the vermouth. This is one tradition I'm glad the hipsters revived (the giant beards less so).

8) Catalan take-ways do exist (sort of)

What a Catalan take away looks like

The 'lunch' element of our tour was provided by La Botigueta del Bon Menjar, a 'llegums cuites' vendor. Apparently, these shops came into existence when women started working outside the home, selling prepared produce such as cooked chickpea and lentil dishes. Nowadays, this tiny spot has a counter for clients to eat at as well as selling take-away home cooking: fideuà (similar to paella but cooked with noodles instead of rice), pulse-based dishes, salads and the like. We samples creamy espinacas a la catalana, spinach served Catalan-style (which I discovered meant with raisins and pine nuts). We also tried a taster of escalivada, a roasted vegetable salad served with romesco sauce. The old-school nature of this 'take away' with its delicious home cooking was preferable to a fast-food joint any day of the week. This spot is also close to Gràcia's 'secret' Gaudí  house: Casa Vicens was the architect's first private commission. It's currently closed to the public, but its doors are set to open in the next few years, which will no doubt disrupt the area's peace and quiet. For now, you can grab an exterior view of this tiled masterpiece.

Casa Vicens, a Gaudi house in the heart of Gracia

9) There's a pastry form of crema catalana

Dessert came in the form of a cremat, a semi-solid version of crema catalana, which apparently preceded its more famous French counterpart creme brulée by around 300 years, with the first written record dating back to the 14th century. The Catalan dessert is made with lemon and orange rind and cinnamon, rather than vanilla like creme brulée. After sampling so many tastes all morning, a huge helping of rich crema catalana would have finished me off, but a mini-cremat washed down with a cortado coffee ended the tour on a sweet note. The cremat is a invention of Pastisseria Ideal, a traditional pastry shop and cafe that opened in 1919 on Carrer Gran de Gràcia, the continuation of glam Passeig de Gràcia. They certainly got the recipe right: this rich morsel had a melt-in-the mouth texture and came perched atop a brioche-style bun.

The perfect mini dessert: A cremat

10) It's delicious

Yes, my final lesson about Catalan cuisine is a bit of a cheat, but it's also true. During my morning with Devour Barcelona, I learnt that Catalan cooking spans a wider variety than I'd originally thought, and the quality of food we sampled was excellent. So much so that it's hard to pick my favourite stops, but if I had to, I'd probably choose Can Tosca, the market, L'Anxoveta and Pastisseria Ideal for a combination of food and atmosphere.

If you're heading to Barcelona soon, I'd highly recommend checking out Devour Barcelona for a great introduction to the city's cooking and a tour of Gràcia, a neighbourhood that swept me off my feet. As well as learning about the individual dishes you try and the people behind them, the tour is great fun and Renée is full of quirky facts about Gràcia and Barcelona, teaching us more about local festivals and traditions such as caps grossos (big heads) and correfocs (fire-runners). Wonder what on earth I'm talking about? You'll just have to take the tour and find out for yourself.

Devour Barcelona Food Tours cost €65 and run from Tuesday-Saturday at 10am. As well as the tour, you receive a guide to eating in Barcelona. Devour Spain also run tours in Madrid and Sevilla, with Málaga coming soon.

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I was a guest of Devour Barcelona but all opinions are my own.

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