When I arrived in Barcelona, overwhelmed didn’t begin to describe my feelings about landing in such a large city. The contrast to charming, contained Reykjavik, where I began my RTW trip, was nothing short of astounding. And the neverending choice of restaurants was perhaps my biggest sticking point. So thank goodness for the blogoverse, which turned me on to Devour Barcelona’s food tours. The morning I spent eating across the less-traveled neighborhood of Gracia was easily the highlight of my two weeks in Catalonia.
Why Devour Barcelona
As I researched my trip, I found I kept returning to one particular blog post about dining in Barcelona. It had detailed suggestions of what and where to eat, even if those recommendations weren’t always in my budget. But what impressed me the most was its focus on authentically Catalan food. Most people think of tapas and paella when they imagine Spanish food, but neither of these are native to Barcelona.
I got to spend four hours with a group of only six people, including me and our fantastic guide Victoria, wandering through the village of Gracia. We tried tons of food that is not only traditional to Catalonia, but still prepared by high-quality, family-run establishments. At about $80, this was a big splurge for my budget, but it was completely worth it.
Stop One: Can Tosca
One of my favorite things about Barcelona is how different each of its neighborhoods are. Gracia is no exception. In fact, because this was once a separate village and only became part of Barcelona about 100 years ago, Gracia has an even more distinct personality and a strong sense of community among locals.
We started our morning at Can Tosca, co-owned by two sisters whose mother founded the place. A variation on the typical Catalan farmers’ breakfast of sausage and beans, our first taste of the day was a bocadillo di botifarra. The sausage is nothing more than ground pork and spices, and gets sandwiched in the middle of a warm, crusty bread. Can Tosca paired it with a glass of cava, Spain’s sparkling wine. If you consider cava “cheap champagne,” think again. It’s lower price point is largely due to the warmer climate in Spain. Spain can simply produce more sparkling wine than the chilly north of France.
Stop Two: Mercat de l’Abaceria
The Boqueria market on La Rambla captures many a tourist’s attention, and I’ll readily admit to falling under its spell. But you can’t ignore the fact that locals don’t actually do their shopping there. The neighborhood market in Gracia was a more authentic, if less attractive, look at daily life in Spain.
The advent of big box stores and supermarkets nearly put traditional markets like this out of business. The local government responded with a major campaign to renovate the markets. They encouraged vendors to establish more practical hours for working customers. Most impressively, they partnered with the competition to put supermarkets inside the older markets.
We spent a little time browsing and had two tastings here. One at a butcher’s stand, where we compared jamon serrano to the richer jamon iberico. The second at a cheesemonger, where we tried a variety of Spanish cheeses and membrillo. The Manchego at the far end of the plate has been named best cheese in the world twice!
Stop Three: Oli Sal
For the first couple stops, I was well within my wheelhouse. I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time in my hometown’s Spanish-style tapas bar. Cava, jamon iberico, and membrillo sounds like a Tuesday night to me, albeit an especially tasty one.
Oli Sal was where things got interesting. I’m not sure I’d ever heard of an olive oil tasting, much less participated in one. We didn’t go through the more intense steps of pouring oil into a blue glass to avoid judging by color, or warming the oil in our hands before sipping. We just tasted with bread, but the differences between the three oils we tried were still marked.
The first was a basic extra virgin olive oil, the kind even we Americans are accustomed to cooking with every day. The second, however, was the first olive oil I’ve tried that legitimately tasted like olives. It was a purer flavor you’d want to save for mixing with vinegar and dipping bread into. We were all a bit timid at approaching the third, which Victoria warned might taste bitter. When is bitter ever a good descriptor of food? But I could see this sharpest oil of the three as a perfect salad dressing.
Stop Four: L’Anxoveta
Following our olive oil tasting, we rounded the corner to a rarity in Barcelona: a tapas bar that is not a tourist trap. The owner Carlos handed us all a pile of simple ingredients and showed us how to make the pan con tomat that starts practically every meal in Catalonia. Seriously – if you are in a Spanish restaurant and the tomato bread doesn’t taste good, get up and walk out the door. If the kitchen messed up something that simple, the rest of the meal is bound to be awful.
The secret is using a particular kind of tomato, called simply “spreading” or “hanging” tomatoes. These small fruits are so soft and juicy when ripe, they can’t be left sitting on the counter. They have to be hung up to keep. For pan con tomat, you simply slice a hanging tomato in half and rub it directly into a slice of thin toasted bread before drizzling with a good extra virgin olive oil and sprinkling with a little salt.
After this little hands-on demonstration, Carlos let the beer flow and passed around a quintessentially Catalan tapa – bombas. I had tried a bomba before in the Boqueria and walked away feeling even more lukewarm than the dish itself. The version at L’Anxoveta blew that sorry bite out of the water. A bomba is a fried potato ball stuffed with ground meat and this iteration came with two sauces: a spicy red sauce at the base and a creamy alioli for the topping. It was easily my favorite bite of the day.
Stop Five: Patisseria Principe
Who doesn’t love a good success story? We left L’Anxoveta to indulge our sweet tooth at a pastry shop whose owner immigrated from Syria about 30 years ago. What started as a short trip ended with a marriage to a Spanish girl and a 5000+ kilometer move. Today, Mustafa and his crew provide desserts for a wide range of restaurants in Barcelona, but we got to go straight to the source.
There were dozens of varieties of baklava-like pastries to choose from. Walnuts, cashews, almonds, figs, raisins, coconut, and chocolate all had their place in the line up. Once we had all made our selections, we got to see the best mark of a good food tour: locals coming in to patronize the businesses our guide highlighted. The ultimate stamp of approval.
Stop Six: Cal Pep
As lunchtime approaches, folks in Barcelona first enjoy la hora de vermut, or “the vermouth hour.” Far from the stuff only suited for your martini glass, Spain’s vermouth is fortified and flavored with caramel and a variety of botanicals, best sipped from a small glass before the midday meal. Really, this experience was so hipster it hurt. Drinking vermouth is quite literally something only your grandfather did until young twentysomethings, desperate to seem interesting, catapulted the tradition into modern fad-dom.
Cal Pep, however, is anything but hipster. Often called “the bar lost in time,” this Gracia mainstay really does seem like the owners stopped decorating in the 1970s. Alongside our vermouth, which I found to be rather medicinal-tasting, they served olives, fuet sausage on bread, and boquerones en vinagre, a marinated anchovy.
Stop Seven: Llegumes Cuites Isobel
In case you haven’t noticed, Barcelona’s cuisine is full of history. The story behind this takeaway joint and others like it dates back to the turn of the century. As textile factories experienced a boom in Barcelona and women entered the workforce, vendors at markets and pop-up stands across the city began selling precooked beans and lentils, so the Spanish diet staple could still make its way to the table after a long workday. Way better than the stuff you’ll find in a can, you can still find beans and legumes prepared the old-fashioned way anywhere in town.
As Victoria put it, Barcelona’s takeaway restaurants are anything but low quality. They serve the kind of old-fashioned comfort food your grandma would make. Only in this case, grandma is a man named Jose.
We may have encountered locals at the Middle Eastern pastry shop earlier, but here there was nothing but locals. In fact, the shop was so small, we had to crowd around our trays of tasting spoons on the sidewalk out front to keep from being in the way of the hordes of people picking up lunch or dinner for later that night.
No matter. We still happily downed escalivada – a combo of roasted eggplants and red peppers – with romesco sauce and an albondigas or meatball soup with garbanzo beans and split peas.
Stop Eight: Patisseria Ideal
We ended our tour with another sweet treat, one even more unique to Barcelona’s cuisine. We all know and love creme brulee, the quintessential caramelized French custard. Little do most people know, the Spanish version crema catalana came first. While also a custard dessert, there are a few significant differences. Creme brulee is served warm, while crema catalana is kept at room temperature. The flavoring differs as well. Most creme brulees are flavored with vanilla, but crema catalana gets a mix of cinnamon and lemon zest instead.
This pastry shop is also a local, family-run institution of Gracia, and they very nearly had to close their doors. What saved the business was the invention of a signature pastry: the cremat, which wraps a soft pastry shell around a crema catalana. People now flock to the patisseria for a cremat and a cup of coffee or tea, and for good reason.
Gracia has such a strong sense of community. Even though Barcelona absorbed the village a century ago, people still identify as being from Gracia. There’s also a much higher percentage of people who support Catalan independence. It’s a place where old-fashioned street festivals are still the highlight of the year. Basically, Gracia was the perfect place to crack the code of authentic dining in Barcelona and eat the real food that makes Catalonia great.
Just a quick note to say I’m not affiliated with Devour Barcelona and they were in no way associated with my decision to write this post. I don’t ever publish sponsored content or accept free material in exchange for a review. I wouldn’t feel right recommending readers shell out money for something I didn’t pay for myself. The only thing I get out of this is the pleasure of sharing a great experience from the road.
At $80, this was my biggest splurge in Barcelona. See how much I spent over two weeks in my RTW budget breakdown.