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I greatly prefer wandering hidden streets to navigating crowds at tourist destinations when traveling. My best traveling experience like this was last year in Sevilla, where my friend Sam gave me a list of must sees and eats, as if she were showing me around the city herself. And, in Barcelona, I thankfully was able to discover another local friend with Food Lover Tour.
I knew that I wanted to spend my time in Barcelona eating tapas and studying the food culture there, partly for my own interests and partly for a greater insight into what might develop into my masters thesis (more updates coming soon!). So, I was thrilled when Matthieu, a Parisian living in Barcelona, invited me to participate in the popular tapas lover tour.
After I had spent the day battling crowds at Casa Milà and the Mercat de La Boqueria — as my head still spun in the clouds after my favorite meal thus far in my life — I and six others met up with Brian, an Irishman living in Barcelona. He was dressed in a dapper jacket; an emblematic foray into the fancy evening ahead. We were first headed to a restaurant specializing in seafood, then to a more typical tapas bar, and then, to our final destination, a gourmet restaurant that Brian reckoned may someday soon receive an elusive star.
I adore seafood — particularly when it is as fresh as it is in Barcelona, just on the edge of the Mediterranean — and was thrilled to enter Can Boneta, a charming little restaurant in Eixample. The natural decor created an ambiance that a crowd couldn’t offer, as the restaurant specially opened for the tour (and, as I had learned previously, Catalans don’t show up for dinner until about 9:30). Instantly, a bottle of Herms white wine from Terra Alta appeared, along with little bowls filled with an octopus parmentier drizzled with truffle oil and bacon for a smokey finish, and bocarones (the fish which, when marinated, become anchovies) drizzled with romesco sauce.
As we nibbled on the accompanying pan con tomate, Brian explained the different wines in the region, making me wish I had more time in Catalonia to explore the vineyards of the 11 different domains.
Just as a red snapper ceviche was placed in front of me and the octopus plate removed, we started talking about the evolution of dining in such an international environment. (To this day it upsets me that my first Paris apartment was caddy cornered with a McDonalds, KFC, and Starbucks, but I digress.) Brian said that he thought the test of food in any city is the food that people actually cook at home rather than that which you eat at a restaurant; in this case, the daily cooking is still largely rooted in Catalonian cuisine.
The ceviche was perfect, not too vinegary with just a hint of spice, and the bowl was quickly traded for a slate of salmon topped with a delicate dab of what looked like chili vinaigrette. It was the creamiest salmon I have ever eaten. Brian continued, telling us that Barcelona benefits from its open-mindedness when it comes to the evolving food world, as well as its geographic position on the Mediterranean, and is thus able to offer high-quality food with chefs eager to find new, inventive ways to prepare it (and thus it should be no surprise that it’s home to such celebrated restaurants).
Our next stop was a typical tapas bar, Taverna Mediterrània, where we received glasses of vermut, a typical drink of Catalonia. It’s quite different from the vermouth I became acclimated with on my hunt for the perfect martini (dry, gin, with a twist, please). Brian told us that this regional specialty is white wine infused with herbs, likely thyme and rosemary, and spices. It tasted like there were bitters in it, as well, but it was unlike any cocktail I had tried before.
On the table in front of us sat the restaurant’s rendition of a Russian salad, a traditional Spanish omelette, and a plate of chorizo, as waiters stopped by to drop off a dish of tripe with sausage and vegetables and a bowl of chickpeas with butifarra, a common pork sausage in the region.
Having seen — and shirking away from — sheets of tripe at the market that morning, I was hesitant to say the least when it came to the tripe, which I had long understood as a cartoon joke instead of haute cuisine. But, it was my meal of yes (perhaps fueled by my wine consumption) as I spooned just a tiny bit onto my plate in an effort to leave my picky self in the past. The tripe absorbed the savory sauce it was in, picking up flavors from the sausage and vegetables at its side. Had I not known it was tripe, I probably wouldn’t have been as hesitant to begin with.
Our final stop of the tour was a longer, full course meal. Matthieu had warned me at coffee the day before not to eat lunch (which I mostly abided by save from a bit of escalvadia to relieve a bout of hanger) because the tour was so packed with good food. By the time we reached La Taverna del Clinic, I knew he had been right.
We couldn’t do a food tour through Barcelona without having jambón ibérico. We learned that the jamón has an intensive classification system, which I connected to that of terroir in France. The jamón we were eating, jamón ibérico de bellota, is fed solely acorns for the last six months, which Brian explained gives it a more vegetal fat rather than animal. It was soft and tender, and not too too spicy, which made it incredibly easy to eat (Brian had to remind us not to eat with a fork and knife, which seemed fitting for the fancy setting, but rather to just pick it up with our fingers. In France, this would have sent me to the guillotine).
Paired with the meal, we were presented with a 2005 Imô Prioritat, probably one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted. Ever. It was spicy with subtle fruit flavors, and gave off the warm feeling you crave from a full bodied red. Brian said that while you can find wine from the Priortat region in stores, he had never succeeded in finding that particular bottle — a fact that probably would have devastated me more had I brought a checked bag in which to smuggle it back to France.
The following dishes were a whirlwind of flavors, from an elevated twist on patatas bravas with an explosion of romesco sauce under a sprinkle of smoked paprika, to cherry gazpacho adorned with spherified bubbles of olive oil* and cockle, to another octopus parmentier, this time without the addition of bacon, to cuttlefish with mushrooms and asparagus, to our final savory course of duck and foie cannelloni in a cream sauce. As we savored our plates of cannelloni and clutched our large wine glasses, Brian regretfully told us that there was only one course left: dessert.
As the last of the wine bottles were tipped into our glasses, the waiters appeared with a baba rhum, a small cake marinated in rum. I detected a delicate tea flavor along with the rum, and gleefully spooned up strawberry sorbet next to the cake.
We finished off our glasses and said goodbye and thank you to the chef as he walked past, embarking on the walk back to the center of town. In 17 dishes, I grew to love Barcelona more than I had already, and was able to see it with greater understanding thanks to Brian’s insight. There is no better way to get to know a city than to experience the cuisine — an experience made even better by going with a local. ♦
Note: Food Lover Tour kindly offered me a complimentary tour, but all opinions are my own. If you plan on going on a Food Lover Tour on your travels, I would recommend going at the beginning of your trip. This will allow you to carry the knowledge with you throughout the city, as well as try out the slew of other restaurants recommended by the team!
For more information on costs and booking, visit the Food Lover Tour website.