BARCELONA — I had been anticipating my trip to Barcelona from the moment I booked it. Not only has it been a dream of mine to visit the country that birthed the Spanish language, sangria, Cervantes, Gaudi and many other things I love, but it’s the land of tapas, one of my favorite styles of cuisine. Tapas, from the word tapar -to cover – were originally served as small appetizers at bars, where the small plates were used to cover glasses of wine or sherry from flies. But these small dishes aren’t just appetizers. Order two or three or eight, and you have a substantial and diverse meal. Tapas follow a similar idea to Eastern Mediterranean mezze and Italian antipasti, in terms of offering a variety of fresh, very ethnic, dishes in small portions.
There are many great tapas restaurants in Boston that I’ve been frequenting for years including Tasca, a Brighton gem, and popular hot spot Tapeo on Newbury Street. But as I learned quickly, nothing compares to the incredibly fresh, diverse and innovative tapas of Spain.
Well known for being adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea, the fish is fresh, delicate and bountiful in Barcelona. Walking through the Mercat Boqueria, one of the most famous marketplaces in the world, it’s easy to see why seafood is such a huge contributor to the culture. The market is open air but enclosed in a building sans walls, brimming with small counter top-only cafes, bossy produce sellers that exclaim “No toca!” (“Don’t touch!”) when a tourist attempts to touch the fruit and mountains of mouth-watering meats such as jamon serrano. The place is sensory overload, filled with brightly colored candies and marzipan, and massive fruits and vegetables including colossal watermelons and zucchini. The place was worth seeing for sure, despite the dense crowds and fruit rind strewn floor wet with water and who knows what else.
On the first night, we sauntered up and down Las Ramblas, the famous avenue filled with street performers, human statues and all varieties of shopping from cheap souvenirs to expensive leather wear. We stumbled upon a seemingly typical restaurant. Its second floor overlooks the Mercat Boqueria but its entrance is right on Las Ramblas. Euskal Sukaldaria. I don’t even really know if this is the restaurant’s official name, but it was emblazoned on the windows. This place had the best patatas bravas I’d ever had, in my life, in any city. The sauce on them was garlicky, tangy, and just slightly spicy with a heat that’s only pleasurable, without an ounce of pain. I was in heaven. I had one plate to myself, and it was hardly enough.
I also ordered one of the tapas samplers that contained a variety of things including some cheeses, smoked chorizo on thickly cut baguette bread and some type of meat salad (maybe chicken, maybe ham who really knows). I also had a “small” plate of traditional seafood paella filled with razor clams, small mussels, shrimp and some squid (more than ample offerings for three people). I finally realized how Europeans stay so thin; they walk everywhere, all the time, and eat small portions, a little sampling of everything. Also, eating slowly and in a relaxed casual setting actually curbs overeating since it takes the body about 22 minutes to realize satiety.
Every meal should be served with a San Miguel beer, ridiculously inexpensive and amazingly delicious. Move aside Bud Light, you don’t know the first thing about drinkability. San Miguel invented drinkability.
Moving on to breakfast. It was an experience that can only be summed up as simply decadent. The trademark Spain breakfast of churros con chocolate is essentially a very basic thing – fried dough served with hot chocolate. But this is not your Dunkin Donuts’ hot chocolate, my friends. The chocolate served in a mug in Barcelona is rich, thick and not overly sweet. It’s a darker chocolate than standard milk chocolate and does not include any added sugar, making it very easy to devour. Dipping the lightly fried, chewy, warm churros into this divine drink is nothing short of heaven, foodie heaven.
My traveling companions preferred a lighter breakfast of American-style coffee (they didn’t embrace the tiny cup of espresso-like coffee they were served when they simply asked for coffee) and fresh fruit. Amble into any grocery store off the main roads or a sidewalk produce vendor and you can get a week’s worth of fresh basics for about 5 Euros. They noshed on apples and bananas and a wonderful dried fig concoction dotted with almonds that was slightly sweet and high in protein. These folks are health-nuts and this light breakfast was the perfect way to start any day filled with sightseeing and ridiculously long and tiring walks.
Since I do frequent tapas restaurants here in the states, I already have a strong dossier of dishes I enjoy. I love tortilla espanola, recognized as a potato and egg omelet – light and fluffy and delicious. During one dinner I had a trio of tortillas, one cheesy and tangy, another made with spinach, and another with tomato and peppers that was amazing. I also indulged in melon con jamon, the perfect summer dish of cantaloupe or honey dew served with a heaping side of salty jamon iberico or jamon serrano. The marriage of sweet and salty is a great way to start any meal.
And while I was enjoying mid-morning and mid-afternoon sidewalk breaks to sip a San Miguel and feast on a light sandwich of jamon serrano and tomate or some perfect machego cheese, I could never really keep my mind off patatas bravas. I was a woman obsessed. I ate patatas bravas at least once each day I was in Barcelona, and I still couldn’t get enough. I was searching for the one, and while all the variations were amazing and had different intricacies and takes on the dish, I knew which prevailed.
Some restaurants served the potatoes more than lightly fried, but cooked darker brown similar to our hash brown. Others would serve it with a deep red sauce that was very spicy, or very heavy with tomato flavors. A beach-side restaurant in the beautiful southern coast town of Sitges served patatas bravas lined with a red sauce just slightly darker and more complex than ketchup, and another swirling circle of what I have to believe was plain mayonnaise. Please do not misunderstand me, they were all delicious, a great way to serve everyone’s favorite starch. But something about that first dish of patatas bravas lingered with me.
Maybe it was because they were the perfect size, approximately 1 x 2 inches making one piece a hearty forkful. Or maybe it was the way it was sort of fried-baked, with a crispy exterior that was barely golden brown and pillowy soft texture on the inside. Or maybe it was that sauce. That ridiculously mouth-watering, succulent sauce that I still can’t stop wishing I knew how to make. All I know, is that the combination of all of these elements melded together to make one of the best simple foods I’ve ever had in my life.
If you’re not a huge beer drinker, another great pairing with patatas bravas is sangria. I can’t talk about Spain, especially Barcelona, without mentioning sangria. Sangria is a wine punch, typically made with a fruity red wine such as a Spanish Rioja, mixed with sliced fruits including anything from apples to oranges to mangoes, and splashed with any number of other fruit liquors from apricot brandy to peach schnapps. The result is always delicious, and always refreshing.
A trip to Barcelona is the perfect antidote to a seemingly nonstop lifestyle of burgers and fries here in the United States. The critical foodie that lives inside me, bubbling on the surface daily to critique, analyze and search out the best in food was ecstatic at the sheer number of tapas varieties and restaurant locations. Ole!