Travel tastes best when you keep an open mind
Even a meal of onions in Catalonia has the potential to surprise and delight
You have only to eat a particular food, while visiting the country in which it was grown, to understand why fresh matters.
Such was my experience while on a food tour to Spain earlier this year. It happened, strangely, with almonds.
While in Barcelona, at a spice and nut shop in the El Born district called Casa Perris, I sampled almonds grown locally. The intense, sweet flavour that filled my mouth was similar to what I usually get from almond extract, and I thought, “Oh, this is how it’s supposed to be.”
The trip saw 10 of us enjoy four days in Barcelona and four in the Catalonian countryside, ending up on the Costa Brava. The Barcelona portion included visits to the city’s non- foodie landmarks, including Antonio Gaudi’s stunning church- inprogress, the Sagrada Familia. But food was really the focus, and the greatest discovery was the Spanish interpretation of tapas, including the staple plate of thickly sliced, fried potatoes — patatas bravas — served with a spicy tomato sauce and garlic mayonnaise.
And who knew anchovies could be that big? They didn’t so much rest, as sprawl lazily atop a slab of smoky red pepper and another layer of roasted eggplant. Perhaps my favourite tapas dish, typically served along with charcuterie and a slice of dense, cooled potato omelette, was a simple piece of fresh, thick bread served with whole tomatoes and a bottle of olive oil.
The tomatoes, called tomato du sucra, are bred to be sweet and juicy.
There is nothing more satisfying than cutting the tomato in half and then squeezing its innards onto the bread, and then finishing the whole mess off with a drizzle of Spanish olive oil.
Much of the fresh food we enjoyed was local.
Barcelona is renowned for its outdoor markets — there are about 40 in the city. But the Mercat de la Boqueria, the boisterous outdoor market located just off the popular promenade known as La Rambla, is not to be missed. There has been a market at La Boqueria since the 12th century, although the modern version came about during the 1850s.
Cheese, fish, fresh meat, fruits, vegetables and charcuterie spill from dozens of stalls, and there are plenty of places to grab a snack, including buttery slices of the famous “jamon serrano” or Spanish, dry cured ham. La Boqueria is also a place to purchase saffron and red paprika, both signature Spanish products.
Another good stop for foodies is the El Born neighbourhood, home to the Picasso museum and stylish shops and cafés along Princess Street, as well as the aforementioned Casa Perris on Placa Comercial. I will remember Casa Perris for its smells, spices and burlap, and its sounds, the drilling of scoops into barrels of hardshell nuts.
After several days negotiating the streets and subways of this vibrant city, we were ready for a break and happily piled into our small, hired bus to travel to the renowned wine district of Conca del Barbera in the province of Catalonia.
While on the bus, as I looked out the windows at the rolling hills of the Spanish countryside, I really settled into my trip. There’s something about being outside your comfort zone that invites reflection — one of my favourite features of a good holiday.
We stayed at the Monastery Saint Mary of Poblet, a UNESCO heritage site founded in the 10th century and still occupied by Cistercian monks, only adding to the sense of contemplation. It also prepared me for some new experiences.
Such as the onion festival, or Calcotada, an annual event in Tarragon, Catalonia, that celebrates the first onion ( calcot) crop of the spring season.
Had our guide told us in advance that lunch at the Restaurant dels Torrents would be onions grilled in newspaper and served on terra cotta tiles, I might have smiled stiffly and reached for the granola bars in my backpack.
But as it was, the onion meal was one of the highlights of my trip, and a lesson about reserving judgment.
The onions were mild, long and narrow, like leeks. Once you peeled back the charred bits, the inside was soft and sweet. We lifted them high above our heads and dropped them into our mouths much like you would a long strand of spaghetti. The calcots were served alongside romesco sauce ( a thick paste of nuts, peppers and garlic) with fresh bread.
We ate that meal at a table set with white linens in front of a crackling fireplace.
It was delicious because of the flavour, but also because it reminded me, again, of one of the great lessons of travel.
Be open to the moment. You will be rewarded.