Eat your way through Barcelona
Carles Gaig showcases the diverse Catalan cuisine and where to get started in Barcelona for a full-on gastronomic experience.
Catalonia has four provinces Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona. Each of them boasts their own terrain, high quality produce and unique dishes, thanks to the region’s diverse mountainsides and coastlines. Tapas are ubiquitous in the south, pinchos are famous in the north, and practically every region has its own version of the classic stew. In addition to Barcelona being Catalonia’s largest city and capital, Catalonia is a dining paradise that runs the gamut from underrated family-run neighbourhood joints and casual eateries to an impressive lineup of Michelin-starred restaurants.
Part-french, part-spanish and part-mediterranean, some of the region’s most popular traditional foods include gambas de Palamos, red prawns from the village of Palamós in Catalonia’s north coast; arroz bomba, short-grain Bomba rice from el Delta del Ebre in the south coast that is used primarily for paella; bacalao a la Catalan, Catalan-style cod with raisins and pine nuts; escalivada, colourful assorted grilled vegetables; ollada, a staple meat and vegetable stew; and esqueixada, the salted cod salad with tomato and onions, to name a few.
Catalonia’s food scene is about slow food. People are more conscious about whole foods that are locally and organically grown, and dishes are made keeping health, body and soul in mind. At the beginning of last year, the dining trend revolved largely around molecular cuisine. Now there is a movement in Barcelona to revive our heritage, go back to our roots and give traditional dishes a modern twist. Many local chefs, including myself, are going back to the basics using family recipes handed down by our grandmothers, because family and traditions lie at the core of the Spanish culture.
Catalan’s diverse produce
The city’s largest and most famous farmer’s and food market is Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria or simply, La Boqueria, situated on the bustling La Rambla boulevard in the Ciudad Vieja district. Fondly dubbed as the heart of Barcelona since its establishment in 1836, the market has hundreds of stores selling everything from meats and jamón, to organic vegetables, fruits, flowers and dry ingredients, alongside dozens of tapas bars, cafés and restaurants. Try snagging a spot at either El Quim de la Boqueria or Bar Pinotxo for lunch, and go with the seasonal recommendations.
La Boqueria is the best way to see everything that makes each of Catalonia’s provinces famous. For example, central Maresme on the Mediterranean coast is known for its peas and strawberries; Girona, a beautiful medieval province with narrow winding city streets, beautiful architecture and one of Europe’s best preserved Jewish Quarters, provides the best beef in the country; while Garrotxa, one of Girona’s larger comarcas, has the best white kidney beans.
Lleida, Catalonia westernmost province capital and main city of the farming region, is nationally known as the Land of Snails. Lleida hosts the popular three-day snail festival L’aplec del Caragol every year at the end of May, where an average of 12 tonnes of snails are consumed during the festival as caragols a la llauna - shelled gastropods cooked in a tin pan and eaten with aioli.
Trinxat de la Cerdanya, similar to bubble and squeak, is a traditional Catalan comfort food from Cerdanya, a mountainous county in the western area of the Pyrenees. In addition to the local winter cabbage, Cerdanya’s high altitude and cooler growing conditions are great for growing the highly popular Puigcerdà pears and Talltendre parsnips.
Equally famous are the seasonal calçots from Valls in the area surrounding south Barcelona and Tarragona, which are best described as a special leek-spring onion vegetable served chargrilled with romesco sauce.
A heritage foodie trail
El Xampanyet, in the neighbourhood of the famous Picasso Museum, is one of Barcelona’s most popular tapas bodegas, run by the Esteve family for three generations since the 1920s. Decorated with traditional azulejo tiles, diners stop by the old tavern for a vibrant variety of traditional tapas, pinchos, cava, house-cured salted anchovies, and assorted conservas or preserved foods. It’s
so popular, there’s only standing room on most nights.
If you missed the chance to dine at El Bulli, then head to multi-awarded and one Michelin-starred Disfrutar in Barcelona, which is helmed by veterans of El Bulli, chef-owners Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas. Offering a choice of only three regularly changing tasting menus, the refined, avant-garde cuisine has a marked Mediterranean emphasis.
Reserve a seat at Enigma by Albert Adrià for the tasting menu which serves 40 dishes (220€/S$351/person). The 7,534 sq ft space seats only 24 diners at a time in groups of six or fewer in each of the restaurant’s seven whimsically themed rooms, where each room serves a different course. Helmed by head chef Oliver Peña, the menu draws on global influences including Japan, Spain, Korea, and Brazil. Expect cloud-like ceilings made from wire mesh that changes colour and translucent resin walls that mimic waterfalls.
Under the same elbarri group, a visit to the 90-seater tapas bar Tickets is also a must. Closer to a culinary amusement park than a restaurant, unparalleled deconstructed tapas bites are created at
five small-plate bars and special open kitchens specialising in different preparation methods. Albert Adrià’s signature liquid olive is a must-try, as juice from handpicked olives is transferred into a solid olive through a special spherification process.
Another Michelin-starred restaurant that started out with humble beginnings is Restaurant Can Bosch, a casual fisherman’s bar opened in 1969 near the port of Cambrils. The restaurant skilfully marries the daily bounty off Cambrils’ fishing boats with the fruits and vegetables grown in nearby villages. Choose à la carte dishes such as sea bass and crayfish tartar, lentils papadum and black truffle; or a selection of set menus, including a special Menu of the Seas.
Rafa Zafra, an Andalusian chef helming fifth-generation Estimar, uses his experience as head chef at La Hacienda Benazuza, the Andalusian outpost of elbullí, to woo seafood aficionados with his innovative oceanic creations. Get the very popular razor clams stewed in citrus and the fried baby squid in ink-tinted aioli, but also take the chance to enjoy rare delicacies such as angulas (baby eels) and percebes (gooseneck barnacles). 70-year-old Carles Gaig hails from the Horta neighborhood in Barcelona, where his family owned the popular Taberna d’en Gaig since 1869. Cooking at the family restaurant while growing up, it wasn’t until 1979 that his mother’s blindness forced him to take over the reins of the Taberna. The restaurant was renamed Restaurant Gaig in 1989, and he received his first Michelin star in 1993. Gaig also opened his eponymous outpost in Singapore last year.
Carles Gaig La Boqueria
La Gilda de Disfrutar Disfrutar Disfrutar
Enigma Cubo de nori con caviar (nori cube caviar) at Enigma Can Bosch
Morralets acariciados con mole negro y tinta (bobtail squid with black mole and ink) at Tickets
Tarta de remolacha y yuzu (beetroot and yuzu cake) at Tickets