Before We Start Our Food Tour
We have loved each Culinary Backstreets tour we have been on and the "Made in Catalonia" tour in Barcelona was no different. What sets Culinary Backstreets apart from some other food tours that we've done, is their guides. Each time we marvel at how incredible the guides have been - how energetic, how knowledgable and how interested they are in doing what they do. They know their subject matter well and are enthusiastic about communicating the history of the place through culinary traditions. Our host, Paula, was incredible and really made this an amazing experience. If I haven't convinced you to take this tour yet, read on and I'm sure you will be signing up the next time you are in Barcelona.
Let's get some logistics out of the way first. One - Culinary Backstreets sponsored this post but all opinions remain our own. Two - The "Made in Catalonia" tour was about 5 hours long. There's a fair amount of sitting but wear good shoes. Also, the streets are fairly flat and even so it's not a challenging walk. Three - you are going to eat a fair amount of food. I would suggest skipping breakfast and waiting for the first stop of the tour to get your day started. We didn't leave the tour stuffed but were definitely full. Four - There's a fair amount of pork on offer since we are in Spain afterall. So let the coordinator know ahead of time if you are vegetarian or don't eat pork. Changes can be made or you can just elect not to eat certain items. Ok, I think we're ready to go.
We mapped to the designated meeting point in the Gracia district of Barcelona. We were running a few minutes late and others were already gathered at the spot. Paula was there and greeted us with the warmest smile I've received in a long time. This tour was unusual in that all 7 of us on the tour were American. This has never happened to us before so it was kind of interesting. The group settled into conversation with each other quite readily and at times Paula needed to quiet our conversations so she could impart some information to us. The feel of the tour was all ease and friendliness and a readiness to experience some Catalan culture via our stomachs.
Catalonian Food Tour Stop 1: Breakfast!
Our first stop was to a market where we could find local produce, meats, fish, etc. Barcelona has 40+ of these local markets located throughout the various neighborhoods of the city. These markets serve as a hub for the locals and many have been or are being restored over the course of the coming years. This restoration is a huge undertaking and involves moving the current merchants to a temporary market and then moving them back once the renovations are complete. These renovations are hugely important to the various markets around town as it provides more storage options and some needed updates to the working spaces for these vendors. The market we were at had recently been updated but still served as a focus for the locals to buy their daily necessities.
Once we were done wandering the market, we moved on to a little restaurant for an updated traditional Catalonian "forks" breakfast of white beans with trotters (pigs feet) and eggs over sobrasada. Typically, one would eat this food with wine or beer, but we waited for a while before consuming alcohol. So we started with some sparkling mineral water that had some extra salt added. While we waited for our dishes to arrive, Paula told us of the many influences on Catalan cuisine and culture.
The list is long and varied, but one of the most interesting connections was with Italian cuisine. It seems that in the 19th century it was fashionable for wealthy Catalan families to employ Italian cooks. In turn, these ladies used Catalan ingredients that subtly changed their Italian recipes and made them more of a fusion of the two cultures. This really got us thinking about the notion of "local" cuisine and what that really means now and what that has meant for centuries. I love thinking about this sort of stuff and was sitting in a revery when the food arrived. I opted to try just the beans as I am not such a fan of pork and generally don't fancy off cuts of the animal.
Zac tried the trotters and said they were really nice - not too rich, which is generally my complaint. The beans were incredible and I dug in for a little bit more. I did try the sobrasada under the eggs though easily could have avoided it. I am a sucker for paprika so decided to try the sausage based on its deep red color. I am really glad I did. It was sort of creamy and carried a deep flavor to it. Combined with the egg and some bread, and I could see how people would want to start their day this way.
Catalonian Food Tour Stop 2: Sweet Time
We walked for a bit to our next stop and as we did so we all were talking wildly with each other. We arrived at a sweet shop that was just absolutely gorgeous. The building itself was incredible, but the sweets. Oh my god the sweets were astounding. We sampled several items from a sweet egg yolk to some Marcona almond nougat to the ultimate seasonal treat 'Pinyons'. Paula was particularly excited when she saw these in the window of the shop as they are only available for a short time. This was a delicious ball of marzipan covered in roasted pine nuts. Did I say this was delicious? Actually, everything we tried here was amazing.
The streets of Gracia are really wonderful to explore and we had just as much fun looking at all the old buildings as we had stuffing ourselves. Getting from stop to stop was where we all continued our conversations with each other. The tone of the tour continued to be relaxed and familial as we arrived at our next stop. We found ourselves at another market, this one set to be renovated in the coming year. We all were wondering why as it looked so great to us, but apparently it needs some work. While here we sampled some local cheese and meats along with some quince paste. I can say the cheese was amazing and from the looks of things, everyone else really enjoyed the meats. This was another great stop on the way to fullness.
Catalonian Food Tour Stop 3: A Little Diversion
I might be getting the order of things wrong across the next few stops but here's what we did. We ate some more and wandered some more. We took a quick break from strictly food focused touring and found ourselves walking down several flights of stairs in a parking lot. We were all really intrigued about what place a parking ramp had in a food tour and were still inquisitive as we arrived at our destination - an unassuming gate in a wall.
Paula immediately began telling us the tales of the bomb shelters that were built during the war. Apparently most are gone now, but part of this one in the lower levels of the parking lot remains. We were able to go inside and see and hear about how the people used the bomb shelters to weather the combat of the war. It was incredible. This was such a great surprise on the tour and we all absolutely loved it.
Lest we find ourselves famished, we headed to have some vermouth and accompaniments. Again, this was a classic old school kind of place and we were served some olives and anchovies on the side. There were some in the group who did not like olives or anchovies, but gave it a go to see how these treats would fare. No minds were changed in regards to these foods, but the vermouth was a big hit with all.
Catalonian Food Tour Stop 4: Lunch & Wine
Our final stop was for a full lunch. We sat at a large square table amongst a busy crowd of locals looking to have their fill of traditional Catalan dishes. The vibe of the restaurant was incredible and we instantly felt at home. Red wine was served in a traditional Catalan decanter, which has one spout for pouring into a glass and one thin one for pouring directly into your mouth. Zac tried to drink from the pipe with limited success. That didn't work so well for him, but it was fun to watch.
Lunch was absolutely delicious and included some snails. Get the French idea of snails out of your mind, these are not at all the same. These snails were from the forest and their earthy taste was accented even further with a gorgeous oregano sauce. The snails themselves pulled mixed reviews, but the sauce was a universal winner.
We ate until we were full and headed to one last stop on this fantastic tour where we all drank some beautiful, bubbly cava. We were all alone in the back courtyard of this wine shop sitting at tables and sipping on our bubbly. Conversation went deep as we started talking about the issues of the day and challenges of traveling.
All at once it seemed it was time to leave and we exchanged contact information and hugs and kisses all the way around. This was such a delightful way to spend the day. We learned a lot, ate even more and made some new connections. These connections and a deeper understanding of a place through its food is why we will continue to take these sorts of tours.