Ever since I visited Barcelona in 2001 I have been longing to go back. However, this is probably true of many of my favourite travel destinations over the past 20 years and I don’t often actually make it back. There are always so many new places beckoning me onwards and also a slight fear that my previous joy will be diluted or disappointed by returning.
What if the Gaudi architecture does not seem so stunning? What if I am underwhelmed by the art and culture that so blew my fresh-off-the-boat-in-Europe Wandering Kiwi mind the first time around? It’s a fear that many travel addicts face. Cue the sound of the world’s smallest violin playing just for me…
So when I visited Barcelona this winter I was looking for a new experience, a new way of seeing the Catalan capital.
It didn’t help that when I arrived the weather was terrible. Yes it does rain in Spain, sometimes even torrentially. I had been looking forward to skipping about the fantastical Parc Guell with my six-year-old. The sky was dead grey and drizzling; the colours didn’t pop; we were a bit cold; she whined a lot. It didn’t match up to my memories at all. See what I mean? The risks are tremendous!
That’s when I stumbled across Devour Barcelona (on Twitter actually) and decided to meet up with Renee for a foodie tour of the Gracia neighbourhood. She promised an introduction to Catalan culture via its gastronomy.
Our small tour group set off into the narrow streets of Vila de Gracia (it used to be just that, a village) and I was soon hopelessly but happily disorientated. Proceedings started with a bang, or a pop as Papa Pedro opened a bottle of Cava to go with his famous Casa Pages sausage sandwich.
The fresh sausage made from freshly ground pork tasted incredible, as did the Cava. Spanish sparkling wine is actually a typical accompaniment to brunch in Spain (you can get it for 85 cents a glass in some places!) and, being lovely and dry, ideal with greasy fried food. Sounds like a perfect hangover cure…
No food tour in Barcelona would be complete without a visit to a Spanish mercado. These indoor markets are bustling, chaotic places oozing with friendliness, character and the best fresh food created locally and nationally. For those of unused to supermarket shopping it is a little overwhelming. Every neighbourhood has one and community life tends to revolve around it.
El Mercat de l’Abaceria Central in the heart of the Gracia neighborhood in Barcelona is one of the best. It opened in 1892 (before the more famous La Boqueria) and is certainly more authentic. Every vendor is an expert on what they sell and stalls have often been in the same family for generations.
We tried interesting new-to-us cheeses, gawped at offal, looked dubiously at the great white piles of bacalao (salted cod), and salivated over the mushroom selection. But the best, the BEST was Josep and his olives. A mouth-watering array of freshly prepared, irresistible olives. Just take a look at this taste explosion waiting to happen:
Pastisseria Principe was the most unexpected stop on the Devour Barcelona tour. A Syrian bakery in the heart of Catalan territory? Freshly-baked filo, local honey, mounds of chopped nuts … Mostafa has lived in Barcelona for over 25 years and he and his team make most of these Syrian pastries individually by hand.
We had to choose a pastry to sample – there was a moment of silent horror after the selection was laid out before us and described. How to choose? I loved my pistachio birds nest and I made my husband give me a bit of his choice but nevertheless I couldn’t help suffering food envy at the choices of my fellow tour members. I should learn from Wandering Kiwi Jr, who was certainly happy with her choice:
Many of the stops on this tour gave me the feeling of having stepped back in time – of visiting establishments that haven’t changed much in years. Some have even been around long enough to hit a trend again.
At Cal Pep Bodega we had a drink of strong vermouth, taken straight and chilled with a snack of pickled anchovies and fuet. The vermouth is traditionally made in-house with additions to local taste. This is a typical aperitivo to have before a big Catalan lunch and has become super trendy of recent years. Pep himself doesn’t sleep upstairs any more but he and his regulars look very happy with their home-away-from-home.
At Devour Barcelona they delight in sharing local foodie secrets that you would never otherwise find in a big city like Barcelona. Renee pressed us to pick a favourite over coffee at the end of the tour. Again we were all slightly horrified at having to choose just one. But in the end it came down to Jose and his tiny kitchen at La Botigueta Del Bon Menjar. On a quiet street, this shop is so small our group of eight couldn’t all fit in the door.
In the time of the Industrial Revolution, this is a place where women working at local textile factories would buy cooked food to take home. Jose continues the tradition, creating homemade takeaway food such as roast vegetables with romesco sauce, almonds and chestnuts, or his famous meatballs with a chickpea gravy that gives life new meaning. These are the sorts of dishes you would eat for dinner at grandmother’s house, not at a restaurant in Barcelona.
In the end, my second visit to Barcelona was more fulfilling, more informing, more enlightening than thirteen years before. It was certainly more delicious. A few memories that I must have blocked out are now coming back to me: being a wet-behind-the-ears budget backpacker Wandering Kiwi, snacking on sandwiches and getting caught in tourist trap restaurants…
Have you ever had even more fun the second time visiting a travel destination?
By Natasha von Geldern
The Devour Barcelona Gracia neighbourhood tour costs 65 euros, lasts four hours and includes 9 or 10 stops for tastings. Check out their Facebook page and blog for fantastic tips on enjoying your time in Barcelona (and Madrid) and sign up for ‘The Bite’ – their Spain-inspired foodie newsletter – for updates, recipes, food tips, discounts and more.
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