The first menu you read at the first restaurant you visit in Barcelona always sounds the most exciting: grilled octopus, garlic prawns, fried salted Padron peppers, smoked pork meatballs and blue cheese croquettes.
Exciting… that is until you notice the other restaurants on your way home and find that nearly all have exactly the same dishes on their menu. But fear not, this isnt a classic case of ‘traditional fish and chips’ or ‘pie and mash’ signs decorating the entrance of every station of the circle line.The reason you can find these same Catalan tapas dishes everywhere you go is because they are so fantastic that the locals are still eating them.
The thing that struck me about Barcelona was its ability to maintain the authenticity of its famous dishes. Heavy with pork, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, smothered in olive oil with sea salt and fantastic bread. We were very fortunate to have my brothers girlfriend with us, who has been living in Barcelona for nearly a year and speaks perfect Spanish. She is well adjusted to the easy going way of life and helped us understand the food ethos here: if you’re going to eat food, its got to be good.
La Vinateria del Call
We arrived for our reservation at 9.30pm on the dot and, being the punctual polite pack of Brits that we are, formed an orderly queue in the doorway. Old habits die very hard but soon we got used to the slow paced, chilled out attitude of the Catalans. It isn’t hard, especially while sampling local wines in the oldest wine bar in Barcelona. The menu is simple; hot dishes, cold dishes, cheeses and meats.
I ordered (in my best ‘English-in-a-Spanish-accent’) the old favourites: Pimientos del Padrón (fried mild green chillies smothered in sea salt). Around 1 in 20 chillies pack a chilli punch, so these soft little capsicums are perfect at the beginning of a meal with a beer to spark your appetite. The Chorizo in Cider was sweet and sour, with lots of red dyed oil to be soaked up by the Catalan staple, fresh bread rubbed with juicy tomatoes.
Cheese: we ordered a Manchego (a family favourite) and picked a blue goats cheese described as ‘Blau de L’avi Tom (Blue of Tom’s house) from the Pla d’Urgell county of Catalonia. Well, whoever Tom is I would like to meet, if his cheese matches his personality he must be a pretty mental guy.
The waiter’s remark that this particular blue cheese we had ordered is ‘very strong’ (too strong, he meant, for our British palettes) made me red with anger with all those pedal-pusher wearing, flavour-phobic ‘Little Englanders’ that have come before me, ruining any reputation we might have as a nation of foodies. We were made of stronger stuff. This cheese was relatively smell free for a blue cheese, its texture sliceable but still quite juicy. It started out quite creamy in the mouth but then the intense sourness hit you almost like an under-ripe plum. The fantastic mix of creamy goats’ cheese and a tart, dry blue would have been completed wasted on bread or a biscuit. Anything you put with it would’ve been completely masked by this cheese of all cheeses and so it is best enjoyed on its own. This was the cheese equivalent of one of Willy Wonka’s everlasting gobstoppers, starting off light and creamy, lingering with a tang and finishing with a perfect balance of sweet and sour which left you reaching for another slice… and fortunately this blue didn’t transform its diners into a blueberry.
We left this rustic wine bar full of fantastic wine and good old hearty food.
I am not ashamed to say, however, that for all the wonderful food we ate on this trip, my one guilty pleasure will always be that sweet, doughy waffle drowned in Nutella that you can find in any tourist district of every European capital, eaten from a cardboard plate, on the drunken walk back home… finished with a swirl of squirty cream!