For this trip, as always, my plans centered around food. I think of nothing else and I plan nothing else. My wife is in charge of excursions, flights, hotels, and transportation. She is very good at it, and she enjoys it. I go where she tells me to go, as long as she makes sure to pass by all of the local delicacies that I decide I need to eat. I started my research a month ahead of my trip. I probably only needed a day. Barcelona, as it turns out, is a food paradise. I knew everything that I needed to know by the end of the first day of research. That left me with a month to drool over everything Barcelona has to offer.
I looked at countless pictures of king prawns, tapas, Basque dishes, Catalan dishes, Iberico ham, mussels, clams, and octopus. The Catalan culture is heavily influenced by a tradition of fishing and preserving meats. “El pulpo” or Octopus is something they do incredibly well. The ubiquitous whole pig legs found in almost every market and restaurant are another great thing that Barcelona does better than the rest of the world. The icing on the cake is that tapas is an outstanding food style for trying many different types of foods in one sitting.
Tapas is a genre of food that is defined by its small tasting portions. Throughout Barcelona, you can find “pay by the pick” restaurants, where for about 2 Euro each, you can buy little tasting plates of dozens of dishes. Each has a toothpick in it, and you return the picks when you are done. They count your picks and charge you for the total. It can be very quick if you like. You can dive into a place and try just a bite or two and then move to the next one. I love this concept and I had to stop in almost every one that I saw.
We landed in Barcelona, just as I had hoped, right at dinner time. After a long day of flying, we caught a cab to the hotel, dropped our bags, and headed straight out. We ended up at a little restaurant in the “El Born” District called Lonja de Tapas. It turned out to be an outstanding choice. We chose from their tapas menu, a few turf options, and a few new seafood options. From my research, I was sure that I needed to have an octopus dish and a paella. My son chose a mussels dish. As expected, the octopus was magnificent. It was more tender than a slow roasted pork rib and without a hint of fishiness. It was well salted, coated in a very strong smoked paprika and served over mashed potatoes. I think we finished it in under a minute. The mussels were cooked simply with what appeared to be just vegetable stock, white wine, garlic, and parsley. The were huge, bright orange, and perfectly cooked. There was no sand in them and the broth they were served in was magical. The paella was mixed with shrimp, octopus, and cuttlefish. Paella takes a long time, but it was worth the wait. With a perfectly “al dente” rice, a healthy dose of saffron, and a flavor of the essence of the sea, it was the highlight of the night for me. Cuttlefish was a new species for all of us, and we were all a little bit surprised to find that is was so different from squid. Much more tender and with a different flavor altogether, it makes me sad to know that it is so hard to get in the states.
The next day we visited a small Basque place called Txikiteo where we tried another paella, shrimp in garlic and oil, and a totally different style of mussels. The paella with chicken, mussels, clams, bay shrimp, and cuttlefish, was packed with flavor and fun to eat. The shrimps dish was simply shrimp sautéed in the oil with garlic and some herbs. It wasn’t a very complex dish, but the execution was perfect and this might have been my favorite dish of the trip. The mussels dish had a much richer broth than the night before, with green and red peppers and a huge amount of garlic. It was prettier, with more fat and more salt that the other mussels on this trip. I released each one from the shell and then used the shell to scoop up as much of that delicious broth as possible. These mussels were glorious.
That night, we went to one of the little, “pay by the pic” places and picked up about 20 perfect little bites. I tried white tuna, salmon, a crab meatball, and a couple of porky options. Then I saw a gorgeous little pickled anchovy. I’ve never really been a big fan of anchovies, but if you go to Spain, which is absolutely the best place to eat them, you have to give it a try. I did and I was not disappointed. These anchovies are marinated in vinegar and served on a crusty bread with a daikon radish and a dollop of wasabi mayo. Despite the initial fear, I pressed on and this turned out to be quite enjoyable. I tried my bite and went back for more.
The next day proved to be the most exciting. We went to a little market on “la Rambla” called “La Boqueria Market.” The place was packed with vendors peddling their delicious Iberico ham. I was like a child, running around to all the different seafood counters and looking at the different types of crustaceans and fish that you can’t really get in the US. I took quite a few pictures, despite being chased off by some of the counter staff who apparently don’t like being a tourist attraction.
We picked a huge sampler plate from a seafood booth. It included king prawns, mussels, white shrimp, red shrimp, some small round clams, and some razor clams. I didn’t love the razor clams, but the rest was outstanding. Just like the prior days, the mussels were huge and beautiful. The king prawn is more like a small Caribbean lobster than a shrimp, tender and buttery. Everything in this place tasted so clean and fresh. After a quick gelato stop, (don’t tell Italy we cheated on her) we moved quickly to dinner, where we had another great octopus, this time without the paprika, and with sliced potatoes instead of mashed. We also had another paella, this time a black one, darkened with squid ink. The flavors were even more rich and the seafood was just as fresh.
I tried a few things at the edge of my comfort zone on this trip and it reminded me why I started writing the Seafood Sherpa blog. I really enjoy pushing my food boundaries and immersing myself in local culture. To skip something a little scary, like an anchovy, is to miss an important part of Spanish culture. Instead, I tried everything that was put in front of me, and I enjoyed all of it. I sampled flavors that I would otherwise never know. I ate healthier with all the varieties of fruits, vegetables, and seafoods available. I hope I can push you to do the same. Eat that creepy crustacean on your plate, even if you don’t know what it is.
Overall, I found Barcelona to be a perfect food destination. The Basque and Tapas restaurants offered quite a bit of the same thing, but that thing was done perfectly in every place that we went. We never had a bad meal or an overcooked bite. They know how to do seafood, and they excel in the difficult ones, like octopus. I’m been trying every octopus I can find, for the last year. I’ve made about 15 attempts in my own kitchen to get the right texture on it, and I’m still not happy. I think I ate octopus 5 times in Barcelona, and they were the 5 best ones I’ve ever had. It seems like you can get anything you want in America, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Maybe I’ve finally found a thing that you can’t get back home. I guess that means I’ll just have to go back to Barcelona again soon.