Lifting the lid on Catalan cuisine

Escalivada with Shrimp and Scallops by Gabriella Opaz

If you’re from cooler climes, it can be easy to forget the way that food is revered throughout the Mediterranean region. In the buzzing cafés, elegant restaurants, packed markets, and intimate bars of Barcelona you can find first-rate cuisine from all over the world. The city’s love affair with food harks back to its historic role at the centre of a maritime empire, but also its modern-day status as a cosmopolitan world city.

Yet getting an exceptional culinary experience out of the city isn’t always easy. Many visitors to the city struggle to work out the difference between tourist traps offering overpriced paella and restaurants where the diners are discerning Catalan locals. So we thought we’d give you some tips on how to get grips with all that makes Catalonia a mecca for foodies.

What can you expect from Catalan cooking?

Barcelona has always been perfectly placed to cook up a storm, taking advantage of the bounty of the Mediterranean Sea on one side and fertile countryside on the other. In fact, the tagline of Catalan cuisine is ‘mar i muntanya’ – ‘sea and mountain’, referencing the locals’ tendency to mix seafood and meat. Somewhere between the elitist haute-cuisine of the French and the more down-to-earth approach of the Spanish, the resulting style has made it one of the most highly respected cuisines in the world.

Crema Catalana by Shht!The rest of Spain gets a look in, too, with Catalan chefs happy to borrow classic fare from the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. The city definitely loves its tapas. Especially popular are the Basque-style pintxos – small pieces of bread stacked with a variety of ingredients and skewered with a cocktail stick.

Typical fare includes pa amb tomàquet, bread smeared with tomato, olive oil and garlic – a basic yet surprisingly tasty morsel. Esqueixada, a salt cod salad, is a rare treat on a warm Barcelona day. Rice dishes feature heavily and are often accompanied with a pot of allioli, a heavy garlic mayonnaise. If you fancy something simple try local favourite mongetes amb botifarra (pork sausage with white haricot beans). For dessert you can’t do better than crema catalana, a Catalan version of crème brûlée. And, of course, the region’s vineyards offer a myriad of vintages ideal for washing down a long Spanish lunch.

Revolutionary restaurants

Catalonia holds its cultural distinctiveness from the rest of Spain close to its heart, and food is no exception. In recent years the region has had much to be proud of as various chefs with gastronomic genius have thrust it to the centre of the world stage. The undisputed leading light is Barcelona-born Ferran Adrià, a chef with three Michelin stars who is arguably the world’s best chef.

Rabas by onnothAdrià’s often surreal creations (such as foamed Spanish omelette served in a sherry glass) have done a lot to dispel the image of Catalan cooking as a mainly traditional and rustic affair. His famous El Bulli restaurant on the Costa Brava closed its doors in 2011 (getting a table was impossible anyway). However, he continues to inspire the next generation of chefs through his workshops, ensuring his home town’s place at the top table of haute-cuisine.

Now, some of you might be worried that eating out in Barcelona is all about minimalist décor and tiny portions of overpriced and pretentious delicacies. You’ll be glad to hear that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Even Catalonia’s Michelin-starred chefs extol the virtues of the hearty dishes and fresh ingredients that are at the root of the region’s claims to fame. Here are five of our favourites.

Our top five Catalan restaurants

This restaurant, located in the heart of the Ciutat Vella, opened its doors in 1890 and is one of the oldest in Barcelona. Its name refers to the writer and dramatist Frederic Soller, who went by the name Pitarra. You´ll find a huge selection of traditional Catalan food, particularly fish, served up in the midst of a truly unique atmosphere. Tip: treat yourself to pheasant in a Cava sauce – you’re on holiday!

Casa Calvet is one of Barcelona’s most well-known restaurants, and is set in L’Eixample Dreta in a building designed by Antoni Gaudí. The factory’s former offices were converted into elegant dining rooms that have a private and welcoming atmosphere. The experimental cuisine of chef Miquel Alija combines traditional Catalan cooking with Asian overtones. Tip: ask for an intimate ‘taula cabina’ (a wooden booth) on arrival.

Biblioteca Restaurant
This simple Raval restaurant has acquired an excellent reputation for its exquisite cuisine. The chef, Guillem Oliva, is particular about using the freshest ingredients from the region. With its open kitchen at the end of the restaurant, it provides a memorable dining experience. Tip: apparently the ‘New York Times’ rates its apple pie.

Escalivada by Spanish Recipe Empedrat by Spanish Recipes Pan con tomate by arquera

La Tomaquera
Expect home-made wine and a raucous background to your meal from this Poble Sec stalwart. If you want to try Catalan snails this is the place for you – they’re the house speciality. You’ll also find a full menu including grilled and cured meats among several other Catalan dishes. Tip: you can’t beat the home-made sangria in the summer.

El Glop
This restaurant offers rustic no-nonsense Catalan food and décor. It might not be fine dining but the food is still great, as is the service and the atmosphere. Prepare yourself for big portions of hearty food which should be accompanied by a pitcher of Cava sangria. Set away from the city centre in Gràcia this restaurant is the perfect alternative to the tourist traps in the centre of town. Tip: have the ‘tocinillo’, a rare caramel treat, for dessert.


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