Where do I begin? There are so many facets of Barcelona that left me with feelings of wonderment and lustre, softening my core to the sultry consistency of honey. In fact for the past 3 months, I have been living in a jar of honey. Trapped by touristic means yet sweetened by the marvel and the romance of observing through sepia tone lenses. For me, it was only natural that I fell in love with Barcelona; this is a city oozing of passion, possibility and is one of the culinary capitals of the world. It’s also a transient place that fosters an incredible world community where multitudes of foreigners arrive to make new home or pass through every year. So I felt right at home. I spent my months witnessing the vibrancy of its people, tracking down its serpentine passageways and gawking at Gaudi’s incredulous creations. Although initially spellbound by this awe, it didn’t take long before I started to realise that the cosmopolitan offered much more than the naked eye could discern and curiosity trickled in.
Trawling through countless photographs and recipes to write this entry, I noticed that food played a vital part in helping me plot out a detailed mapping of this city’s foundational roots. In Barcelona, Catalan cuisine is prominent. Catalan refers to the community of regions in North Spain including Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona and are collectively known as Cataluña. Distinguished as Western Mediterranean in flavour, Catalan cuisine has always had the historic capacity to incorporate cookery from neighbouring areas. The food can be described as a reimagining of varied methods from Jewish, Roman, Greek and Arabic cuisines, mingling to make what is quintessentially Catalan. One classic example of a pairing is Mar I Muntanya, a combination of seafood and mountainous protein like rabbit, most often used as theme for dishes like Paellas and pastas. As a cook, this culinary evolution spiked a lot of interest, as every spoonful would encompass a sense of relational nostalgia. Catalan sweets and pastries are also inspired by this gastronomic melting pot and rightly so as they employ aspects from some of the best pastry traditions of the world.
I for one could not escape the sumptuous golden displays of the Spanish Patiserria! Found on almost every street corner and headed by proud Catalan abuelas, these brightly lit bakeries with their mirrored walls, polished timbers and shiny cabinets, overflowed with the kind of scrumptious hand made delights that left you in a pool of saliva. Utter voraciousness aside, I did come to find one item of food that plucked most lovingly at my heartstrings. That item would be an addictive flaky and sugary pastry named Ensaimada. The originally Marjorcan dessert is a puff pastry hand-rolled into a coil, painted in pork lard and embellished with dustings of icing sugar. It also comes in varieties stuffed with cream or marmelada but now a connoisseur, I prefer original and untainted. I can’t exactly explain why the Ensaimada caught my eye but I can tell you that for one dainty euro, it is simple and simply good. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always favoured puff pastry desserts. It is in the action of peeling layer by layer that gave way to my current habitual. I’d eat the crunchy outsides like packet chips, I’d leave the fluffy inside to melt on my tongue and chew on the very moist middle. So every time I had an Ensaimada in Barcelona, its no secret that it was ritualistic. From bites that left cloudy puffs of sugar hung in mid air to tearing lusciously slick layers sending crumbs to fly, I cherished these moments like a child. In a nutshell, that is how an unassuming baked white dough became my gateway to discovering the city. And I realise I’ve spent the last few paragraphs explaining my love for a pastry but it was a serious love affair! So now, I digress but I do have a point to make.
Until I came to this city, I never really caught on to the process of passing time. Living in cities most my life and working in fast paced kitchen environments, it felt more natural to rush and be efficient even in mundane everyday activities. Retrospectively, my manner in eating an Ensaimada, this physical process of savouring became metaphorically integral to how I experienced Barcelona. In short, it decelerated me. The tempo of the city is like a walk in the park- Andante as they describe in music. It possesses nonchalance that forces you into a timeless state of mind. It insists that to taste each stratum, you have to take your time. Enchanted with this perspective and fingertips coated in sugar, I took to relishing in leisurely strolls past beaded doorways and gazing upwards to ornate balconies dangling with laundry and Catalan flags. I got to drink in bars dotted with stools in tight corridors and watch the world go by outside cafes where I sat with my laptop most days. I ate late dinners and heck! I had naps after decadent lunches! This was the life and it was beautiful!
Barcelona runs on its own time or more specifically, it runs on an informal schedule dictated by meal times. Morning coffee, coffee and croissant, lunch and siesta, coffee and sweet, late dinner. I won’t lie; it did take me some time to become accustomed to eating 10pm dinners and struggling to find an open cafe during siesta but when I got with the programme, stepping to the local beat became a little easier.
Neighbourhood cerveserias and bars were the perfect place for my new unwinding consciousness. Like the modestly good Ensaimada, these hangouts are nothing special but they are classic and that is what made them great. This was where I’d go on days that I wanted to find humble fare and people-watch amongst a bunch of Catalan and Spanish characters. For food, items like Pan con Tomata, anchovies in olive oil and Bocadillos filled with jamon or tuna salad were staples that never failed me. Of course these comforts range in quality and style from place to place but that didn’t matter to me, the real adventure lay in sampling a little of each before locating my next perch. In the amber lit night, I favoured wine bars with pintxos, tapas, cava and sweet vermouth, which heightened my appreciation of sharing food with friends. Tasting morsels here and having sips there all the while giggling with satisfaction, this kind of eating experience put me right onto the Barcelona schedule. Every mouthful gifted me another piece of the map and I found it impossible to discover the city any other way than through the food of its people.
There’s no denying that Barcelona’s desirable temperament also comprises of the many ticketed tourist sights, booked out 5-star restaurants and walking the famous La Ramblas. These are without doubt must-sees during shorter or one time visits to the city. And it’s true; these elements have largely contributed to the city’s economic welfare. But if I’m honest, I’ve never really been one to wait in line or push through crowds. Instead, I find that slipping into the crevices and cracks of the metropolis to be more important for my understanding and respect of what the city is today. The closer I got to learning about everyday life and veering my hunger towards the simplicity of the people, the more I learnt to love Barcelona one minor detail at a time. I playfully described to a friend the other day that when you fall in love, it is like honey dripping down to your elbows, sliding through your fingertips without a care in the world. I’m sure that my honey jar experience in Barcelona fuelled this description as I realise now the city dripped all over my expectations and gave me an intangible level of joy.
Travelling to Barcelona? I suggest you too search for a ride off the beaten track and learn the informalities of the city. It’s common to be late, like it’s common to wait a long time for your bill. But ask why or how? And there will be someone who will want to help or explain. As for food in Barcelona, with a foundation on classic tradition, an injection of immigrants bringing their own cuisines and contemporary takes on healthy and organic options; it isn’t hard to satisfy a food craving. Just don’t ask for authentic, ridicule new food ideas or compare to ancient dishes. Rather, live in the moment and ask for the best; you will get a great reworking of a Catalan classic or the kitchen’s specialty. Barcelona for me was about going back to basics and riding along with what you get, so as long as you can appreciate that, you’ll come to find more and more riches along the way. My personal recommendation? Slip into the honey jar, ready your belly and make space in your days, you wont be disappointed.