It was back in the Figlio days when tapas first got on my radar screen, and small plates have been a fixture at our restaurants ever since. So it was that on our most recent trip to Europe, we included Barcelona on the itinerary. The fact that we had grandkids in tow made the destination all the more compelling. They’d never been to Spain, and I wanted to be the one to introduce them to its most vibrant city.
Naturally we took in the significant sights, particularly the Antonio Gaudi masterpieces, including the still-unfinished LA SAGRADA FAMILIA (under construction for 137 years; latest projected completion date 2032), and CASA BATTLO, with its façade of undulating, vine-like shapes punctuated with pieces of colorful glass and broken ceramic tiles. Visits to the Picasso Museum and the Joan Miro Museums filled our culture quota so that we could focus on the real reason for the trip: Barcelona’s incredible food.
First things first: A visit to LA BOUQUERIA, perhaps the most impressive food market on the planet. Joanne and I have strolled many wonderful markets and marveled at the stunning colors, presentations, mouth-watering displays and presentations from the vendors. And the sights here are almost in a category of their own. Still, I always walk away with a small sense of dissatisfaction, borne of being unable to buy any of the offerings for a scrumptious dinner. No kitchens in our hotel rooms.
On occasion, I’ve also felt somewhat unwelcome by the vendors, who have to deal with throngs of tourists invading their domain, taking pictures, crowding the aisles, and then NOT BUYING ANYTHING.
Well, I have to tell you that since I last visited the Bouqueria, the vendors have figured out how to take advantage of visitors like me.
Fish mongers who sell whole turbot, flounder and lobsters to the locals now offer busloads of tourists fresh oysters by the piece as well as handheld little paper cones filled with everything from shrimp to calamari. The meat and sausage merchants offer cups of salamis and paper-thin slices of black-hoof Iberico ham, all at about $6 – $7. The fruit and produce folks sell eye-popping cups of fresh fruit. It was oppressively hot and humid the day we visited, and Joanne and I both fell for the chilled watermelon.
Since this was just before lunch, I got thinking, Hmmm, today these are my TAPAS.
And tapas we did….all week long, all along LA RAMBLA (a major pedestrian thoroughfare), for lunch and dinner.
One thing to note: La Rambla isn’t the only street of its kind. You can escape the crowds by heading a few blocks north to the RAMBLA DE CATALUNYA. It’s cleaner and less crowded than La Rambla, but still offers endless blocks of restaurants, each with a tapas menu. Plus, the shopping is better.
We dined at many of the restaurants and tapas bars that are known specifically for their creativity, frisky sauces and varieties of tapas, and discovered that there is a sort of hierarchy among tapas.
At the base you’ll find the workhorse offerings, which populate nearly every menu, from dives to fine dining establishments. Among them:
PAN CON TOMATE: toasted bread, garlic, olive oil, salt and crusted tomatoes.
PATATAS BRAVAS: roasted potatoes, always with mayo and spicy, smoky tomato sauce.
SAUSAGES: Including Butifarra, a mild white pork sausage, often served with garlicky white beans in olive oil; Morcilla, a blood sausage invigorated with sautéed onions; and of course Chorizo, fermented, cured and smoked, often bathed in honey and red wine.
ENSALADA RUSA: Russian potato salad with peas, carrots, capers and beets, sometimes with tuna.
CROQUETTAS: Small mashed potato balls loaded with ham, smoked cod, cheese or lobster, deep fried.
MONTADITOS: Little sandwiches (often open-face). Anything goes here.
GARLIC SHRIMP: Garlic, olive oil, hot peppers, garlic and more garlic.
GILDAS: Anchovies, olives and peppers impaled on a toothpick.
GRILLED OCTOPUS: Available in many wonderful versions.
CHIPIRONES: Deep-fried squid and baby cuttlefish, frequently accompanied with squid ink.
ALBONDIGAS: Little meatballs; could be beef, pork or veal, or a combo of all three.
TORTILLA DE PATATAS: Omelet with potatoes, most always served in wedges.
PAELLA: A tapas for sharing. Our favorite was the seafood version with clams, mussels and head-on shrimp. Be sure to ask your server for the SOCARRAT: the scorched rice crust that forms on the bottom of the paella pan.
There are undoubtedly many more dishes that fit in the workhorse category. And beyond those offerings is an entire universe of more creative tapas – thinking person’s tapas, big-flavored sometimes lyrical, often witty, never bland.
So I’ll stop here for now and ask you simply to stroll through the images. Read the captions and salivate as appropriate.
And some with ingredients that we probably should not talk about. That universe is so grand that your overfed blog writer cannot cope.