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.




Although Barcelona is a travel hot-spot these days, it has always been one of Joanne’s and my very favorite destinations, and we’re planning to return once again this coming June. Of course, the climate is a huge draw, and the architecture, but it’s also the CATALAN CUISINE – especially the abundance and pristine quality of their seafood – that keeps us coming back.

Our favorite seafood restaurant by far is BOTAFUMERIO on Gran de Garcia, in the heart of the city. In fact, Botafumerio had a profound influence on me when I created the Oceanaire Seafood Room. And on this upcoming trip we are privileged to bring along our adventurous dining grandkids to indulge in Botafumerio’s razor clams and sea urchins.

We’ll see how that goes.

So I got to thinking about the word “Botafumerio,” figuring it probably has something to do with smoke. But where does it come from? What does it mean?

My inquiry took me to Galacia in the northwest of Spain and to the SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA CATHEDRAL. It all begins with a spiritual journey called the “walk of Saint James” that the apostle is said to have taken. There are several paths from Europe to the cathedral and to the Shrine of Saint James. I think the most traveled route is from the region around Pamplona in eastern Spain (think the running of the bulls) and roughly 800 kilometers from Santiago.

The long journey, called THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO, is taken by tens of thousands of believers every year. Joanne and I have two friends that have recently made the long trip.

The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is home to a famous thurible, a huge metal censer used to burn incense. The one here is suspended from the ceiling by a pulley mechanism and it’s called the Botafumerio (Galician for “smoke expeller.”)

I have no idea why in 1975 the owners chose to name their restaurant Botafumerio, but I do know that its chefs are on site at the fish market first thing every morning for the daily auction. Preparations are perfectly executed with just the right amount of flame and impeccably served by fleets of waiters in crisp, white coats.

Our evening began with chef Jose Ramon “Moncho” Neira wheeling to our table a trolley loaded to the brim with the daily catch and patiently explaining the species and preparation of each creature. Once again, I was inspired (think MANNY’S steak trolley).

Immediately a complimentary plate of thinly sliced Iberico Ham was placed on our table along with some toasty slices of the traditional “pan con tomate” – tomato bread. A little explanation here: Iberico Ham is Spain’s answer to Italy’s Prosciutto di Parma. The Spanish heritage pigs are fed a diet of acorns, and the ham they produce is incredibly expensive – about 30 euros per pound. Pan con tomate is a ciabatta-like Catalan bread that’s sliced, then vigorously rubbed with fresh tomatoes and garlic cloves, and topped with sea salt and olive oil. At tapas bars, tomato bread serves as sort of a “glue” that holds the flavors and textures of the tapas together.

Our dinner was a parade of fresh, briny crustaceans that had been swimming less than 24 hours earlier.

We started with our first bottle of Rioja blanco along with Steamed Clams, then moved on to Razor Clams, and then to garlicky, buttery cockles. From there, we graduated to a platter of sea urchin and finished our appetizer indulgence with a gratin of spider crab (Who says that cheese and seafood don’t go together? That’s a bunch of hooey).

Then I spotted snails on the menu. Unable to stop myself, thinking they were probably like the escargot at SALUT, I placed an order only to learn that they were Sea Snails, loaded with butter and garlic and a thick slice of “sopping bread.” Loved ‘em.

We didn’t order the Lobster Paella, but lots of folks did, and it looked really good – chock full of lobster parts. It came in three sizes: a giant two-and-a-half-foot diameter paella pan that would serve a table of six to eight; a smaller version meant for two to share; and finally an individual platter.

I passed on the filet (the only steak on the menu), but on another visit opted for the “flame grilled suckling kid goat”) and ate it all!

Desserts are beautiful but we have never indulged…too full.

But at the end of the day, shellfish rule at Botafumerio. Check out the three-foot-long platters that filled at least a third of the tables.

Note: Botafumerio is expensive – but that’s not to say you won’t get your money’s worth here. After all, “good fish isn’t cheap, and cheap fish isn’t good.” (Not sure who said that. Maybe St. James?).

By the way, I read that church attendance in Spain, like elsewhere in Europe, has steadily dropped. Maybe if their incense burners – their “botafumeria” – pumped out the aroma of a good lobster paella, the crowds might return.