Seafood has been popular in Catalonia for a long time.
Eating was, as you may have guessed, something of a focus of ours in Madrid; for various reasons it was a bit less so in Catalonia, unfortunate as that may be, so I should be able to finish up these posts in one post today. Nevertheless, in the best teaser fashion, I can promise that the best meal of the entire trip
lies ahead. Don't miss it!
Ironically, since we had originally planned our trip around visiting Barcelona, we wound up going there only for one day trip. The reason things got changed around have everything to do with LTHForum-- I asked Pigmon for suggestions, he put me in contact with his friend Rafa, who put me in contact with a hotelier in a small town outside Tarragona, an hour south of Barcelona, who needless to say I never would have found on my own in a million years.
And so this became the rural half of our vacation, at the charming 400-year-old farmhouse B&B-ish inn Mas La Trampa,
with our affable and helpful host Pablo Mendez. And much of our time was spent tromping around his small farm (when it wasn't raining-- a few especially wet days seriously hampered our food-exploring), or visiting things like the walled medieval town of Montblanc and the restored monastery at Poblet (which, I related to the family with great glee, was reputed to be the most debauched in the Cistercian order before the local townspeople rose up and tore it down 150 years ago), while dining at the hotel. The most notable thing about that was that Pablo taught Myles how to make pa amb tomàquet
-- he could have just read LTHForum,
of course-- and that became the staple of our breakfasts as well as quite a source of pride for him that he was making something authentic by himself. (This picture is actually from a restaurant, but I put it here for illustrative purposes.)
You take them halfway across the world to see great and elaborate things, masterpieces of art and architecture... and then you know that the things they'll come away remembering are the dog on the farm and how to make "Spanish toast." Not such a bad way to take in a big world after all, I suppose.
As I said, we did manage one whirlwind day in Barcelona, seeing all of Gaudi's greatest hits including the very moving Sagrada Familia cathedral, some of whose lesser spires are topped with fruit, which is at least as logical as putting angels or kings on top of a church. But that wasn't the only pilgrimage I was in Barcelona to make. There was a restaurant I was determined to eat at, even if it meant lining up outside before it opened...
First in line.
Some people, especially people on food boards, go to this part of the world to eat at a place like El Bulli. I have nothing against a meal like that, if the opportunity fell into my lap I'd happily take it, but at the same time if I wanted that kind of food that badly I'd have already eaten at Alinea in my own town, and that's not why I went. I went to eat the food that is the bedrock of the culture, to gain that base of understanding and essential experience for everything else I might eat there. I went to eat the kind of food they've been eating since the Romans put it in a mosaic 2000 years ago. I went to eat the fresh simple seafood of the Catalonian coast. And early on, I decided that that meant I wanted to eat at Cal Pep.
There's plenty of argument on food boards as to whether Cal Pep is better than this or that place, on eGullet some trendier-than-thou people seem to kind of pooh-pooh it as a tourist place, the Billy Goat of Barcelona, but the thing was, discussion kept coming back to it as a kind of standard, the Kilimeter Zero of Barcelona food against which the others' positions are calculated, plus people on LTHForum had all been very positive about it and of course I trust them over any other site by definition. So that was why I decided we would be there a half hour before opening, standing in line to grab four of those few bar stools at the first seating. And so we were.
Billy Goat Schmilly Goat, this is a great frickin' restaurant, full of personality (the young guy running our end of the counter was very funny, across several language barriers at once) and serving up simple but utterly sublime seafood. If you're smart you don't try to order anything, you just tell them to keep bringing what they have today until you're full. It started with fried fish:
The lightest, most evanescent of coatings, hot fish and calamari and shrimp, even the kids ate the calamari, and credit to my wife for believing me when I said the way you ate the fish was, you ate the whole fish.
Clams in the simplest broth, a little salt, oil and herb (parsley?), but a broth that was soul-filling, blissfully perfect and complete, I'd have drunk it from a glass.
Tuna tartare, again my wife had doubts but I urged her to conquer them and she was rewarded. I hardly expected a 90s California-dining cliche like this to turn up here, but I guess this is the kind of original where the cliche came from, and again the freshness and balance of the dish put it in a whole other class from thelast versions
I've had. Interestingly, the barman made sure to tell us that the tartare was for the grownups, and there would be some beef for the kids (displaying an American level of food-safety-worrywartism otherwise completely absent on our trip). Myles ate the beef, Liam (who by now knew there was something about Spanish beef he didn't like-- the grass-fed flavor, basically) ate the potatoes. There was also a small tortilla, with a very gooey interior, which was the only thing I wasn't wild about. But it was followed by this:
Baby octopi and chickpeas, cooked together till the starch from the chickpeas produces a kind of sauce/gravy, and served in the little paella-type iron pan it was cooked in. Another fantastic dish I dream about now, even though we were close to stuffed by this point, chewy and a little fishy and hearty and comforting.
There may be better restaurants than Cal Pep in Barcelona. I hope there are, because it gives you even more to hope for after a meal as simple in its materials and near-perfect in its execution as this.
8 Plaza de Olles
Tel.: 93 310 79 61
We decided not to stay in Barcelona for dinner, partly because we didn't really want to drive the manic (but at least well signposted, unlike France) Spanish highways in the dark, partly because it seemed wrong to try to top Cal Pep, we could only risk tarnishing that memory. But the last thing I did before we left was hit the market, La Boqueria:
Half the stands were closed already but it was still one of those great markets that just makes me whimper why we don't have something like this in Chicago:
Now, having tantalized you with these photos... I was actually disappointed in some of what I picked up, relative to other things I'd had on our trip. That ham stand looks great but it wasn't as good as many others I'd tried, some sausage and olives I bought weren't either (the sausage offered with our breakfast each morning was better, for instance). (I did get some amazing strawberries, though.) But it's a huge market, I'd love the opportunity to spend weeks getting to know it and finding out where the really good stuff is. We need one like this in Chicago, even though it'd never quite be like this.
Tarragona was the most important Roman town in that part of the world and has a number of Roman ruins in and around town well worth seeing (including an impressive section of aqueduct comparable to the more famous ones in France). Rafa, among others, had recommended eating seafood in the small, densely atmospheric area near the fishing port, La Seralla (does that mean harem-- like Seraglio-- and thus imply that, er, a large number of women were employed there at one time, do you suppose?). More or less randomly, we picked a place called Ca'l Brut, which proved to be exactly the kind of old school, stucco-walled, courtly silver-haired proprietor place I wanted at that point, the kind of place that has celebrity pictures like this on the wall:
Well, if it's good enough for Pierre of Madrid, haircutter to the society of the Franco era, it's good enough for us.
I had an assortment of seafood in romesco sauce (the pepper-based sauce widely used in Catalan cooking), Susan had all the same critters fried, and if it was no Cal Pep, a good time was had by all as the Cesar Romero-like owner doted on the boys and plied them with ice cream on the way out.
Sant Pere 14
Tel.: 34 977 241 405
Reus is a medium-sized university town near Tarragona, and we headed that way for dinner one night and had some trouble finding something that didn't just look like a bar-- until we came upon an Italian restaurant called Trastevere, one in a small regional chain, which was just the break from Spanish meats and seafood that we needed at that point. (As one of the guide books points out, Catalonia actually had more connection with Italian ports than with Madrid and the rest of Spain for much of its history.) Actually, what it seemed like was an American Italian restaurant in a lot of ways-- it was big and a little sports-bary, dark wood and hunter green, with many stations, kind of reminded me of Maggiano's or Portillo's or something. The menu, too, which offered a mix and match list of housemade pasta and pasta sauces, seemed American in a lot of ways, not to say that you couldn't get similar things in Italy, probably, but the way they were offered up seemed more like a restaurant here. I'd just bet the guys who started it have worked in this country at some point. I just had to pray it wasn't at Olive Garden....
That said, it was really quite good. I had a black truffle pasta and sauce which I found too salty, but my wife had a sweet pumpkin ravioli sauce with almonds which was really excellent, and the kids had a fettucini with red sauce and sausage and orrechiete with red sauce, all of which were quite good (indeed, when I hit the wall on mine, I poached a good portion of theirs and liked them a lot). Pizzas looked good as they came out too. We didn't need much of a break from Spanish food on this trip, other than the occasional hamburguesa at lunch, but this one was ideal.
Tel.: 977 77 13 90
La Selva del Camp
The tiny town we actually stayed in only had one restaurant of note and no cafe that I saw, but it had a number of bakeries, butcher shops, etc. and we picked up a number of snacks. Perhaps the most pleasing surprise was that on Saturday morning, before lunch, pizza, or flatbread, or whatever you want to call it appeared in all the bakery windows:
I bought the kind with onions and red pepper, and was very happy I did.