The perfect trip: Catalonia
In this secluded hamlet of Calella de Palafrugell in Costa Brava, fish restaurants in gleaming white cottages overlook the sand. (Michael Heffernan)
Whet your appetite for a Spanish adventure with tapas in Barcelona, explore hidden beaches and the coastline that inspired Salvador Dalí on the Costa Brava, wander the streets of medieval Girona and end your journey in an alpine National Park.
Best for tapas: Barcelona
In the tangled lanes of the Barri Gòtic (Catalan for the ‘Gothic Quarter’), tapas is all about tradition. The stone buildings of Barcelona’s oldest neighbourhood shelter tapas bars that show enduring allegiance to two simple truths: firstly, take the finest ingredients, interfering with them as little as possible; and secondly, the best things come in small packages. The celebrated El Xampanyet is the first stop on a tapas crawl guided by food critic Bego Sanchis, owner of the Cook & Taste In this independently spirited Spanish region, wander between traditional tapas bars in Barcelona, explore the walled city of Girona and awaken your senses in Dalí’s heartland cooking school, and there is an atmosphere of unrestrained Catalan conviviality. Shouting to make herself heard – and because that is what one does in a Spanish bar – Bego orders cava and tangy boqueróns en vinagre (white anchovies in vinegar), which are intense and zesty. After emptying our glasses, we cut across the throng of La Rambla towards Quimet i Quimet, a miniature bar where the walls are crammed with bottles of wine and cans of seafood. ‘With tapas, most think of Basque tapas – those little pieces of bread with food on top, lined up along the bar,’ Bego says as we contemplate our order – portions of anchovies, prawns and mussels, all put in the shade by a splendid salmon, honey and cream cheese concoction, montadito de salmón. ‘In Barcelona, tapas is more about preserved foods, the best seafood from a can, and main dishes in smaller servings.’ Because there is something irresistible about a journey defined by food – and certainly not because we’re still hungry – Bego leads us back to the Barri Gòtic and the Xarcutería La Pineda, here since 1930. Great legs of ham hang above cava-sipping regulars. The barmen join friends and customers, one and the same, for quiet conversations in Catalan. From time to time, someone breaks into song to accompany Carlos Alcayna, a regular who sits in a corner strumming his guitar between sips of draught vermouth. ‘I used to work across the road and come here for lunch,’ says Carlos. ‘Now, La Pineda is my office.’ We try slices of jamón ibérico (cured ham) and canned razor clams served with blood-red vermouth. Though delicious, the food is almost incidental. ‘Tapas is a social event,’ says Bego, ‘a reason to catch up with friends. The role of the food is to bring people together.’
- The Oficina d’Informació de Turisme de Barcelona has offices around the city.
- Cook & Taste runs twice-daily, three-and-a-half-hour cooking classes (£50 per person)
- El Xampanyet (Carrer de Montcada 22; 00 34 33 19 70 03)
- Quimet i Quimet (Carrer del Poeta Cabanyes 25; 00 34 934 42 31 42)
- Xarcutería La Pineda (Carrer del Pi 16; 00 34 933 024 393)
Where to eat (more)
For a market-style take on tapas, seek out Pla, a bar on a quiet lane of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. Pla’s chef, Sergio Sánchez-Montijano, doesn’t let the medieval décor restrain his modern Mediterranean flourishes with dishes such as braised lamb in its own juice, light white-bean purée, glazed potatoes and leeks with a touch of thyme (mains from £17).