When people talk about Barcelona and food, invariably they talk about where the best tapas bar is, or where to find the best tapas but actually being as it is in Catalonia, tapas isn't actually local to Barcelona. Tapas is native to Andalusia, though adopted all over Spain. Compared with Madrid, whereby anywhere you stop for a drink and you really do get a tapa - be it olives, or marinated anchovies or the like - Barcelona isn't so. You sit down and order from a menu. Catalonian food is characterised by dishes such as botifarra, a pork sausage with spices, or escalivada - smoky, grilled vegetables such as peppers and aubergine. The most common Catalonian dish served in Barcelona is pan con tomate, or pa amb tomàquet in Catalonian; toasted bread, rubbed with garlic and topped with tomatoes, rubbed until the pulp has been spread on the bread and the skins discarded. Topped liberally with salt and olive oil, this accompanies almost every meal.
Keen to get a try of real Catalonian food, we went to La Pubilla, recommended by Su-Lin. I wasn't expecting such a sleek, minimal room, and being that it was unfathomably early for dinner (8:30pm!) we were the only customers. All the menus are in Catalonian or English, no Spanish equivalent. Some of the words are shared, though by and large we were baffled.
Having already had a meat and cheese pitstop, we weren't exactly famished so we were rather pleased to find that the starter portion sizes were quite elegant. Marinated mackerel (top photo) with Salmorejo (a creamy gazpacho) was vividly orange, pretty on the plate and the flavours, married with the shaved fennel, were bright and perky. I am so obsessed with Salmorejo I was gulping down cartons of the stuff that you can buy from the fridges in the supermarkets.
A halved, baked peach stuffed with shredded stewed duck was somewhat richer; the duck was scented with a little anise and the soft flesh of the peach worked so well with it. We pulled it apart with forks, spearing firmer raw peach cubes alongside. What a brilliant idea; I was concerned it might be a bit reminiscent of the (usually) abominable duck a l'orange, but we needn't have worried. Our third starter, a brawn-like shaved pressed meat with pickled chanterelles and herbed creme fraiche was less successful, though not disastrous; just a touch on the bland side.
For mains, we all went down the seafood route and this was salted cod with cod throats (!) and white beans. I loved this. Though the skin would have been better crisp, I loved the slithery aspect of the cod throats, which were barely discernible unless you were looking for them. The cod was cooked so that firm flakes came away, pearlescent and creamy. This, like the rest of the mains we had, was better shared as what with being salt cod and all, it was quite... salty.
Monkfish was declared the dish of the night by some of the table, and I almost agreed. The fish was cooked incredibly well, and it was sat on a bed of black rice, squash and tomatoes. It was light though it felt decadent, as most monkfish dishes seem to me; it's such a firm steak of a fish.
But for me, this lobster rice was the dish of the night. A giant casserole came to the table, with it's own board to protect the table from its ferocious bubbling. Underneath the broth was soupy rice, creamy and rice from cooking in lobster bisque. This could have served 4 alone but we gamely ploughed on, eating the lobster-soup-rice, until all that was left was the lobster itself. Implements were requested, and viscera flew as we extracted all the sweet lobster meat from the shell. Meanwhile, this being our second dinner, I was full to bursting - my waistband was protesting - but onwards I continued, until there was nothing left to be eaten.
We were so incredibly full that we had to go for an forty minute walk before we felt anything close to being normal again.
La Pubilla, Plaça de la Llibertat, 23, 08012 Barcelona, Spain
I still can't tell you exactly what Catalan food is, but La Pubilla gave it a good go. Word has it that their lunch menu, at €13 for 3 courses, is one of the best value in town but actually I think that might go to Granja Mabel. I went there three times for lunch when I was working (I did actually do some work in Barcelona!) and the menu del dia was merely €10 for three courses, that changed every day. It was absolutely rammed. I hadn't expected much but actually the 'secreto' pork was one of the best pieces of pork I've eaten in recent memory, and on another day, the pigs cheek served on the bone with rice was beautiful simplicity.
Granja Mabel, Carrer de la Marina, 114, 08018 Barcelona, Spain
Entirely on the other end of the scale was Els Pescadors, probably one of the most expensive (and reputably the best) fish restaurant in town. I mention it because here I had hake cooked in 'suquet' - another traditional Catalonian dish. The restaurant itself is a cab ride away from the centre of town, the waiters wear starched white shirts, and they wheel a trolley full of the day's catch for you to be tempted by. I sat and watched a local jazz band play in the square outside, while an Italian couple next to me streamed the football, and a pair of Chinese lads chain-smoked their way through a steak tartare. But the suquet itself was rich with seafood flavour, heavy with potato and a large piece of braised hake, cooked just under so the flesh resisted a little against the bones, took centre stage. It's not a pretty dish. I asked for some vegetables - might I have a side salad? - and they looked at me like I was crazy. For €27.50 one might have thought some vegetables might be included. But no. I skipped starters and dessert.
Els Pescadors, Plaça de Prim, 1, 08005 Barcelona, Spain