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Food tour of Spain: Exploring Barcelona, Madrid and Seville plate by plate

By: Monica Pitrelli

Monica Pitrelli works her way through Barcelona, Madrid and Seville, exploring and tasting as she went. Click through the gallery below for all the snaps.


“A buen hambre no hay pan duro.”
Translation: For the hungry, there is no such thing as hard bread.

Hard bread is generally not considered to be a good thing. Unless, that is, you happen to be making pan con tomate. The trick to this ubiquitous Spanish dish is to use stale bread (in a pinch, toasted bread can work, too).

I’m in Allium, a slow food restaurant in Barcelona’s medieval Jewish quarter, learning to make this simple bread, tomato and garlic dish to accompany a plate of pulpo Gallego, a Galician specialty of octopus, boiled potatoes and paprika so popular that it’s called “Spain’s fish and chips”.

Allium is the third restaurant of the night: the first, Etapes in art-nouveau Eixample, for cava, mi-cuit foie gras with peach confiture and black truffle canalons (Catalan’s “national” dish introduced by the Italian’s in the 1800s) followed by an hour at beer-factory-turned-gastro-bar Moritz for peppery, sweet fuet sausage and bio-dynamic wines from Catalan’s prestigious Priorat region.

Dinner is officially in its fourth hour but there is still more stop yet: to Barra for a glass of jerez and a small plate of Spanish butter cake with lime basil ice cream – yes, tapas for the dessert course, too.
“Más vale ir bien comido que bien vestido.”
Translation: It’s better to go well fed than well dressed.

Some Barcelonians really take this one to heart – but no one more than the city’s infamous Elephant Man. As the face – and phallus – of the city’s liberal slant, this gentleman doesn’t dress to impress – in fact, he doesn’t dress at all. It’s said that the Elephant Man sports tattooed elephant ears on his stomach and tusks on his legs – the trunk is his junk in all its dangling glory, of course – but it’s difficult to verify this. (Google at your own peril.)

If Singapore is a dress shirt, starched and buttoned up to the neck, Barcelona is a butterfly-collared number, open to the navel. You can still find public nudity  – even cycling ones (wince) – even though it was officially banned in 2011. Marijuana is legal in small amounts, and public drinking is widely tolerated. And castells, those backbreaking human towers built in town squares without any wires or safety apparatus of any kind – you’ll find them here too.

As the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona is a city of fiercely nationalist people. Catalonia has its own history, and its own language; calls for independence from Spain grow louder every year. The topic is highly controversial among Spaniards, so if you happen across an illustration of a donkey, Catalonia’s symbol, doing indecent things to a bull, don’t ask about it unless you’re prepared for an impassioned discussion about politics.
“Arroz que no se menea, se quema.”
Translation: Rice that is not stirred will burn.

Spain’s phrase urging activity and dissuading sloth doesn’t apply to a good plate of paella. A stirred paella will never form the socarrat, that beloved layer of toasted, caramalised rice at the bottom of the pan. Paella is serious business here (though not nearly as serious as in Valencia), and it comes with its own set of rules. First, never order paella on Las Ramblas, the mega shopping thoroughfare and tourist magnet. (In fact, never order anything on Las Ramblas – not a beer, not an ice cream, nothing – if you care about quality in the very least.) Second, never eat at a restaurant that serves paella for one – proper preparation requires a portion for at least two. Third, never order paella that is ready in less than 20 minutes. If so, you can be sure you’re getting a reheated dish.

Eating “paella at the port” is up there with photo pinching the top of the Taj Mahal and kissing the Blarney Stone. The neighbourhood of Barceloneta, with its matchstick-thin streets and seaside restaurants, draws in the tourists – and for good reason. An afternoon at La Gavina sipping cava by the Mediterranean Sea over shrimp carpaccio, calamari en beignets and a paella aux fruits de mer, and you won’t even care that the city’s best paella is cooking in Barcelona’s less picturesque backstreets.
Comer y rascar, todo es empezar.”
Translation: In matters of eating and scratching, it’s all a matter of getting started.

Spain lays claim to some of the world’s best restaurants – El Celler de Can Roca, Mugaritz and Arzak to name a few – but you don’t have to mortgage the farm to get a good meal in this country. For instance, I’m half way through one of the best meals of the trip, straight from the parchment paper it came on. No maître d’, no Michelin stars – just me and my pastry on a roadside curb outside Horno La Santiaguesa panaderia in Madrid.

I’m taking all meals on the go today; churros and chocolate for breakfast and a build-your-own bocadillo picnic with jamón ibérico de bellota – the famous cured meat cut from acorn-eating, free-range Iberian pigs – in Parque Del Retiro for lunch.

Tomorrow I’ll return to the restaurant circuit – to the remarkable Zerain for a Basque-style piquillo pepper tortilla bacalao (red pepper cod omelette) and a tender chuletón (T-bone) steak and to the Sol Mayor for suckling pig in the touristy Plaza Mayor.
“Come poco y cena temprano si quieres llegar a anciano.”
Translation: Eat a small and early dinner if you want to get old.

Apparently no one in Spain wants to get old. I haven’t come across anyone who believes it normal to begin dinner before 9pm. What’s a jet-lagged tourist to do? Chase a siesta with a double shot of café cortado and throw portion-control out the window, I suppose.
“A comer, beber, bailar y gozar que el mundo se va acabar.”
Translation: Eat, drink and enjoy, for tomorrow the world will end.

Or in English –  “Life is short, and then you die.” I prefer the Spanish version though – their way encourages me to eat crèma catalana (a crème brulee-esque dish) and mel i mato (a Catalan cheese and honey dessert) before I kick the bucket. Speaking of death, it’s 43 degrees Celsius today in Seville. People aren’t sitting by the water fountains; they are dunking their heads in them.

It’s mid-afternoon and the hottest part of the day has hit, so I divert down a back alley and stumble upon Casa Morales, a dark and ageing restaurant with the best salmorejo (an Andalusian tomato bread dip), pisto (Spain’s version of ratatouille) and pringa (roasted beef and chorizo) thus far. What a find. Who could have guessed? Only me. Oh, and Frommer’s. And apparently Lonely Planet. And – sigh – a group of tourists on a tapas tour that just marched in.

I’m meeting an acquaintance named Javier for lunch at Casa Robles. It’s his favourite spot in town – mainly because of the revuelto de matanza, a punchy dish of scrambled eggs, potatoes and chorizo. I suggest a bowl of garbanzo beans and lentils, too. “If you eat a plate of lentils in this heat, you’ll die!” he says. Uh oh – there’s that link to food and death again. I better let him do the ordering.

Where to Stay:

Barcelona: Neri Hotel & Restaurante is a Relais & Chateau boutique hotel in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter that matches a superb location with equally impressive interior décor and gastronomy. The hotel is located off of Plaça Sant Felip Neri, a quiet, shady square that has seen everything firing squads during the Spanish Civil War to shoots for films like Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Madrid: Opening in 1912, the 467-roomed Westin Palace, Madrid is blocks from Madrid’s three most renowned art museums – the Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza – and two minutes from notable tapas restaurant, Estado Puro. The elegant yet comfortable rooms feature original mahogany doors, soundproof walls and marble bathrooms. The hotel has hosted everyone from Bowie and Brando to Einstein and the King of Pop. Sunday Opera brunches feature live opera performances, perhaps in a nod to Luciano Pavarotti, once a regular guest of the hotel who was known to belt out a few morning notes from his balcony – in his bathrobe.

Seville: Built to house dignitaries for the 1929 Ibero-American Exhibition, the Neo-Mudejar Hotel Alfonso XIII is a destination unto itself. The hotel pays homage to the city’s heritage with rooms in three different styles – Moorish, Castalian and Andalusian – and a lobby replete with intricate hand-painted Triana tiles, sweeping arches and geometric designs. The history of the building is laid out in a special wing alongside photographs of world leaders that have graced its halls. The hotel is part of The Luxury Collection, a group of 75 properties around the world that combine local history, architecture and interior décor with unparalleled service and amenities.


Also recommended:
Barcelona’s Spanish Trails for tapas, wine and gourmet food tours as well as day trips and bespoke adventures.