Exploring the Flavors of Barcelona

It turns out that I eat bread and tomatoes as frequently as I take my allergy medicine: almost every day. Thanks to Vassar’s Cornelisen Fellowship for language study abroad, I am lucky enough to be spending these next two months in Barcelona, bestowing upon me easy access to the Spanish classic pan con tomate and many other delightful dining experiences. I believe one of the most exciting parts about traveling is the opportunity to literally get a taste of another culture. Thus, I am attempting to maximize my eating experiences here—each new meal is a chance to discover new flavors and textures. Due to the creative kitchen of my host family, my gustatory adventures stem from two distinct portals into Spanish cuisine: homemade meals and restaurant fare. 

Here is a sampling of some of my favorite food experiences thus far:

Pan con Tomate

A restaurant iteration from Tarragona

As I mentioned earlier, this simple dish is a Spanish classic. In Barcelona, and in the rest of the Catalonia region, pan con tomate is made by rubbing garlic and freshly cut tomatoes on toasted bread, drizzling it with a healthy dose of olive oil, and finally topping it off with a sprinkling of salt. So easy, yet so delicious!

Patatas Bravas

From La Peninsular, a small restaurant in Barcelona

Another classic! What makes these fried potatoes special is the flavorful sauce that crowns the pile of golden potatoes. Each restaurant has a different version, often including both a creamy aioli and a tomato-based (potentially spicy) concoction. I suppose one could characterize the dish as upscale Spanish french fries with ketchup.

Crema Catalana

From Cafè de l’Òpera in Barcelona

This is quite similar to its better-known French counterpart, crème brulee. As with crème brulee, this decadent dessert offers a lovely contrast of textures between the smooth and creamy custard and the crunchy caramelized sugar on top. When I ordered it, our waiter completed the dish’s dark outer crust right at our table with a blowtorch. Quite a dramatic presentation!

Tortilla Española

From Cerverceria Catalana in Barcelona

Also referred to as tortilla de patatas and known in English tongues as the Spanish omelette, this egg dish is traditionally composed of potatoes and onions, but also allows for exciting variation. I had a delicious version featuring artichokes. The dish reminds me of a frittata, another rich mixture of egg that bursts with assorted fillings.

Fideo

From my host family’s kitchen

These small noodles are like pasta and can be used in various types of dishes. In truth, fideo is simply the Spanish word for “noodle,” and could be used to refer to longer noodles as well. But in Spain, fideo generally signifies short noodles of a thickness similar to vermicelli pasta. Here, my host family served them with a veggie-filled tomato sauce.

Churros con Chocolate

From Cafè de l’Òpera in Barcelona

Another sweet treat popular throughout Spain. Who can say no to fried dough? The ridges of the churros are perfect for holding the hot chocolate that accompanies them, which is known as chocolate suizo. It may be served in a teacup, but this is not your average hot chocolate–it’s richer, thicker, and intensely chocolatey, rather than overwhelmingly sweet.

Seafood

From Cafè de l’Òpera, Tapas 24, and La Peninsular, all restaurants in Barcelona

Barcelona is a coastal city, so there is plenty of seafood ready for the tasting. Featured here are three versions of calamari: thick rings, a tapa-sized sandwich, and lightly battered Andalusian squid. Beyond the calamari, there is a mountain of other offerings, including the mussels pictured above. They were delicious, each a pearl of melt-in-your mouth goodness, complemented beautifully by a wine and garlic sauce.

Fried Squash Blossoms and Falafel

From my host family’s kitchen

My host family has a deep fryer and knows how to use it well. Although outside the usual Spanish fare, these homemade bites are some of my favorite eating experiences! The squash flowers are filled with cheese before being lightly battered and fried. Falafel, the chickpea-based fritters commonly found in Mediterranean cuisine, is one of my favorite all-time foods. Needless to say, I was enchanted to try a homemade version.

Pinxtos/Pinchos

From Euskal Extea and Txapela, both restaurants in Barcelona

These fun, bite-sized creations are actually native to Basque Country, northwest of Catalonia. With pinxtos, there are lots of possibilities for experimentation, but many feature a slice of bread topped with fish, meat or Spanish tortilla. Toothpicks are essential, as they function not only to hold everything together, but also to calculate the cost; traditional pinxtos bars count each diner’s toothpicks to determine how much each patron owes.

Escalivada

From La Peninsular in Barcelona

As a lover of vegetables, this is one of my favorite meals. A specialty of Catalonia, this dish features eggplant, peppers and onions, which are cooked with fire for maximum flavor. Pictured here is a restaurant version, but I’ve also tried an equally delicious homemade one prepared by my host family.

Cava (and cupcakes!)

From the Cava Cakery in Barcelona

Cava is the Spanish version of champagne; it is a sparkly alcoholic beverage that makes for aesthetically pleasing pictures. The cute shop pictured above pairs cava with colorful cupcakes. Featured here is a white cava with carrot cake and a pink cava with a strawberry chocolate cupcake.

Coca de San Joan

From Turri’s bakery in Barcelona

The summer holiday of San Joan is celebrated in Catalonia with fireworks, cava and coca. The traditional cocoa is a brioche slab studded with pine nuts and candied fruit, but there are many variants, including a more flaky pastry. Other possible toppings and fillings I’ve seen include chocolate, cream, crispy pork and walnuts. Pictured here is a brioche coca with sugary pine nuts and a flaky coca filled with chocolate and topped with pine nuts and sugar.

Paella

From my host family’s kitchen

Paella is not a Barcelona or Catalonia specialty, but is native to its neighboring region just below: Valencia. However, paella is in high demand among Barcelona tourists and can be found in countless restaurants throughout the city. I had the good fortune to help out my host family with a homemade paella, which featured seafood. Paella takes a long time to make, as the rice needs to absorb all the broth for optimal flavor sensation.

Gazpacho, cheese, olives (and more pan con tomate and Spanish tortilla!)

From my host family’s kitchen

A simple meal at home. Gazpacho is a cold, tomato-based soup that is perfectly refreshing for the warm Barcelona weather. Spain boasts a wide assortment of olives and its fair share of cheeses, both of which make for elegant appetizers or easy dinner accompaniments.

Fruit!

From the fruit shops of Barcelona

 As a proud resident of California’s agricultural wonderland, I am quite spoiled when it comes to accessing delicious, fresh fruit. Lucky for me, Spain shares the same climate and bountiful treasure chest of natural sweetness, and I am happily indulging in beautiful summer fruits—mellon, nectarines, cherries, peaches—every day. As I walk through the streets, the abundance of fruterias (small shops specifically selling fruits and vegetables) never fails to bring a smile to my face.

Wrap-up

Beyond the satisfaction of happy taste buds, my food experiences in Spain offer interesting lessons about the country. Regional specialties heighten my awareness of Spanish geography, while seasonal ingredients are a reminder of the climate. Culinary similarities to nearby France and Italy situate Spain in the broader European region. Each meal I eat is a reminder that food is more than just calories to consume, but an essential element of a country’s cultural identity. By sharing im  food, I connect with my host family and friends in Spain. My abroad experience couldn’t be without its carbs, fruits, and pastries.

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