In Barcelona, Valentine’s Day is no big deal. On the other hand, on April 23, you had better remember to buy a flower for your sweetheart. La Diada de Sant Jordi is one of the most important holidays in Catalonia, honoring its patron Saint George. The Catalan tradition – inspired by the legend of Saint George’s chivalrous slaying of a dragon to save a princess – is for men to buy roses for women and, in return, for women to buy books for men. These days, however, thanks to the modern realization that both sexes have intellectual prowess, most women in Barcelona now receive books from their partners as well as roses.
In the days leading up to Sant Jordi, numerous temporary book and flower stalls start lining the streets; more curiously, the display cases of panaderías (bakeries) throughout the city are filled with an unusual treat: bread striped with the bright yellow and red of the Catalan flag, the famous pa de Sant Jordi. Due to the undeniably vivid hues of this bread, it would be fair to assume that Barcelona’s bakers had taken great liberties with red and yellow food coloring. Surprisingly, the colors in the bread come from completely natural ingredients, with the stripes being formed by layering different kinds of savory dough. The red dough contains Mallorcan sobrassada, a sausage flavored with pimentón, the Spanish paprika that gives the dough its reddish color. The yellow dough is made using Emmental cheese, and a third dough, made with walnuts, forms the outer crust of the bread.
As culinary traditions go, pa de Sant Jordi is relatively new. The bread was created in 1988 by master baker Eduard Crespo, the third-generation owner of La Fleca Balmes. Crespo has developed several innovative bread recipes over the years but pa de Sant Jordi is undoubtedly the most successful. To ensure that the quality of the bread remains high, Crespo even had the recipe copyrighted, so that any bakery selling “pa de Sant Jordi” is required to use a fixed set of ingredients and proportions in its preparation.
Wanting to see Crespo recreate his tasty invention, we recently found ourselves standing in the floury nerve center of La Fleca Balmes, the tangy scent of sobrassada infusing the sweet, yeast-filled air. We watched as Crespo rolled out huge rectangles of dough, cut them into strips, stacked them on top of each other, wrapped the stacks in more dough, and then sliced them into little slabs. The pink-red streaks of sobrassada made each roll look like a cross between a cartoon pork chop and a cinnamon roll. After the bread was baked, we bit into some warm slices, which were crusty and nutty on the outside and soft and flavorsome on the inside. We reflected that there really are few things in life as pleasing as cheesy bread and that adding the piquant flavor of sobrassada into the mix takes the pleasure to a whole new level.
Pa de Sant Jordi may be the new-kid-on-the-block of culinary traditions in Barcelona, but in a relatively short time, it’s been accepted by nearly everyone as a genuine part of the holiday, the patriotically colored bread now a ubiquitous presence in bakeries throughout the city come April 23. Because the recipe for the bread is protected by the Gremi de Flequers (Bakers Guild) of Barcelona – meaning that any place selling it must use the original recipe and also be a member of the guild – you can be assured that it will be delicious wherever you buy it. Nonetheless, we have a few favorite spots that offer not only a good loaf of red-and-yellow striped bread but an excellent ambiance as well.
La Fleca Balmes
Clearly you can’t go wrong if you buy pa de Sant Jordi from the man who invented it. You’ll find him here at his bakery in the Eixample, which was started by his grandfather in 1908. We’re also partial to his yummy carrot and ground almond cake.
This bakery in Barceloneta offers some 40 different delicious varieties of bread, all made with additive-free flour and a natural sourdough starter. Although all of the bread is excellent, we’re secretly partial to their croissants. Bakeries in Spain have an unfortunate tendency to produce flavorless croissants made with lard or other fats rather than butter; to add insult to injury, they also often top the pastries with a sugary glaze. The croissants at Baluard, however, are the real deal and so is the pa de Sant Jordi.
Foix de Sarrià
One of Barcelona’s oldest and best pastry shops, with two locations in the city’s upscale Sarrià neighborhood, Foix de Sarrià was founded in 1886 by the parents of famous Catalan poet J. V. Foix (1893-1987). During the early years of the Franco dictatorship, Foix stopped writing and took over the bakery himself, figuring (probably rightly so) that it was less controversial to make pastries than to write poems. In addition to the authentic pa de Sant Jordi, we highly recommend the petxines de Sarrià, small, chocolate-covered madeleines considered emblematic of the neighborhood.