It turns out that, in Barcelona, 2019 was a year highlighted by great things that came in small packages, like pint-sized restaurants and simple, sometimes tiny products that nevertheless were a fantastic source of pleasure.
But underlining all of these great, small things was a more fundamental element: their deep connections to people (producers and cooks) and place (a specific territory, the environment, life around it). This is the true greatness of food – things of such a large magnitude can be contained in a little corner bar, in a recipe of four ingredients, in a chocolate ball, a piece of bread, a tiny clam.
I’m hustling across the Boquería Market, moving as quickly as I can to Carrer de les Cabres (“Street of the Goats”), weaving past wandering tourists and clients chatting with vendors. There’s a stool waiting for me at Direkte Boquería, a former food stall in the corner of a portico that has morphed into one of the smallest and most interesting restaurants in Barcelona. It’s the first lunch shift, and I’m a bit late. When I finally arrive, the kitchen team and seven other eaters are waiting for me to start the show. We all discretely turn on our cellphone cameras. Behind the bar, chef-owner Arnau Muñío works with his colleague Shu Zhang to perform a precise culinary choreography in a tight space.
At any one time, there are two different tasting menus; both feature spectacular Catalan-Asian recipes made with local ingredients and served on beautiful small plates. It’s hard to pick a favorite when so many pearls dropped from their hands onto our plates on that February day, but we were most taken with the delicate and tender Maresme peas with strips of squid and small chunks of pancetta. It’s a subtle redesign of a classic Catalan surf-and-turf dish, but an extremely seasonal take due to the short window for early Maresme peas, the smallest and thus the most precious ones. This green “caviar” came in a bowl with two white pieces of squid that have been lightly touched by the torch and a couple cubes of rich pancetta, which together offer a brawny counterbalance to the sweet fragility of the peas. Reservations are required, and learn from my mistake – don’t show up late.
Rain, wind, misty estuaries, cold ocean water, hard work, sandbanks, tide timetables, legendary sunsets, the end of the world – all these and more are contained in the small shells of the prized Galician clams that are harvested along the Rías Baixas coastline in northwestern Spain. We learned more about this process in 2019, visiting Maria Xosé and Flora, who were very friendly and spoke with pride about their work as mariscadoras (seafood catchers). The atmosphere that day was charged: A hail shower was starting, the tide was about to rise, and they had to be quick because the daily collecting quota was almost met. Thousands of women like them work the Galician beaches, gathering clams, razor clams and cockles from the sand, seeding when necessary, and keeping the environment as clean as possible.
In 2019, we tasted many different clams dishes in fishermen villages like Vigo, Cangas, Cambados, Carril, Fisterra and Muxía. While there are four main clams varieties in Galicia, the best of the bunch is almeja fina, the grooved carpet shell clam, whose natural habitat is in Galicia. Moreover, they don’t need to be farmed, their meat is tender and tasty, and they last a long time out of water.
The most traditional recipe, almejas a la marinera, is a simple and satisfying way to prepare them. We put the clams in a pot with a bit of water, salt and a bay leaf, cooking them until they open. Then we stir-fry garlic and spring onion (the latter is optional), add a little bit of flour and paprika (also optional), stirring until it mixes evenly; pour in white wine; and cook until it reduces. Finally we add in the clams and parsley, as much or as little as we want on that day. These fantastic clams, with their delicate briny taste, are swimming in a luscious sauce and dressed with warm aromas. We like to wash all this down with a glass of good albariño or godello wine. A dish that’s so dependent on the product itself always tastes better when you can look out the window and take in the landscape where it originated, with its seagulls, fishing boats and waves. Like at A Castelara in Carril, a small, relaxed restaurant run by two sisters, Raquel and Tere Lijó Bouzas, with views of the sea and excellent local cuisine. In this way, eating clams in Galicia is a holistic dining experience.
From my perch at the marble table that separates Berbena’s kitchen from the small rectangular room with only six two-top tables, I can appreciate the subtle smell of the artisanal cheese selection directly in front of me, and the excellent coffee from Barcelona’s SlowMov specialty roasters to my right. I can also observe Carlos Pérez de Rozas, owner and head chef, coming and going, constantly on the move, pouring local craft pale ale in glasses, cleaning mushrooms, shaving cured meat, moving pans, composing beautiful plates, and cutting the bread they make on-site, served with one of the best butters – slightly smoked – in town. Berbena is all about the fundamentals, elevating basic ingredients and treating them like royalty.
While I always enjoy the homemade bread and butter, together with a glass of DosKiwis’ pale ale on tap, my favorite dish is the exquisite thinly sliced cecina (dried and cured beef) with celeriac carpaccio, touched by the grace of grated lemon and black pepper. It’s a very simple combination of four ingredients, made in accordance with the philosophy of the great chef Michel Bras: one main ingredient, one or two secondary ones and the last for the ñac, the final touch. The end result is a delicious combination of meat and vegetable, warm and fresh flavors, earthy and liquid textures. Why complicate things when simple can be so good?
Olivos Comida y Vinos
“We want a restaurant with a warm, kind ambiance, where you are not squeezed in next to other tables, where you are greeted with a smile and, moreover, where amazing food arrives at your table with rich flavors, announcing its complexity with fresh, seasonal, quality product,” says María Escobar, the room manager of Olivos Comida y Vinos. “We want a restaurant with generosity,” she adds. Escobar forms one half of the couple – the other half being Italian-Argentinian chef Ezequiel Devoto – behind this modestly sized restaurant with an open kitchen in the Sants neighborhood.
We can’t forget the succulent pluma ibérica – a cut of Iberian pork that’s close to the loin – we tasted here. The meat was delicately crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, full of flavor and juicy, and in perfect balance with the bed of smoked eggplant beneath it. Ingredients are not chosen haphazardly – in line with the generosity María mentioned, the team is always adapting and personalizing their creations based on what is popular with their customers. This creates a spontaneous connection between the table and the kitchen that flows both ways, bringing a unique element to every meal here.
The Catània is a caramelized almond coated in praline and cocoa powder. It sounds simple, but it’s so much more than its parts: crispy and creamy, with a subtle delicious aroma. Josep Cudié created the old-school praline in 1949 – it combines hazelnuts with almonds, cocoa butter and a secret ingredient. The praline forms the middle layer, surrounding a Marcona almond that has been candied, i.e. coated in browned, crunchy sugar; the outer layer consists of a bitter cocoa powder. A winning combination around which the Cudié family has built a successful business.
With their rounded simplicity, Catánies have become one the most iconic chocolates in Catalonia. They represent the chocolate tradition in Barcelona, the first Spanish port where cocoa arrived from Mexico in the 16th century and the site of the country’s first chocolate factory. Catànies may have a Mexican exterior, but their heart is all Mediterranean: Marcona almonds are famously cultivated throughout the region.
They are easy to find in bulk at Barcelona’s traditional patisseries, and many other gourmet groceries or specialized nut shops sell them in boxes. Currently the third generation of the Cudié family is in charge of the company and creating interesting new flavors and combinations based on the original formula. While Catánies may be increasing in variety, don’t be fooled by imitators: Many are out there, but none capture the same complex taste of those made by the Cudié family.
Pá de Pagés at Forn Mistral
Grabbing a mature and juicy red tomato (preferably the tomata de penjar variety) and squeezing it against a slice of fresh bread, spreading the fruit’s juice and seeds all around until only the skin is left – for me, this simple gesture is pure sexy hedonism. Pour some high-quality early harvested extra virgin olive oil, perhaps from Arbequina olives, on top, and then pair with a glass of wine (local of course) and a bit of cheese, and you’ve got the perfect Mediterranean trinity.
The best bread for this particular bite is Pa de Pagès (“farm bread”), and the best Pá de Pagés in Catalonia can be found at Forn Mistral managed by Andreu Bertran, a fifth-generation baker. A large rustic sourdough loaf, Pá de Pagès is made all over Catalonia. Mireia Font describes it best in her piece for CB: “Catalan farm bread is round with a thick, crunchy and toasted crust and a white and tender crumb dotted with large uneven holes. The folds of the dough are on the top part of the bread, giving the loaf a rustic appearance. It is made of wheat and rye flours, water, salt and natural yeast, giving it a great aroma and a tasty flavor with subtle hints of acidity. Thanks to its sponginess, it is also the perfect bread to dip in traditional stews and sauces.”
The Catalans fought and started revolutions for bread. Nowadays, at a time of excessive consumption and unsustainable industrial food production, sticking to the basics is a political statement. Plus, good bread is always worth it.