Dust, sweat, rain, and severe sun – these were only a few of the many discomforts that travelers of yore suffered as they made the long journey in horse-drawn carriages from their home provinces to Barcelona.
In those days – around a century or two ago – the city was protected by fortified walls; it was outside of those walls, in an area known as Hostafrancs, part of the Santa Maria de Sants village (today the neighborhood of Sants), that many travelers and merchants found a convenient refuge – a place to recover from the journey. Taverna La Parra was one of the several inns that dotted the area.
That old inn is still providing refuge today: it’s now the site of a warm, rustic tavern, a place where the comforting aura of wood smoke emanates from the grill and an old climbing vine shades the patio against the sun. Yet rather than beds, Taverna La Parra now offers up authentic Catalan cuisine made with local products.
The kitchen is led by head chef José Martínez, who also happens to be the oldest employee of La Parra: he grew up in the neighborhood and began working as an errand boy at the tavern in 1982, the year that current owner Carlos Gil Isern bought the property. Over the years, José worked his way up to his current position and now works closely with Darío, an Argentinean who is (appropriately) in charge of the grill, and Xavi, who manages the room.
According to José, people used to come to the inn on their way to visiting the nearby Mercat de Hostafrancs, a vegetable market; La Vinyeta, the local slaughterhouse; or Barcelona city. “They used to stop here, feed and clean the horses, eat, sleep, wash themselves and change their clothes – only then would they go into Barcelona,” he says. “They didn’t wear the same clothes to get into the city that they wore to make the trip.” Most of the journeys took days, he adds, and the carriages traveled over dusty roads.
Inside the wood-and-stone space, José shows us a compilation of old photos. He points to a 1929 picture of a woman surrounded by children, standing in front of the same door that today welcomes the restaurant’s clients. Anna’s her name and she was the mestressa, or inn owner. José tell us how her husband was a sailor, famous in the neighborhood for his joviality; when he wasn’t at sea, he would play the accordion and entertain the neighborhood kids.
After the inn closed, its dining room, initially still connected to the upper floors by a flight of stairs, remained open. Carlos bought the property in 1982 and renovated it. He added some upgrades, such as replacing the old well with toilets, and incorporated some historic touches, like the old cash register (still marked in pesetas) and their fantastic grill. But he kept a number of original details: the floor, the marble bar, the counter that was made by placing an old door over an antique wooden fridge, shelves, wall tiles and the patio with its iconic century-old climbing vine plant.
“We try to buy Km 0, or almost, how do you say it, proximity products,” he says.
One of the reasons why Carlos made these improvements was to breath new life into the menu – he wanted to expand beyond cold cuts, cheeses, toasted bread with tomato, and sangria. Nowadays the tavern serves up traditional Catalan recipes, from escudella (Catalan soup) and cap i pota (a stew made of calf’s head and leg) to Catalan canelons and the iconic seques (beans) with Catalan butifarró (sausage).
“We try to work mostly with the Hostafrancs market [the closest municipal market] – they are our main providers,” José explains. They are sometimes forced to go to other markets, like La Boquería and the local farmer’s section of Mercabarna, a massive wholesale market, for fish and a few other products. But the focus is always on local, seasonal cuisine. “We try to buy Km 0, or almost, how do you say it, proximity products,” he says, referring to the practice of buying as local as possible, i.e. food that has traveled zero kilometers.
“We have a lot seasonal products like calçots, mushrooms, artichokes. Also our chicken is organic, the lamb is halal, and the beef comes from the Catalan pastures in the northern Girona province,” he continues. “If we don’t have these products we prefer to say no to a client rather than go and out buy something else. At a minimum, chicken has to be organic; if not, it doesn’t taste like chicken. When you offer a product that is just grilled, not dressed with any sauce, it is very important to choose a good one.”
The bread that they serve – farmer’s bread and coca de vidre, on which they rub tomato – is also local, bought daily from their neighborhood bakery. The olive oil is a high-quality Catalan EVOO that a small producer makes from Arbequina olives.
Some of their best dishes come from the grill, which is fired by a combination of oak, beech and charcoal. One of our favorites is the succulent costella catalana, or grilled Catalan rib – this rib of veal from Girona is so large that it’s usually enough for two or three people. There’s also beef, pork, lamb or rabbit, all prepared on the grill and best paired with a side of their mushrooms.
But every season the hand-written menu is full of interesting specialties, including stews, seafood, wild fish and special seasonal recipes like figs and duck ham, and lamb leg with plums and mushrooms.
The traditional desserts are house-made, and the wine selection is always carefully curated by Carlos, who shows a clear preference for local Catalan wine, mostly made by small producers. Their house wine is bulk Priorat and they produce their own vinegar, which is aged for six months. These are kept in wooden barrels that populate the room.
Carlos also makes his own liqueurs, which are quite popular. We imagine that when the tavern closes at midnight, after all the costumers leave with the flavor of Carlos’ ratafia on their lips, the echo of the accordion played by maestressa Ana’s joyful husband still reverberates through the tavern’s walls.