By Rosie McKechnie
I think I’ve discovered the reason why Barcelona’s fantastic eateries stay open all hours – the food is so good people just keep coming back for more.
Well, that’s my excuse anyway. Maybe it’s just as well we only pop into the city for the occasional day trip from our holiday base further along the Costa Dorada. Otherwise I could have trouble squeezing into my seat for the flight home.
Of course there’s more to Barcelona than the food. The architecture is stunning, from Gaudi’s fairytale innovations to Montaner’s Casa Lleo Morera. The sightseeing is jam-packed, with the medieval streets of the Barri Gotic, the Picasso museum and a clutch of contemporary galleries. Even the shopping is unbeatable. But for my money, I can’t get enough of the food.
My favourite start to the day is a caffeine and sugar fix amid the hustle and bustle of a busy café, with a steaming cup of coffee and churros con chocolate, delicious doughnut strips.
Then before it’s even digested, it’s time to start thinking about lunch. For a picnic in the colourful Parc Guell, alongside Gaudi’s glittering mosaics and gingerbread houses, there’s only one place to go to stock up.
Built on the site of a former convent, La Boqueria is the glorious food market which sits on the side of the Ramblas, the long street running through the centre of the city where everyone congregates.
It’s always packed, with tourists clicking cameras, oohing and aahing over the groaning foodstalls, and locals doing their daily shopping, arms laden with bags.
It’s easy to get carried away and buy as much food as you can carry from the stalls at the entrance. Shop around before you buy and have a good wander round, further back inside there’s more choice and cheaper prices. And places for a much-needed pit stop.
It’s easy to forget about a picnic as we wonder how many different varieties of herbs, spices and cheeses we can squeeze into our bags to take home, so we have a coffee at one of the stand-up snack bars. It’s the perfect excuse to take time out and watch the hive of daily activity in the marketplace.
Mountains of round yellow cheeses are stacked up on one counter, precariously balanced next to neat rows of long, fat chorizo sausages and huge hanging hams. Round the corner, endless pots of spices battle for sensory overload against neatly tied bunches of basil, coriander and mint.
And then there’s the fish, from dried salt cod and pre-cooked blue crabs (perfect for our picnic) to fresh tuna, langoustines and lobster, all laid out on slabs of ice. Then the explosion of colour from the fruit and vegetable stalls, with everything from brightly coloured papayas and pomegranates to pineapples and bananas.
Shopping at my local supermarket at home has never been such a feast for the taste buds.
Brightly painted ceramics and deli foodie buys make lovely gifts to take home and for fashion fans, the designer boutiques and endless shoe stores of La Ribera are a must.
Then we have a drink and plan the evening ahead. From the dark, candle-lit bodegas which sell locally-produced wines to the achingly chic designer tapas bars, there is, literally, something for every taste and budget.
The joy of it all is throwing away the guidebook and wandering the narrow cobbled alleyways of the Barri Gotic, La Ribera and El Born, stumbling across great places as you go.
Tapas isn’t particularly Catalan, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of bars selling tasty bites to soak up the drinks. We sample the delights of Basque-style tapas in a xampanyeria, bite-size slices of baguette piled with cured meats, cheese and fish, all held together with a cocktail stick. Washed down with a couple of glasses of cava, it’s the perfect way to start the night.
With stomachs yawning, we set off in search of some traditional Catalan food. Chicken, olive oil and plenty of garlic are the mainstays of local cooking, but we’ve heard about the amazing paella to be found in Barcelona and don’t feel we can go home without trying it.
Recommendations come from locals and fellow tourists alike. But it’s a restaurant proposed by, what else, a fellow restaurateur in the know, which hits the spot.
We follow his directions through the back streets of El Born to La Ribera, down towards the harbour to find the traditional Spanish eatery. Crystal chandeliers glint above the tables and waiters clad in pristine white aprons, tied at the waist and skirting the floor, effortlessly glide across the panelled dining room.
The paella is perfect … pork, chicken, mussels and prawns mixed with onions and peppers and cooked in delicately fragranced saffron rice with plenty of garlic and herbs. And the socarrat savoury crust passes the crunch test with flying colours.
The crème caramel pudding which follows might not be much of a healthy option, with a caramelised sugar coating, but who cares about calorie counting when you’re on holiday?