I have always been intimidated by food. It began simply enough – peas, broccoli, mustard, your basic roster of edibles kids abhor. Whenever I tried something at a mostly-adult function (shrimp, Hollandaise, et al) I stocked my mental “won’t eat that” pantry until the proverbial door could barely close. Then at some point in my twenties I decided that probably meat and fish were unnecessary evils and they could probably hit the road, too. As I traveled more, experienced more, was too embarrassed on dates to pick through my food anymore, I slowly began to remove items from that mental pantry and decided being culinarily adventurous was actually kind of fun. And that I really like brussels sprouts (I still hate peas though).
So when a co-worker sent me a recent New York Times article about culinary tours in different parts of the world, featuring a blurb about a company called Culinary Backstreets that “can help you find…an array of ‘mom-and-pop shops that really matter to the neighborhood’ but don’t tend to be part of the cruise-ship circuit,” it caught my eye.
Because on a cruise was precisely where I was headed. My pre-cruise days in Barcelona were my opportunity to experience authentic cuisine in a country quite rightfully famous for their food. With little other plans on my 2-day itinerary, I willingly parted with €100 and a day of my time to spend it with this mysterious Culinary Backstreets to see what they could teach me about stuffing my face in Spain.
Per the email instructions, we met Paula outside a Deutsche Bank a block from the Passeig de Gracia metro stop on a bustling, warm Wednesday morning – a day I would later title in my travel journal “the day of epicurean greatness.” Solo trekker Alan (hi, Alan!) and I were the two lone wolves with which our lovely guide would be tasked with navigating the cobblestone streets in search of tasty treasures. Tardy and breathless, our guide Paula was so apologetic and sweet for leaving us to wonder whether we’d signed up for a non-event, and between her kindness and our relief at her appearance we perhaps even more eagerly set out, stomachs growling and ready (hopefully) for whatever would befall them that day.
A day that begins with churros and chocolate bodes well, at least in my mind. Our first stop was a small shop where we were served small, steaming hot churros rolled in sugar crystals which we dipped into a styrofoam cup of dripping dark chocolate – it was more delicious and indulgent than it could ever sound. It was a quick bite, however, serving only to hold us over for a few minutes until we reached La Calmera, one of the oldest bakeries in Barcelona. We relaxed at a table and Paula rattled off a quick order to the proprietors, who quickly came over with a plate of “gypsy arm,” a traditional Catalan dessert that is essentially a creamy, lemon-tinged custard rolled between thin, spongy dough and topped with caramelized sugar of the creme brulee kind you’d crack with a fork. It was sweetness overload but also too good to pass up. We finished it off with almond nougat, a specialty, accompanied by a “short coffee” – espresso.
Wired. Sugar high. I supposed it was a fair combo to prepare us mentally for the onslaught of oddities that awaited. A brisk walk prepped our bodies for a savory banquet at La Pubilla, one of Barcelona’s trendiest famous spots that offered “traditional food with a modern touch.” Paula rattled off an order again in her melodic Catalonian and we three delved into a vibrant discussion about her life growing up in the farmlands of western Spain, customs, culinary tradition and the realities of the origins of our food (animals in Europe, as finely-raised as they are, are food. Not pets. Something evidently children in Spain learn early on). Plopped down in front of us was a combination of food I would normally have hoped only to see as scraps fallen into the garbage disposal, but to my horror and delight found myself savoring and enjoying more with each bite. Terrine of pig snout and feet, chopped up with caramelized onion, crisped on the outside and served over soft white beans, and fried egg with a runny yolk which we broke and used bread to soak up, spreading over it soppressata and sweet rosemary honey, a Mallorcan dish. I questioned nothing and instead let the flavors swirl around in my mouth, a symphony of sweet, salty, savory, crunchy, soft and creamy.
I pretty much felt I could take on anything at this point. Aside from perhaps pigeon in Morocco, it was by far the strangest thing I’ve ever ingested. And it was about to get even weirder.
And more awesome. Our next stop took us to one of the large indoor markets, which carried everything from some CRACKERS-looking fish to fresh fruit and vegetables, barrels of nuts, spices and beans and of course meats and cheeses, which was our main stop (cheers for charcuteries!) Paula ordered a tray of sliced sausages and small chunks of cheese, the most notable of which was butifarra, a common white-ish colored sausage with a hearty flavor. There was also blood sausage, white cured and a couple kinds of goat cheese, which was creamy and not nearly as pungent as the kind you find here in the US.
After gawking and gazing our way through the market it was time to cleanse our palette with – what else? – chocolate! It was a quick stop, to pick up some chocolate and nougat-covered almonds for snack later, but long enough to admire the intricate, exquisite chocolate creations lining the shelves and counters of the tiny shop. Onward we went – to Cal Boter, for a full lunch this time. We experimented drinking house wine out of the most complicated decanter ever (miraculously spilling no precious wine!) and chowed down on sliced onion drenched in olive oil with olives and pepper, salad of escarole, anchovy, red pepper, preserved cod (soo….uncooked, except in salt), tuna, olives and romesco sauce and finally a piping hot tin plate chock full of snails, served with 2 dipping sauces. It was as if someone had plucked them straight from a garden.
The snails proved challenging in more than a culinary fashion – they were a lot of work to consume. One has to take a toothpick, hook the tip of the meat, pull it partway out and cut it off from the gelatinous part you probably do NOT want to eat by using your thumbnail and the edge of the shell to slice off the meaty part. Chewy, but with the aioli, tomato and herb dipping sauce, altogether not so bad. The wine was young and housemade, poured from giant barrels teetering over the bar. Paula explained that in some places, like this one, you can bring in a bottle of your own and for €2 or so, have it filled from the barrel and be on your way. COOL!
Next came a flurry of pit stops and a cascade of varying flavors and liquids – a tiny bar for glasses of vermouth (delicious sweet wine flavored with herbs and spices) which we tamed with a spritz of soda water, served alongside snacks of cured tuna and cubes of cheese; next, a dairy shop with only milks, cheeses and yogurts for sale, where we bought 2 small cups of what looked like cottage cheese but was actually just…some type of yogurt. Paula whipped out a giant squeeze bottle of rosemary honey, poured a generous serving over the top of each cup and handed them to Alan and I, who ate them with varying levels of enthusiasm (Alan much, me not so much – it’s a texture thing). The taste was mild and very sweet with the delicious honey oozing down into the depths of the cup. We took it to go to the next place – to-go cups of Spanish horchata, which is thin and watery but refreshing and sweet like a healthy almond vanilla milkshake!
Our final stop was a tiny bodega we’d passed earlier, filled top to bottom with wine and liquor bottles for sale. We ordered tall glasses of sparkling cava and spent a good long time sipping, chatting, munching on the chocolate candies we’d bought earlier (which paired just marvelously with the cava!) and told stories of our families, homes and travels like old friends.
At last our day together was over – we walked back to our original meeting point and said our farewells. My travels lasted another 2 1/2 weeks beyond that day, and perhaps not one of them played in my mind as vividly and tastily as that epicurean adventure around the winding streets of Barcelona. Cheers to you, Culinary Backstreets – you showed me authentic Catalonia.Culinary Backstreets is also available in Istanbul, Shanghai, Athens, Rio de Janeiro & Mexico City. http://www.culinarybackstreets.com/ If you go on the Barcelona tour, there’s also a special historical surprise that awaits you – but you’ll have to take the tour to find out ; )