From my home in woodsy New Hampshire, memories of Barcelona's Gothic Quarter always seem cast with a golden glow. It's evocative and mysterious, a place where narrow, mazelike streets wind between stone buildings, and laundry and Catalan separatist flags hang from tiny balconies. Boys kick a soccer ball in an alley, and trees heavy with oranges grow next to the gothic Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi. There are ancient Roman walls, ruins of the Temple of Augustus and a Viceroy's Palace with ivy-covered columns in a sunlit Renaissance courtyard. Inside the imposing cathedral, 13 white geese wander the medieval cloisters to remember Saint Eulalia, a martyred 13-year-old girl.
And of course, there are churros — also golden — crispy, sugary and hot. Never forget the churros.
In fact, my husband, Brian, daughter Chloe and I prioritized churros — and food in general — during our four-night April stay in Barcelona, shamelessly skipping must-visit sites like Antoni Gaudí's unfinished Modernisme masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia basilica, in favor of culinary endeavors.
We scouted out briny, meaty gooseneck barnacles at La Boqueria Market; haunted the Jewish Quarter El Call in search of a certain restaurant known for its cheap and tasty local wines; savored a sweet slice of blood-red cake, festooned with icing roses, to celebrate the city's annual Saint George's Day; and wandered the stalls at a neighborhood farmers market in tucked-away Placa del Pi sampling local cheese, honey and wine. We happily soaked up the culture of Catalonia — the autonomous Spanish region of which Barcelona is the capital — with its food and drink.
But our trip's gastronomic zenith was the nearly five-hour Gotico Brunch Tour with Barcelona Food Tour guide Kaye Pineda, a Barcelonan by way of London who led us through the Barri Gotic with an effervescent enthusiasm for everything we tasted.
Of course, Spain is known for its tapas, wine and late-night dinners, so the idea of "brunch" in Barcelona might seem incongruous. But Kaye assured us that we'd get an authentic taste — and sip — of Barcelona, no matter the time of day.
"Don't worry, just because it's brunch doesn't mean there won't be any alcohol. It is Spain," she joked as we met in late morning outside of the 168-year-old bakery La Colmena.
She welcomed us by passing around a bag of tiny, sugarcoated and anise-flavored doughnuts called bunyols de quaresma, which are popular among Catalans during Lent, before heading around the corner for a cortado — one shot each of espresso and milk. Our group of nine walked and ate, passing through Placa del Rei, said to be where Christopher Columbus met King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella when he returned home to Spain from the New World; stopping inside the sun-dappled courtyard of the Viceroy's Palace; and gazing up at strange gargoyles, such as an elephant and unicorn, jutting from the edge of the Barcelona Cathedral. Kaye sprinkled the tour with bites of information about the area's history and architecture, but never strayed too far from food.
The sweets-heavy morning continued with a stop at a candy shop to sample torro — a soft nougat made with egg whites, honey and almonds, which Kaye always brings home for family in England at Christmas. And next, churros and hot chocolate, or xurros amb xocolata, as it's spelled in the Catalan language.
We packed into a tiny xurreria, watching a white-jacketed cook behind the counter extruding churro batter into a deep vat of scalding-hot fry oil. He let the churros sizzle until they were crispy and golden, then scooped them into paper bags along with a generous coating of granulated sugar. Grease stained the bags as we carried the hot churros next door to La Granja, where we ordered mugs of thick, bittersweet chocolate and sat at tables topped with white marble, dipping our churros into the hot chocolate.
La Granja, which opened in 1872, felt profoundly Old World with its narrow dining space, dim lighting, uneven ceilings, exposed brick and stone walls, one of which is ancient Roman. I'll never get over how casually and unexpectedly the ancient world pops up in modern life across Europe.
After the sweets, it was onto the savory at Oroliquido, a sleek-looking olive oil boutique, where we sampled peppery, first-extraction oils that burned our throats — a mark of quality, said owner Ana Segovia.
"Our idea at the shop is to show you that olive oil is not just a fat that you cook with, but is a beautiful juice that to us is liquid gold," she said.
Up next: Meat! Specifically, jamón, Spain's famous dry-cured ham, at Enrique Tomás, where we shared plates of Catalan sausage called fuet, chorizo, lomo, cheeses and thinly sliced, ultra-premium (not to mention pricey and highly regulated) jamón Ibérico, made from pampered, acorn-fed pigs raised on the Iberian Peninsula. We washed the salty, fatty, spicy meats down with cold, bubbly cava, Spain's answer to champagne and prosecco.
After all that tasting, it was hard to believe that we still had a sit-down brunch ahead of us, but after a short walk to the nearby artsy neighborhood El Born, we settled into a long table at Tapeo, where chef Daniel Rueda dazzled us with modern takes on classic Catalan tapas like thin and crispy artichoke chips, stuffed squid, eggplant with honey, and grilled octopus with pureed chickpeas, plus excellent wine.
The standout dish was fideua — a Catalan version of paella that uses short, angel-hair-thin pasta instead of rice — that was black and briny with squid ink and cuttlefish, and made even richer with a creamy aioli served on the side. Deliriously full, we said our goodbyes.
That night, we stopped back into Enrique Tomás, and were disappointed to learn that we couldn't bring any jamón home with us to the United States. I told the woman who worked there how sad I was to hear that.
"But you live in America," she said. "You are lucky."
I smiled and nodded. "Except no jamón," I replied.
"Cosmopolitan for you, jamón for me," she said with a shrug and a smile back. And I laughed in agreement, leaving the shop wondering whether she'd ever find her way to the United States to drink up some of our culture for a little while, too.
Pecci is a writer based in
New Hampshire. Her website is alexandrapecci.contently.com
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