If you're trying to pick a city to visit based on the food alone, Barcelona is no doubt on the top of that list! Catalonian cuisine combines the very best elements of Spanish and French cooking with that uniquely Catalan flare that is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Knowing which items you NEED to eat when you're there will help you weed out the authentic recipes from the tourist traps.
Many travellers visiting Barcelona, especially those from North America, will head out early in the morning expecting some gourmet breakfast options might be surprised to see that many restaurants don't open any earlier than 10am. Going out for breakfast just isn't something that’s popular in Catalonia. Breakfast time is most often held in the home, so if you get a chance to visit a bakery and bring something back to your accommodation, this is the best way to spend a morning in Barcelona. Xuixo's are one of the best options to sample as the sweet pastry comes from the city of Girona, just a few hours away from Barcelona. These are very similar to doughnuts, they are deep fried pastries coated in sugar and filled with thick custard. You can find these in almost any bakery around the city so feel free to try out that shop down the street to give back to your community.
Coffee culture in Barcelona has seen a big boom in the last few years, but overall coffee shops follow the same trend as those breakfast joints and still don't open too early in the morning. Instead, most locals get their morning coffee from small bakeries or corner stores. Usually, it's an uncomplicated espresso shot which they drink while standing, chatting about the morning news to the owners and other morning patrons. If you're looking for something other than just espresso, be sure to order a "cortado". This is a trendy option in Catalonia and made with a shot of espresso with a splash of steamed milk. Cortado means "cut" because the addition of the milk into the espresso essentially "cuts" the bitterness of the coffee.
Hot Chocolate and Melindros
On the weekends, you'll see families out for a special weekend treat; a cup of hot chocolate served alongside 'melindros' (Catalan sponge fingers). The hot chocolate is nothing like the powdered version you get in North America, this hot chocolate is thick, almost like a cream. After sipping a bit of the hot cocoa you dip the cookies into the drink, coating the cookies in the thick chocolate. Best served with a giant helping of whipped cream on top!
Around 11 am, you'll hear the clatter of cafes opening up their doors and people start to head inside for a hearty breakfast since lunchtime won't arrive till 2 or 3 pm. The best thing to try in Barcelona is a Spanish Omelet, also called a ‘tortilla’. But don't come in expecting that same watery, eggy mess you might get a diner back home, a true Spanish Omelet is made with huge chunks of potatoes and onions. These two ingredients are simmered in fatty olive oil and once fully cooked, covered in eggs to bind the entire dish together. It's served in triangular slices, and despite the simplicity of the recipe, the dish is extraordinary. The caramelised onions add that incredible umami flavour that is unbeatable.
Lunch is actually considered to be the main meal of the day in Barcelona. Unlike elsewhere in the world, lunch is held anytime after 1 pm, but usually, people start to eat around 2:30 pm. Lunch tends to be a three-course affair with a starter, entree and dessert. You can see why they need a siesta after such a big meal!
One of the most popular menu items to choose in Barcelona is paella. Paella is much too heavy for dinner, and locals like to go out with their co-workers to share this traditional family sized meal. Paella is a bit contentious in Barcelona since its originally a Spanish invention but the Catalans have, of course, added their own local spin on it. To spot an authentically Catalan paella be sure you're not eating it in Las Ramblas or any place that has pictures in English outside on the street. This is a clear sign of a cheap, tourist trap where you'll never receive the kind of paella locals would ever eat. Catalan paella is generally made with many of the same ingredients as Spanish Paella, but in Barcelona, the difference is in the method of cooking. In Catalan paellas, the rice is added first, and the other ingredients are then added to cook atop the rice. The rice isn't stirred at all once the other elements are added to the seafood flavours the rice as it boils. Paella takes a long time to cook so don't expect it to be ready in anything under an hour. If you see a place offering it up fast don't expect good quality.
If you're still adjusting to the Catalan way of eating and need a quick yet authentic snack, you have to give a bomba a try! Bombas are not only a delicious snack, but they are also reflective of a big part of Barcelona's history. During the Spanish Civil War, revolutionaries roamed the street throwing homemade grenades against the fascists. A chef in the town created this recipe in honour of those fighters and named it “la bomba” (the bomb). A bomba is similar to croquette made from ground meats and potatoes, rolled into a ball and then covered in breadcrumbs and fried. Bombas are usually served alongside some sauce which often varies from place to place.
If you have the chance to visit Barcelona in the winter, don't miss out on this excellent side dish. Calçots are a Spanish vegetable which is a cross between a leek and a green onion. They are only available during the winter months and are cooked over an open flame to give them that iconic charred flavour. Served alongside a thick sauce called romesco made from roasted tomatoes, nuts and garlic the taste is something unlike anything I've had before but oddly addictive.
Tapas was first invented in the north of the country for the King of Spain. The King suffered from a severe illness which restricted him from eating large meals. To help him cope with the disease, his chefs prepared him multiple small meals throughout the day for him to enjoy. The king would use these small dishes to cover his glasses of wine as he ate them to keep the flies out of the wine and that's where the name came from. The word "tapas" is derived from the Spanish verb 'tapar' which means "to cover". Tapas dishes are served inside small bowls, and these tiny portions allow you to try all different flavour combinations.
Caracols a la llauna
Catalans seems to have a festival for everything, they really like to party. And every party revolves around food. In late May, the festival of L’Aplec del Caragol (snail meat) is celebrated in a small town in Spain where over twelve tonnes of snails are consumed! But you can sample this famed dishes pretty much any time of the year as a form of tapas. The best way to eat them is 'Caracols a la llauna' which is snails cooked in a metal roasted tray over a charcoal grill, seasoned with salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. They are then served with allioli or romesco sauce to dip the meat of the snails into. I find cooking them this way compared to preparing them covered in sauce, to begin with, allows the flavour of the snails to come through more. Which I suppose is a good or bad thing depending on how brave you want to be!
'Navajas' or razor clams, are a deep-sea creature caught off the shores of Spain. Their long, oblong shape makes for a really unique eating experience, and before I had come to Barcelona I had never even heard of them! They are generally cooked in a butter and garlic sauce and served with a sprinkling of parsley. The meat tastes very similar to a regular clam, if not a bit more chewy, so it might not be something totally new in terms of taste, but the visual experience is worth the effort of seeking them out.
If you find yourself a bit peckish between lunch and the very late dinner which Barcelona is so famous so, stop in to sample one of their best snacks, the Patatas Bravas. Patatas Bravas is a favourite tapas dish which is made from thick-cut potatoes, fried and served with a salsa made from tomatoes, cayenne and topped with Catalan allioli. These are best eaten outside with a cold glass of beer.
Pimientos de Padrón
Found in the Spanish municipality of Padrón these tiny, green peppers are some of the most addictive tapas items on the bar. Cooked in nothing but olive oil and a dash of salt, these peppers are mouth-wateringly delicious. For the most part, these taste like miniature versions of green pepper, but about one in ten is super hot! Eating them with friends becomes somewhat of a game of chance. I don't find even the hottest ones to be all that bad, but then again I'm someone who LOVES spicy food. Just be sure you can have a glass of cava on hand in case you land one of the hot ones.
Jamón Ibérico or Iberian ham is one of those dishes that people come to Barcelona just to sample. Even today, the memory of eating this ham for the first time makes my mouth water. Spain’s Iberian pigs are bred carefully to ensure their lineage never dips down below less than 75% Ibérico. They are of the highest quality, and the farms which raise them are held to almost impossibly high standards to ensure the taste is of the most excellent, consistent quality. One of the things which makes this ham taste so unique is the fact that the pigs are fed a diet of olives, chestnuts and acorns to change the flavour of the meat. The fresh meat is heavily salted and left to dry for 2 weeks before it is rinsed and then left to dry for another four months but can be cured for as long as 48 months! I think the ham is best enjoyed all on its own since you get the deepest tasting of the flavours this way.
In the Mancha region of Spain, you'll find one of the best things to come out of the country, and that is Manchego Cheese. I only recently discovered my love of Manchego. It's a hard, aged cheese made from sheep’s milk which has a salty and nutty taste. It's just creamy enough to combat the salty taste, and I could honestly eat this by the wheel. You'll find manchego cheese served atop many different recipes but also sliced on its own for tapas.
A beautiful winter tapas is Escalivada; a dish of roasted eggplant, tomatoes and bell peppers covered in olive oil. The vegetables are baked until soft and then topped with salty anchovies and sardines. It's then mixed together like a salad and served atop crusty bread.
Pan con Tomate
One of the most popular tapas dishes in Barcelona is Pan con Tomate. 'Pan' is bread, so this dish simply translates into 'Tomatoes on Bread'. While the recipe might sound overly simplistic, it is the perfect way to start a meal. Unlike the Italian bruschetta, pan con tomate is made by rubbing roasted tomatoes on top of thick, crusty bread and then drizzled with oil and salt. The roasting of the tomatoes before they go on the bread means they develop deeper flavours which make this item so scrumptious.
If you got a little squeamish around the snails, then you might wanna skip this one. One of the most popular seafood dishes from Barcelona is chipirones. Chipirones are baby squid and best cooked by battering and then deep frying them. They are about the size of a slice of lemon and served alongside just that. They are caught just off the coast and as such is one of the freshest seafood options for you to eat while in the city.
Pinchos are the Catalan version of Tapas originating in the Basque region of Spain. Pinchos are made of various ingredients always served on top of pieces of bread. Enough for one bit or sometimes, if they really piled on the ingredients, perhaps two. There are hundreds of different varieties of pinchos all over Barcelona but below are some of my favourite combinations:
Spicy chorizo with quail egg
Giant prawns in butter and garlic
Smoked salmon and ricotta
Sardines and tomatoes
One of the most famous dishes you no doubt have already heard of from Barcelona are Churros. Churros are long, thin fried pastries which have a very doughnut-like taste and texture. These are sometimes considered to be a Mexican dessert, but the dish actually originated in Portugal (although the Portuguese explorers may have brought the dish back from China). The Portuguese brought Churros to Spain where they combined the receipe with their national treasure, chocolate. The place to get the best churros is in the Carrer Petrixol district where Barcelona's chocolatier’s guild was first located. Here you'll find the tastiest chocolate sauce to dip your pastries inside. The dough of the churro itself is pretty interchangeable, but it's the chocolate sauce which can really make or break the dessert.
Crema Catalana is much like the more famous French dessert, crème brûlée. But in reality, Crema Catalana's recipe pre-dates the French method but hundreds of years. Crema Catalana is made from milk and eggs mixed with cornstarch to thicken the mixture. Unlike crème brûlée, it is flavoured with lemon and cinnamon and also topped with a thick layered of burnt sugar to give it that toffee-like topping.
Before you think of ordering a glass of Sangria in Barcelona consider ordering the local drink of choice; cava. Cava is a sparkling white wine. France has Champagne, Italy has Prosecco, and in Spain you have Cava. Cava is wonderfully refreshing and light and the perfect drink to enjoy on a late summer night. Sangria has a lot of sugar, and those who are prone to headaches from wine alone might find that Cava is actually much more straightforward and doesn't leave the hangover so often produced from red wine and too much sugar.
*A Word About Sangria
Some writers would never dare utter the word Sangria when writing about food and drink in Barcelona. It is commonly thought to be an overly "Spanish" beverage. The Catalan's are very passionate about being made separate from the rest of Spain take issue with Sangria being served in Barcelona over their regional beverage, cava. Many restaurants will have sangria on the menu solely for tourists and its made from cheap, unused red wine, subpar fruit and instead of sugar, they'll just add Sprite. That being said, if you're visiting Spain just the once and you've really got your heart set on sampling Sangria, there are definitely some places in Barcelona which serve fantastic jug of the stuff. Sangria is delicious, and as much as the Catalans might take issue with its popularity and the assumption it's a Catalan speciality, they can't escape that it is indeed delicious. There are dozen of wine bars across Barcelona serving up genuinely great Sangria so seek them out to get your fix. But just try the Cava before you do. It's truly wonderful.
Did I miss any of your favourite items from Barcelona on this list?! Let me know in the comments what your favourite thing to eat while visiting Barcelona was or what your most looking forward to trying!