It’s with good reason that champions of Catalan cuisine expound passionately on the bounty of the land and sea that surrounds the region. The products that come from the surrounding environment have created a unique local culinary heritage. It also means that even a reluctant cook can eat well because there are many and varied mainstays of Catalan cuisine that require no more effort to serve than placing on a board in the middle of a table.
Farmhouse cheeses from the volcanic Garrotxa region, deeply savoury cured sausages from Vic, tender monget beans from the Costa Maresme that become something sublime served with simply grilled lamb chops and a dollop of garlicky allioli, plump L’Escala anchovies on a slice of tomato-rubbed toast, and handfuls of dried fruit and nuts paired with a sweet Moscatel by way of dessert. A stroll around the old city quickly reveals that these edible treats are often sold from exquisite stores that have existed for generations. Sadly colmados (Catalonia’s answer to the deli), such as Colmado Múrria, are a dying breed, but well worth seeking out to source everything under one roof, and conserva bars (specialists in canned and bottled seafood, pork pâtés and preserved vegetables) such as El Xampanyet, are among the most atmospheric places to stop for a glass of fizz and some tapas the way the Catalans do it: effortlessly.
Tucked into the bottom of a slender townhouse in El Borne right opposite the Basílica Santa Maria del Mar, fondly known as the people’s cathedral, is another kind of cathedral: that of La Botifarreria, maestros of the region’s superlative cured meats and sausages. Behind the gleaming glass frontage is an even shinier glass counter, beneath which a fabulous world of porky goodness awaits, including their signature range of gourmet sausages (handy to know for self-catering visitors), which explode with bold flavours including black trumpet mushrooms and apple with curry. But it's the more traditional charcuterie that really shines, nearly all of it made in-house in a small workshop out back. Take home hunks of the misshapen sobrassada natural (a Mallorcan sausage richly flavoured with sweet pimentón and stuffed into a stomach casing), rabbit and pork cheese terrine and cooked sausages including Catalana trufada (spiked with truffles) and botifarra de huevo (enriched with egg) that can be sliced into chunky rounds and make a good breakfast buffet.
When Scotswoman Katherine McLaughlin opened her little cheese shop, Formatgeria La Seu, in one of Barcelona’s old butter-making dairies she decided to stock nothing but Spanish artisan farmhouse cheeses. As the business grew, so did her discovery of the country’s extraordinarily diverse range of product, from sturdy Manchegos to chestnut leaf-wrapped Valdeón (a creamy, blue-veined and addictive cheese from the northeasterly region of León that combines cow, goat and sheep’s milk) and locally made, tangy goats’ cheese logs. She conducts informal, stand-up tastings at the front of the shop, or, in the old-fashioned dairy itself, which she has kept almost exactly as it was, complete with marble tables and ceramic churns for private groups. A few years ago she opened a little bar next door together with business partner Francesc, who serves the drinks. It’s a great place to idle away an evening while working your way through 12 lovingly selected Spanish wines, all available by the glass, paired with Katherine’s superlative cheeses and organic charcuterie by Michelin-starred farm restaurant Els Casals.
There’s an ongoing debate as to the source of the best anchovies in Spain. Ask a Catalan and they’ll argue furiously in favour of the anchovies of L’Escala, just where the Costa Brava meets France. Elsewhere chances are the verdict will fall in favour of Cantabrian anchovies, which are fished in colder waters and are therefore plumper, developing an extra layer of fat for warmth. Diminishing stocks in L’Escala mean the majority of anchovies you come across in Barcelona these days are from the latter, but they still serve as a brilliantly salty, savoury sharpener to a lunchtime or dinner aperitif. In the diminutive Bodega Cala del Vermut – a thrown-together kind of a place with a huge mural of one of the Costa Brava’s traditional fishing boats on its wall and just five tables to perch at – the fish take centre stage alongside boquerones vinaigre (pickled white anchovies), and work wonders with a glass of bittersweet vermut served over ice with an olive and a slice of orange. It may not sound like a match made in heaven, but it will change your life.
Though sometimes given a bad reputation elsewhere, beans, pulses and legumes have always featured on Spanish tables as a cheap, nutritious and highly versatile means of filling an empty belly. Add a couple of chunks of chorizo to a big pot of lentils, or cook plenty of rice in a savoury broth of off-cuts and vegetable peelings, and you’ll keep a large family healthy, happy and fed. It was supplying the demand for this very pragmatic approach to household management that saw Casa Perris open its doors back in 1940. Over the decades, and as the city became more affluent, the shop expanded to include a cornucopia of other, more luxurious dried ingredients from around the Mediterranean: sun-dried peaches and apricots, almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts, smoky pimentón, drinking chocolate and artisan marmalades, and more recently exotic supplies including seaweed, dried oriental mushrooms, black garlic and speciality teas. It’s nearly all still sold from giant burlap sacks, carefully weighed out and repackaged into paper bags, almost like stepping back in time. An Ali Baba’s cave for the ingredient obsessed.