Neither of us are foodies. That’s not saying we don’t love to eat–oh boy, do we love to eat. But we can’t really tell you what makes a restaurant special beyond the fact that it has amazing food; we can’t tell you why a particular food trend is trendy, or exactly why Spanish cuisine is considered by many to be without equal. But what we do know is that we had some of the best meals of our lives in Spain, and it all started in our first Spanish city, Barcelona.
The menú del dia
First up, the menú del dia. I talked about this a little bit in an earlier post; the menú del dia can be found throughout Spain and was established by the Spanish government in the 1960’s so that everyone would have access to affordable meals. It’s essentially two courses, a small plate and a large plate, plus dessert and a drink, typically wine, although a lot of places allow you to order other beverages. We ordered our first menús del día in Barcelona, not really knowing much about it. Dale ordered beer and I ordered wine, and we were shocked when the waitress brought out an entire bottle of wine just for me. We were concerned that with my limited Spanish I had somehow bumbled and ordered a full bottle of wine instead of a glass and that we would get a huge bill at the end of the meal. That’s what happens in the US and other parts of Europe, right? You pay for that bottle of wine, every single drop of it. But no, we were surprised and delighted when the entire cost for my meal was €10, bottle of wine included. And we had a delightful buzz for the rest of the afternoon, perfect for enjoying a tour of Barcelona’s trippy modernista architecture.
Spanish omelette (a.k.a. “tortilla”)
In Barcelona I also discovered what would become one of my favorite dishes, the Spanish omelette, also known as tortilla or tortilla de patatas in other parts of Spain. Tortilla is essentially an egg omelette that has potatoes. I frequently saw other variations, including tortilla with ham or tuna. I loved when I could get the tuna variety for breakfast because it would last me all morning. Sometimes, the only variety available was tortilla francesa, which was just a plain omelette with no other ingredients, often served on bread. No matter what variety I found, the tortilla became a staple of mine on the Camino del Norte.
Paella, crema Catalana, and churros con chocolate
Our second meal in Barcelona was revelatory: seafood paella with a pitcher of sangria that went down like water and then crema Catalana for dessert. Paella is a rice-based dish that originated in the Valencian region, just south of Catalonia. It’s now ubiquitous throughout Spain, although recipes will vary.
When you order paella, you’re making a commitment to patience, as each dish is made fresh and takes at least 20 minutes to prepare. If you order paella and it comes out quickly, don’t eat it; just move on and find a place that has the real thing.
From what I read, the traditional recipe usually included rabbit and snail, as both were cheap and plentiful. These days, you can find plenty of options where bunny is not on the menu, including mixed, which includes a variety of meats, and seafood, which might have all manner of sea creatures, some of them still in the shell or with their heads and tails intact. You may find mussels, shrimp, lobster, prawns, fish, or squid (intact with all its little arms, squishy but yummy).
The special Spanish rice used in paella dishes absorbs more fluid than other rice varieties, which is what makes it so flavorful. Our seafood paella was truly delicious. The rice had a rich flavor and the seafood was prepared to perfection.
For dessert, we had crema Catalana, Spain’s sublime version of crème brûlée.
And since we couldn’t get enough of the sweet stuff, later that evening we went to a xocolateria (the Catalan word for “chocolate shop”) that our tour guide had recommended, down a tight back alley in the Gothic Quarter, where we had churros con chocolate for the first time.
Churros are long, thin donuts that you dip into Spanish hot chocolate. Oh, yes. It’s a classic Spanish dessert, and one we sampled over and over again during our time in Spain. And after we finished the churros, we of course had another serving of Catalan cream.
I know, I know, we have a problem. And this was only the beginning. We would spend the next six weeks doing nothing but eating and walking, walking and eating: tapas, pinchos (pintxos in Basque Country), jamón, roast lamb, cheese, and all manner of seafood. Oh, and let’s not forget the drinking–Spanish beer, wine, and sidra (hard cider), and so much cafe con leche that it’s amazing we ever slept at night. It’s a good thing that we would soon by averaging fifteen miles a day on the Camino del Norte, because otherwise we were going to need bigger pants!