On Pessoa, Portuguese Cuisine and Hidden Tastes: a Food Tour with Taste of Lisboa

The prolific Portuguese philosopher and writer Fernando Pessoa had no less than 80 heteronyms, facets of his personality re-imagined as thinkers and poets in his most notable works. And from his home in Campo de Ourique, where he lived on the last decade-and-a-half of his life, he explored the many sides of human life.

lisbon poets

And for someone who knew very little of Portuguese food outside of pasteis de Belem and mil manheras of serving cod, a historical food tour with Taste of Lisboa introduced me not only to Pessoa and his neighborhood, but of the multi-faceted nature of Portuguese cuisine from the very district where food trends are born.

Warning: no bachalau or custard tarts were consumed on this tour.

Climbing the historic Tram 28’s route that snakes through Graça, Alfama, Chaido and Estrela, we left Tourist Lisbon on six of the city’s seven hills and climbed higher on Colina Saõ Roque towards Campo de Ourique and the Prazeres Cemetery. Aptly named the Cemetery of Pleasures, our three-hour tour would begin here and wind us around to taste some of Lisbon’s most pleasurable treats.

Historic Tram 28 Lisbon

Lisbon and I have had a complicated relationship since 2007, when I struggled to understand the city’s vibe, its colorful history and why everyone seemed to love it so much. My country list then could be counted on two hands, and I had yet to learn how to be a savvy traveler. This meant far too many pastries and far too much money spent at mediocre touristic restaurants near Baixa. A second trip in 2011 was plagued by rain and that too-long-to-look-up-its-name volcanic eruption. Tiled homes, an empty hillside castle and Sagres imperiales were my biggest takeaways from Spain’s westernly neighbor.

Campo de Ourique was sleepy on a Tuesday morning as shops opened a few minutes past the hour and locals crowded into cafes for an espresso to accompany their flaky pastries. We got off a stop too early, giving us time to wander the parish’s main thoroughfares before meeting Filipa, a Lisboner and lifelong foodie who began Taste of Lisboa two years ago.

portuguese tiles

Like all food tours, there is an exchange of pleasantries. Where are you from? How did you hear about the tour? Oh, you blog and we have friends in common? I’d been told of the friendliness of the Portuguese, and with a wink and a few jabs at Spanish cuisine and culture, Filipa became a foodie friend.

The location for a food tour was no accident, though we’d picked it for its minimal walking – Campo de Ourique, a historically upper-middle class district considered a city within a city, bustles with concept restaurants, budding chefs and a part-market, part-international food haven sat squarely in the middle. From the start, I was surprised to find that cod had been left (mostly) off of the menu, anda sweet treat was up first.

“Unlike the Spaniards, we are quite humble when it comes to our cuisine,” Filipa stated, looking squarely at me. “But this is not something we claim for our sweets. Our chocolate cake is the best in the world.”

Where to find the best chocolate cake in Lisbon

The small pastry shop, imaginatively named O Melhor Bolo de Chocolate do Mundo, had just two round tables and eight chairs for our group of 11. I am one of those foodie anomalies – gasp! I don’t like chocolate! – but as the creator of the world’s best chocolate cake, Carlos Braz Lopes, turned up in the shop, I eagerly shoveled it into my mouth.

With a espresso cup of port wine on the house, we toasted what could be the best slice of cake I’ve ever had, layered with bitter chocolate and meringue. Portuguese custard and egg sweets may be known worldwide, but I was astonished at the complexity of a simple cake made from six ingredients that had been created by a former businessman with a killer sweet tooth (psst! There’s a shop in Madrid!).

Enjoying a food tour in Lisbon

Just across the street is the newly remodeled Mercado de Campo de Ourique, a fusion of traditional Portuguese cookery and fare with a fish and vegetable market. Tile-lined food stalls ring the perimeter, with high tables and stools occupying the center, much like Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel. For someone who shops in a market regularly, I was drawn to the food more than the googly-eyed fish near the entrance.

Filipa brought us right to the salads stand. As Catholics and a people whose history is rich with seafaring explorers and far-flung colonies, Portuguese food combines ingredients from all over the world, making Spanish stews and legumes seem rudimentary and almost convoluted. Even the octopus salad I ordered brought out new flavors from one of my go-to summer dishes, flavored with a touch of cilantro and sweet red pepper instead of tomatoes.

marinated octopus salad

We ordered several dishes, all with a legume and fish base, like black eyed peas with flaky cod and tuna. As the food cooked, we sampled fried pork skin laced with black pepper, leitão à bairrada, and learned the origin of convent sweets – an abundance of eggs and flour plus sugar-hungry, bored nuns.

Perhaps the biggest surprise were the peixinhos da horta, or the small fish of the garden, green beans fried in tempura, another Portuguese invention born out of the Lenten tradition to abstain from meat. Tempura itself was created here, though perfected in Asia.

Portuguese craft beer

Mussels were next on the list, and Filipa led us to a concept bar where there’s little else on the menu but the clams and craft beer. Like Spain’s recent craft beer explosion, small batch breweries are elbowing into Sagres’s cornered market while producing not only great flavors but sexy marketing and names that poke fun at gluttony and excess.

Mussels (Moules) in Lisbon

And then there were the mussels themselves, cooked in butter and full cloves of garlic and seasoned with cilantro and a bit of lemon. Normally one to pass up the mollusks in favor of altramuces or boiled shrimp at a cervecería, I bravely took the first two bites to remind my family that half the fun of traveling is trying new foods.

The buttery flavor against the salty squish of the orange flesh added a different dimension to the mejillones I’d tried and quickly dismissed in my early days in Spain. I dug in to the brimming buckets, happy as a clam (pun intended) to have some time to visit with the other two American families who had joined us. The three young girls between them – no older than 12 – were pulling apart the had, shiny shells and slurping the mollusks down between sips of water.

Pessoa was a man of fine wine and ginjha, a cherry liquor served in nondescript, closet-sized bars. A Brasileira, the Cafe Irún to Pessoa’s Hemingway, is one of Lisbon’s oldest and most beloved cafes, and Pessoa is rumored to have sipped bica, espresso with sugar, and absinthe here with the occasional wine.

“Life is good, but wine is better,” he said of his love of the drink.

Foodie Experiences in Lisbon

I’ve long enjoyed port wine and the vinhos verdes, or young wines, cultivated in the Minho province. Filipa took us next to taste different wines from the country’s 2700 hectares of vineyards. In true neighborhood shop fashion, locals can bring their own bottles or wine glasses, try a few varieties, and then bottle up and take home their favorites.

Paired with a strong cheese and quince paste, even my mother enjoyed them.

cod fritter and naughty rice in Lisbon

The next stop had us in front of Pessoa’s last residence, right in the heart of Campo de Ourique. Crumbling buildings covered in tiles sandwiched the small museum, housed in an apartment complex, and its award-winning restaurant, which served us cod fritters (they were, sadly, forgettable, so excuse the claim that I ate no cod on the tour) and a creamy rice with another glass of wine.

Having consumed several dishes by this point and being in the very place where Pessoa’s landmark book, Disquiet, was found after his death, I had a completely different perception of Portuguese food and its intricacies. Like a human being, its relationships as much as its evolution and environment make it what it is, and different situations call for a multitude of adaptations.

Portugal’s tangled history is perhaps the cuisine’s biggest element, but there is much more than meets the eye – and stomach, for that matter.

spongecake Lisboa style

Campo de Ourique had one more dish for us to try, this time in the city’s hospitality school and concept restaurant. Just as we’d started the day with sweets, we’d end with a spongecake, pão de lo, made with nothing more than yolks, flour and sugar.

Proving once more that I knew absolutely nothing about Portuguese food, my spoon sliced into the toasty top of the cake, cutting into a creamy, spongy substance that in no way resembled the sponge cake I’d made as a kid for summer picnics. I scraped the waxy paper holding it all together, eager for the last few sticky crumbs.

Fernando Pessoa once said, “I have no philosophy: I have senses.” And I think I just found mine when it comes to tastes and food prejudices. The tour was more than just a way to spend a few hours with my family and share my travel style with them (and making Christmas shopping a one-gift production).

Lisbon and I had finally found a common ground: good food.

Taste of Lisboa Food Tours

I paid my own way on the Taste of Lisboa Food Tour; all opinions are my own and do not reflect a collaboration between SandS and Taste of Lisboa or any of its affiliates. You can find out more about Filipa’s food tours and courses on Taste of Lisboa’s website.

The Curious Case of Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oil

“Passion and quality are at the heart of this venture. It’s that simple.”

I sneezed, a clear sign that spring was about to settle onto Andalucía for a brief period of time before melting into summer. The breeze picked up, and I wrinkled my nose, lest any more oliva pollen enter my system. For as andaluza as I sometimes feel and act, my allergies gave me up as an utter fraud, calling attention to me in a group of nearly 50.

Bodeguero puppy

Isaac Martín, event coordinator for Basilippo, an award-winning olive oil producer internationally recognized for its quality, kicked off a tasting event that was punctuated by my sniffles. Set at an old hacienda buried within acres of olive trees, an internet search for foodie experiences brought me to one of western Andalucía’s foremost producers of liquid gold, extra virgin olive oil.

Teetering on winter and spring, I was willing to risk puffy eyes to learn how to properly taste olive oil and look out for its quality and properties. As a staple of the Mediterranean diet, its health properties have long been touted, but not all aceite de olivo virgen extra is created equal: supermarket buyers often have to pick between an entire shopping aisle’s worth of brands and varying quality.

Arbequina olive oil from Andalucía

And the good stuff doesn’t come cheap.

The Basilippo brand, made with the manzanilla and arbequina varieties of olives, has been my go-to brand when bringing home a nice bottle for foodie friends, but I shamefully catalogued what I used to cook with or a dress a salad with at home: whatever came cheapest and in a plastic bottle. I had a lot to learn, and creative packaging could not longer be a barometer for quality.

And for a small-batch, family-run brand, passion for the ripest fruit and top-tier production practices, only the best would do.

Inside Hacienda Merrha’s lofty tasting room, several round tables sat armed with jewel blue tasting cups, a brasero disguised underneath by heavy cloaks. Diego Vergara, responsible for the company’s marketing, held up two sherry glasses full of orange juice as we sat. 

Properly tasting olive oil

His explanation of how to distinguish extra virgin olive oil was simple: one was an orange juice squeezed from ripe oranges. The second was a bastardization of orange pulp, colorants, chemicals and mass production. In other words, it was a soft drink meant to mimic the flavor of orange juice. If the product was bruised or off, the taste and aromas would be off. Perfection is this business, amidst mass production and knocks offs, truly came down to passion for the cleanest, most natural product.

The scents naturally found in olive oil – grass, banana and traces  of fruit – laced the air as the heater next to our legs in turn heated the smooth, rounded tasting capsules for optimum olfactory pleasure.

Flavors present in EVOO

Oil exists in dozens of varieties, and olives have been picked, pressed and packaged into olive oil for nearly eight millennia. Extra virgin – considered the healthiest and ripest state of the olive – occurs when no heat treatments have been applied to the product and is made from 100% olives of the same type. All other oils wane in quality, thus driving down the price. Packaging can also make a difference, as olive oil loses its properties with exposure to light or heat.

Again, I fully admit to being ashamed of the marca blanca I have stocked at the back of my pantry.

The three blue cups sat before us. Two contained about a tablespoon of product and were covered with a plastic condiment lid. The third, sitting at 7 o’clock, was filled and quickly covered. Blue cups are typically used in blind tasting as, unlike wine, color is not a factor in determining an oil’s quality. Smell and taste take all the credit here.

como degustar aceite de oliva

Olive oil’s properties are strongest when it’s as close to harvest as possible. The generous pours came from a bottle only a few weeks old, and Diego generated a bit of heat to release its intoxicating smell by cupping the glass in his hand and rotating it back and forth as if opening a bottle of pickles for about 15 seconds. Next came a quick whiff and recapping the jar.

We’d all come for the tasting portion of course, and sloshing it around your mouth like Adolfo of Plus Vino showed me to do wouldn’t cut it:

Olive oil has different tastes on your tongue and taste buds. Sucking in air as it travels towards the back of the throat makes it taste more viscous and potent. And I wasn’t the only one who got a burn in the back of the throat – slurps were followed by gags, coughs and grunts, the sign of a quality harvest.

Moving on, we paired a vanilla-infused organic oil with both regañá crackers and a crisp, hard cheese, as well as a pineapple ice cream drizzled in olive oil. Though most of Basilippo’s bottles come with recommendations for consumption, the kitchen serves more innovative dishes.

The man immediately on my left seemed to be some sort of aficionado and asked the white elephant question: How did Basilippo feel about the “adulteration” of Spanish olive oil? 

Brought up as extended family of the Rubinellis and the Dell’Alpe dynasty – a Chicago-based import company known for its quality Italian products – olive oil has always been a staple in my family’s kitchen. And until moving to Spain, I was convinced that Italy produced the highest quality product. But European olive oil is on par with organized crime – even though Spain produces roughly 40% of the world’s olive oil, most is shipped in bulk to Italy before being bottled, giving the impression that most olive oil is coming straight from the Boot.

How to do an olive oil tasting

This has been going on since the Roman occupation of Spain, when olive oil was used in commerce and called liquid gold (and in all fairness, my Italian relatives have a soft spot for Spanish cuisine). I’ve long felt that Spain is only beginning to embrace competing on an international market with its food products, and I’d likely consumed them as they paraded as Italian. 

But Basilippo’s product was meant to stay with the connoisseurs, a thead that runs thorughout its four generations of olivareros. International consumption is definitely on the table – they’ve won numerous awards worldwide and run a quality assurance program attended by visitors abroad – and they’ve got a strong local following. I thought back to Isaac’s powerful speech in which his love for his business reach my consciousness despite the sneezing and nose blowing. Passion isn’t so much an ingredient, but a habit at Merrha.

Diego explained that close to 10 pounds of olives are necessary to produce a single liter of olive oil of any quality, hence the small batches coming out of Basilippo (the production comes from just 20 hectacres of olivos). By the time our group of nearly 50 hit the gift shop, we’d depleted a large portion of stock. I introduced myself to Isaac, chuffed that so many phenomenal gastronomic treats now formed an important base in my diet.

fried olives from Andalucía

Unsatisfied with a few morsels of bread for mopping up oil in the gift shop, I sneezed my way back to the car and we struck out towards El Viso del Alcor. Craddled between Mairena and El Viso, this privileged land was believed to have been inhabited as Tartessos. It’s also home to one of the zone’s most innovative tapas bars, MasQueTapas.

All of the dishes on the two-paged menu are made with products from down the road at Basilippo and the place was packed on a rainy Saturday. As the waiter brought out drinks, he laid down a small dish of fried olives.

“But heating the olives changes their properties,” Kelly said, popping one into her mouth. “So these are probably the rejects.”

Low quality or not, they were exquisite, proof that a small sliver of land in my backyard, with its rolling groves of olive trees (and toxins for my system) is producing what could be the world’s most perfect crop.

a tasting at Basilippo

I’m on a mission to do something new every week of 2016 – from visiting a new village to trying a new bar or restaurant. Have suggestions for in or around Andalucía? Please share them, and take a tour of Basilippo‘s immaculate grounds, just 30 minutes from Seville (they’ll even pick you up if you use public transportation!). You can buy their products in small gourmet shops like Oleo-lé in central Seville.

Have you ever attended a strange food tasting?

Tapa Thursday: 10 Winter Fruits and Vegetables You Should Be Eating in Spain

My stand-alone freezer is currently stocked with enough stews to get me through the long winter days. Even when the sun is shining midday, my cavernous house feels like a tundra, and I usually need a warm bowl of fabada or a crema de verduras to warm me up before ultimately peeling off layers of clothing to bike to work.

Fruit stands at the Mercado de Triana food market

Venturing to my local market once a week, I beeline right to Antonio’s fruit stand. My frutero will carve off a piece of fruit – often from his own orchard – and hand me a piece of his breakfast. Though seasons don’t change often in Seville, the fruit and vegetable products at Antonio’s stand (or in any market) do, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a carton of strawberries past June or watermelon in December.

While stews and legume-heavy dishes are king during the first few months of the year, your local supermarket will have incredible options that you shouldn’t pass up (they’ll be gone before you know it!)

Citrus Fruits like oranges, clementines and lemons

Winter fruits in Spain oranges and clementines

One of the first indications that winter is coming is visible right outside of your window: orange and lemons trees bend under the weight of branches full of fruit. Winter is high season for naranjas, no doubt.

Sweet Valencia oranges and clementines are even sold on the street by people who have orange trees, and for next to nothing. No excuse to not start the day with orange juice!

Persimmons

Like a try fruit and vegetable hybrid, persimmons – called kaki most commonly in Andalucía – weird me out a bit. It looks like a tomato or bell pepper, but has an extremely sweet taste. My frutero swears it adds years to your life, but I’ll stick to apples.

Quince

Winter fruit in Spain quince membillo and mangoes

Squash and Leeks

If you’re into soups and stews, leeks and squash, in addition to green onions, should be your go-to produce buy. 

Gold star for you if you make leek croquetas.

Green Onions

I grew up in a household full of green onions, and they laced and graced nearly everything my dad cooked. I’ve been buying puños from Antonio once a week and slipping them into my acelgas, on top of fried potatoes and even in to ramen! 

This is also the time of year when their catalán cousin, calçots, take center stage at onion grilling parties. Check out Barcelona Blonde’s post on the calçotada to learn more about an experience at the top of my footed bucket list! 

Avocados

Superfruit lovers can find avocados from late October until the springtime, and they’re used in several Spanish salads. Aguacates are still a bit too far out for Spanish cuisine and even my frutero couldn’t come up with any recipes, but at least there’s guacamole as a back up. 

Sweet Potatoes

Winter Fruit in Spain batatas asadas

Sweet potatoes, like chestnuts, are common street food offerings, cooked over charcoal. Though it’s not a common (or cheap!) staple for Spanish kitchens, many fruterías will sell them already cooked and thus softened.

Mushrooms

Winter food in Spain mushrooms and setas

A popular weekend pastime for Spaniards once the temperatures begin to dip is to forage for mushrooms. In the sierras, nearly two dozen types of shrooms, called setas, grow, and you can find them in sauces, tortillas and croquetas.

As someone who doesn’t love how they feel once I bite into them, I do love anything mushroom flavored! You can find nearly every variety in the produce section, the most popular being the boletus: look for a light brown bulb with a fleshy white stalk.

Artichokes

winter food in Spain artichokes

One of the very first Spanish dishes I ever tried was roasted artichokes christened with small pieces of Iberian ham and olive oil. But it wasn’t the large, leafy bulbs you see in winter time, and it turned me off to the vegetable.

Spain is one of the world’s top three producers of alcachofas, meaning prices are reasonable and artichokes pop up often on restaurant menus.

Nuts like chestnuts, almonds, walnuts

Winter fruit in Spain nuts

Spain literally gives another meaning to chestnuts roasting on an open fire when the castaños trucks hit the streets around November. You can also find a number of other nuts, most notably almonds and enormous, pungent walnuts.

Foreign fruits and veggies like papayas, mangoes and cherimoya

Strange winter fruits in Spain

Although it comes with a higher price tag, winter is prime time for a number of warm-weather fruits from south of the equator. If you’re in Seville, check the special produce stand, El Frutero de Nila, at the Mercado de Triana (stand 4, next to the restrooms).

On my last trip to the market, Antonio split open a clementine and handed it to me. “Toma, guapa. Una frutita tan dulce como tú.” The flesh was sweet, recalling memories of finding California oranges at the bottom of my stocking on Christmas morning. 

And then he pulled out a carton of strawberries, the forbidden fruit that usually doesn’t show up until late February. A sign of global warming, surely, but shopping and eating seasonally makes me feel more fully immersed – and it’s cheap!

WINTER

What fruits and vegetables do you consume in wintertime Spain? Do you like eating seasonally?

Tapa Thursdays: Five Must-Eat Canarian Dishes

I knew that my travel style had changed when H and I planned our trip to Croatia and Montenegro. After staking out a place to stay, we focused on the most important aspect of our weeklong vacation in the Balkans: what and where to eat.

From celebrated pizza joints to non-descript roadside eateries to a bar with THE BEST VIEW (according to them, and…they weren’t wrong), we spent most of our money on food and drinks. The same happened in La Rioja, India and our business meetings in Seville.

eating cevapi sandwich balkans

My name is Cat, and I’m a culinary travel addict.

I can’t say for sure when it happened, but several of my most treasured memories from travel have been around a dinner table, tucked into the corner of a grubby pub or trying new foods.

Even when I’m in Spain, cuisine becomes a central part of my travels. On recent holidays and breaks to Tenerife, my friends Julie and Forrest made sure that I saw – and tasted – the island’s highlights, starting with a local Tropical beer. And there is more to Canarian cuisine than their pygmy bananas.

Five Must-Eats on the

Mojo Picón

Pronounced moe-hoe, this red sauce is the star of Canarian cuisine and its best-loved sauce. In fact, mojo is a bastardization of the word molho, meaning sauce in Portuguese. My first meal in the Canaries included two mojo varieties on the table instead of the standard garlic and oil. 

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Slather the sauce, which is made of olive oil, salt, water, garlic, peppers and many spices, on meat or wrinkly boiled jacket potatoes called papas arrugás. For a Spaniard, the sauce is spicy. For anyone else, it’s a small kick. Green mojo, however, has an earthy, minty aftertaste and is usually reserved for fish.

Flor de Guía Cheese

Julie met me at the airport and took me promptly around Santa Cruz’s main sites, ending up at a street full of typical bars. We split a cheese plate with typical varieties from around the islands, including the award-winning Flor de Guía cheese (and that’s why it was so costly!).

produce and cheese on Canary Islands

Surprisingly enough, this particular queso is made from both sheep’s and cow’s milk, and juice from thistle blooms help to curdle the milk. The cheese is semi-hard and makes an excellent dessert (or, if you’re me, an excellent anytime eat).

Ropa Vieja

When Julie and Forrest took me to a guachince, I was immediately in love with the makeshift restaurants on family-run wineries. We found our way to La Salud and ordered one of everything.

typical food at a guachinche

In the absence of ropa vieja – a mixed plate of garbanzo beans, meat, potatoes and vegetables – we had a garbanzá. Like puchero or cocido, a plate of ropa veja makes use of whatever is lying around in the kitchen, so recipes vary greatly from one household to the next. I’d liken it to a weekend paella or rice on the mainland.

Gofio

pella-de-gofio-1024x609

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Gofios are a thing of pride for the canarios, as it forms a large part of their diet and has been eaten on the islands for centuries. Gofio is the word for a flour made from roasted grans and starchy plants, most often wheat or corn plus beans. With a pinch of salt, gofios are usually turned into bread and eaten with seemingly all meals.

Arehucas

I learned about the wonder that is Arehucas honey rum on my first trip to Gran Canaria in 2008. While at a wedding somewhere in the foothills, I pointed at bottles, blissfully unaware of what I was consuming. A yellow-labeled rum stuck out, an entire bottle was consumed with coke as a mixer, and a short-lived love affair was born (I hated that stuff the next day).

Bodas, beach and the boy!

pre-Arehucas buzz in 2008

Spiced rum production is not native to Europe, but Arehucas is distilled in Arucas, Gran Canaria and produces the largest output of rum on the continent. There’s a touch of honey, so the rum can be drunk on the rocks or as an after dinner digestif if you’re hardcore.

Now that I’m happily at home in Chicago, eating my fill of all of my Midwestern favorites and feeling heavier than ever, my next gastronomic adventure will take me to some of America’s best-loved food cities – Memphis, Louisville and New Orleans.

What are your favorite foods from the Islas Canarias? Have you ever been to and eaten in the South? Please share your must-chows!

Desafío Eterno: Learning to Cook Spanish Food at the Mercado de Triana

I may have mastered the art of midday siestas, long lunches and dropping syllables, but Spanish cooking has always alluded me.

A Spanish Cooking Course

Ask me to make a full turkey dinner or a kick ass pad thai? I’m all over it, but I’ve mangled even the simplest of Spanish dishes and count gazpacho and frying potatoes (or just bringing the wine) as my contribution to meals.

Resolute to prove to the Novio that I’m only good for eating and occasionally clearing up the dishes, I visited my local market for a crash-course in slow-cooking with Foodies&Tours.

Housed in the mythical Mercado de Triana, once an open-air market built in the 19th Century, Víctor and Marta set up a state-of-the-art kitchen overlooking ruins of the Castillo de San Jorge just seven months ago. I was delighted to see that they still believed in buying fresh ingredients at the market, making chicken stock from bones and leek and – gasp! – using butane tanks.

el mercado de triana

María led us through the market that mid-week morning on a day where there were more tourists than locals snapping photos of ham legs and fins-and-all swordfish. Summer fruits were beginning to slowly engulf the avocados and pomegranates. I kept my mouth shut when María pointed out tripe and the different legumes on offer, but I couldn’t help piping up that it takes three years to adequately cure the hind leg of an acorn-fed pig (blame my pork-loving in-laws for that!).

Spanish food has recently become the darling of international cuisine thanks to innovative chefs putting a spin on age-old traditions. After all, the wealth of fresh ingredients from the Mediterranean diet and a dedication to simplistic yet layered flavors have made this gastronomy healthy, comforting and delicious – and this means that food tours and gastronomic experiences are booming all over Spain.

Taller Andaluz de Cocina in the Triana market

I was joined by another American woman, a group of Filipina friends on a big Euro trip, a curious couple from Singapore and newlyweds hailing from Australia. It was just right for everyone to put their manos a la obra.

Back at the kitchen, chef Víctor was washing metal bowls and our ingredients were put on display. I may not cook myself, but I do make most of the grocery store runs and can recite dishes based on their ingredients! From the ripe vine tomatoes and day-old bread, I knew we’d be making salmorejo and assumed that crowd-favorite paella would be on offer. A large bowl of raw spinach meant espinacas con garbanzos.

modern kitchen of Taller Andaluz de Cocina

I found a cutting board and apron between Denise from New York and the cooking surface as Víctor laid out the menu. We began with the creamy tomato-based salmorejo: coarsely chopping tomatoes, peeling thin skin off of the purple garlic bulbs and learning not to be stingy with extra virgin olive oil. Apart from turning on a blender and liquifying its contents, I let my classmates take over.

I once again stepped aside to allow other guests to learn how to steam the raw spinach and make a sofrito, preferring to sip on wine and do some more chopping – I have the Novio at home to show me how to quarter a chicken for stock. Instead, I probed Víctor on his background, his favorite places to eat in Seville and the Spanish brands he is loyal to.

learning to make salmorejo

Many of my classmates were used to the flash cooking styles of Asian cuisine, so turning down the heat and turning up the flavor combinations was a welcome departure as we dipped small tasting spoons into everything we’d created. A fan of Asian food himself, Víctor stressed the important of low heat and long wait times.

I’ve always said that my biggest hurdle to learning to make Spanish dishes is patience. A Spanish chef confirmed it. So we waited, slowly stirring the chicken stock and sofritos.

salmorejo cordobés

Three hours later, the paella had finished soaking up chicken stock, the beer has been poured and we were ready to eat. While the sobremesa – mealtime chat – wasn’t as lively as my finca experience in Málaga, the workshop was more hands on. In fact, there was little more chatter than ‘mmmmm’ as we tucked in and Víctor prepared us a palate cleanser.

The cumin in the spinach with chickpeas, the laced leek in the paella and a tinge of garlic translated through the other tastes, a clear sign that we’d done something right under watchful eyes.

[yumprint-recipe id=’2′] Did I personally learn any new kitchen tricks? I suppose, but a blast of Saharan heat has had me out of the kitchen and even skipping dinner these last few weeks. The one thing that still rings true is my devotion to Spanish food and everything that goes into it – fresh ingredients, bursts of flavor and the sobremesa chatter.

Have you ever done a cooking course or food tour? Read about A Cooking Day, Devour Barcelona and Devour Seville food experiences. 

The Best Bites from the Devour Barcelona Tour

Food in Barcelona has always made me skeptical, despite a rich culinary history and the production of several globally recognized chefs. I’ve been to La Ciutat Comptal half a dozen times, but couldn’t recall being impressed by much, save a seafood paella in Barceloneta before I’d tried the real thing.

The Best Part on the Barcelona Food Tour

So I left it up to the experts – my friends at Devour Barcelona Food Tour. I’d taken their pilot tour in Madrid and knew that founders Lauren, Alejandro and James appreciated not just the food itself, but the person behind the dishes, making the tour a perfect mix of cultural, gastronomical and historical.

Renée met us on a blustery January morning on Passeig de Gràcia. Like me, she’d left the US for a year but found herself in Spain years later. Being the force behind Devour Barcelona is her dream job. She immediately gave us a hand out that detailed what we’d be eating on the four-hour tour, but I preferred to be surprised.

walking tours in Spain

The tour seemed to get off to a slow start. Apart from walking about ten minutes towards the Grácia neighborhood, we began with a pastry. Admittedly delicious, it didn’t tell me much about Spanish cuisine, much less Catalan. And once we reached Gràcia, a neighborhood that feels like a small city itself, our trip to the market yielded two more Spanish staples. 

We hit the 10am mark and Gràcia began to wake up – and we got a real taste for Catalan gastronomy.

Botifarra sausage sandwich with cava

Bar Pagés welcomed us into a shabby chic bar with round wooden tables, comfortable arm chairs and a smashing wine selection. The family behind Casa Pagés, a family restaurant in the same neighborhood, opened this smaller snack bar, which looks like the hybrid of a wine bar and coffee shop.

barcelona cava

Renée told us about cava, the “confused cousin” of champagne. Made mostly in the Penedès region of Catalonia, cava uses grapes native to Spain like Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Parellada. And the reason it’s so cheap? Cava is the region is largely produced by machines! And it’s also a standard morning drink, the way anisette is in Andalucía, so bubbly for breakfast didn’t feel strange.

butifarra and cava on Devour Barcelona Food Tour

After we’d been poured a glass and toast, our second breakfast was served: a simple botifarra sausage sandwich with roasted green pepper and crushed tomatoes. Simple, hearty and crazy delicious. 

Bomba de Barcelona and Pam amb Tomaquet at La Anxoveta

Like many, Carlos and his wife found themselves out of work when the crisis hit. They decided to take over a neighborhood bar called La Anxoveta and breathe life into catalan cuisine staples. Here we’d be sampling two more heavyweights of local gastronomy: pa amb tomàquet and bomba de Barcelona.

Carlos came out with his hands practically talking for him as he rattled off questions to us. He explained the pa amb tomàquet as Renée translated that this simple dish that was once a poor man’s breakfast has become one of the region’s most beloved foods. He cut two slices of pan de cristal, a thin, rustic piece of bread, then showed us how to add the tomato, olive oil, garlic and salt so we could do it on our own.

Next out came the bomba, one of Barcelona’s signature tapas. Born out of a bored cook with a revolutionary streak, María Pla invented the bomba in the 20s as a response to the anarchist violence playing out in the street. The weapon of choice was a cast iron ball with explosives inside that had to be lit with a fuse. Pla’s neighborhood of Barceloneta was a hotbed of activity, and her playful take on food and history has endured.

Bomba de Barcelona Madrid Food Tour

Renée claims the bomba at La Anxoveta is the best in the city – it’s like a glorified croqueta with potato and ground beef, sitting on a bed of spicy tomato sauce and topped with a garlicky alioli sauce. In short, perfect!

Almond pastry at Syrian bakery Príncipe

barcelona storefront

Our walk continued through Gràcia. This part of the city was once a separate village and home to holiday villas; with the industrial revolution, the city’s population surged, and L’Eixample was born. Gràcia was swallowed up by the city, but the barri is like a whole different city surrounded by a city, much like my Triana. 

Gràcia has also opened its arms to foreigners, both domestic and international, and the streets are lined with boutiques and restaurants, snack bars and pastry shops with international fare. Mustafa is one of Gràcia’s business owners, a Syrian national who came to Barcelona on holiday and decided to set up shop. He was a man who spoke very little on his visit, but I left wanted to give him a hug.

Baklava in Barcelona

Mustafa’s pastry shops is simple – it is clean, smells faintly of honey and offers only the Syrian pastries to patrons and to Middle Eastern restaurants around the city. We could choose one, and given how perfect each one of them looked, it wasn’t easy. I watched as the other four chose chocolate or honey confections, but I took a small one with almond. Growing up across the street from a Greek family, I’d loved baklava from a young age, and the almonds coated in honey and the flaky pastry layers had me back on Silverthorn Drive.

Vermouth at C’al Pepe with boquerones en vinagre

It’s almost inevitable – at 1pm on a Saturday, my body needs a cerveza. When Renée suggested going for a drink in the sun-drenched Plaza de la Virreina, I knew she’d take us somewhere great. Up the hill towards Gràcia, she confessed that finding C’al Pepe – or Joe’s House – was a totally lucky find. 

Vermout bar on Devour Barcelona Food Tour

Catherine and I were psyched – Joe’s Place is the de facto Old Man Bar of our college town – and C’al Pep did not disappoint. There was no bar, no menu, no other guiris in sight. Rafa had taken over from the original Pep and strove to maintain the bar’s ambience. It truly had the hallmarks of an old man bar: old vermouth posters hung on the walls, yellowing at the edges. Siphones and old Westerns on the TV. We even had the requisite Spanish abuelos at the end of our table.

Devour Barcelona food tour

We were served a glass of sweet vermouth with fuet sausage and pickled anchovies. Between the bar, the company and the snacks, I had fallen in love with Cal’s bar, Gràcia and perhaps even softened my hard feelings for Barcelona’s food scene. 

After one last dessert and a coffee, we did as the Spaniards did – lay down for a nap and let the food coma pass.

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Devour Spain food tours graciously let me chow down for free, but all opinions and calories consumed are my own! I also invited Catherine along as part of the Typical NonSpanish program with Caser Expat.

Have you ever eaten well in Barcelona? Check out my other recommendations for food and a chance to win an eBook from Eat Guides Barcelona!

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