There is something about sampling the local cuisine when you are traveling. It tells you so much about a country and its people. From the ingredients to the recipes, from the preparation to the eventual eating, food is a cultural experience that’s different in each country. Learning about local specialties, the general attitude towards food, its importance in the day-to-day schedule, and specific dishes steeped in history is very much a part of travel.
So, when I found myself in Barcelona recently, I decided that I was going to expand my admittedly meager cooking repertoire with a few Spanish dishes. From tapas to more substantial meals, I wanted to try to learn how to reproduce them at home for those who stayed behind.
Spanish Food At Its Best
Barcelona is a foodie’s heaven. Tapas are everywhere, markets are filled with fresh ingredients we can sometimes only dream of in our home countries, and the general attitude towards food is not far off from the Italian approach: Take your time, enjoy every morsel, and share good and healthy food and drinks with friends and family. So, it is common enough that groups of friends head out for tapas-hopping at night, nibbling those delightful tidbits with a glass of wine at one bar and then heading to the next. A paella is to be shared with family on the weekends. Even the very simple breakfast foods are healthy, fresh, and yummy. Because I absolutely adore Spanish food, I booked myself in for a half-day cooking class to learn more.
Location, Location, Location
One fine sunny Monday morning, I found myself on Las Ramblas — the tree-lined street on everybody’s to-do list when in Barcelona. Steps away from the lovely Plaça Reial, the location cannot be beaten. The home of Barcelona Cooking is a narrow, tall building right in the heart of the bustle. On the top floor, I met Renata, my cooking instructor. Let me warn you immediately that these stairs are not for someone who has severe mobility problems, as they are steep and narrow, and there is no lift. But once upstairs, a large kitchen filled with all sorts of kitchen utensils and an even larger work bench set against light windows looking down onto Las Ramblas makes for a great place to get creative.
Selecting The Best Ingredients
Once all of us wannabe chefs turned up, Renata explained that we would be cooking pan con tomate — gazpacho, paella, and crema Catalana — that day. It was a nice mix of starters, mains, and dessert, with my favorite tapa — tortilla Espangñola — on the menu as well.
But first, we needed to shop for the ingredients just across the street at La Boqueria Market. This ancient market might now be rather touristy, but that doesn’t stop the vendors from selling the freshest tomatoes, great meat and fish, perfect ham, and more. Renata discussed the best ingredients for each dish, with three of our dishes requiring tomatoes, but each needing different kinds of tomatoes. She described the dish while we all sampled and tasted our way across the stalls. Because it was Monday, Renata explained that we would be cooking chicken paella rather than prawn paella since the fishermen rest on Sunday. As such, Mondays are not the best day to buy fresh seafood.
Prepping Like A Pro
Back in the kitchen, we started prepping. One of us chose to be the dessert chef, preparing the crema Catalana, while the rest of us chopped garlic and tomatoes, prepared chicken, peeled potatoes, and got to know each other. All of my fellow chefs were from North America, with two Canadians. While chopping and grating sounds boring, Renata taught us some tricks of the trade. I won’t divulge them here to allow you to learn them yourself when you visit.
Chefs In The Making
Next is when the real cooking started, like frying potatoes in oil and adding eggs. The Spanish tortilla seemed the easiest dish to make if you know how, together with the pan con tomate as a firm favorite breakfast dish where you simply toast stale slices of bread, rub garlic on the slice, and then rub tomato on top of that. It was quick, fresh, healthy, and so good.
The chicken was soon sizzling in the large pan, with plenty of non-spicy spices and risotto rice. While the crema Catalana was chilling in the fridge, I swear that it was just as good, if not better, than the crema Catalana at the historic Granja Dulcinea nearby in the old town. Our starter — the cold tomato soup gazpacho’s flavors of tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, onion, and garlic — were being blended and the smells were simply heavenly. Every participant got a chance to oversee various steps of the recipes. Our sense of achievement made us all quite giddy.
Enjoying The Spoils
Eventually, Renata decided it was wine time, especially after she let us into the secret where Italian risotto and Catalan paella-making differs. She said that Italians keep stirring the rice, while the Spanish plonk it into the pan, stir once, and open a bottle of wine to enjoy until the dish is cooking itself. And that is exactly what we did.
Tasting the food we had chopped, prepared, and cooked was a lovely end to a creative morning. We had all become friends and my initial hesitation of going it alone had been completely unnecessary. We chatted, ate, drank, and looked out of the window onto the sun-kissed Las Ramblas, now busy with the lunchtime crowds. We were discussing tricks and skills we learned and everybody was very excited to bring them home to try them out on friends and family.
My favorites? The Spanish tortilla, which has always been my favorite of the tapas, and the gazpacho.
As an aide-memoire, there is a cookbook you can buy right there as a souvenir. You can also get the recipes sent to you via email, so you don’t have to worry about forgetting important steps.