Spanish food is like communal love. Cooking it requires time, abandon and quite a lot of people standing about watching. Take the most obvious example, paella. First, you need people to encourage you to get on with it, then someone to distract you from stirring it too soon, and finally someone else to coax you to add more liquid at crucial moments. A resiny stock or a glass or two of manzanilla to slip between the crevices of rice and create rock pools of rich flavour.
That’s the truth of Spain. Both food and people. The gentle rubbing of resolve and reserve against passion and physicality. For me, particularly Barcelona. It’s a hugely social, sexy city. Where overpowering flavours of the past mingle with the exuberance of youth.
But here the old are supreme and rule the streets with a wistful elegance. Walking up the untainted Rambla de Catalunya immediately acclimatises you to the Catalan time-zone, where stalwarts of the Franco-era converse intensely. Taking this gentle route into the city’s life, you begin to sense in the Catalan temperament a quietly sophisticated zest for the finer things of life.
This, mixed with access to the best ingredients around, makes for a heavenly place to fall in love. With food and people. Arriving in Barcelona, first reconnôitre the best places to be. And return to them. But keep looking. Check out the markets, the beach, the bakeries, the gardens. Be egregious. Find yourself taking coffee among the old guard, with their grandchildren. This city is smooth, expensive and the best food is much sought after. But you need to know what you are looking for.
Many figure that the best traditional menu is the Senor Parellada. Duck with figs. Cooked for days. Squid and pig trotters. Sheer and gelatinous. Catalan specialities such as partridge, butifarra negra – blood sausages – and favetes – broad beans. Each dish independently flavoursome. And served in utterly ravishing surroundings.
There are countless others, more low key and democratic. Lunchtime at the Pa i Trago on the fringe of the Poble Sec near San Antoni market, is an astonishing experience. Unprepossessing outside, nothing quite prepares you for wall to wall pensioners lunching loudly. Charmingly dressed and feasting on asparagus, fish soup, rabbit and chorizo. All washed down with Cava Brut.
The only downside to the staggering number of really great restaurants is getting used to eating much later. It puts bedtime well into tomorrow. But that of course leaves time for other pleasures.
Catching the last edge of the afternoon in the Boqueria market, lunch at the Kiosko Universal is fast, fine, fishy food. For my book, one of the best lunches in the world. Frites, wild mushrooms, pimientos de Padron accompany garlicky razor clams, Galician octopus, and Mediterranean gambas. Like dismembering plates of many limbed aliens. A chilly rosado completes the perfection. And at around four in the afternoon, over-tired, tricked-out hookers hover and gawping trippers trundle past while the waiters shout the latest football scores across the market hall. Steamy, sweaty, smelly. Food and people.
Two other favourites of mine are Can Cargol, where snails are a speciality. This is on Valencia, near the all-night flower market. Another example of the finessed availabilities of this city. Cool, damp, and richly scented. Blooms by night.
Over on the Passeig de Gracia, the Omm Hotel has a restaurant to die for, but honestly, after all that lunch, dinner is superfluous. The Ciudad Condal is a very well-known, and hence busy, tapas bar. Though tapas are not really a Catalan deal, here they are served with boisterous energy. The infamous Cal Pep in El Born is another locally popular bar, where you can snack and sip the best sherries in the balm of the evening. The last outpost before the sea. And in the Eixample’s calmer streets there is now a Basque bar called Sagardi, which serves pinxtos with a fine chilled Priorat.
My first experiences in Barcelona was 20 years ago when the attractions were more exotic and my interest in dark corners more enthusiastic. If you want to know the city as it was and as you are now, best get there soon. Even the food is changing. But let’s not over-rehearse the same old when it comes to Spain. It’s not the land of endless tomorrows and laid back-passivity. There is the same rush to modernity as anywhere else. They just get their priorities right. Food, sleep, family, and then, I suppose – sex.