Chowing Down in Catalonia

Spanish hams and sausages at Barcelona’s La Boqueria food market

By Sharon Hudgins
Photos by the author

Catalonia has long been one of my favorite gastronomic regions in Spain, years before star chefs such as Ferran Adrià, Santi Santamaria and Carme Ruscalleda catapulted it to fame on the international stage.

During two recent trips there, I ate at my favorite old restaurants, dined at new ones, and visited wineries and food producers throughout the area. And I was pleased to confirm that Catalonia is in no danger of losing its reputation for fine food, from traditional to modern, from home cooking to haute cuisine.

Tempting sweets at La Colmena pastry shop in Barcelona.

Barcelona, the capital of Catalunya (as it’s called in the Catalan language), is a prime destination for connoisseurs of good food. You could easily spend a couple of weeks eating your way around the city and still barely scratch the surface of its culinary possibilities.

Foodies flock to the colorful Mercat de Sant Josep (also known as La Boqueria), Barcelona’s best known big covered market, with its tantalizing displays of edibles from freshly caught Mediterranean fish to aged mountain cheeses, from exotic tropical fruits to pigs’ private parts. Grazers stroll from one tapas bar to another along the busy boulevards and the casual waterfront, drinking a glass of wine or beer and nibbling on tasty tidbits at each stop. Anyone’s sweet tooth will soon be satisfied at the city’s elegant pastry and confection shops, including Caelum which features pastries made in the many monasteries and convents around Spain. And don’t miss a visit to the Chocolate Museum, followed by a cup of thick hot chocolate at the bar in the museum’s shop.

But Barcelona is just the beginning of a memorable culinary experience in Catalonia. To understand the roots of Catalan cuisine, you need to spend time in the countryside, slowly savoring the sights, sounds and smells of a land that produces some of the best wines and food products in Spain.

Turbot with eggplant slices at El Rincon de Diego restaurant in Cambrils.

Catalonia is famous for its wines, including sparkling white and rosé cavas. Drive south from Barcelona into the picturesque Penedès wine country, the largest of Catalonia’s wine districts and one of the oldest wine-making regions in Europe. Although best known for its cava wines, processed in the same manner as French Champagnes, Penedès also produces many other fine wines, especially whites.

To learn about the history of wine-making in Catalonia, start at the Wine Museum in Vilafranca del Penedès. Then visit two of the largest producers of cava, Cordoníu and Freixenet, both located in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. After seeing how those big commercial wineries operate, you’ll learn even more on a personal guided tour around one of the smaller, family-run wineries, such as J. Miquel Jané in Font Rubí, which provides very informative vineyard tours, cellar tours, and wine tastings, in English, and Pagès Entrena in Sant Jaume Sesoliveres, which also offers wine seminars and other activities such as horseback riding and bicycle excursions.

The rugged district of Priorat is known for its outstanding wines, particularly reds. Visit the new Wine Museum in Falset, the capital of this wine region, then drive to the little town of Gratallops, on a hill high above the Siurana River, to taste some of the excellent wines produced at the Buil & Giné winery there.

Not far inland from the popular coastal cities of Cambrils and Tarragona, the sparsely populated, mountainous Priorat region is a place of medieval villages, old monasteries and dramatic landscapes. Although off the beaten tourist path, it’s well known for its high-quality olive oils as well as its wines. Take the winding road up to the little village of Siurana, perched on a cliff with vertiginous views over the olive orchards and distant valleys below. Then enjoy a good meal accompanied by local wines at the little Restaurant els Tallers, in the small (six-room) Hotel la Siuranella.

Rustic pottery
Catalan pottery at an open-air market in Tarragona.

Finally, finish up your tour of this part of the Catalan wine country by heading north a few miles into the Conca de Barberà wine district to see the Wine Museum in L’Espluga de Francolí. Housed in a landmark Modernist-style building constructed in 1913, it features three floors of exhibits on the history of grape growing and wine making in this area.

For a completely different culinary experience, spend a weekend at Món Sant Benet, a complex of old and new buildings set amid the quiet countryside of Bages, a rural region just northwest of Barcelona, near the town of Manresa. Check into the ultramodern Hotel Món and enjoy a stroll through the nearby gardens before dining at either the Restaurant Món or Restaurant L’Angle (one Michelin star) within the hotel. Another restaurant, La Fonda, offers moderately priced lunches and snacks in the Factory building nearby on the complex’s grounds. The Factory also has an interesting shop selling local wines, food products and handicrafts.

Jaime Biarnes explaining his research at the Alicia Foundation at Mon Sant Benet.

Make a reservation to take a one-hour tour of the Alicia Foundation, a unique scientific and gastronomic research center established by Ferran Adrià at Món Sant Benet. You’ll visit the cutting-edge research laboratories and participate in an instructive workshop that focuses on the relationship between all of our senses and the foods we eat.

A highlight of the Món Sant Benet experience is a tour of the 10th century monastery there. The impressive multi-media tour cleverly uses video projections, 3-D holographic images and surround sound to tell the dramatic story of the monastery’s history. A separate, equally fascinating multi-media tour through the adjacent villa of the Modernist artist Ramon Casas gives an intimate glimpse into the daily life of the family who lived in the opulent villa during their summer holidays in the early 1900s. The combined tours through the monastery and villa take a total of two hours, leaving you plenty of time to relax in the soothing atmosphere of Món Sant Benet.

Wherever you choose to travel in Catalonia, from bustling Barcelona to tranquil Món Sant Benet, from the sunny seacoast to the high mountains of the Priorat, you’re never far from a fine meal with excellent wines. As the Catalans say when you begin to eat, “Bon profit!” (may you eat and drink well!).

Bread basket at El Rincon de Diego restaurant in Cambrils.
Handpainted Spanish ceramic coffee service at the Ramon Casas villa at Mon Sant Benet.

Where to eat:

Wineries to visit:

Wine Museums:

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