Espana is quickly becoming a player in Europe’s culinary competition (watch out Italy and France.) All of Spain possesses a penchant for high-quality ham, tapas and late-night dinners, plus regional specialties abound. Hop on the high-speed AVE or Renfe trains and taste your way through the land of Adria and ole.
For a taste of both innovation and tradition, start in inventive Barcelona before heading 3.5 hours to Valencia, birthplace of paella and Spain’s third-largest city. With a Eurail Spain Pass, the train ticket is $11 in second class and $37 for first class.
Barcelona has always been on the edge – epicuriously and otherwise. No where else will you find the architectural oddities of Gaudi. From Casa Battlo and its macabre façade to the still unfinished and monumental Sagrada Familia. Parc Guell beckons you to sit on a mosaic bench with a picnic of pinxtos.
It’s easy to get around and see it all – from the top of Tibidabo and back down to the Gothic Quarter.
Spend the extra Euros buying fresh bounty at La Boqueria. This huge, covered market off of Las Ramblas has been selling local specialties for centuries: farm-free eggs, straight-from-the sea fish, fruit, meat, bread – it’s an endless array. Stop at one of the stalls for an impromptu tapas lunch.
Tapas culture has boomed in Barcelona. You won’t find just a small plate of olives and a manchego cheese anymore. Think salt cod fritters. Pan fried monkfish. Roast Galician ham. Or plebian french fries elevated by garlic mayonaise and smoked paprika sauce. Even when bread is served you’ll see an aura of sophistication. Enjoy toasted bread slices rubbed with tomato, olive oil, garlic and salt. Ask for it by name: pa amb tomàquet. It’s practically a tapas on its own.
All over Catalan kitchens, you’ll find a greater use of sauces than the rest of Spain. The most common are sofregit, made with fried onion, tomato and garlic; allioli, which is pounded garlic with olive oil, often with egg yolk added to make it more of a mayonnaise; and picada, based on ground almonds and other ingredients, such as garlic, parsley, nuts and breadcrumbs. See a common thread in all of these sauces? Bring a briefcase of breath mints.
Crafting edible combinations are found on many menus. Why just serve meat when you can create an entire genre by combining with seafood? Known to us as “surf and turf”, in Barcelona you’ll find plentiful mar i muntanya dishes – literally translating to “sea and mountain.” Poultry is paired with fruit. Fish nestles up to nuts.
In Valencia, this idea might seem a bit nuts. Most are familiar with Valencia as the home of its eponymous orange. But this city by the sea has truly been defined by the Mediterranean’s bounty, contributing to its biggest epicurean export: paella.
Paella, a stir-fried rice dish combined with seafood and vegetables is distinctive for its use of saffron for flavor and coloring. To be authentic, paella must be cooked in a flat pan called a “Paellera” on a charcoal fire.
The sea is also on display at the inspiring, Santiago Calatrava-designed L’Oceanografic. This interactive museum of science that resembles the skeleton of a whale is the biggest aquarium in Europe, with a variety of ocean life from different environments. The famed architect has created a world of wonder, for Valencians, Spaniards and tourists who come to experience these buildings that move the mind and heart.
When you’re done exploring the city’s latest cultural offerings (and there are plenty), cool off with a refreshing drink called horchata de chufa – a sweet, milky concoction made from tiger nut. This drink is practically a desert unto itself, but is often accompanied with the (less than pleasant sounding) fartons, which is a sugary breadstick. Not surprising people have a sweet tooth here in the land of citrus.
Valencia isn’t always on the minds of travelers, thanks to a past reputation of being a drab sort of place. But 800,000 people call the city home – so they must be on to something. Their delicious orange is really the perfect metaphor for the place – underneath the rind you’ll find a juicy, vibrant interior, with plenty to squeeze from its juicy heart.
Barcelona and Valencia. Both on the sea, begging to be seen. So the question is, “Are you ready to go?”
The answer of course, is “Si.”