Saturday, 18 July 2015

10 things I learnt about Catalan cuisine with Devour Barcelona

Just like Spain's geography, its cuisine is diverse. So when I visited Barcelona recently, I was excited to learn more about Catalan gastronomy with Devour Barcelona. The second city to hold a Devour Spain food tour, the Barcelona route focuses on the Gràcia neighbourhood north of key city artery Passeig de Gràcia. Unlike this busy boulevard flanked by designer stores, Gracia is best-known for its local vibe – so much so that it's often referred to as a 'village in the middle of Barcelona'. Knowing how crowded the Catalan capital can get, I was sceptical of this claim: disproving it wasn't the only surprise I had in store that morning.

Founded by food and travel blogger Lauren Aloise of Spanish Sabores, Devour Spain began life as Madrid Food Tour. I was lucky enough to try out their Tapas, Taverns and History tour last year, so when they expanded to Barcelona in 2014, I couldn't wait to try their food tour. Running every morning from Tuesday to Saturday, the Barcelona tour takes you all the way from breakfast through to post-lunch coffee & cake, with 9 stops dotted around gorgeous Gràcia. I met friendly tour guide Renée on Passeig de Gràcia, and our group headed up to the barrio of the same name. En route, Renée explained that Gràcia actually once was a village, cut off from the city itself, which at the time centred around Barceloneta and El Born. Passeig de Gràcia was built to link the two, and the rest is history. In my opinion, this pretty barrio is perfect food tour territory: it's still largely off the tourist itinerary, and is home to plenty of family-run businesses which Devour Spain likes to support.

But enough about Gràcia: my mission was to eat. So, here's what I learnt during one food-packed morning with Devour Barcelona.

1) Drinking cava for breakfast is encouraged

Feeling decadent with cava for brekfast

At stop number one, wood-panelled, family photo-bedecked Can Tosca, I tucked into a green garlic omelette sandwich washed down with a glass of the sparkling stuff. At 10am, No, I'm not a secret daytime drinker or a decadent type – Renée reassured us that quaffing cava with your breakfast is totally normal in Catalunya. The Spanish version of more famous sparkling wine champagne, cava is made with different grapes to its French cousin, but the process used is the same (unlike Italian prosecco). Its price tag is lower than champagne as the conditions in Catalunya are more favourable, so a higher volume can be produced. If that means cava from 85 cents a glass, I'm not complaining. It made quite a change from my usual coffee or tea, and got the tour off to a great start. Can Tosca has been run by the same family since it opened in 1961, and the friendly crew certainly know how to cook – my omelette (butifarra sausage for the meat-eaters) was flavoursome and served on fresh, crusty bread. 

2) The Mercat de la Boqueria isn't the only Barcelona market worth a visit

Taking a bite out of Barcelona

Tour founder Lauren is of the opinion that the best way to get a flavour for a city is through its markets. Entering Gràcia's market, the Mercat de l'Abaceria Central, I could see why: locals thronged the aisles picking up daily groceries, selecting the best produce. We made our way to Josep's olive stall (aka Selecció d'Olives i Conserves Glória) where the owner sells olives and marinated vegetables to take away, as well as serving up tasty skewers loaded with different flavour combinations – apparently inspired by Madrid's own Mercado de San Miguel. We polished off a huge mouthful of green olive, pepper and salt cod before making our way to cheese stall La Trobada del Gourmet, where we sampled three varieties of Spanish and Catalan cheese accompanied by membrillo, or quince jelly. La Boqueria may be impressive, but if you'd rather see a snapshot of regular city life, the Mercat de l'Abaceria is a great spot to try.

Monday, 6 July 2015

The Spanish Costas, revisited - It's not all suncream & sangria

If you're British, chances are your childhood will have featured at least one bucket-and-spade holiday on one of the Spanish costas. There's no denying that despite the travel trends that come and go, Spain is a national favourite holiday destination for us, with breaks on the Costa del Sol, Costa Blanca and Costa Brava remaining popular. But how well do we really know the Spanish costas?

For those who shudder at the thought of holidaying on the Spanish coast, automatically thinking of the high-rise hotels of Benidorm and crowded beaches thronged with fellow Brits, think again. Like the rest of the country, Spain's coastline is incredibly diverse, with both rugged, wild stretches dotted with rocky coves and sweeps of sandy beach. Temperatures vary too, with the north a more temperate option at any time of year.

So if you haven't sorted a summer holiday yet, it's time to revisit the costas.

The lesser-known costas

If you're more into verdant landscapes than sunbleached beaches, the Costa Verde in north-eastern Asturias may be for you. More commonly associated with cider and its mountainous interior, Asturias has 350 kilometres of coastline. Key coastal towns include Cudillero and Llastres, where the Spanish equivalent of Doc Martin was filmed. If you're into more active pursuits than just sunbathing, the Costa Verde won't disappoint  it's a perfect location for rafting and hiking thanks to milder temperatures. 

San Sebastian, the stunner of the Basque coast

Also in the north, the Costa Vasca has on old-school glamour reminiscent of the south of France - but without the hefty price tag. The cities of Bilbao and San Sebastián are key Basque Country attractions, meaning that this coastline of the Basque Country is ideal for combining a city break with some beach time. San Sebastián offers both in the same gorgeous package: the wide sweep of La Concha beach is one of the country's most photographed, while the laid-back little city is renowned for its gastronomy, particularly its pintxos (tapas). With little to tick off on the museum front, you won't feel guilty moving from beach towel to pintxo bar.

The Costa del Sol isn't the only stretch of coastline in Andalucía  Spain's southernmost region is also home to the Costa de la Luz, Costa Tropical and Costa de Almería. These three areas are better known among Spanish than British tourists, so if you're looking to blend in while still enjoying some tanning time, try one of these costas. Stretching from Cádiz to Huelva, the province which shares a border with Portugal, the Costa de la Luz is on the Atlantic coast. It's home to wide sandy beaches ideal for sunbathing – or if one of the famous levante winds hits town, for windsurfing or kite-surfing too. Laid-back Tarifa has a surfer vibe all year round, and is this coast's jumping-off point for Morocco, as the ferry to Tangier departs from here.

View of Africa: Tarifa is the southernmost point of Spain

The province of Granada may be best known for the Alhambra, but its also home to the Costa Tropical, a short stretch of coast where the main beach towns are Motril, Almuñécar and Salobreña. If you're looking for more dramatic landscapes, try Almería: the Cabo de Gata has some impressive rock formations as well as some quieter beaches.

The costas you think you know, revisited

Home to the renowned resort of Benidorm, the Costa Blanca has more to offer than English breakfasts in the sun. 2800 hours of sunshine and warm temperatures year-round make this coastline popular with Spanish visitors too – the city of Alicante and neighbouring resort Playa San Juan are favourites among Madrileños who escape the city heat in August. Pretty Jávea and Altea have well-preserved old towns, while laid-back Calpe's mountain backdrop means that a quiet retreat from the beach is an easy option.

Stunning Cadaques

Perhaps best known among Brits for gay tourism in Sitges and the party resort of Lloret de Mar, the Spanish associate the Costa Brava with its rugged coastline and great seafood. Stretching up to the French border, this area of Catalan coast is studded with rocky coves and harbours, making it ideal for those who like to explore different towns. Soak up some culture and cuisine in stunning Cadaqués: artist Salvador Dalí's former home is just a few kilometres away in Portlligat, while a group of graduates from El Bulli are cooking up a storm at Compartir

No article on the Spanish costas would be complete without a mention of the grande dame of coastlines, the Costa del Sol. Beloved of Brits for decades, it isn't just home to the party town of 'Marbs' (or more accurately Puerto Banús, not much of the partying goes on in Marbella itself) and family-friendly resorts like Torremolinos, you can also find low-key beach towns like pretty little Estepona. Visiting last year, I was surprised at my misconceptions of the Costa del Sol: I spent a long weekend in Fuengirola, fully expecting to find fishbowl cocktails being slurped by rowdy teens, but instead encountered a very Spanish town centre blended with a touch of that British home-from-home on the beach front. Any place where I can enjoy a morning cup of tea with a sea view followed by pescaíto frito for lunch is just fine by me. 

Need more information on the costas? This fun infographic gives the lowdown on the Spanish coastline's top picks. You can also find information on every stretch of Spanish sand here.

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