Barcelona is an absolute blast to pop over for a weekend of eating, walking and people watching if that sounds like your jam. It’s a breeding ground for entrepreneurship and art, attracting an enormous amount of tourists throughout the year who have proven their insatiable hunger for jamon – the most tastey cured leg of pork with an old-sports-shoe and shiitake mushroom bouquet. The cream of the crop, aged jamon iberico, is made from the leg of a black Iberian pig and fetches a pretty penny on international markets. It’s used in a healthy proportion of Spanish cuisine, and eaten all times of the day (breakfast too).
I suppose a good jamon sports the perfect balance of salty, slightly sweet, and a suggestion of game that comes together with the melt-in-your-mouth fat, spiked with the acorns that the Iberican pig grazed on through its life. You can truly taste what an animal has been eating, and jamon iberico is a testament to that. This wonderful cocktail of chemical compounds and glutamates (that whole-mouth feel that a good stock will give you) are the reason why a 12 month old piece of meat can elevate anyone to their special place.
Of course it isn’t fair to simply talk about cured meat when describing the city of Barcelona, a city that is energised with a rich art scene, given life by a free spirited people, nightlife that attracts some of the best headlines in music, and an exciting food scene that leaves pretentiousness by the door. When I come to Barcelona, I love watching the local skate scene from the MACBA (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona); having a psychedelic juice from one of the many health food cafes that wear a uniform of neon spray paint inside and out; sifting through trash and treasure at the many local flea markets; and most of all the tapas culture – one of the rare moments when I get a little drizzled while munching on mystery bites (mysterious because I can’t speak Spanish). It’s a fun game. So I can’t pretend to be an authority on tapas. Firstly, I’m not Spanish, and secondly I was not raised in a Spanish culture, so let’s set the record straight to say that this is an experience relayed to you, narrated by a seasoned eater and cook who is enthralled by my senses.
Casa Lolea has become somewhere I find myself returning to every visit. A tapas joint that produces their own vermouth, or rather a vermouth joint that produces tapas. The booze is fresh and served on generously sized ice cubes, and their food is well thought out, humble, but luxurious all the same. Tucked behind one of the most bustling areas in Barcelona’s old town, you won’t be sitting amongst locals but don’t let that put you off the ‘authentic experience’ you might be hunting for. Barcelona is such a hub for visitors each year, and it is said that this year alone will attract 7.6 million tourists alone (Bloomberg), to the benefit and demise of its 1.7 million residents.
A refurbished hole-in-the-wall, Casa Lolea invites with a warm glow in the distance as you approach on the old cobble stone street. The tiled floors and walls are a smart sight, adorning the attractive space with character and framing an impressive stone wall with prized legs of jamon on the wall. The floor team are welcoming and quick on their feet to cater to an ever-full room, two seatings a night. The space feels energised by good booze and tastey treats that float around the room thanks to the switched on waitstaff.
We start with one of their famous vermouth cocktails, thirst quenching with fresh citrus zing and a wonderfully floral nose to kick off our appetites. Crisp toasts topped with French, Spanish, and South American ingredients only make us hungrier as we polish off every crumb in anticipation of what’s to come. They are all very savoury, and show off some really complex ingredients that need not be messed with in the cooking process. They are flash cooked if at all, and to be eaten in a few big bites.
The hot tapas were a delight. A basque style tortilla, only just cooked in the middle so that the outside is crisp and inside stays soft and a little wobbly. This is my favourite kind of tortilla, and very much unlike the local style that is well cooked and much firmer in texture. But the potatoes are something to ride home about: the perfect little waxy potato, cooked just past their crunchy state, and still waxy in the middle. They came with some rich home-made mayo, topped with fresh chives and a tomato sauce spiked with plenty of smokey paprika. Simplicity in its most forgiving form. We didn’t fit much else in thanks to two servings of tortilla (sorry not sorry).
/ Words and Photographs Lauren Yates /