Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Veggie in Barcelona

Dipped a toe into Barcelona, armed with a lengthy print-out of veg-friendly eateries courtesy of Happy Cow. I’ve seen and heard many bad reports from veggie visitors to Spain over the past few years – the gist of it is that people just keep putting ham onto your plate, whether you like it or not. I was ready for it and fairly resigned to wasting some money on food that I couldn’t eat.

Turns out Barcelona, at least, is kinder to English vegetarians than expected. Practically every menu I was offered had an English translation attached. Tapas places often have boards with photos of the dishes, but to be honest that’s not a great deal of use if you’re worried about tiny bits of fish or meat stock.

Tapas is ubiquitous and when you’re footsore and weary from too much art-and-architecture gawping, and what you really need is a nice sit-down, you’ll probably agree that a few little plates of nibbles and some long cold drinks hit the spot much more effectively than a big demanding salad or a heavy hot meal. You’re never far away from a little plate of fried potatoes, which to my mind is a very good thing. We supplemented the potato feast with bits of roasted peppers, sliced courgettes and goats cheese assembled in layers, gluey but scrummy cheese croquettes (beware, most croquettes are not made of cheese) and garlic mushrooms. At meal one, the waitress insisted we order ‘tomato bread’ and she was right, we did like it. Later in our trip, I was treated to a spontaneous demonstration of how to make it when a rather demanding Frenchwoman at a neighbouring table decided to take full advantage of the fact that our waitress spoke French as well as English, Castilian and Catalan. If I had asked demanding questions perhaps I would have won the demonstration – still, I had a ringside seat as the waitress sliced a fat clove of garlic in half and rubbed it generously onto a couple of slices of toast. Next, she halved a big tomato and scrubbed the cut side over the bread. Nice wrist-flicking technique as she drizzled some olive oil and twisted some salt, and the job was done. We worked out that we should be calling it Pan Catalan, not tomato bread, and ordered it frequently. Sometimes crispy, sometimes wet and a bit floppy – always pretty good.

We had no difficulty finding food in ‘normal’ places and I never did find any ham on my plate. However, like the good veggie foodie I am, I did make a point of checking out a few specifically veggie places. For what it’s worth, here’s what I found.

Juicy Jones

There are two branches of Juicy Jones – we went, with slight trepeidation, to the one at C/Hospital, which is close to the rather seedy area where we stayed. You can’t miss it, it’s covered with artistic paintwork in the graffiti style. Several reviews/guide books had warned that whilst this is a good vegan eatery, food might take a good while to arrive as Juicy Jones is staffed by rather laid back types. (I’m not sure what people expect from waiters and waitresses in general but I’m quite used to the standard British grumpy service – didn’t run up against anything in Barcelona that caused me any unusual problems!)

The menu is huge but mostly made up of juices – think of a combination, they’ll have a name for it. Freshly squeezed juices are mainly what this place is about – smoothies, and milky sort of things (without milk) too. Not much on the menu by way of food – lots of blackboards detailing dishes of the day. Even with English subtitles it wasn’t obvious how the meal ordering worked so we looked English and anxious and a very kind waitress pulled up a chair and talked us through it all. I had a juice (possibly they don’t let you out unless you do), a pot of hummus with bread, the daily Thali, and a dish of kulfi. The hummus was delicious but a bowlful of it was enough to fill me up. The Thali arrived on a metal dinner tray with various little compartments – traditional, I guess, but it was a bit like being in prison (not that I’ve been). Three types of curry along the top, each hotter than the last, each runny and greyish and not easily identifiable. Two blobs of chutneys, one green and hot, one red and fruity, a portion of rice and a bendy segment of poppadum. Not really my cup of tea and I was glad I hadn’t been expecting a ‘posh’ evening meal. The kulfi was a kind of orange blancmange with some damp sultanas hiding underneath it. Disappointing, as I had been hoping for icecream of some sort. G had the Thali too, but began with gazpacho, which he said was lovely, and ended with carrot cake, which ditto. Overall the experience was slightly disappointing food-wise, and not as intimidating as expected, hippy wise. Soundtrack was, surprisingly, undemanding modern jazz – think Stevie Wonder and his kind. The place wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t full either. We passed it again much later one evening and it was packed. Good for juice!

Cat Bar (Boria 17)

Another exclusively vegan venue which has attracted some rave reviews online for the punky vibe, live music, friendly staff and most of all for the unpretentious vegan nosh – bangers, burgers, home-made chunky chips and good old Heinz baked beans. We fetched up there on a Tuesday evening just in time for a bit of a concert from a sweet jazz double act – nothing much punky going on – suspect G was the only person in the place who could actually lay claim to ever having been what we Brits would call a punk! Vegan sausage, beans and chips was good but slightly strange on a hot night in Barcelona. Kind of felt a bit wrong – but I’ll bet if you live in Barcelona it would be a very welcome excursion away from the usual stuff. Not over-friendly, but I think we were a bit out of place - dumpy middle-aged English veggies hanging on to the coat tails of a place that sets itself up as a bit edgy. Nice to see some fellow diners reading The Vegan. Not a bad place to grab a sausage, if you’ll pardon the expression.

La Bascula (C/Flassaders 30)

This place appeared on a couple of online veggie lists, although not on Happy Cow – not even on the ‘veggie-friendly’ list. I spotted variations on the word ‘vegetarian’ on the menu boards as we walked past and it looked a likely place to find some good, possibly what you might call ‘artisan’ food – a dark, inviting cavern in an attractive old building that according to the books was once a chocolate factory and has recently been rescued from demolition. Lots of reclaimed sticks of furniture and chalk boards. I expected some good Catalan cooking with a veggie ‘twist’, maybe some fabulous organic bread, home-made cheese, quirky vegan chocolates... you know the sort of thing. It looked lovely when we went in – a strange central table made of battered old doors, surrounded by high stools, and lots of clutter presumably selected to provide some sort of arty ambience. The actual eating experience was weird, though. It was the first place we had been to where nobody volunteered to help us out by speaking English – possibly, as G suggested, they were being determined about being Catalans and not making too many concessions – well, good for them – but it didn’t us feel particularly welcome. I’m really, truly not one of those Brits who trots around expecting everybody to speak English, but the reception we got was cold to the point of unwelcoming. Bloody English tourists.

We really struggled with the menu – even when we found a handy glossary on the back – we must have looked pretty stumped because eventually one of the cooks came out of the kitchen to offer some reasonably kind advice. Turned out the menu was mostly hot and cold sandwiches, and, horror of horrors, tuna and salmon were on offer. It wasn’t clear to me whether the place was marketing itself as a veggie eatery, or just veggie-friendly, but there’s nothing more irritating to me than people who think vegetarians eat fish. Realising that we were now just as likely to end up with fish on our plates as we were in any of the non-‘veggie’ eateries in the town, making a choice from the untranslated menus and boards became a bit of a damage limitation process – just order something unlikely to contain fish. I opted for spinach ravioli with a tomato sauce – a bit of a pedestrian choice really. I didn’t think it could go too badly wrong, but it was pretty poor. Nicely cooked home-made pasta but hellishly disappointing, tasteless filling and a weeny blob of sauce. White wine came in a tiny plastic pot – the girl sitting opposite me at the communal table got a much more generous measure, so I guess our dithering and general anxiety might have rubbed them up the wrong way. G went for a salad, which was huge and not particularly experimental. The oddest thing was that the drinks were served in plastic or paper cups, the plates were disposable polystyrene and the cutlery was disposable plastic. I couldn’t get my head round why they were making such a big deal about the reclaimed furniture and yet doing such un-green things with the plastic disposables. Maybe it’s greener to recycle plastic than it is to wash up? I’m not convinced. Friends of the waiter turned up while we were eating – actually, waiter is not the word, as he stayed behind his counter and never really made any attempt to engage with us, explain the food or take an order... anyway, he didn’t seem keen to stop chatting with his friends so we decided not to attempt dessert. Don’t go if you mind about eating fish or you’re looking for a waiter who’s at least prepared to meet you half-way...

Overall Barcelona is not a city that will cause too many problems for vegetarians. Vegans might struggle, I think, but there are a good number of veggie and vegan eateries listed online. If you’re on a tight budget, the falafel chains are probably worth checking out, and there are also lots of little independent greengrocers where you can pick up fruit, and quite a few nice bakeries where you can get bread along with naughtier things. The big market that’s just off the top of the Rambla is worth a look if you can turn a blind eye to the meat stalls with their horrible tripe and tongues. The fruit and veg displays are absolutely beautiful and the candied fruit in particular looks fantastic. You might struggle to find a shady place to eat what you’ve purchased and if you’re hoping to get through a meal in the open air without being asked for money by musicians, acrobats, flower sellers, puppeteers or flamenco dancers, think again. Happily, most buskers and beggars will go away pretty quickly after you have said no – they’re nowhere near as pushy as they are in Rome... but that’s another story. Hold on to your handbag.

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