My favourite time of year is when folk in Northern Europe are sliding duvets back on their beds, but here in Barcelona we’re still basking in the rays of an Indian summer. It’s as reliable as rain in Wales in August, but because it’s now September, you stand half a chance of bagging a table on a terrace without sizzling away like a rotisserie chicken. On Saturdays and Sundays up in Hostafrancs, it would ideally be the one at La Parra, an old favourite with its vine-shaded terrace, willing service and the kind of wonderfully old-school Catalan fare that first seduced me into the food writing world when I arrived all those years ago. I love them for not becoming cool, or hipster, or design. They are just who they are, solid and dependable as the old vine that gave the place its name.
La Parra is really an old farmhouse that gives a sense of just how ‘out-of-town’ the barri was back in the day, with worn terracotta tiles on the floor, sturdy wooden tables, old blue and white china stacked up on the shelves by way of interior décor, and a huge, wood-fired grill that occupies most of the kitchen. You pass this to get to the dining room with the heavenly scent of wood smoke following after you. In the 1890s La Parra was a meeting point for travellers catching a horse and cart down to Valencia. They’d have a snack and stock up on ham, cheese and wine to take with them and, like so many of the old-school places in Barcelona, it evolved quite naturally into a place where you could sit down and have a proper meal. It’s been pretty much the same ever since, give or take the odd luxury like the thick, gingham napkins that feel sturdy and reassuring when you lay them across your lap, underlining the sense that what you are about to eat will be just as solid.
As I waited for a friend to arrive I was brought a bowl of earthy, arbequina olives, a small cazuela of patatas bravas (I felt they couldn’t bear to see me sitting there with nothing to sustain me) and a large glass of rosado. Recent press criticising the restaurant industry’s inability to welcome lone female diners should point them in this direction. There are no such problems here. I’d have been happy as a clam passing this afternoon here, nibbling on tasty things and chatting with the French waiter, who married a Catalan girl and has been here for years, about tales of yore. But my friend arrived and the serious business of what to eat and how much of it, took over.
The portions could still be described as ‘farmhouse’. The salad of an entire head of a lettuce, meaty chunks of tomato and roughly sliced, sweet, rosy-fleshed Figueres onions, accompanied a chuletón (t-bone) the size of my thigh with a couple of potatoes that had been thrown into the embers to bake. Robustly charred and smoky, the same colour pink as my glass of rosado in the middle, this is a proper meaty steak, running with juices and crisped yellow fat that turns carnivorous types to mush, and that made a not un-generous side order of lamb chops (because I won’t deny it, my friends and I are greedy sorts) seem rather puny. Tender as butter and sweet as shoots of spring grass they came with a stout, yellow mortar brimming with fiercely garlicky aioli. The wine kept coming and we kept eating, and sometime around 5.30pm, glowing with the kind of happiness that only comes with a seriously good feed, we finally broke and asked for the bill. Pudding by then was way off the table—you need to be a giant to fit it all in—but I did have a carajillo (espresso) with anisette because it just felt rude not to and I could feel the eyes of the kitchen looking at us sadly. No appetite, these pale Northern European types, they seemed to say. When the bill came, it was €50 for the two of us. And this, my friends, is what I call total and utter bliss. What a place!
Joanot Martorell 3. Hostafrancs Tel. 93 332 5134 Open Tue-Sat 8pm-midnight.Sat-Sun 1.30pm-4pm About €25 for two courses plus wine