The Catalan Brunch
Written by Elizabeth Prosser in Barcelona
For locals, the ritual of drinking vermut is not only a tradition that has been passed down through generations, but a social way of life.
Vermut can be languidly sipped in the shade of a late afternoon, or just about at any time, but for a purist it is only consumed during l’hora de vermut (vermouth hour). Traditionally after mass and before the late Spanish lunch, it marks the starting block of a lengthy day of eating ahead.
Forget about its reputation as an “old man’s drink” or even as a key ingredient to a classic cocktail. A good quality vermut is served solo on the rocks and in Barcelona, fer un vermut (literal translation: “to do a vermut”) has become a trendy and enthusiastic custom for young and old alike. Throughout the city you can find specialist vermut bars, known as vermuterias that range from dusty spit and sawdust watering holes to revamped and polished reversions that still retain heritage features such as vast wooden barrels, traditional marble countertops and other vintage touches.
Back in the 19th century, this fortified wine was imported to Spain from Italy and local production, especially in Catalunya, took off with gusto. Its taste slowly evolved over the years, as each producer adds their own secret flavour combinations which include wild herbs, citruses, spices, botanicals and bitters (think notes of zesty orange, rosemary and smoked wood).
The name, vermut, derives from the German word wermut which translates into wormwood – one of its main bitters. These properties are thought to contain medicinal properties for settling the stomach and aiding digestion – maybe why it enjoys special pre-lunch tipple status.
In Catalunya, vermut is produced in three varieties: white, rose or red but it’s the red vermut rojo (or vermut negre in Catalan) that is knocked back the most. It is served over ice with a slice of orange or an olive and it can be diluted with soda water by giving a quick pump to a retro-looking siphon bottle.
But it is not only vermut that maketh l’hora de vermut. There’s a designated snack menu to go with it. With lunch not starting until around 2pm or even 3pm, it will ensure you make it through to lunch with your dignity still intact.
On this particular menu you won’t find patatas bravas and tortilla. This is about whetting the appetite – the mains will come in due course. Awaken your taste buds between sips of aromatic liquor by crunching on salted almonds and crisps, savouring plump green olives, pungent local cheeses and dried cured meats – and do not, whatever you do, skip the tinned delicacies known as conservas.
Tinned food may have a bad rep in some circles, but here it is the very definition of quality and its fame is steadily growing beyond the shores of Spain. Espinaler, a company and producer based in a small coastal town in the province of Barcelona, is one of the best-
known gourmet canned food companies. The history of this company begins over a century ago, when a stalwart tavern was opened simply to provide a “drop” of wine to locals stopping by.
During the 1940s, the founder’s grandson brought in a high-quality vermut and began expanding his range of appetizers to accompany it. These were mainly Galician conservas and included delicacies such as mussels, clams, cockles and white tuna that had been freshly plucked from the Atlantic Ocean off the northern coast of Spain, to be hand packed and preserved in tins. In other words: direct from sea to table. Espinaler also created their own accompanying sauce, made from vinegar, red pepper, black pepper and other spices, which is a popular accompaniment to this day in most vermuterias.
The acclaimed Adria brothers opened the neighbourhood bar Bodega 1900 in 2012, right opposite Ferran Adria’s restaurant, Tickets. From the hanging jamon legs to the old-fashioned wooden wine fridges, this hole in the wall tavern is as much a celebration of vermouth as it is of flavour. Whether you stop by for a quick bite or a full meal, the essence of the vemuteria is in every detail but given a modern twist, from the spherical olives that melt away to give a sudden intense burst of flavour and the restaurant’s own brand of top quality conservas to market fresh tapas like paper-thin slithers of ruby red beef carpaccio, Galician sea urchins and crunchy algae rolls.
Morro Fi is another essential player in this resurgence scene. The passion project of three foodie friends, who originally had a food blog of the same name, this quirky chain of vermuterias not only produce their own artisanal vermut but they have developed their own line of conservas and other snacks too. One should not leave without trying their thick cut potato chips doused in salsa that marry perfectly with each sip of vermut.
Vermut is available in pretty much any bar across Barcelona but for the real deal, you’re better off sticking to the vermuterias where they will serve you it straight from the tap of a barrel. If you can’t make it to the sunny climes of this buzzing city, you can order it by the bottle online from a number of top-quality producers and bring the sunshine and warmth of the Catalan capital into your home!