If you are looking for seafood in Barcelona, the guidebooks will tell you that a good place to go is Barceloneta. The neighborhood borders the city's beaches and was once home to the fishermen who set sail every day to earn their living from the Mediterranean. Today's tapas bars and seafood restaurants are some of what remains of that legacy; you can spend the afternoon lying on the sand and then head into Barceloneta's narrow streets in search of calamari.
A few weeks ago, I was standing outside one of these seafood restaurants peering into large lobster tanks, displayed in the window to lure tourists like me.
"Are these lobsters from the Mediterranean?" I asked a waiter.
"No," he replied, the lobsters weren't from local waters. He was certain the lobsters were visitors, just like me.
When we planned our first overseas family holiday in Barcelona, food ranked high on the list of what we wanted to explore. I traveled to Spain with my parents when I was 12 years old, and I had vivid memories of some of our meals. I ate green beans with olive oil for the first time on that trip, and I still remember the flavor of the warm oil with the just-picked beans. These days when I travel, I am interested in getting to know places through what I eat, which means choosing foods that capture the terroir and offer a taste of place.
But on this holiday, when I searched for local food, I found long-distance industrial instead. From the hole-in-the-wall joints to swish tapas bars near the Passeig de Gracia, imports ruled. At one café that was highly recommended by a resident food blogger, my heart sank when the spinach salad with local ham turned out to be made from pre-washed greens, identical to the ones at my neighborhood supermarket; I ate the salad despite the tell-tale rotten bits of old leaves clinging to the fresher ones. Then in a restaurant overlooking the famous Boquería Market—where vegetable stands overflow with fresh produce, where you can choose between dozens of different cured hams, and where there is a woman who sells only eggs collected from a variety of fowl—I asked the waitress what they had in season. She shrugged.
"We can get anything we want at the market so we don't pay attention to the seasons," she explained.
By the time the waiter at what was referred to as the city's best tapas bar told me the shrimp were from Indonesia, I was ready to cry. Although I was unhappy at being served grilled South American asparagus instead of fresh Spanish green beans (asparagus are a winter food in Spain), it was the amount of imported fish and seafood that surprised me most. Because of the city's position beside the Mediterranean, there exists an illusion that when you order your fish in a restaurant, you are eating the catch of the day.
While Barcelona might once have been a place to find ample, fresh seafood, today that is no longer the case because there aren't as many fish in the sea—we ate them all.
Francisco Muñoz, whose family has worked in the city's fishing industry for four generations, has witnessed the disappearance of local varieties over the last fifteen years. "The fish we ate when I was young are more expensive. What was two euros is now 20 euros a kilo because there are fewer," he said. "Globalization is bringing in fish from other parts."
Our industrial-scale appetite for fish has consumed, literally, local fish stocks. The potentially catastrophic environmental repercussions of this have been well documented by scientists. And our global, industrial farming system that grows enough asparagus in the Southern Hemisphere to supply the North is not only unsustainable but also offers us a bland homogeneity at the table.
There used to be Mediterranean lobster—few remain—and they tasted differently than the imports.
"They are the most delicious," one of the city's fishmongers told me. While she did have some Mediterranean fish for sale at her stand in the Mercat de la Concepción, most of what she was serving her clientele was brought in from elsewhere. It was the same fish you can buy in New York, Toronto, and London, too.
For the traveler who likes to eat, this means a globalized palate that disappoints. A world where you can always find South American asparagus spindles and where spinach tastes like spinach wherever you go.