A Taste of a Place – Palafrugell
No doubt, many will be familiar with picturesque Calella de Palafrugell; the heart winning bay region of Palafrugell; with its string of coves, bobbing boats and stylish whitewashed village where tourists from all over Europe, throng throughout the balmy summer months. A few years ago, we were fortunate to spend a season (8 months) based in Calella, whilst working for a UK based holiday company offering cycling and walking tours of the region.
Whilst there is no disputing the charm and beauty of the rugged coves and the diminutive beaches, if I am totally honest, it isn’t really our kind of place. Mainly because out of the high season (June –September), it is super quiet. It would seem that no one actually lives there. Which in turn, means there is a distinct lack of no frills hangouts and regular folk. Calella is all about frills, which is great when you are on holiday, but when you are living there on a very basic salary, it’s a bit of a stretch!
So where did we spend our downtime? Well, if you head about 2km inland, you come to the real town of Palafrugell; a handsome maze of ochre coloured buildings built around the lively, central Placa Nova. A seemingly wealthy small town, historically home to the cork industry – it is largely bypassed by tourists (probably unaware of its existence).
Birthplace of the Catalan writer Josep Pla, it is home to an impressive sculpture gallery, a modernist water tower an entertaining interactive cork museum, as well as some cute boutique type shops. It is also the home of an impressive, noisy Sunday street market which lines several streets and draws in folk from miles around.
Being the creatures of habit that we are; one of our favourite spots is the family run market bar “El petit bar del Mercat” where you can enjoy the typical catalan breakfast of a “mini”; a thin baguette filled with cheese, omelette, cold meat or tuna plus coffee for 2.50. When working we would often hitch up at the counter in between shifts and enjoy seeing the cheerful family at work amidst the hustle and bustle at the daily covered market. Sometimes raising a tiny beer in solidarity…
As with all towns in Spain, the indoor market is a hive of activity; the market here is no exception, with its vast array of excellent produce. Of particular interest, were the fascinating stalls selling small volumes of what looks to be quality, home produced meals, for reheating at home. For example; salads, tortilla, empanada (pie) all available by the portion. As well as stalls selling reconstituted dried chickpeas, beans etc. Seems to be the catalan version of take away food, but like everything in this region, the quality is super high.
Another favourite spot is the Centre Fraternal (Placa Nova). We have been frequenting this place for years now, at any time of the day; for a breakfast mini, a set lunch, an afternoon beer.
However, we still don’t really know what it is; a members club, a working man’s club, we just don’t know (ask no questions and all that…)!
The centre has recently undergone a major facelift, updating the interior with grey tones and a bit of an industrial feel. But happily, we can report that not only the menu (and the prices) remain the same, but so do the members’ caricatures that line the walls and the old fellas playing dominoes of an afternoon. It’s a good spot for a hearty menu del dia – you won’t leave hungry, that’s for sure!
On a sad note, during this trip we noted that our favourite bar L’Autentic, with its ebullient Sheffield raised host Julio, is no more. I fear I may never again taste the wonderful, cava based cocktail that was the “Paul Weller”, again.
Also gone was the very down home Bar Prudent, where the chef patron would whip up the best seafood fideua we have ever tasted. Another local bar owner “El Ingles”, who recommended this place, told me the secret was in the depth of the chef’s sofrito. He was right, the dark colour of the noodle based seafood dish denoted the depth of flavor of the sofrito and the skilled patience of the chef who created it. I can only hope that the bar is just dormant and we will get to taste this once more…
Another old haunt, located somewhat inauspiciously in Carrefour carpark, La Taverna del Peix Fregit (Avenida de les corts catalanes), was still there, albeit under new management. The menu has changed and the décor has been refreshed, but the heart of the place, which is the great cooking, excellent menu del dia and homely charm have thankfully, been retained. We ate several excellent menu del dias during our stay this time. Prices are incredibly reasonable and the quality is really good. In fact, one lunchtime, we had one of our favourite meals of the holiday; a delicious soupy rice with cod and artichokes. The rice dishes in this rice growing region are just so good and varied too. I would heartily recommend trying them at every opportunity.
Another place not to be missed is the patio bar (El Pati) at Hostal L’Estrella (Carrer de les Quatre Cases); a seriously relaxed outdoor venue for aperitifs and drinks. Popular both at weekend lunchtimes, when there might be a DJ playing some laidback tunes or a great, twinkly evening spot to enjoy a vermut or a cava accompanied by a personal favourite, “poti – poti” (meaning literally mishmash); super thick crisps, topped with olives, boquerones, mussels in escabeche and hot guindilla peppers – ideal for “opening the apetite” as with all good aperitivos.
On the outskirts of town (the coastward side) you will see an old stone venue lit up with a neon sign, “Funky Pizza” (Avenida d’Espanya), where we sampled the tastiest artisan pizza accompanied by the locally brewed “Dos Kiwis” craft beers.
These pizzas are something else; the 48 hour fermented bases are as light as anything and toppings are top notch and include burrata, taleggio and truffle. The fried potatoes with kimchi mayo were pretty decent too. This is a truly “funky” venue, popular with all ages. Families give way to a diverse late night crowd enjoying drinks and DJs alfresco style. Highly recommended.
Palafrugell never ceases to surprise. One afternoon on our most recent trip, we ventured from our apartment in search of a supermarket to buy water. In our very regular workers’ neighbourhood we happened upon the frankly amazing “Peix Jana” (Carrer Ample), to all intents and purposes a fishmongers, with a few tasting tables.
So, of course, we abandoned our mission, pulled up a seat and proceeded to be served a succession of the best seafood by our charming husband/wife combo hosts. Oysters from Brittany accompanied by a beautiful organic cava.
Exquisite plates of prawns, both red and white varieties from neighbouring Palamos (see our blog about Palamos), steamed mussels. Then a whole fish – besugo, perhaps? Concluding with excellent coffee and chupitos.
I couldn’t tell you if there was a menu, we literally just went with the flow! The quality and abundance of the dishes we ate was incomparable. The surroundings, the hosts, the ambience – all were right up our street. The bill seemed very reasonable. The whole experience was like a beautiful dream!
Another option for inspirational dining is the super cosy Kosa bistro (Carrer dels Valls); again a husband/wife combo (a recurrent theme for us). It wasn’t open on our most recent visit (though I note on social media it has since reopened), but we were fortunate to be taken there by some local friends just before lockdown. Some really imaginative sharing plates, using the best of seasonal ingredients and combining traditional regional recipes with modern innovation. Not to be missed on our next visit (NB you will need to book – this place is tiny).
A more everyday option, particularly if you are a beef lover (not common in these parts) is the Argentinian owned El Carrero (Carrer Major), we like the friendly, down home feel of the place and are partial to an Argentinian empanada, (pie) or two with a beer.
Alternatively, if you are in need of refreshment on a hot day, and fancy a break from all that is catalan, a refreshing mint tea at Bar Tuneti (Carrer Miguel Hernandez) might suit the more adventurous.
Be sure to check out Restaurant Can Quim, Les Palmeres (Carrer de Picasso) for a really good lunch experience. A 3 course menu with wine is beautifully prepared and excellent value (18 euro) You won’t be disappointed If desserts are your thing; there are at least 20 homemade options on the menu and you can actually take a look at them before you choose, should you wish….
For once, I’m not sure how to finish this blog. Fact is, I could probably keep going, but am aware this is becoming rather a long list. I hope I have given you a taste of what is available, in this, one of our truly favourite places. I can assure you that the food everywhere is of a high standard.
Our local impressions…
The local wines from the Emporda region are great and great value.
Good cava (always brut nature) is available everywhere, at any time of day. It is drunk by everyone (see blog about Cava – everyman’s tipple)
Aperitivo time is such a civilised pursuit and should be obligatory (to my mind).
Salads are diverse in this region (not just the standard ensalada mixta). In many places you can tell it didn’t just come out of a bag. A great way to start a meal.
Rice dishes seem universally excellent. You are just down the road from the home of the rice industry, Pals (see rice festival blog), so give the various dishes a try – just don’t expect a paella.
The most amazing seafood comes from just up the road in Palamos, but don’t miss the salted anchovies from nearby L’Escala, if you get the chance to sample them.
As with all of Spain, the main meal is at lunchtime. This means great set menus. If you steer away from the tourist hotspots you will find the value is excellent.