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Cultural Fundamentals: Fer el vermut

Just a few weeks after a huge freak snowstorm, the clouds have lifted over Barcelona, the sun is coming out and restaurant and bar owners are breaking out the patio furniture to improvise sidewalk cafes. After passing a group of locals slurping up cockles and chasing them with vermouth outside my neighborhood bodega, it occurred to me that many visitors to Barcelona totally miss out on an experience that is unique to this region; it’s called “fer el vermut”, which literally translated means “to do a vermouth” (Catalans like to “do” things rather than “have them”, such as “do a coffee”). It is near the very top of my list of things that I love about Catalunya.

Here are the basics: this practice normally takes place in, as mentioned before, a “bodega” — a rustic bar that tend to make their own wine and even their own vermouth — or a regular bar that serves tapas and the like. The timing is right before lunch, as the vermut and what accompanies it are an aperitif.

You’re probably thinking: “Who drinks vermouth straight?” and “Who drinks vermouth in the middle of the day?” Well, the idea is not to get trashed, but to have a drink that blends well with the small food items you’ll be consuming: escopinyes (cockles), cloïsses (clams), olives, etc. And you aren’t expected to drink the vermouth straight. In many traditional bodegas you’ll find an old-time metal seltzer bottle on your table, and that’s there for your to water down your vermouth. In truth, less and less people drink vermouth with their vermut (does that make sense?) and opt instead for a beer. Either way, you’re still doing a vermut. Another note about timing is that el vermut is more of a weekend practice (mostly Sunday) than a weekday thing.

What’s served at these places varies widely. Some bodegas, like my neighborhood one, don’t cook anything and only serve preserved seafood, olives and traditional vermut fare. Other bodegas go all out with hundreds of small dishes to choose from. A good example of a place like this is the now internationally famous Quimet i Quimet, which has hundreds of items ranging from the standard montaditos to massive seafood and cheese plates.

Which brings me to a commonly asked question: where does one go to fer un vermut? Well, every neighborhood in Barcelona has its own bodega or bars for this purpose, and of course some are better than others. My local bodega, Bodega Lluis right off of  Passeig Maragall (map),  is well known by locals and highly recommended, and if you don’t mind a few extra metro stops, you’ll be treated to a 100% tourist-free vermut experience.  This place is so obscure that only locals who are truly in the know make it here. Get there early because the place is small and fills up promptly after it opens at 1 p.m.

If you want to stick closer to downtown, check out this blog, which lists a bunch of author-tested spots for vermut (in Catalan but you can get the addresses), and they all look great.

Or, you could do what everyone else does: hit up Quimet i Quimet (map). As a first vermut experience it’s overwhelming and quarters are extremely tight. My recommendation would be to go as soon as they open and on a weekday, lest you get elbowed to death by the countless other tourists who had the same idea. Don’t let the popularity of Quimet put you off, though — it’s still as good as it has ever been.

If you are willing to stray outside of city limits, there is the legendary Ca l’Espinaler in Vilassar de Mar (map). You may have seen it on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations show. That’s because it’s mythical. Check out the video above and see if you are tempted. It’s definitely on my to-do list.

Photo Credits: Photos via CPGXK and vitelone on Flickr (Creative Commons)

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