It’s not that brunch isn’t a Barcelona thing. It’s that vermut, Catalan for the fortified spirit vermouth, was here first. Decades before bottomless mimosas and plates crowded with eggs Benedict popped up around the city, locals were killing time between Sunday mass and Sunday dinner with this late morning or early afternoon snack.
What is Vermouth or Vermut?
First things first: What’s vermouth? Available in sweet and dry versions, virtually all vermouth is made from white wine—caramel color is added to make different red and rosé varieties as well. It’s fortified with a neutral spirit (usually grape brandy) and aromatized with spices like cinnamon, cloves, verbena, and other herbs. Originally invented in Italy in 1786, vermouth has been produced in Catalonia since the 19th century. It suffered a reputation as an old man drink for many years, but recently, it’s become fashionable again—and at around €2 a glass it’s easy to see why.
Friends and family gather at home or in a bar to sip house vermouth over ice, mixed to taste with squirts from a siphon of soda water and sometimes served with an orange or lemon slice and a toothpick crowded with anchovy-stuffed olives. (The vermouth is typically made on-site or picked up from a local bodega.) The high alcohol content (15–22 percent, usually), the spices, and the slightly bitter taste of the herbs in Catalan vermouth aren’t for everyone. But the custom of vermut is, so beer and soft drinks are popular alternative beverages.
Unlike brunch, vermut is more of a snack or an appetizer course: a smattering of cold treats and a drink (or three) before a larger sit-down meal. Whether at home or in a bar, typical snacks include canned seafood, chips drizzled with paprika and vinegar sauce, and briny olives. You don’t get utensils—even the sloppiest morsels are speared or otherwise scooped up with toothpicks. Fish packed in cans may sound less than appetizing—and may seem ridiculous in a coastal city like Barcelona—but throughout Catalonia and the rest of Spain are a popular treat. Mackerel and tuna in escabeche, squid in its ink, anchovy filets in extra-virgin olive oil, and cockles packed in water are sought out at supermarkets, restaurants, and bars.
How to Fer el Vermut
In Catalonia, people prefer doing to having, hence they “do” vermut, or fer el vermut. The custom is all about the presentation and personalization of gourmet, ready-made ingredients, making it easy to recreate at home for family and friends. So when you’re in Barcelona, make time for this Sunday tradition; but until then, here’s how to host a vermut gathering of your own:
1. Buy a good bottle of vermouth.
In Catalonia, find your neighborhood bodega, sample from a few barrels, and fill your own container. Elsewhere, buy a good bottle of Catalan vermouth such as Yzaguirre, Miro, Perucchi, or Casa Mariol. Serve it over ice, with an orange wedge, anchovy-stuffed olives, and a splash of soda water. Open bottles of vermouth should be refrigerated and used in one to three months so drink up in good company.
2. Spring for premium canned goods.
Open a few cans of premium seafood, drizzle with your best olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Sardines, Cantabrian anchovies, mussels, stuffed squid, tuna in escabeche sauce, and cockles are all good choices. If you like a little spice with your fish, hot (as opposed to sweet) Spanish smoked paprika adds a nice pop of flavor. Olives are mandatory, and white asparagus spears and marinated artichokes are a nice touch, especially if you’re serving vermut to any vegetarians.
3. Olive oil potato chips drizzled with paprika and vinegar sauce.
You can make your own, but if you can find it, Espinaler sauce is a local favorite in Barcelona. It’s great on chips, fries, Cantabrian anchovy filets, olives, and pretty much anything—like Tabasco but with a milder, smokier kick.
4. Round it out with charcuterie, bread, and cheese.
If you want your vermut to be more of a meal, and less of a snack, a sliced crusty baguette, Spanish cured meats, and hard cheeses also combine well with vermouth.
>> Next: A Food Lover’s Guide to Barcelona
Chris Ciolli Chris is a Barcelona-based writer, translator and artist with Midwestern roots. She shares her adventures as a Missourian in the world at midwesternerabroad.com.