After a few stormy days, temperatures drastically dropped here in Barcelona, marking the real start of autumn. You’ve probably seen the castanya stands popping up on the streets, roasting pounds of chestnuts to nutty perfection. Football season is in full swing. And local ladies are sporting the latest boot styles.
If you’re looking for things to do in the city this time of year, these autumnal activities get our vote.
Traditional panellets are those delightful marzipan balls crowned with pine nuts that you’re beginning to see in shop windows around town. According to Josep Fornés, director of the Ethnological Museum of Barcelona, panellets are part of an ancient tradition. “Panellets may have originated in the court of Constantinople,” he explains. “They would have originally been made from a marzipan mass of pistachio and honey, and were only consumed by the elite of society.”
Fornés believes these small bites of luxury were brought to other regions of the Mediterranean by the Arabs. Since the ingredients of the original recipe were not very complicated (almond, egg and sugar for the base and pine nuts, almonds or coconut powder as toppings), people started to make them at home.
Around this time of year, and especially on the day of Tots Sants (Catalan for All Saints’ Day), bakeries and cake shops all over Catalunya produce enormous amounts of this most valued sweet. In the last week of October alone, they are estimated to sell nearly a million kilos of them. However, there are only about 30 places in Barcelona that are certified makers of authentic panellets, which follow the European Union’s Traditional Specialties Guaranteed (ETG) guidelines. Some of those include:
Pastisseria La Colmena has been sweetening Barcelona since 1849. Current owner Toni Roig still makes everything from candies and cakes, to panellets and catànies (caramelized almonds covered with a layer of white chocolate and another of cocoa powder) following the same recipes and methods established centuries ago. Plaça de l’Àngel 12.
Foix de Sarrià is the most well-known pastry shop in the neighbourhood and one of the oldest in Barcelona. J.V. Foix, the famous early 20th-century Catalan poet and son of the store’s founders, lived with his family at their first shop and grew up working behind the counter. Today you’ll be served panellets and a myriad of other tempting confections by a gentleman in a black tux. Major de Sarrià 57.
Pastisseria Lis opened in 1962, and is currently run by Pere Camps, the President of l’Escola de Pastisseria de Barcelona (the Barcelona Guild College of Confectionery). Besides offering bona fide panellets, Lis is famed for their croissants, the traditional, doughy lard ones that are just right for dunking in a cup of piping hot coffee or chocolate. Riera Alta 19. Calàbria 137.
We suggest the whole family spend a nice, crisp day walking to a couple of these bakeries, trying not only customary panellets, but other varieties of different flavours, shapes, colours and coatings as well. Don’t hold back. Try a treat at every place if you have time.
While other nations dress up as witches, vampires and skeletons and stuff mass-produced candy into plastic pumpkins, Catalans honour the dead, eat seasonal fruits and drink sweet wine.
This folkloric festivity began as an ancient burial ritual, where families savoured typical autumn foods while they remembered those no longer with them. These traditions have persisted – even with the increasing popularity of Halloween in Barcelona.
On November 1st, cemeteries throughout Catalunya extend their visiting hours, giving everyone a chance to put flowers on the graves of their deceased relatives. This in no way diminishes the festive and cheerful atmosphere of the day. In fact, many people see the gesture as a way to celebrate the lives of their loved ones and reminisce about the happy times they shared.
Then it’s time to eat! Of course panellets are present for the Castanyada, but there are also castanyes, from which the celebration derives its name, boniatos and moscatell to indulge in. Castanyes (chestnuts) are usually bought from a vendor on the street, wrapped in newspaper and eaten hot. Boniatos (sweet potatoes) are baked until they’re soft enough to cut in half and eat with a spoon. Moscatell (a variety of very sweet wine that comes from the moscatel grape) accompanies this fare, creating a superb blend of flavours.
Wild mushroom hunting
In the foothills of the Pyrenees, brightly coloured anoraks weave between tree trunks, Wellington boots on their feet and wicker baskets dangling from their arms. They are the boletaires, legendary Catalan mushroom gatherers, who are out in full force from mid-September until the end of December, foraging for wild mushrooms. While there are good mushroom hunting grounds all over the region, the lands of Berguedà in north-central Catalunya are where you’ll find the mother lode of this most precious forest treasure.
If you know where to look, around 175 different species of edible wild mushroom can be collected during the cooler months. However, it is imperative that you do a little research before you set off on this adventure. There are toxic species of mushrooms out there, such as the extremely dangerous Death Cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides), and according to the Generalitat, there are several cases of poisoning every year, occasionally fatal. For a complete guide to all mushrooms safe for consumption, have a look at their website.
Added tip: Unless you are 100 percent certain that a mushroom is edible, leave it where it is. Adding one more domed cap to your basket isn’t worth the risk of ending up in the hospital. We suggest you familiarise yourself with a few species that you can easily identify and keep your eyes peeled for them. Take along an identification book, or better yet, a real live human guide.
Aborígens, for example, provides a full-day truffle and mushroom hunting trip, with private round-trip transport. Tours are conducted in English, Monday to Sunday, and include breakfast and a tasting menu for lunch, which will introduce you to the real flavour of wild mushrooms.
Enjoy as many of these cultural and gastronomic autumnal offerings as you can, now! Before you know it, they’ll be setting up the Christmas markets, bakeries will sell their last batch of panellets and you’ll be looking towards the mountains, anticipating your first family ski trip of the year.