Taste it, smell it, hear it, see it – the most thrilling live show in Barcelona is the city’s vast Boqueria food market, says John Carlin. It’s a feast for all the senses.
A visit to the market of la Boqueria in Barcelona is advisable to enjoy an incredible contrast between colours and activity, ideal to discover why Mediterranean cuisine is internationally known due to its ingredients. The best products from Catalonia in one place. La Boquería is Europe’s finest market located in the heart of Barcelona, on the Rambla, the name the Catalans give to a street that heads down to the sea. The guide who took me on this gastronomic tour was Isidre Giron, the owner of the top-notch restaurant “Ca L’Isidre” (“Chez Isidre” in Catalan).
We meet early at “Bar Pinotxo”, where Isidre always starts his morning ritual with a cortado coffee – espresso ‘cut’ with a dash of hot milk. “Pinotxo” is one of half a dozen spots inside the market where you can eat the produce that’s sold in it. A long, narrow bar, the size of half a dozen baths placed end to end, it has a permanent staff of five shockingly busy people. One of them cooks (the courgette omelette with chorizo looked delicious, but perhaps not for breakfast), three serve and one washes up. Juanito, the head barman and owner of the place for the last 50 years, is one of the great characters of the market, says Isidre…
‘Three kilos of habitas (baby broad beans), a sack of potatoes, a kilo of blackberries and two kilos of Gernika green peppers.’ I tell him I’ve never heard of Gernika green peppers. He says they are quite rare, but finer than the better-known green peppers of Padrón, ‘fatter, longer, just as tasty and never hot’. (The Spanish usually don’t, but those who do like it hot are advised, if they haven’t already, to order a plate of fried pimientos de Padrón next time they are in Spain.) The fruit and veg stall, like its 56 competitors at la Boquería, is an arresting little work of art. The strawberries, for example, are arranged in the sort of rchitectural pattern that Gaudí favoured: the surreal kept somehow under geometrical control. Figs, papayas, chirimoyas, mangoes, pitayas – fruits plundered from the whole of creation – merge with lettuces of every shade of green to achieve the riotous kind of effect the paintings at the Museum of Modern Art, just around the corner, may hope to emulate, but never improve. La Boquería is at least as indispensable a stop on the Barcelona tourist itinerary as the Sagrada Familia, the Picasso Museum or (best of all) the church of Santa María del Mar, because it satisfies all of the senses, not just the eyes. You can smell, taste, touch and hear la Boquería. It is live theatre all day long – everybody, absolutely everybody, on the market’s 332 stalls is as busy as the “Bar Pinotxo” bunch – on a stage the size of two football pitches.
Isidre sails off towards the stall that specialises in poultry and rabbit but pauses, abruptly, as if turned to stone, mesmerised by the spectacle of what looks to me like a not particularly prepossessing box of tomatoes. ‘Tomates de raf!’ he exclaims. ‘The best tomatoes in the world!’ They’re pretty green, most of them, large and crinklecut. ‘That’s what they’re supposed to look like, and feel how hard they are.’ They are hard. ‘That’s right. Hard. Packed with taste.’ He orders a kilo and while the stuff he bought at the first stall would be delivered straight to his restaurant, these he took himself, like precious treasure, in a plastic bag.
He buys two kilos of chicken wings and nine rabbits – ‘carcasses’ – before taking off on a quick spin, purely on my behalf because he is not making any purchases there today, passing, first, the man with the biggest game business in Barcelona – deer, pheasant, hare, quail, wild boar – who also does a nice line in vacuum-packed duck liver paté and, sold in plastic packets, chicken’s crests. ‘Good in soup,’ Isidre explains. Then we stop off for a chat with a lady called Rosa who runs “Despojos Rosa”.
The dictionary translation of despojos is ‘waste, scraps, leftovers’. What Rosa sells are sheep’s heads, brains, intestines, stomach linings, pig’s feet, and big, white, oval, veined bulls’ testicles. She also has, arrayed in another interesting architectural shape on a tray, what look like a pile of small, dusty, dark red bricks. ‘Coagulated blood,’ Rosa explains. ‘Great with fried onions.’ ‘Lots of fried onions,’ adds Isidre. ‘Lots.’
It is a little-known fact that Spain has the widest range of farm produce in the EU. Something to do, presumably, with the fact that Spain has the widest geographical range. From the deserts of Almería (in whose giant, plastic greenhouses everything grows) to the lush green of Galicia; from the Pyrénées to the Canaries. Spain is also, by miles, the world’s biggest producer of olives. A third of what passes for Italian olive oil actually originates in the vast olive groves of Andalucía.
There is a delicatessen where they sell Scottish smoked salmon and Beluga caviar to admire a small bottle of extra virgin olive oil. ‘You can tell it’s top class because it has thickened in the cold morning air and turned a creamy yellow colour. The other bottles you see are not so good because the oil remains clear.’ He goes two stalls along, past one where all they sell is bacalao (cod), dry and hanging or tender fillets in salt water, to one where all they sell are olives. He buys half a kilo of mortas (dead ones), small, black and shrivelled, plucked at their ripest from the tree.
Small and black but decisively not shrivelled are the little Jabugo pigs from which comes Spain’s finest ham. Which means the fi nest in the world. And should you happen to disagree while you are in Spain, keep it to yourself. You can argue about anything you like with a Spaniard, about the merits of bullfighting or the football team he supports, but should you presume to suggest that, say, the best Italian prosciutto is even remotely in the same class as a Jabugo ham from the southern province of Huelva – or a Guijuelo, from Salamanca – you will never be taken seriously again. Talking of bullfi ghting, we go to a butcher’s shop that claims to be the only one in town that sells beef from bulls slaughtered in the ring. He buys some oxtails (in Spanish known as rabos de toro, bull’s tails) and then proceeds to explain why the meat of fi ghting bulls is the best there is. ‘The animal lives four or five years in which time he eats the finest fibre grass and runs 25 kilometres a day. When he is sacrificed his blood is up, he is in an exalted state. The meat is a beautiful deep red and exquisitely lean, tasty and tender.’ Much the same may be said of the tuna we buy. ‘The leaner, the deeper the red, the better,’ he says, surveying what’s on offer at a stall where all they sell is tuna, the best of it caught barely 16 hours earlier in the Straits of Gibraltar and brought up to Barcelona overnight by lorry.
The seafood section is in the heart of the market, 44 stalls organised in concentric circles around two fountains adorned with Gaudí mosaics. There are specialists of all kinds. Apart from the tuna ladies, there are the ones who sell only squid and the ones who sell fish caught by the fishermen at the Barceloneta port, a 15 minute walk down the Rambla. Turbot, sardines, prawns, cuttlefish and the giant, fleshy mero. ‘You can tell very easily if it’s today’s or three days old,’ says Isidre, gloomily studying one that is three days old. ‘That one’s eyes are not bright, and they are sunken. Its skin is not viscous and its fins cling tight to the body.’
And there is the lady who sells only lobsters and crabs. ‘Much better – the best – are these deep red lobsters from Mallorca,’ says Isidre. The market does not disagree. The Canadian and Maine lobsters are 21 euros a kilo. The Mallorcan ones 75.
Last stop is Petras, ‘the wizard of the mushrooms’. Petras is as much of an institution as a seller at la Boquería as Isidre is as a buyer.
Murilla mushrooms (250 euros a kilo), he takes a deep breath, closes his eyes and urges me to do so. Musty, rich, earthy – it’s as if the essence of all the teeming nature at the market were contained here.
It is that passion for food that has made “Ca L’Isidre” one of the most admired Catalan cuisine establishments in Barcelona. Apart from the King Juan Carlos, Isidre has an even better reference. Ferran Adrià, whose restaurant “El Bulli” is generally regarded as the best in the world (even by top French chefs), eats here all the time. In fact he had eaten there the night before… ‘This is the way to eat fresh food del dèa – of the day. Don’t ever change a thing.’
I had baby squid with potatoes; baby calamari with habitas (small, pale green, sweet and sour beans, intensely tasty); one large ravioli filled with liver paté and black truffle (‘300 euros a kilo at Petras’); the best piece of tuna ever, cooked rare; deboned bull’s tail, incredibly rich and tender and a plate of tomates de raf with oil and vinegar. Isidre was right. I am ruined. I can never eat another tomato again. After that, all other tomatoes, regulation red ones with smooth skins, are but a sad echo, a watery memory, of the real thing.
Written by John Carlin