Spain: Mercat Boqueria
Posted by Degan on August 3rd, 2012
La Boqueria market has been on my “must visit” list for years but we were in Barcelona for several days before we got to it. In fact we ended up going twice, but before we got there the first time we went to the Santa Catalina market and several other markets around the city. So we had a pretty good idea of the foodstuffs available for purchase in Spain; olives, of course, and my beloved jamón - Spanish cured ham that I cannot get enough of, bacalao - the local variation of salt cod, piles of slippery fresh fish and seafood, all kinds of cheese, foie gras, produce, etc.
But none of that prepared us for either the chaos or the bounty that was the Boqueria market. Let’s start with the chaos.
Located just off La Rambla (which is already teeming with tourists), the market is the logical receptacle for all of those hungry, sunburnt folk who have wandered up the wide street from the cruise ship dock. It originated as an open-air market outside the city walls so it’s been in the same location for centuries and has no doubt been attracting gawkers for at least that long. So the throng of tourists who slowly edge through the aisles, taking photos and not buying anything (us included) are somewhat expected but does seem strange that schools would drop students here by the busload when it’s still a working market (for both vendors and pickpockets). So it’s busy.
It’s a wonder the market survives, but while vendors may not be selling may jamón legs or octopus to tourists, many have thought of creative ways to package their wares as snacks. The candy and nut vendors seem to do well, in spite of the danger that their beautifully piled products appear to be in from camera bags and homework assignments and the difficulty of buying bulk with a language barrier. And many vendors have parceled out groceries into skewers, boxes or snack-sized cones of fresh fruit, ham, cheese and bread. Mas Gourmets sells these products (as well as several other gourmet items) and they seem to be doing very well – of their 13 Barcelona stores, 4 of them are in the market.
But now on to the bounty!
My favourite vendors are the jamón vendors and you don’t have to look far to find one in Boqueria. I think a row of cured legs hanging from the ceiling must be visible from anywhere in the market and certainly that smell of meat and salt permeates. There are several types of jamón (as well as region, feed, years aged, and cuts) and I will totally get into that in another post but suffice to say that if you haven’t tried it you need to. Vendors will shave off as much as you like and flat packs are often prepared ahead of time or there is a jamón tasting shop in the market where you can do a sit down tasting of different types.
If you have limited time, go for the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, the best ham in the world. In fact, it’s not even ham. This is dry-cured (pork) meat from black pigs that eat only acorns and then aged for 3 years. Thinly sliced, it is rich with a bit of oil and tastes buttery and nutty and just amazing. The cones of jamón that are available are the shavings of poorer quality hams and make excellent bits to snack on but don’t really compare.
While we’re in the market for preserved items, the bacalao stands are worth checking out. This is the salted, dried cod that is a regional dish all over the world but before it can be eaten it has to be rehydrated for a couple of days. Thoughtfully, bacalao vendors have basins set up with fish soaking in it so that you can bring it home already prepared. There’s not really anything to sample here, but this is such an important part of Catalan cuisine and the piles of fish are beautiful.
The bacalao vendors are also some of the only fishmongers who are still active in the market by midday. The fresh fish stands are all in the centre of the market and usually sold out, cleaned and boarded up by the time the first cruise ship rolls in but if you can catch them look for gooseneck barnacles, octopus, razor clams, prawns, and all kinds of fish.
If it’s fresh meat you’re after there’s plenty of it, red and glistening; whole heads, brains, tongues, eyeballs, organs and of course all the regular cuts as well.
Wandering amongst the other stalls you’ll find all kinds of fruit juices on ice, local fruit, veg, spices and nuts piled high in colourful pyramids, garlic ropes and chilies hanging from the ceiling, many types of eggs…when space is scarce sometimes buckets and boxes are just piled in the aisles. Spanish olives and olive oil of almost every variety are also readily available (although the Olive store in El Born has a better selection of oil) and vac-sealed for travel. We brought several of these home.
Another favourite of mine was of course the foie gras shop. All kinds of cuts and preparation, including foie gras candy, lollipops, delicious Pedro Jimenez sherry jelly (to accompany) amongst the whole lobes. We did actually buy some foie but because it doesn’t have a proper label on it, it can’t be brought back.
Depending on where you live, you may have better luck bringing things back but the US and Canada will not allow anything without a detailed label, anything that comes from a farm and a whole list of other items, so make sure you check before going on a shopping spree. My advice is to get an apartment with a fridge, go to the market early and often and sample as much as possible.
There are also a number of bar restaurants in the market where you can sample the goods prepared in local cuisine. Check back Monday to hear about our lunch at Bar Pintxos.