Carrying my backpack and a fierce appetite to taste Barcelona. Objective: The Boqueria and The Santa Caterina market, mecca of gastronomy.
My first morning in Barcelona, I go straight out onto the balcony to look down the long, narrow street. It’s chilly, but the sky is slicing brightly blue between the rooflines. Light gleams up off the freshly washed cobbles, backlighting the silhouettes walking under watchful gargoyles and huge, cast-iron lamps. There are street cleaners, some delivery guys with dolleys stacked high, a few revellers rolling on fumes from their all-nighter, plus some hurried people intent on pushing through to work on time.
Carrying my backpack and a fierce appetite to taste Barcelona, I go downstairs to join the fray, crossing the Gothic quarter past exquisite cathedrals, placetas and cafés, zig-zagging in an increasingly dense crowd. I don’t stop at the tempting boutiques and I even forgo some much-needed coffee. I’m headed on a bee-line straight for the famous market place, La Boqueria. There’s the entrance I spy just off the Ramblas, an impressive metal archway with coloured glass, beckoning. A current of people buoys me along and we pour into this huge, covered space, where our tightly gripped throng stands agape at this Mecca of gastronomy.
Oh, our eager mouths! Where to start?
It’s staggering. More than 2,500 square meters host over 300 stands, a heady labyrinth of dazzling displays. There are brightly coloured stacks of fruits and vegetables, long arrays of shining fish gleaming next to shellfish atop beds of ice, dried, fragrant hams and sausages hanging from red strings, like musical notes of a song waiting to be sung, mounds of rich sobbresada that beg to be spread, eggs of every size and colour carefully laid in pretty baskets, warm and flaky empanadas and sweet little pastries, great rounds of cheeses, giant baskets of dried nuts and fruits to scoop by the kilo, stunning, juicy olives as big as easter eggs and mouth-watering cups of multi-coloured freshly pressed fruit juices…and there’s more!
What to taste first?
What to taste first? I’m arrested by both paralytic indecision and the visual appeal of these perky lollipops composed of the greenest, fattest olives, white Manchego cheese cubes and scarlet pimento squares skewered upright…Olà! There we go, 3 euros, gracias! It is so tasty, succulent in texture, salty, sweet and juicy. Next, I spy these pretty little paper cones of freshly fried seafood: mixed pieces, whitebait or just wee chipirons, the tiniest, crunchiest fried calamaris. I took the chipirones, squirted them with lemon juice and sprinkled them with sea salt. Mmm, what a magical breakfast! My palette was in pinball tilt, my appetite had gone into overdrive! Munching with mucho gusto, I toured the fish stalls, admiring carmine-coloured prawns. I spied big oysters from further south. I suck down a cup of luminous pomegranate and orange juice. Then I spied two ladies who, in perfectly choreographed tandem, were making gorgeous little sandwiches: one gently sliced open the freshly baked, crusty bun and passed it to the other, who carefully rubbed one side with a very ripe, squished tomato, and deftly spread a thin layer of margarine on the other tender crumb, topping it off with the thinnest chiffon layers of ham…it looked so good.
On impulse I bought one of those too, then suddenly decided that I really had to leave, fast. This was more than I’d eaten on any morning I could remember. I found a place outside in the sun and ravaged that sandwich mercilessly. I hate margarine, but somehow, with the umami of the ham and the sweet, acidic notes of the tomato, it was a heavenly balance, a chord struck true.
The Santa Caterina market
The next morning I went straight out to try the Santa Caterina market, which is far less crowded with gaping tourists (such as myself), but just as beautiful and astounding. There was a bar with a long counter and just one seat available, so I nabbed it. Various dishes behind the glass beckoned me to choose… a difficult task. I ordered the bacalao. It was so wonderful that I had to taste it again, so got another portion. With a glass of white, and it wasn’t even noon yet. Yes, I thought, life in Barcelona is just delicious.
Since I got home, I’ve wanted to make that bacalao myself. The channel Spain on a Fork has this recipe which includes white beans. The cod fillets should be nice and fat, you can buy either already desalted, or soak them yourself overnight with a change of water.
It’s really super simple.
(In the photo, I made it with a tablespoon of tomato paste, and some dried tomato and pimento powder, so it’s extra red! I couldn’t find the cod with the skin on, but it tasted great nonetheless).