Friday, June 24, 2011

Shopping Heaven: Barcelona's La Boqueria

La Boqueria, the oldest mercat in the city, is one of Barcelona’s gems and one of its greatest tourist attractions.  While a municipal market is about the practical matter of buying food, the Boqueria is an aesthetic and sensual pleasure as well. 

A 19th century iron and glass modernista structure, the Boqueria is located on La Rambla in the heart of the city.  In its early days, it was an open market outside the city walls (which ended at what is now La Rambla), making it easier for the farmers to bring their goods and not have to encounter officials at the city gates nor pay the taxes required to enter the city with their goods.  When the city expanded, the market remained where it was, eventually becoming a central location.  It was porticoed in 1840 and covered in 1865.  It now has 300 stalls and is the biggest mercat in Spain

The food on display throughout the market is laid out beautifully.  When you walk up and down the aisles, the stacks of fruit and vegetables become colorful geometrical abstractions -- patches of pink, yellow, brown, or green.  Bring them into focus and they're pomegranates, lemons, kiwis, and artichokes.   

The tremendous variety of food includes all the summer fruits and vegetables that we're used to in California plus a few I've never seen before.  There are stalls selling meat, others with sausages, or poultry, or cheese, eggs (where you can buy even just one egg if that's how many you want), bread, olives, every imaginable cut of salted cod, and of course fresh fish and seafood which makes up a big part of the Catalan diet.  Unfortunately fish is whole and intact, but they will clean it and even debone it if you ask.  But if you ask to have the heads removed they’ll look at you funny.  Here the smaller fish like sardines and trout are served with heads on.  But if you don’t like that, you should at least save the heads to make a fish broth.

To be honest, some of the displays of meat -- particularly those of hanging dead rabbits or little skinned dead piglets with their heads still on -- are far less appealing than the peaches, oranges, and green beans.  Meat is simply more appetizing when it doesn't look like what it really is.

For the six months each year when Ferran Adria (one of the world’s greatest chefs, who of course buys only the best ingredients) was not making culinary magic at El Bulli on the Costa Brava, he was shopping every morning at the Boqueria to conjure up culinary alchemy at his nearby laboratory on Carrer Portaferrissa in the Barri Gotic.  Shopping every morning is typical here.

Every mercat has one or more bars that serve food and drink.  They tend to buy their supplies fresh from their neighbors who then come to eat what they’ve cooked.  The food is always very fresh and often wonderfully good.

Pinotxo (Pinocchio), a tiny bar just to the right of the main entrance, is one of several bars where you can eat in the Boqueria.  It is owned and run by Joan, a middle-aged man who wears a crisply ironed shirt, a bow tie, and a smile no matter how oppressive the summer heat and humidity.   Joan works with two nephews and two other helpers.  There are five of them working behind the twelve-foot counter with stools for ten in front.  The food is fresh, homemade, and delicious.  If you want to know what they have today, you ask, there being no carte (menu). 

When I lived in Barcelona, the Boqueria was my main place to shop and I visited Pinotxo as often as I could, mainly for morning coffee and pastry – lunch being a bit pricey for my budget.  Once when I came for breakfast and asked for a café amb llet (coffee with milk) and a croissant, they had me wait a minute while someone went to a neighboring bar to buy the croissant for me because they had run out.  This kind of care and service ensures a devoted following. 

The food at Pinoxto is excellent typical Catalan fare and there is even a book about it titled Pinotxo: La Vida i la Cuina.  Unfortunately, it is in Catalan and not available from Amazon.  On the other hand, Colman Andrews’ Catalan Cuisine, the definitive Catalan cookbook is in English and is available.  Andrews gives you suggestions for the best substitutions of American ingredients for any Spanish ones that are not easily available in the U.S. as well as background to the recipes, making this a very useful and readable cookbook that allows you to conjure up your own Catalan dishes, wherever you happen to be, and even if you couldn’t buy the ingredients at the Boqueria. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Shopping Heaven: Barcelona's Municipal Markets

Photo courtesy of
Vanessa Bernardo
Barcelona is blessed with forty municipal markets.  Owned by the city, whose aim is to allow people to shop near their homes in the traditional way, there is a mercat within walking distance of all residents in each neighborhood.  These are neighborhood institutions where some of the stalls continue being rented for generations by the same family.  The city mercats are an important city heritage, one treasured by many of its residents who prefer to wait their turn at each of their favorite stalls -- one for fruits and vegetables, another for fish, another for meat, another for sausage, another for poultry, another for eggs, another for cheese, etc. -- rather than buy everything in one impersonal supermarket.  It’s what I used to do when I lived in Barcelona and was one of the best things about living there.  True, all this compartmentalized shopping can take considerable time. 

But then it isn’t just shopping.  Besides offering a wide variety of the best products, some exotic and many of them naturally and locally grown, the stalls of the city markets also offer a place to visit and chat.  You deal with proprietors and their families and you get to know them.  No one is in too big a hurry to schmooze for a while.  It’s something like Facebook only it’s face-to-face.  You chat a little, nothing too serious – the weather, the dismal economy, some gossip, how Barça did at their last game, or the best way to cook a particular dish (a sure way to involve everyone within hearing distance).  It’s what we all did before there WAS a Facebook.  It’s a way of maintaining the social capital (civic engagement and the face-to-face relations between people) that is being lost in the modern western world and particularly in the U.S.  (There is an interesting discussion of this loss in Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone.)

Each of the mercats is distinct, taking on some neighborhood characteristics.  Most are 19th century iron and glass structures, a few are more modern.  In the Eixample, near the Parallel and not far from the historic campus of the University of Barcelona, the Mercat de Sant Antoni (currently housed in temporary quarters while being remodelled), a modernista iron and glass structure built in 1882, is surrounded, for four days each week, by stalls selling clothes and household goods, giving it a flea-market quality.  On Sundays, when the regular market is closed, book dealers hold a second-hand book fair – a tradition that has been going on since before the Spanish Civil War.  The Mercats Llibertat and Abaceria Central, both in Gracia, are also encircled by stalls of clothing and household goods. 

The Mercat de Santa Caterina has, perhaps, the most striking exterior.  Built on the ruins of the former 15th century Convent of Santa Caterina in the Ribera, this was the first covered market in the city, inaugurated in 1848.  Remodeled in 2005, it is now housed in a gloriously colorful new superstructure, using the original walls but covered by a newly designed undulating tiled mosaic roof that is one of the new architectural attractions of the city, and well worth a visit, both for its unique exterior architecture, and the marvelous food within.  One great plus if you’re sightseeing is that although far more women like to shop on vacation than men, most men truly enjoy visiting the city markets.

Social capital notwithstanding, you can shop right now, this minute, right there, all alone at your computer, and buy some to-die-for Spanish chocolate or Spanish extra virgin olive (not holy) oil.  Do it!  Enter my online shop and buy anything I’ve got listed there, or anything else from Amazon or any of its affiliates.  To find my shop, click here or look for it at the top left, under the main blog headline.  Whatever you buy during any visit to Amazon after entering through my portal helps me to earn some much-needed income.  So do it often.  Thanks!