I rented a flat in Barcelona really for one reason. I had a fantasy about shopping at the famous Mercat de la Boqueria and then using its pristine ingredients to prepare fabulous meals. As can happen when expectations are high, initially at least, events didn't quite work out as I had hoped.
My main problem was timing. I had arrived in Barcelona on a Saturday night and the markets were closed until Monday. So with high hopes (and nursing a small hangover from too much cava the night before), I headed to the market Monday morning, quite a bit later than I had planned. When I arrived at around 11, the place was overrun with camera-toting tourists. Half the stalls were closed, and there was only one fishmonger. I watched as a the few remaining sellers were bombarded by the paparazzi as if they were Becks and Posh or Madonna. It was depressing and I was devastated. Clearly all the real sellers have left and gone on vacation to avoid the tourists (I was wrong, but we'll get to that later).
So in a bit of a funk, I sidled up to the bar of Pinotxo (located to the right of the main entrance) and plunked myself down on a the same stool I sat on a year ago. A happy welcome from the ever ebullient 70-year-old Juanito Bayen began to cheer me up. He greeted me, as he does everyone, as if I had been coming there for years. Yes, of course, I would like a cava. What's Albert (Juanito's nephew) cooking today? Salt cod salad with lentils (esqueixada) sounds perfect to start. Lamb stew with mushrooms to follow--why not? By the time I had finished my cortado (espresso with a little milk) and said goodbye to the touring musicians from New York who had lunch on the neighboring stools, my spirit had lifted. Pinotxo, and particularly its owner Juanito, has that effect on people.
Everyone, even celebrities, stops there. It's a required stop for lovers of good food. In fact, when I was there again this morning, I did a double take when I saw none other than Eric Ripert from Le Bernadin finishing up his mid-morning snack (please excuse the blurry photo, but I didn't want to use my flash). In the end, I decided I would try shopping again another day.
When I returned this morning (much earlier this time), La Boqueria was more like I remembered. The quality was superb and all the sellers were present, so my theories about a vacation to avoid the tourists were off the mark. Many sellers, especially fishmongers, clearly take Monday off. The place was chaotic with morning fish and produce deliveries, haggling restaurateurs, and feisty grandmas (and very few tourists). I was overwhelmed, to tell you the truth. The variety and choice were staggering.
After circling the market several times, I finally settled on wild mushrooms, mulberries and Montserrat tomatoes from the well-known mushroom (I bought the variety on the left, but I don't know what they're called) and snail (Catalonians love their snails as much as, and possibly more than, the French) seller Petras and some tiny cuttlefish from a fishmonger called Peix Siseta. I also bought a small amount of cooked white beans, called mongetes (isn't that convenient--wish some enterprising grocer would provide that in San Francisco!). Then I went to the side of the market where local growers set up stalls and bought some lovely Swiss chard, spring onions and fresh figs.
On my way back to my apartment, I stopped by the beautiful La Botifarreria de Santa Maria (C/Santa Maria 4) and bought an obscene quantity of jamón ibérico de bellota (from acorn-fed pigs) and some artisanal chorizo-like sausage made from the same type of pig. Then I headed to the over-priced but high-quality Casa Gispert (C/Sombrerers 23) to purchase fire-roasted hazelnuts, Marcona almonds, wild foraged pine nuts and dried fruits.
Of course, I am aware that I overspent and that the fishmonger, in particular, and probably Petras overcharged me. But it's all in the name of fun and I can't wait to cook dinner. I will start with a simple tomato and spring onion salad, followed by baby cuttlefish with white beans and chorizo and a side of chard with pine nuts and raisins.
There are also other good markets in Barcelona. One worth visiting is the newly renovated Mercat de Santa Caterina. Only open since May, this gorgeous market features very contemporary architecture (especially the wildly colored roof, which you can just barely see), excellent products and more reasonable prices. I hear the fishmonger Peix Arrom is especially good. And it's only a few minutes from my apartment.
If you're on the other (east) side of the Rambla in the Raval, I like the Mercat de Sant Antoni. There's also a great orxateria (horchataria) next to it called Sirvent that's good for a refreshing glass of the sweet valenciano beverage orxata/horchata made from tiger nuts.