It was my intent to warn you away from La Boqueria, the biggest and most famous and most fully touristed of Barcelona's public food markets. I had planned to point out that there were 40 neighborhood markets dotting the city, and to recommend you visit one of the 39 that rarely see a tourist bus or an out-of-towner jonesing for a passion fruit smoothie. I was going to dismissively wave a weary hand at the hype. And then, I set foot inside.
"Oh my God," I whispered.
The ceiling lights shimmered down on 20,000 square feet of food—on the silvery scales of clear-eyed fish on ice; on cured legs of pork hanging like a thick fringe from vendors' stalls; on game birds waiting to be plucked; on mountains of strange musky mushrooms; on gigantic jars of candied fruit peel; on emu eggs, and on a kiosk where Legumes Ladies in white aprons were cooking white beans to a precise state of doneness in water tested for its level of alkalinity every day.
"Here, try one of Juanito's xuxos," said Meritxell Sabate, a Barcelona native who also happens to be one of the city's best cooks—and my tour guide for the day.
A xuxo, by the way, is a flaky pastry with a custard filling, kind of a cross between a croissant and an eclair, and is sold all over the city. But Juanito's xuxos, I learned after I climbed onto a stool at his Pinotxo Bar, are the best in town. (I had been planning to sail past Pinotxo Bar, by the way, because it's one of those landmarks that has been faithfully recommended as "authentic" by so many guidebooks that owner Juanito Bayén's Pavlovian response to seeing a camera is to stretch his arms wide and to shoot a double thumbs up.)
"Ask him for a coffee too," Sabate advised.
Sabate, a classically trained chef who apprenticed at two-star Michelin restaurants in France before returning home to Barcelona, teaches classes at Cook and Taste cooking school in the nearby Gothic quarter. A few blocks from the market, Cook and Taste's kitchens are on a narrow, twisty side street near some crumbling temple columns the Romans left behind when their empire collapsed.
In a city where everything is about the food, the chefs from Cook and Taste often take clients on insider's tours of La Boqueria. But today, as she wandered the aisles, Sabate had in mind a simple mission: to find ingredients worthy of becoming lunch.
Photographs by Pancho Tolchinsky except where noted.
Above: We arrived at La Boqueria around 9 am—early enough to avoid the tour buses.
In the front of the market are the most expensive vendors' stalls. "They pay higher rent, so they want higher prices," says Sabate. "I come in, see what I want, and then try to find it somewhere else—in the back or on the sides."
Above: Juanito Bayén's family's breakfast-and-lunch counter once was in the very back of the market. "His mother used to be here, and at 4 am she would start cooking proper food for the workers who showed up to set up the market, and her food was very popular," says Sabate. Now Pinotxo Bar is the first thing you see when you step inside the market's main entrance.
A secret revealed: Pinotxo's xuxos come from Lis Bakery a few blocks away in the Raval. In the interests of accuracy (and breakfast), I went to Lis Bakery a couple of days later to confirm this fact.
Above: Sabate bought green Italian frying peppers.
Above: Sweet red peppers were for sale from a farmers' market stall on the outer edge of the market.
Above: Mushrooms are sold by weight.
The profusion of beautiful, fresh food is overwhelming—and that's why you have to brave the crowds to visit La Boqueria. Built in the 1800s on the site of a demolished church, it was the city's first central food market and remains its most ambitious by offering an astonishing variety of the foods emblematic of Catalan cuisine: octopus, inkfish, anchovies, rabbit, head cheese, olives from Aragó, almonds and chocolate and eggplants and peppers.
But make it a first stop. Advises food expert Teresa Parker of Spanish Journeys, who arranges food tours of Barcelona, "It's important to go beyond the Boqueria to get a real sense of the city's markets and their role in neighborhood life."
Above: At Ous, Sabate's favorite egg stand, she can buy turkey, duck, chicken, quail, or emu eggs. When in season, swans' eggs sell for €32 apiece. Photograph by Kathryn Greenhill via Flickr.
Above: Sabate's preferred olive seller is Olives El Pinyol Conserves. "When you buy olive oil, the ones from the north are milder and from the south, bitter and peppery," she said.
Above: A ring of fish stalls is in the center of the market. "It's to keep it separate, to avoid cross contamination," says Sabate.
Above: We entered the Ring of Fish to buy bacalao (salt cod) for a salad. Many cuts of salt cod are sold including loin, tail, and sin espina (without spine).
Sabate buys her bacalao from the Goma family stall, operated under a proud sign: "Bacalla d'Importacio."
Above: You can tell you're buying Iberian ham if the hoof is black, says Sabate. "The first quality pork is fed on acorns, and the animals are smaller. You pay a lot more for it."
Above: Fruit smoothies. "They make those for the tourists," Sabate said. "They're in hotels. They don't have kitchens to cook in. But they want to buy something to eat." Photograph by Fred T via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Irene Grassi via Flickr.
After an hour at La Boqueria, we were weighed down by many bags—olives, basil sprouts, quail eggs, ripe tomatoes and peppers, Sant Pau white beans cooked perfectly, salt cod, and green onions.
"Now, back to the kitchen to cook lunch," Sabate said.
Want to see what she made? See the recipe for her Empedrat Summer Salad.