I love markets…a love affair that started when I was living in Europe some years ago. It was the first time I was to live on my own…which included feeding myself. The first month was disaster…stale bread nicked from the hotel buffet, tomatoes eaten over the sink…and many other exciting culinary mishaps. Until one day I realized that I was, well, simply put, starving. This had to stop and I had to cook. So I went out to forage for more than our hotel’s breakfast remnants. And that’s how I found them. Harbor-side markets selling all forms of salmon and berries I had never even seen before in Helsinki. My neighborhood market in Amsterdam with crates of wild mushrooms and piles of fresh, home-baked bread. The market in the Zurich hauptbahnhof with aisles of cheese and other goodies (including a stall that sold chocolate covered fruits on a stick…I wonder if that’s still there…). The street market in my neighborhood in Athens bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables and vats of marinated olives (and oh-so-charming provedores!). I would spend hours walking about and picking out my meager treasures for flamboyant dinners for one.
***Incidentally, this is when I really started cooking. No, I was not born loving the inside of a kitchen, nor churning out chocolate chip cookies at infancy. Sure, there were the pineapple upside down cakes of my youth, and I have been a voracious eater since birth, but my real love for cooking, and everything related to it, happened later in life, for the very simplest of reasons…I had to eat.
So, it’s no surprise that I was not going to miss a visit to La Boqueria when we were in Barcelona. It is filled with spectacular produce, fresh breads emerging fragrantly from hot furnaces, tempting charcuterie, stalls full of delicious cheeses, delicatessens, jars filled with herbs and spices and amazing meats and seafood. Then there is the adorable modernista entrance that I adore. And, of course, the hustle and bustle that makes a market a market.
I set off early one morning, leaving C sleeping peacefully in bed (dreaming of Barca no doubt), to “go to market”. Just a couple of metro stops and there I was. A food lover’s paradise. I love going to markets early in the morning, not just for the obvious reason that everything is freshest then (and the good stuff gets snapped up first), and I really couldn’t do any major marketing anyway (as we weren’t home and there would be no place to stow a whole lamb leg), but because that is when you see all the action. Little old ladies pushing their plaid plastic caritons ready to buy the makings of that day’s wonderful meal, customers conversing with their butcher or bakers or fruit/vegetable stall owners, strapping youths slapping raw fish onto beds of ice…things are just starting to come alive and this is the best time.
Breakfast there was definitely part of my plan, stopping at Bar Pinotxo for some sustenance. It is said that Ferran Adria himself eats here when he is at the market. I don’t know if this is true, but the patrons were indeed a motley bunch. I was sandwiched between two stockbroker-looking locals and a couple of German tourists. I had a cortado (an espresso with a dash of steamed milk…my coffee of choice when in Spain…you will be hard pressed to find a lousy coffee in Spain!) and pointed tentatively at a fried looking sweet pastry behind the glass and asked if it was good. The bar’s gregarious proprietor widened his eyes in amazement. It is a Xuxo (chucho) he told me, and it is so good that if I took just one bite I would fall madly in love with him. The Xuxo is a cream filled fried pastry coated in sugar. The pastry itself seems more like Danish pastry than choux pastry (like churros…or their big, cream-filled brothers called porras…also very yummy). It was very, very good…and with a hot cortado even better…but didn’t fall in love with Mr. Proprietor despite his being very charming.
After breakfast it was time for exploring. I think the most painful part was realizing that I couldn’t buy a lot of what I wanted, like the mounds of fresh vegetables and their amazing displays of meat and fish. So I had to be choosy and, of course, headed straight for the figs. As I mentioned in my last post this trip was the first time I had ever tasted (or even saw!) a fresh fig, so that was definitely on my shopping list. They looked like a dream…although I can’t say if that was just me in my fig-honeymoon stage. In any case, I procured a bunch that never even made it past the Ramblas!
Next stop spices and dried herbs…something that could travel. I chose a store with a friendly looking girl that patiently walked me through her offerings. I could tell she was amused at my excitement and questions (and my expert Spanish…haha), but she gamely answered everything, giving detailed instructions and cooking advice. So in my bag went portions of Moruno spice mix, paella spice mix, dried herb bunches (like bouquet garni), different kinds of dried pepper, Jamaican pepper, and other goodies.
With my purchases in hand, I stroll the length and breadth of the market. The seafood section, which you will find in the center, is fantastic. Loads of fresh fish and tons of different types of shellfish all lay glistening in the light, resting on crushed ice and waiting for either a talented chef or an equally talented lady-of-the-house to turn on their magic.
The fruits and vegetable stalls were enough to make me tear…so vibrant, their colors looked almost acrylic. Looking back, I should have gotten a bunch of blueberries as well and to hell with indigestion! And the mushrooms! Oy! Fresh wild mushrooms…another favorite. I think though, what riveted me most was the meat. There was so much variety! I was dizzy looking at it all. And all parts were on display. Not just cut up fillets sealed in vacuum packs, but real meat, real parts…heads and tails and everything in between. And every stall with a wizened butcher ready to cut and trim exactly to your specifications. This is my dream…oh, to finally find my soul mate butcher in Manila! Sigh…
Aside from the fresh, there was also charcuterie after charcuterie selling everything dried, cured, tinned, and otherwise prepared. Legs of jamon dangled side by side. Salchicones, salamis, pates, butifarras. And stalls selling wonderful cheeses, from the very fresh soft white cheeses just at their infancy, to old aged articles pungent with aroma. Then there are the bakeries! It was a feast for the senses!