Fruits, Nuts & Bulls’ Tails: La Boqueria in Barcelona

Posted on February 23, 2013

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Fruits, Nuts & Bull’s Tails: La Boqueria in Barcelona
by AnneLise Sorensen

As they say in Barcelona, if you can’t find it in La Boqueria, you can’t find it anywhere. Barcelona’s largest food market rises over Las Ramblas, its Modernista cast-iron entrance giving way to a gaping hall of parades (stalls). The smell is dense with the salty tang of seafood and freshly spilled blood.

Pyramids of downy peaches face whole cow heads with their eyes rolled back and hairy curls of rabo de toro (bulls’ tails). Piglets are strung up by their hind legs, snouts pointing south, while dorada (sea bream) twitch on beds of ice next to a tangle of black eels.

La Boqueria, officially named Mercat de Sant Josep, was built in 1836 on the site of a former convent, though records show that there had been a market here since the 13th century. Its devotees are as diverse as the offerings: bargain-hunting grandmas rooting through dusty bins; gran cocineros (master chefs) from around Europe thumping eggplants and hold persimmons up to the light; and wide-eyed visitors weaving through the hubbub.

The morning crowds on a busy Saturday can be daunting, but calling out “Qui es l’ultim?” (“Who’s last?”) usually garners entry into a waiting throng. Instead of a number system or long queues, the market relies on this sweetly old-fashioned – but remarkably efficient – crowd control. Anyway, there’s little danger in losing track of when you’re up – the señora just behind you, with her hand clamped on her wheeled shopping cart, will make sure of that.

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Meat market

The Spanish proverb “Del cerdo se aprovecha todo” (“All parts of the pig are to be enjoyed”) is on show at the market’s carnicerias. Butcher Antoni Casanovas, flanked by sides of beef and stainless steel scales, greets his customers with “Que volia, jefe?” (“What’ll it be, boss?”). With his round face and eyeglasses sliding to the tip of his nose, it’s somewhat strange to see the massive cleaver in his hand. With it, he shears ribbons of fat and slits pork loins so cleanly you don’t realize it until blood seeps across the carving board.

Casanovas exemplifies the work ethic that has kept the market humming for nearly 200 years. He arrives at the first light of day and is still sponging gristle from the grinders as the shuttered market sighs to a close. He opened his carniceria in 1972 and now, he says, “My first stand has grown into ten stands and I have one of the biggest butcher shops in the market. I love my work. Like an artist who has finished a painting, I’m proud of what I’ve created.”

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Mmm, tripe.

Ask for directions and you might be told to turn right at Pili’s place, then left at the Oliveros brothers. At its core, La Boqueria is an enterprise of families, with the stalls – and professions – passed down from one generation to the next. “We’re an intimate network,” says the Boqueria market president. “Nearly half of the shops have been owned by the same family for over 100 years.”

The bonds run deep in La Boqueria – but so does competition. Vendors vie for a spot on the coveted central aisle, called the Calle Principal. This is prime real-estate – as the mark-up will attest – so if you’re looking for bargains, explore the side aisles.

In the day-to-day, La Boqueria operates like an industrious, tough-on-crime little town. You may find thieves in La Boqueria ­– but never successful ones. Not even a piece of fruit has been pinched in as long as anyone can remember. “The voice travels faster than a thief” is the market mantra, and vendors have been known to leap over their stands to nab an offender.

Hairnets and rubber gloves notwithstanding, plenty of flirting also goes on, especially among the fish vendors, where there have been so many marriages that everyone has lost count. 

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Chefs go shopping

“The gran cocineros – master chefs – have always come here,” says the market president. “And this has created a culture of excellence.” Barcelona native and El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià has been shopping at La Boqueria for years. Adrià and his team experiment on new recipes in the Taller (workshop), which sits across Las Ramblas from the market. The Taller features a sleek kitchen-slash-laboratory and a brainstorming conference room set in a 17th-century chapel – “el chill-out” – where the walls are covered in detailed charts and notes. Culinary trials have yielded caviar de melon, miniscule beads made from melon juice served in a can labeled Iranian Caviar, and espuma de humo, smoke-scented foam. It’s no coincidence that the Taller is so near La Boqueria. One of Adrià’s culinary commandments is the use of “top-quality produce.” The blood orange foam you’re spooning up was probably inspired by blood oranges from La Boqueria. “It’s our market, our own neverra de lujo – deluxe refrigerator,” says one of the Taller chefs. “Our day starts at 10am, and at 10:05, we’re shopping at La Boqueria.”

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Moveable feast

There’s no menu at Pinotxo, a busy bar inside the market that has been around since 1940. Instead, the day’s specials are rattled off by the family who runs it, including seventy-something Juanito, who’s the “soul of Pinotxo, and never without a smile from ear to ear.” Flames heat the dozens of orders crammed onto the tiny grill, as Juanito walks the bar, topping up everyone’s glasses. On the menu is samfaina, a Catalan ratatouille briskly cooked with tomatoes, onions, eggplant, zuchini, and peppers, all from the nearby market stands, and cap i pota, stewed head and hoof of pig.

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Juanito at Pinotxo

As for Pinotxo’s regulars? Co-manager Jordi Asin says, “We see all the chefs – Adrià, Juan Mari Arzak, and plenty of others. You know a chef named Bouley? He told me he has a restaurant in New York. He comes here once a year, pulls up a chair, and says, ‘give me what you’ve made today.’”

It’s late afternoon, and as Pinotxo and the market are closing down, a young couple from Amsterdam runs in. “Can we still order and have a look around?” they ask. “We were told we couldn’t leave Barcelona without coming to La Boqueria.” They were right.

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All photos by AnneLise Sorensen. This article originally appeared on RoughGuides.com.

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Posted in: Barcelona