The mother of all markets, La Boqueria, Barcelona, Spain
Juan Antonio: Well, now that the day’s almost over, is it reasonable of me to ask you if you’ll both join me in my room?
Vicky: Oh, come on, I thought we’d settled that.
Cristina: Vicky’s just trying to say that she’s engaged to be married, that’s all.
Juan Antonio: Great. Then these are her last days of freedom.
Vicky, Christina, Barcelona, 2008.
It’s Christmas holidays 2008, the fire is roaring, and I am curled up in bed with a bowl of popcorn and Woody Allen’s latest. Although I love Woody, I didn’t choose the movie because of him, neither was it the idea of spending a couple of hours in the exquisite company of Xavier, Scarlett and Penelope. No. It’s only December, and given there’s another four months of freezing cold weather to look forward to, I’ll watch anything that has the words “summer” or “heat” typed across the DVD back cover. I travel a lot. During 2007 and 2008, I must have made at least 15 cross-Atlantic journeys, that is not to mention the many European layovers I had on the way to various African countries. But by the end of 2008, I just want to stay at home. My husband calls me blasée “How many people do you know have the opportunity to visit all these great places for free?” he says. He’s right, I have become blasée, yet spending an average of 12 hours per-day in air-conditioned conference rooms, whether its Paris or Ouagadougou during your short time abroad, isn’t much fun. I watch the movie and am taken aback, not so much by the story, but by the stunning scenery of mountains and beach, of the beautiful people sitting outside in the sun, serenaded by Spanish guitar. By the end of the movie, I definitely want to go to Barcelona and I want to go soon!
A few weeks later, and back at work, a surreptitious e-mail arrives from my colleagues abroad, “The next strategy meeting has been organised in Barcelona, Spain to coincide with the Global…” I RSVP without reading the full message. Not only is the trip scheduled in the middle of the Canadian winter, I will have two whole weekends on either side of meetings to visit the city. I start jumping around the house “I am going to Barcelona. I am going to Barcelona. Me, myself, Barcelona!” My husband rolls his eyes. Over the next two years, I return three times, and would still go back in a heartbeat.
Described as the sexy sister to the more subdued, yet elegant, Madrid, Barcelona greets you fitted out in Gaudi’s finest. She’s flirty, in your face, and like Juan Antonio, a little sauvage. The capital of Catalonia, she rests her head in the mountains, yet her feet dangle in the Mediterranean.
Barcelona has everything I like in a city, including great weather, palm trees (more fun is always to be had with a few palm trees around), a local beach, good-looking and friendly locals. The idea of boutique shopping or simply enjoying a coffee in amongst the labyrinthian remains of Roman walls in the Gothic quarter, can’t be found just anywhere. On top of that, you can visit local wineries, museums, or just kick back and enjoy life going by with a glass of cava and a plate of pintxos (the Catalonian equivalent of tapas).
As for cuisine, Catalonia has established an international reputation for mixing innovation with tradition. In 2009, Barcelona topped the list of the ten best gastronomical cities in the world by the American TV network MSNBC. Chef Ferran Adrià has spearheaded the gastronomical deconstruction movement, and influenced chefs as far and wide as Tokyo, New York and Sydney. Yet at the same time, the far-out mixes easily with tradition in Barcelona. What I really love about Catalonian cuisine, is that you instantly get the impression that this simple, yet delicious food is being enjoyed by everybody. I saw little kids munching on cod-fish fritters, old and young sharing plates of patatas bravas, calamar a la plancha, ladies lunching on thinly sliced pieces of Iberian ham, yet construction workers enjoying the same in their sandwiches. No matter where I looked, it was obvious – young or old, rich or poor, people were chowing down on the same thing. Not only that, but there seems to be little need for any slow food movement here. Barcelona relies on what she’s got: an abundance of sea life, the Mediterranean weather ensures a perfect climate for growing a diverse range of fruits and vegetables, and of course, the nearby rolling pastures are a haven for keeping livestock. All this combined, ensures a diet that is diverse, delicious and healthy. Although there must be fast food restaurants in Barcelona, I don’t remember seeing any, instead of the ubiquitous Starbucks or MacDonalds found on almost every second corner in North America, here there was either a little restaurant, or a Bodega serving fresh, mostly inexpensive, local food.
And of course where else to do a quick Captain Cook of the cities culinary spoils but the local market? La Boqueria is a gastronomic kaleidoscope that seems to go on for a small forever. Upon first entering her front doors, you are greeted with tables and tables of fresh, colourful fruit juices including guava, kivi, coconut, or just good old orange.
Mention must be made about the fish. As far back at the medieval times, fisherman have fished off the coast of Barcelona, and fish and seafood play an important part in both the economy and diet.
On my first visit to Boqueria, my old colleague and friend Natalie (who also took the fantastic photos for this blog) stopped with me for lunch at one of the counter-bar restaurants in the market, where watched as our selections of calamar a la plancha, some cod fritters with a spicy aoili, followed by bit of grilled sardine were prepared right in front of us. We continued our fishy exploration later that day and dinner included a memorable plate of octopus and brown lentils at a funky, little Bodega in El Born district where we stayed until closing time, before going out dancing (only to be woken up the next morning by the hotel concierge, long after check out).
With the demise of the historic central markets such as Les Halles in Paris or the old Convent markets in London, La Boqueria is probably the last bastion of Europe’s larger markets. The actual origins of Boqueria (much like the origins of Barcelona) remain unknown, yet most Catalonians will agree that prior-to establishing itself in its present location on La Ramblas, Boqueria was once a travelling market, it’s stall owners moving where produce and customers could best meet. One thing is certain, La Boqueria, like many markets around the world which are instrumental in bringing together people for trading, has been important in the founding and growth of the city and its actual location can attribute to the growth and increased development of Las Ramblas, a kilometre-stretch of pedestrian mall which stretches from the Gothic quarter to the harbor.
I ate all sorts of things in Boqueria and in Barcelona, but I have included two recipes here which I brought home and have now made a dozen times, these are: Patatas Bravas and Cod fritters. I think the poor potato has lost a few fans over recent years, yet Patatas Bravas (translated as bad-tempered potatoes) is a dish I am certain will become a household favorite. Cooked on high heat with both olive oil and butter, infused with basil leaf and unpeeled garlic, the aromas quickly entice. Cod fritters, are another popular pintxo, and I have included these here as cod or any firm white fish can be found almost anywhere. These dishes are great eaten with some roasted peppers and accompanied with some ice-cold beer or some spanish red wine.
And lastly, if you have been fortunate enough to visit Boqueria recently, don’t forget to cut a few slices of that sausage that somehow made its way from the market stall and into your pantry at home!
Patatas Bravas (or bad-tempered potatoes)
- 3 tablespoons of butter
- 4 large potatoes, peeled, and cut to 1-inch cubes
- 4 cloves garlic,whole, skins left on
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3-4 bay leaves
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Spanish paprika
- 1/2 cup Ketchup or chilli sauce
- 1/2 cup (4 fl. oz) mayonnaise
- 1 cup olive oil for frying
Cut up your potatoes into one inch pieces, pat dry and then season with salt, black pepper and the paprika. In a large skillet, melt your butter and and heat the olive oil and then then fry the potatoes for 3-4 minutes, ensuring to turn over on each side. This process will make the potatoes crispy, but will not necessarily cook them through. Turn down the heat, add the bay leaves and garlic, put the fry pan lid on and then keep cooking until potatoes are done inside. Stir occasionally to ensure they don’t go soggy.
Patatas bravas, depending on where you eat them are either served with a tomato puree-type sauce on top of them, or with an aoili. I find the easiest way to serve them is with a mix of ketchup or chilli sauce and mayonnaise stirred through together. If you don’t like ketchup, make up a quick aioli with a bit of mayonnaise, some minced garlic and a splash of lemon juice.
400g of potatoes
200g of cod fillet
1 egg yolk
2 cloves of garlic, minced
oil for frying
Peel, cut up and boil the potatoes until soft. Mash up and season with a little salt and pepper. Cut up the cod in small pieces.
In a large bowl, mix the potatoes, cod, egg yolk, and garlic and with your hand, form little inch-sized balls. Fry until gold brown and serve with some aoili for dipping.
For more information on Boqueria, visit the market website at: