Monday, September 08, 2014

La Boqueria, Mercat Sant Josep

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It pains me, as an American, to find a Dunkin Donuts next door to La Boqueria, the ultimate, Spanish, covered market. It’s doubtful that many people even notice the junk food purveyor, because the draw of the market is so palpable. People seem so animated as they get closer to the market. The intense colors of the produce and foods on offer lure them under the big top into a carnival atmosphere where indulgence is easily accomplished.



The first stall on the right, as you walk toward the portal, is a shrine to the patron saint of Spanish cuisine, “jamon”, salt cured pork. Until you experience this Spanish version of prosciutto, you would be unable to understand the distinction between them. Although they are both made from pig hind quarters, they are different animals entirely.


Jamon is a general term, but it comes in variations such as Serrano jamon which is prevalent throughout the country, representing 90% of jamon production, and has been cured in mountainous areas since Roman times. 


Jamon Iberico is also prevalent all over the country, but has the distinction of coming from a specific breed of pig, the black Iberico, the original swine of Spain, as depicted in prehistoric cave paintings. Because of the amount of fat in these animals, they are able to cure for 2-4 years and develop very complex flavors with a slight sweetness.


Of the different varieties I tasted, it was the Bellota jamon or Jamom Iberico de Bellota that I found to be the most distinctive in taste. The mouth feel was silky, due to the highly marbled fat, and the flavor was distinctly sweeter and nuttier than even the Iberico. This all occurs because the pigs are encouraged to gorge on acorns, before being sacrificed for food production. Although the fat in the photo is not more yellow in color, as is common for this type of ham, the taste was exquisite and this was definitely Bellota in taste and texture. Here are links to very helpful information on the different types of jamon: Jamon Serrano       Jamon Iberico



The produce stalls in this market were plentiful and each one showed pride of ownership. The standard of quality was high and the competition kept it that way. Anyone being able to shop at La Boqueria  on a weekly basis should consider themselves very fortunate.


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The fruits that were present in the juices, cups of mixed fruits and those sold for fresh eating were difficult to ignore. Their riot of colors were used to full advantage by the individual vendors. Flavor combinations also made everything so appealing to try. Personally, I was wowed by the bright magenta dragon fruit, polka dotted with black seeds and clothed in a thick skin of red. I could have walked away with one cut in half to eat, but I found the juice drinks impossible to resist, especially since it was hot outside, so I settled for a drink mixed with coconut milk. In hindsight, trying the fruit alone might have given me a better sense of its taste. The drink was very sweet with a chalky magenta color, but I had no inkling of how the fruit itself tasted. Perhaps it has no “flavor” but is just cloyingly sweet. This is worth further investigation.


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When I first saw the fruit salads in cups I couldn’t help but long for finding those at home. It’s not going to happen. So I’ll have to be content with mixing my own, but I vow never to visit without eating these in Barcelona. The prices were very inexpensive at La Boqueria compared to Mercat Santa Caterina. In general I found prices at La Boqueria to be inexpensive and would recommend it as a great place to go for a progressive meal, wandering between the market stalls, picking up this and that along the way. Getting back to the fruit cups, this seems like a wonderful way for the vendors to use up fruit that may be bordering on becoming too ripe. 


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One euro for 6 to 8 figs would put American grocers out of business. I loved the display of these “Cup O’ Figs” as it showed the vendor’s passion for his work. I’m afraid the best we can hope for at home is straight rows of the fruit that is not too badly bruised.



The range of exotic fruit was quite extraordinary, especially for the month of September. I almost bought a cherimoya at the Mercat Santa Caterina, that was until I was quoted over 9 euro for it. The vendor who had no prices posted said it was because it was the first of the season. I believed him when he said that about the porcini mushrooms, but I literally “was not buying it” concerning a cherimoya.



The portico surrounding the market, to your right as you enter, was filled with tables and chairs of overflowing restaurants, providing an opportunity for dining al fresco. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to sit, had you decided to purchase prepared foods in the market for a spur of the moment picnic. Looking for such a place to sit, I walked down toward the back of the market to discover some produce vendors working alongside La Boqueria, but more importantly I discovered a small store. The above photo shows its front door and awning.

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They seemed to specialize in grains, nuts and condiments, but they also had a proprietary line of flavored salts that was not filled with the usual suspects. We’ve certainly seen many truffle salts on grocery shelves, and I’ve seen a few chili salts and once a porcini flavored salt, however, I had not seen a mint salt nor a raspberry salt until this occasion. I swooped in and bought them on the spot. They now sit in my pantry awaiting a moment of inspiration for them to be used. The mint would work well on lamb or peas, but the raspberry flavor is going to need more time. Maybe I should develop a raspberry Margarita and rim it with this salt.

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The Marcona almonds were a steal at 9 euro per pound, since I had seen them for over 12 euro at a stall selling nuts in the mercato. I bought a package and took great pleasure in cooking them when I returned home. I placed them in a saute pan, added extra virgin olive oil, and toasted them over a medium flame until lightly browned. Afterwards, I drained them on paper towels and added a flaked salt. They were perfect. Parami Website


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Back inside La Boqueria, little Juanito, the barrista made famous on Rick Steves’ Europe television show, is still working his magic. He’s the fellow with the broad smile and 2 thumbs up. I was not surprised to see him surrounded by American tourists as well as locals.


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Nougat is very popular in Southern Europe and the variety and flavors are broad. This shop sold nougat candy as well as chocolates, chocolate dipped dried fruit, truffles  and fruit gels, and was doing a brisk business across the aisle from the tapas bar.


Further back in the market, I spotted this woman, content to be a purist and sell only nougat candies. I’ve tried several different kinds including those with almonds, coconut, or chocolate and all would make fine gifts to bring home from Spain for family and friends. You can find this candy all over town and prices vary wildly, so shop around before buying.


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Herbs and spices riddled the stalls. If the vendor had shelves, there was the opportunity to sell Spanish produced specialties like saffron, honey, extra virgin olive oil, Ibiza salt and paprika; whether it be sweet, picante or smoked. I was actually surprised to find the salts from other countries, because the market was such a showcase of Spanish grown products. This is the place to purchase a little bit of Spain to bring home as a souvenir. I admit to having purchased just about everything here, on one trip or another, except the honey, because my pantry is currently packed with honey from France and Italy. If you are interested in smoked paprika, you might like to try an original recipe using it in a marinade for chicken. Smoked Paprika Chicken makes an indoor grilled chicken taste like a barbeque.


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The mercato is noted for its seafood, but it seemed that beef held a more prominent place on the several days that I visited La Boqueria. There were more cold cuts than you could imagine, and many vacuumed packed cold cut selections for easy purchasing. Of the many sausages I wanted to try the morcilla, known to English speakers as blood sausages, and xoricos that I presumed were chorizo.


My favorite vendor made it very easy to try cured sausages by offering mini sausage by the cupful. I had ordered spicy sausage at a restaurant prior to seeing the Xoricos and could confirm that they were chorizo. I purchased a morcilla and cooked it with eggs for breakfast the next morning. It had a nice blend of herbs and spices that made it taste slightly like poultry seasoning because of the sage. I finished off the breakfast with toast and a tomato jam that I had purchased from my favorite stall at La Boqueria, MAS. It’s not often one sees a tomato preserve. This one was light on sugar and that made it all the more flavorful with a true tomato taste.



Mas must be given credit for being a very high quality gourmet shop that handled imports as well as Spanish produced gourmet items. As I mentioned the tomato jam was unique and worth the 6 euro price.

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The Mas logo appeared on almost everything they sold from charcuterie, to take out foods. After walking around their stall and looking at all the case goods, it would be difficult to forget the name of this beautifully manicured, gourmet grocer with a sophisticated mastery of merchandising. This was no mom and pop operation. From their cheese selection to the prepared foods, such as the croquettes to take home and fry or empanadas to eat on the spot, their operation showed a very educated palate on the part of upper management. Mas Website



The search was on for seafood, but bacala was as close as it came on my first trip down the aisles. In truth,  La Boqueria is too big to see completely in a few hours. Even though I went there at least 3 times, I missed some of it. The bacala was cut into many sizes and shapes and was very different than I had seen before in European markets. Some stalls sold it with bottarga, the dried, fish egg pate that is usually grated on pasta by Italians, but this was the first time I saw it made of salmon eggs as well as tuna. The portions seemed huge compared to how I’ve seen it sold in Italy & Sicily. If I thought it would pass U.S. Customs, I would have bought one of each. I especially liked the case where it was sold with caviar and Spanish white anchovies, another item I was not certain I could successfully bring back home. At least it was possible to eat some in restaurants.


Ultimately I did find fresh fish on ice,  including all sorts of shellfish, squid, octopus, white bait, all the the traditional seafood one sees cooked in restaurants, but I never did find salmon or tuna. Could they be harvesting too many of their eggs for bottarga? Probably not, since I did not spend much time in this area of the market nor did I look specifically for them.



Offal is alive and well in Barcelona and to a greater degree, or broader depth, than I have seen before after 25 years of travel. We can find tripe and tongues in most markets stateside, but when was the last time you spotted a spleen? The lamb’s head, brains and sweetbreads are rare enough everywhere, but this last photo to the right stumps me completely. My only guess is that it may be the intestines of an un-weaned calf, that are still filled with the mother’s milk. In Italy it’s called “pajata” and is a traditional Roman dish. Your guess is as good as mine on the item sitting under the spleens in the top right photo. Please don’t tell me; I don’t believe I really want to know.


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Weather sold fresh, vacuum packed or packaged as gifts, there were many varieties of olives at La Boqueria.



You could find enough prepared food stalls to eat at the market all week long, without going to the same place twice. Rostiserria Ramon was tucked away in the back left corner of the building and had some very interesting offerings, none of which I actually tried. My favorites, by the looks of them, were fried shrimp wrapped in potato with ham and potato croquettes, as well as fried bacala. That’s a tapa one could certainly sink their teeth into and I’m going to on our next trip to Barcelona.



What I actually did sink my teeth into was an empanada made of boletus mushrooms, porcini by another name, and also a croquette made with curried potatoes, chicken and various vegetables. Even though I love mushrooms, especially porcini, the empanada was too dry to really enjoy; and to be candid, the croquette had too much saffron, so it threw the flavor off for everything else in the croquette. That is why I couldn’t identify the vegetables by taste, although in the photo it is clear that it was made with onion, red peppers and corn kernels.


The variety of fillings for empanadas was staggering and it took too long to make the decision on which to purchase. They were composed of single items such as zucchini, cheese, mushrooms, eggplant, and pumpkin or multiple ingredients like mixed vegetables, cheese and onion, or beef and vegetables. Even small tarts and open faced pastries were called empanadas. To add to the confusion some of the croquettes were called Coxinha which is the Brazilian word for croquette.



The Catalonian empanadas looked more like “wraps”, and although very colorful, they didn’t tempt my appetite at all because of the waxy look of the dough. On the other hand, the quiche appeared colorful and flavorful at the same time. What I believe comes through in all these prepared food photos, is that you can buy a filling meal or snack for very little money.


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Puerto Latino was the last stop on this food excursion. Their ice creams were creamy and inventive, though mostly fruit based, but that does not take away from the delight of finding something different like a pear and chocolate combination or strawberry and coconut. I opted for the most refreshing flavor I could find which turned out to be pink grapefruit. Mmmm.


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Since this journey has been “from soup to nuts”, here’s a photo of some nuts and a personal favorite, ostrich and emu eggs. This is not unusual at La Boqueria, since they were being sold there on my first trip to Barcelona ten years earlier. I will not wait another ten years to go back to Barcelona, and I can’t wait to go back to La Boqueria to discover what I may have missed on this trip. I wonder how many people an emu egg could feed? Perhaps I’ll find out.

La Boqueria Website

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