The largest food market in Europe and the don’t-miss destination for every visitor to Barcelona is the Mercat de Sant Josep, better known as the la Boqueria. It’s huge, colorful, crowded and amazing. However, when I lived in Barcelona — although the Boqueria was the closest market to my apartment on Calle Avinyo — it was a huge pain in the rear to shop there. The slow-moving, gawking tourists created gridlock, they didn’t buy anything and they smothered the counter space so you couldn’t get close and you couldn’t talk to the vendors.
Exceptional alternative: Mercat de Santa Caterina
I never thought I’d prefer another market to the Boqueria, but the Mercat de Santa Caterina in Sant Pere is nearly as big as the Boqueria, and it’s a delight to shop with Barcelonans sans tourists. You can chat with the vendors and ask them questions (in a potpourri of Spanish-Catalan-English-Italian). One day I bought two kinds of botifarra negre (the famous blood sausage of Catalonia). I didn’t know there were two kinds of negre, and in fact there are more than two. The counter lady explained in Catalan, holding up one sausage, that it was the one (as she tied a red string around the links of the one she held up) you “bull” (“boil”) and that the other one (as she pointed to it, the one without the red string) was “rostit“ (“roasted). I nodded OK, I understood. As soon as I got home I couldn’t remember which one the red string signified and, having a 50-50 chance of being right, boiled the correct one. It needed to be boiled otherwise it would have burst. We ate it with mongetes (white beans) as an entremes (appetizer). The roasted one we just sliced and ate.
La Boqueria: Varieties you’ve never seen
Several stalls in the Boqueria sell smoothies for one euro. They are popular with visitors and locals alike. My favorite was the coconut mango, but the prettiest must be the pitihaya, or dragon-fruit smoothie, a tropical fruit imported from the Philippines. I’m a little jaded about vegetables because my local Santa Monica Farmers Market probably is the best vegetable market in the world, but the ones in the Barcelona markets are notable, especially the thick fleshy red bell peppers called marrones or the runner beans called mongetes (also the name of the seed inside). The well-known mushroom vendor Llorenc Petras has a stall with varieties of mushrooms you’ve never seen. I bought some siureny (Boletus edulis), that is, a variety of porcini mushroom and some much sought after spindly golden camagroc (Cantharelius lutescens).
Deli inventions and seafood beyond words
One of the most impressive foods offered in the market is the enormous variety of xarcuteria (cold cut delicatessens) selling every imaginable cold cut you could think of from the spicy chorizo iberico to the earthy salchichon di Vic. The sausages are legend, and I fell in love with the luscious xoric gallec – a rustic garlic and paprika pork salami from Galicia. Also I loved the huge variety of veal and/or pork sausages known as botifarra: botifarra blanc, made with veal; botifarra negre, made with pork blood; botifarra del perol, a piquant sausage from Gerona made with pork head, belly, tripe, kidneys, and highly seasoned and frequently cooked with white beans and garlic; the yellow botifarra d’ous, a sausage made of eggs eaten around Carnaval that I never tried. Unbelievably, there’s a limit to the amount you can eat.
And the seafood! Good lord where to begin? Fresh fish on ice filled counters such as hake, sea bass, and monkfish and the rest whose name I only know in Spanish. Four species of shrimp in the shells with their heads, still moving in many cases. Baby octopus called pulpitas, baby squid called xipirones in Catalan (the vendors love it when you use Catalan). Clams whose names you’ve never known in English let alone another language, such as tallarina, lluenta and berberecho. Sea creatures such as bunelo de mar (Microcosmus sabatieri) that look like detritus from “Alien” and a stall that sells only salt cod — five varieties! It’s endless.
Once I was back in my cozy apartment with all my alimentary goodies I plunged into one of my newly purchased Catalan cookbooks written by the mushroom vendor Petras: La millor cuina des bolets. I tried my hand at his pebrots verds farcits de bolets (green bell peppers stuffed with porcini mushrooms). This was pure Catalan home cooking. I cooked the mushrooms with onion and garlic in olive oil and salt and stuffed them inside the roasted bell peppers, which were in turn fried in olive oil. My son, Seri, arrived with his friends, and we laughed our way through some bottles of cava.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.Photo at top: Dragon fruit. Credit: Clifford A. Wright