Friday, June 24, 2011
After having planned nothing ahead of time for my trip to Paris last week, I found myself equally unprepared for my one day in Barcelona. I had been invited to the naming of a new Seabourn cruise ship (the Quest, if you really want to know) and besides attending the very swish party and absolutely delicious dinner, I had no itinerary for the next day.
Well, that’s not totally true. I knew I wanted to wander around the old part of town, Barri Gotic, and then head over to the Boqueria, one of the best markets in Europe. By not having a ‘plan’ what I really mean is not having made a ‘reservation’ for ‘lunch.’
After a fruitful walk through Barri Gotic, I rambled over to the Ramblas and into the Boqueria. Although I had been there 15 years ago, and was expecting to be overwhelmed, it still went beyond anything I remembered. I live in Italy and so am pretty used to fantastic markets, but the Boqueria is at an entirely different level.
Not only was everything extraordinary looking, the depth and breadth of what was on offer was incredibly varied and unique. For instance, the poultry stand didn’t just sell 20 kinds of fowl, but also had small cases of unborn eggs. The bacala' stand must have had forty different cuts and types of dried fish. And the egg stands? (yes, there were several) had not just chicken eggs, but duck, geese and even a pile of double yolked eggs (how do they know?) And don’t even get me started on the cute little packages of lambs’ brains.
The fish section left me physically in pain that I didn’t have a kitchen to go back to. Everything from clams to crabs to weird little barnacle type things were crawling towards me, just begging to be taken back home.
What did I actually buy? A few kilos of chorizio, lots of spices, piquillo peppers and a half dozen cans of mussels, clams and conch that you can only find in Spain.
In a slight daze I finally looked at my watch and realized that I had been wandering the aisles, alternately drooling and taking pictures, for over two hours. No wonder I was hungry. I had passed several stands selling delicious looking meals, but knew that some were supposed to be better than others. (Why oh why had I not done my Chowhound homework?) While buying paprika I asked the spice lady for a recommendation. She didn’t hesitate for a second: Universal.
When I made it back to that corner of the market I realized that Universal was in fact the first place I had seen when I walked into the market hours earlier. I had even taken several photographs of the huge platter heaped with mushrooms and wild leeks, waiting to be grilled. Luckily I found a stool right away, and was soon eating one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Ever. For real.
Luckily the menu on the chalkboard was not only in Catalan and Spanish, but in English as well. I also had a good look up and down the counter, not only to see what everyone else was ordering, but to look at the raw ingredients behind the glass.
Of course I ordered a plate of the mushrooms. A mix of about six or seven different kinds, many of which I had never seen, along with fresh wild leeks. They were thrown onto an extremely hot grill, cooked in about four minutes, then brought to me topped lavishly with crunchy sea salt.
It was a real dilemma deciding what to order next. The girl to my left had squid. The woman on my right razor clams. I’m not sure how I decided, but the next thing I knew I had a half dozen of the best shrimp I’ve ever tasted. Again, barely cooked on a hot griddle, with a drizzle of parsley and garlic oil on top. I dug in, ripping off the shells with my hands, sucking the juice out of the heads while oil and shrimp brains drizzled down my chin. I would have been embarrassed, but everyone else was similarly anointed.
My one regret is that I went alone. Had I been with someone else (Jonathan Gold for instance, who I evidently missed by just a few days!) we could have ordered an extra two dishes. (who am I kidding? With Jonathan we would have ordered the entire menu) I came very near to proposing a swap with my neighbors. But first of all I didn’t think that would have gone over too well. And secondly, I didn’t want to give up any of my shrimp. Not even for a squid or razor clam.
Rambla 91 Barcelona