Catalonia’s seaside capital is easily the most well-trodden destination in Spain, drawing visitors with its heady mix of Gothic and Gaudí architecture, world-class museums, eclectic art and design scenes, pleasant Mediterranean weather, and fabulous food—above all else, food. And what better way to work up an appetite than to explore the shops and markets that provide the ingredients—and inspiration—for the city’s top kitchens? A culinary stroll through Barcelona awaits.
Story and photographs by Jeff Koehler
From molecular foams and spherifications in Michelin-rated restaurants to deep-fried squid in crowded tapas bars and traditional roasted Catalan pigs’ trotters at home, Barcelona is a city that celebrates its soul through the stomach. And whether you’re a star chef or a home cook, setting some of the best tables in Spain often begins in the markets—the churches of this epicurean faith—and among small, specialist food shops where every item is carefully sourced and the people behind the counter are passionate about what they sell.
During the 15 years in which I have lived in Barcelona, such places have inspired and sustained me through four cookbooks and thousands of meals. Recently, I have found myself retracing a walking route that starts in the city’s most celebrated market then passes through its oldest quarters; along it, I can find, simply, the best local produce and ingredients. There are other places in Barcelona to shop for provisions, of course, but I am fiercely loyal to these standouts, most of which have been in the same family for generations. The walk takes a full morning, and requires an appetite, as there are plenty of delicacies to sample along the way. Better still, bring a bag—you’ll definitely want to stock up on conserves and other gourmet items to carry back home.
Market Value: La Boqueria
Like any good meal, the route starts among the raw materials. Found half- way down the city’s iconic, tree-lined Las Ramblas boulevard, La Boqueria is an epicurean landmark. There are 38 other covered municipal food markets in Barcelona, but this venerable, cavernous hall offers the widest and deepest selection of them all. Everything the traditional Spanish kitchen requires is here many times over, from cuttlefish and suckling lamb to wild forest strawberries no bigger than the tip of my thumb.
Such foraged items are a specialty of Petràs Fruits del Bosc, Europe’s finest purveyor of wild mushrooms. While autumn is high season, with Petràs offering a cornucopia of tantalizing fungi with evocative names like trompeta de la mort (“trumpet of death”), llengua de bou (“ox tongue), and camagroc (“yellow leg”), spring, too, has its delights—morels! Petràs dries various species for year-round use. Instead of the more readily available porcini, pick up a bag of moixernó (St. George’s mushroom), a small, flat-capped, and robustly flavored Catalan favorite typically stewed with thinly sliced veal and ví rancí (a sweet, fortified wine whose name misleadingly translates as “rancid wine”).
The Spanish kitchen is regional and diverse, and nowhere is that better displayed than in the array of cheeses at stalls like Pernils Embotits i Formatges Josep. Where to start? Two must-tries are Cabrales, an intense blue cheese cured in natural caves in the mountains of Asturias —it’s sticky, slightly granular, and intense (some would say dank)—and Idiazábal, a firm and smooth Basque sheep’s-milk cheese that’s lightly smoked over beech wood, cherry, and green hawthorn.
Table olives also show off Spain’s culinary regionalism. As the two dozen varieties sold at Olivas y Conservas Pinyol demonstrate, they range greatly in size, shape, and color, and are generally associated with a specific terroir. The differences between drab green, lightly cracked Aloreña olives from Málaga and their almond-shaped, purplish-black counterparts from Aragón couldn’t be more striking.
At the center of La Boqueria’s hundreds of stalls—as at the heart of the Barcelona diet—is fish. But not all of it is fresh. Until the days of refrigeration, bacalao (salt cod) was the country’s most important fish, and it remains a favorite. Pesca Salada Pujamar carries an array of cuts as well as another salted treat: thin slices of intense ruby-colored mojama, tuna loin that has been salt-cured and air-dried for about six months in the moist, briny Atlantic air of Barbate, Andalucía.
Spain’s most distinguished cured product, though, is jamón iberico de bellota, ham from acorn-fed black-footed pigs. The best of the best can be found at Marcos, tucked into the front corner of the market. Snag one of the four tables out front and opt for the wonderfully marbled Joselito for a taste of the charcuterie favored by King Juan Carlos and such culinary royalty as Ferran Adrià, who considers it “perfecto.” For about 600 euros (US$780), you can take away a whole, uncut back leg that has been cured for four years, or pick up hand-cut slices for 189 euros per kilo. It goes down splendidly with a glass of local champagne-style cava.
For a more substantial morning snack, grab a stool at Kiosk Universal, across from Marcos. This is cuina de mercat—market cooking—at its finest, with ingredients from nearby stalls prepared in a straightforward manner that strives to heighten their natural, fresh flavors. Order a tallat (espresso cut with milk) with some sautéed wild mushrooms and a plate of grilled razor clams.
A side exit leads down a short flight of steps to an alley called Carrer Petxina (Clamshell Street). At the corner is El Celler de la Boquería, a wine shop that stocks 1,200 different Spanish labels. Classics from La Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Priorat line its shelves, as do some excellent wines from smaller producers, with a particularly wide selection of Catelonian options. Across the way is the tiny kitchen-supply shop Antigua Hojalatería. “It’s the same as when my great-grandfather opened it,” says owner Antonia Apollaro, “but we’re always incorporating new things.” Inside, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular with cooking school students as well as neighbors shopping in La Boqueria: packed onto its shelves and in the attic space above is absolutely everything a cook needs, from pastry-decorating tips to paella pans big enough to feed a sports team.
Walk the remaining two dozen paces to Las Ramblas and you arrive at Escribà, a celebrated patisserie dating back more a century. Don’t let the marvelous mosaic work on the outside or the lavish Art Deco ceiling divert your attention from the sumptuous cakes, pastries, and small, sweet indulgences on offer. Forgo the cakes, though, and get an ensaïmada, a coiled pastry dusted with powdered sugar that’s as light as you’ll find anywhere.