This post is part of our Tasting Tour series, which is brought to you by Continental Airlines.
Barcelona, on the Mediterranean Coast in northeast Spain, is one of Europe's most-visited cities (fourth, after London, Paris, and Rome). And for good reason. With world-class museums, stunning architecture, a comfortable year-round climate, and a welcoming, laid-back atmosphere, what's not to love? And while Barcelona offers all of these fine qualities, for serious eaters it may just be synonymous with one thing: La Boqueria.
Ham Capital of the World
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The Boqueria is located just off Barcelona's famous pedestrian avenue, La Rambla. La Rambla, 100; between Carrer del Carme and Carrer de l'Hospital; closest subway stop is the Liceu station; boqueria.info
La Boqueria is one of the world's greatest markets and may be reason enough to fly to Barcelona for some food lovers. And even if you're not the type of person who starts thinking about lunch while eating breakfast, it's a must-see destination. When I visited with my wife and son in 2007, we stayed in a great apartment beautifully located five minutes away from the Boqueria and La Rambla, the walking boulevard both Barcelona-ites and tourists seem to frequent daily and which the Boqueria is located just off of. Our choice of accommodations was no accident; I somehow found an excuse to walk through the Boqueria every day of our vacation.
For a serious pork lover like me, the Boqueria may just be the ham capital of the world. There are at least 15 ham vendors at there. In just the first three days in Barcelona, I bought five different kinds of ham and ordered it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner in some form. Every morning, I'd go to the Boqueria and inspect the wares of the many ham vendors found at this wondrous market, which is every bit as great as advertised. I asked everyone I met there where they bought their ham. A tip: Not many people at the Boqueria speak English, and if your Spanish or Catalan are nonexistent, you might not glean very much useful information on provenance from vendors. But why let that stop you? It'll only force you to try every ham that looks serious—and that turns out to be every ham at the market.
Barcelona Culinary Tours
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Spanish Journeys, a great resource for folks who want to arrange culinary tours of Barcelona and beyond. When my family and I visited, Spanish Journeys founder Teresa Parker helped us with our excellent Boqueria-adjacent accommodations.
But, as it turns out, you don't have to fumble around like I did. Here's one of the things I love about the web—when I first visited the Boqueria and blogged about it from Barcelona, SE'r Jose commented with this advice, which I found extremely helpful:
I live in Barcelona and actually run from there an internet-based shop of jamón ibérico de bellota. There are quite a few varieties of Spanish ham; I'll try to give you a liitle advice...
First, if you want nothing but the best, you must look for the term "jamón ibérico de bellota." This means dry-cured ham coming from "iberico" (iberian) race pigs that have been raised in the wild in the traditional way (not in farms) in Spain's southwestern pasture lands (Extremadura, Huelva), and that have been fed with acorns ("bellotas") and grass during their finishing period.
Second, you will have to choose which "ibérico de bellota" you want. The safest bet (to ensure a highly consistent quality) is to go for a ham from a producer that is inscribed in a Denomination of Origin (DO). There are 4 "jamón ibérico" DOs in Spain:
- Dehesa de Extremadura (Extremadura region)
- Guijuelo (Salamanca region)
- Huelva (Huelva region)
- Los Pedroches (Córdoba region)
The one that is regarded for enforcing the strictest quality controls is the D.O. Dehesa de Extremadura.
Another option is to get yourself ham from one of the most reputed producers. Among them there are brands such as Maldonado, Joselito, or CInco Jotas. These producers are not backed by any DO but are regarded as some of the best jamón brands in Spain.
But remember, always look for "jamón ibérico de bellota," and you will be good.
Sage pork advice.
Our Food Lab contributor, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, just returned from Barcelona a few weeks ago, so I asked him if he'd chime in with a few words on the market.
Kenji's Boqueria Experience
Barcelona has become the only city in the world outside of Boston, New York, and San Francisco that I could actually see myself living in. It's not because of the incredible architecture, the hot dining scene, or even the really cheap good wine (though that helps). It's because the Boqueria off of Las Ramblas is the single greatest food market in the world.
Shopping there can be an overwhelming experience. My advice is to devote a good 45 minutes to wandering around and through the various stalls to get your bearings before actually buying anything. You can get an idea of what's there by studying the vendor map on the Boqueria website.
The stalls are divided into five basic types: produce, meat, seafood, hams, and restaurants. As is expected from an outdoor market, the produce stands supply an abundance of Spanish staples like tomatoes, eggplant, various peppers, and onions, along with every other type of herbs, vegetables, and greens you could imagine.
But here's the kicker: How many markets you know of that sell fat stalks of white asparagus as thick as your thumb or offer fresh black truffles inconspicuously wedged in between the local pimientos del padrón and the Vietnamese dragonfruits?
For a quick, on-the-go snack, cool yourself with fresh-squeezed local or tropical juices sold for about a buck a glass at any one of the fruit dealers.
Here in the States, we're used to seeing meat in sterile shrink-wrapped styrofoam trays. At the Boqueria, you know exactly where your protein is coming from, and how. Signs featuring bambi-eyed photographs of baby lambs sit right next to the carcasses of the real animals, ready to be butchered to your exact specifications. Every manner of creature, including grass-fed cows, pigs, rabbits, ducks (and of course, foie gras), geese, lambs, and at least a dozen varieties of chickens line the clean glass display cases, freshly plucked, their heads and feet still intact.
If you're in the mood for something a little more extravagant, head over to the pork specialists, who offer acorn-fed pata negra with meat more highly marbled than the best quality Kobe beef. Simply grilled, the meat literally melts in your mouth.
The center of the marketplace is a gigantic circular seafood display with dozens of vendors offering fish and shellfish of unsurpassed freshness—Barcelona is, after all, a port town that hugs the Mediterranean. Just like Tokyo's famous Tsukiji fish market, a walk through the center of the Boqueria is a crash course in the varied and often bizarre haul from the sea. Shiny silver merluza and cod dominate the fish displays, while the shellfish are led by 6-inch-long galeras (mantis shrimp) or percebes, the goose-necked barnacles that have to be gathered by hand off of rocky coastline when the tide is out.
Hams are an institution in Spain, and despite cries from fans of prosciutto, I'm a firm believer that the Jamon Iberico de bellota (acorn) produced in Jabugo in the Huelva province is the best ham in the world. It's not easy to come by in the States, but any respectable ham dealer in the Boqeuria (and they're all respectable) will carry it. The ham stalls are one of the few where you can sample goods right at the counter. Tasting a few different varieties of ham is an experience in and of itself. If you're feeling even more peckish, most ham vendors also offer thick slices of cured chorizo stuck on wooden skewers to be eaten on the go like savory meat lollipops.
While there are a good dozen tapas bars interspersed among the stalls, the best is Bar Pinotxo, located right at the entrance to the marketplace. For a uniquely Barcelona experience, arrive there early in the morning (though not too early—the Spanish are late risers) and grab one of the seats at the bar for a breakfast of tortilla de verduras (a vegetable omelet), and a glass (or two) or Cava, which 'round these parts, is cheaper than water. If you're in the mood for heartier fare, you could do far worse than a ración of rabbit served with chanterelle mushrooms. The stew of chickpeas and morcilla might seem like a humble offering in print, but my first bite of the savory, earthy, rich combination, drizzled with bitter and grassy extra-virgin olive oil and a misting of sharp sherry vinegar was the best bite of food I've ever had in Spain (and I've had a lot of bites).
Other Barcelona Bites
Thanks, Kenji. Now doesn't that make you want to book a trip? You could spend weeks in Barcelona and still not eat your way through the Boqueria, but you may want to see other sights, so I'll offer some of the spots where I found serious eats.
I was armed with a 22-page recommendations list courtesy of Andy Nusser, the chef-owner of the excellent New York Spanish restaurant Casa Mono. As a kicker, I had a one-page guide from Vogue magazine food columnist Jeffrey Steingarten. I figured that, between Nusser and Steingarten, my family and I would eat very well in Barcelona. That turned out to be an understatement.
Basically, between the Boqueria and the recommendations on these lists we walked and ate for seven days straight, with a few forays to museums and Gaudi houses and parks in between. Here are some of the spots we went to for lunch, dinner, or sometime in-between that I wish I could go to right now. One of the many things I loved about Barcelona is that people seem literally to eat continuously from dawn to midnight and even later. That's my kind of city. So, without further ado, Barcelona bite by bite.
Breakfast was my alone time in Barcelona. My wife and son would sleep in, and I would wander over to the the Boqueria. My first stop would always be Cafe Pinotxo, a corner L-shaped counter-food bar. Since I ate there every morning I sampled a wide variety of items: perfect scrambled eggs with tiny clams, smoked trout with Muscat grapes, baby scallops still in their gorgeous shells, baby calamari with in ink satueed with white beans and pomegranate molasses, a simple plate of patenegro, the incomparable Spanish hams, served on a plate or in a pressed sandwich with cheese, gambones (langoustines) with roe sauteed with garlic and parsley, various and sundry fried things. Needless to say, the breakfast menu at Pinoxto is not your typical diner fare. It is delicious, especially washed down at nine in the monring with cava, the Spanish sparkling wine. Then I would walk around the Boqueria trying to educate myself about Spanish ham. I bought ham every day in Barcelona, a sort of perverse carnivore's take on the apple a day keeps the doctor away rhyme we all learned as children. Cafe Pinotxo: Mercat de la Boqueria, 66-67; phone, 93-317-17-31
Although Cal Pep may be overexposed in the US food media, the cooks behind the counter (there are a few tables in the back) do in fact turn out incredibly tasty, deceptively simple Spanish food. We would order a few dishes, I would then see things we hadn't ordered that looked incredibly yummy, we would order some more, and I have to say I found nary a loser. Perfectly fried baby artichokes, a mini-fried seafood combo platter with whitebait, baby calamari, and baby shrimps with their heads still on; barely cooked little clams sauted with bacon, garlic, parsley, white wine, and olive oil; a fresh, fluffy version of the omelet called a tortilla in Spain, made with chorizo, onion, and potato, finished with just a touch of aioli that was the coup de grace; a perfect trio of crisp croquettes stuffed with a perfect bechamel sauce, a little cast iron pan filled with sausage and beans topped with a sweet quince-fruit sauce, and for dessert four shot glasses filled with lemon, coffee, egg nog, and chocolate foam. Cal Pep is touristy, but it rocks anyway. Cal Pep: Plaça des les Olles, 8; phone, 93-310-79-61
Cafe De L'academia
Perhaps my favorite dinner in Barcelona was in Cafe De L'academia, a neighborhood restaurant impossible to find that serves hearty, delicious, market-driven contemporary Spanish food that is never overwhelmed by foam or any other contemporary culinary fad. Note that is closed on Saturdays. You have to admire someone in the restaurant business willing to close on Saturdays. Cafe de L'academia: Carrer Lledó, 1; phone, 93-315-00-26
Our best fancy-pants meal was a lunch at Cinc Sentis. The chef there is a self-taught Canadian who pushes the envelope just far enough. The room itself is cheery, welcoming, and simply and elegantly furnished.Cinc Sentis: Carrer Aribau, 58; phone, 93-323-94-90
A true neighborhood tapas bar with things like a perfect four-cheese risotto, mussels, hangar steak, and a bruschetta topped with silky duck liver and caramelized onion. Carrer de Pau Claris, 192; phone, 93-217-43-38
Quimet I Quimet
A teeny, tiny stand-up bar serving radical but delicious tapas often made with jarred and canned ingredients. Just go in, prepare to be jostled, and point to things you want as they go by. Carrer del Poeta Cabanyes, 25; phone, 93-442-31-42
One evening, when Vicky was too tired to go out for dinner, Will and I went to Inopia, Ferran Adria's brother Albert shockingly traditional tapas bar. It was jammed with locals eating perfect croquettes, fresh sardines, and plates of ham and cheese. Nothing radical here, just delicious food in a beyond casual setting. Not much English spoken here, but they do understand pointing. Carrer de Tamarit, 104; phone, 93-424-52-31; barinopia.com
The ruling class's pastry shop in Barcelona. I found myself gravitating to it nearly every day (don't tell Vicky). It's filled with wonderful buttery, chocolaty things. Rambla de les Flors, 83; phone, 93-301-60-27 and Gran Via, 546; phone, 93-454-75-35 and Ronda Litoral, 42; phone, 93-221-07-29. escriba.es
A tiny little cheese shop down the street from L/Academia. run by a super-friendly Scotswoman. Carrer Dagueria, 16; 93-412-65-48