By the time we reached Mercado de La Boqueria on Barcelona’s famous La Rambla street on a recent visit – in the middle of the Spanish rainy season – my leather boots were filled with water. But that was an afterthought. It was our first morning in Barcelona and after a 13 hour connecting flight with only microwaved meals and no room to move, my husband and I were looking forward to devouring the fried eggs and the renowned Spanish braaied sausages of El Quim de la Boqueria.
Barcelona’s La Boqueria market is a grand old lady dating back to the Middle Ages. Records date back to 1217, when the famous La Rambla street was just a walled creek, designed to keep the Mediterranean Sea at bay. It was here that a representative of King Ferdinand III of Castile granted a citizen a plot of land for the sale of goat meat, called “boc” in the local Catalan language. Hence the name “Boquería”.
Centuries later, some 200 years ago, other merchants moved to the former Convent of St Josep, creating what locals now know and love as El Mercat de la Boqueria or Boqueria Market. . It’s one of the most visited areas in Barcelona with a huge, multicolored gateway to La Rambla – the main street linking Barcelona’s many tourist attractions from Gaudi to Picasso and every tapas bar and cafe imaginable. At 8 a.m., huddled under an inept umbrella in the torrential downpour, the husband and I skipped it all. In Barcelona, anyway, nobody gets up before 10 a.m., except the market and its vendors. Here, a low rumble of voices creates a warm atmosphere as buyers haggle and sellers explain their catch of the day. The market smells like seafood, but not the murky kind of fish. Rather a scent of the bounty of the Mediterranean from where the freshest seafood is caught daily for the market exclusively. It smells of sea water and seashells and octopuses still squirming or polpoas Barcelonans refer to this favorite local specialty.
The first day we skipped the polpo and stuck to something more familiar. The small Mediterranean mussels harvested on the Barcelona coast are much tastier than the mussels harvested in the north along the Côte d’Azur, the seller promises us, and the taste of the raw mollusk – still in its natural brine – confirms this. Elsewhere, paws of dried fat roses Iberian ham are wedged in their claws like royal trophies (which they are) and skimmed off in a slow, ceremonious manner by satisfied butchers. Small slices are handed out to hungry passers-by to taste and appreciate the nuances of flavor.
The best Iberian ham, we learn, is made from a special breed of black Iberian pig that is fed a diet of nutrient-rich acorns. The result is an ultra decadent whole ham that releases the fatty moisture into the meat of the hind leg when hung to dry and supported in the iconic fashion with the hoof up.
The pre-breakfast additionally consists of a punnet of early spring strawberries grown outside the city and some naartjies – the sweetest we have ever tasted. As the winter Northern Hemisphere citrus season comes to an end, we would taste many more of those sweet oranges and tangerines as we meander along the east coast to the famous citrus centers of Valencia and Seville.
But first, a tradition at La Boqueria awaits.
We’ve come a long way for a simple dish of gooey fried eggs and baby squid at the famous El Quim in the heart of the market, and even the hefty €25 price wouldn’t deter us. The colorful stools crowded around the U-shape of this bustling market kitchen are never vacant and if anyone dares raise their left cheek, you better jump. Luckily my husband is able to steal a pair of chairs from two hungover Aussies after they’ve had their fill.
A menu and a small pencil are handed to us by one of the 14 burly chefs grilling sausages and frying eggs and eating sandwiches in the indoor den. From our vantage point near the center of their small kitchen, I have a view of the entire operation. On one side, a built-in braai with hot coals is occupied by a dedicated sausage and pork braaier, sandwich in hand. Next to it fresh loaves of bread are buttered and toasted on a flat grill and further on the frying station is located.
Here, five chefs with small saucepans continually fry eggs. This treadmill is well oiled, so to speak. All plates eventually end up at the frying station, as the main ingredient in El Quim is eggs. It all started with eggs too, some 35 years ago, in 1987, when chef and owner of Quim de la Boqueria, Quim Márquez, first opened his stand in a 3m bar with just five stools . It has come a long way, but even today eggs feature prominently and in every dish. They are cooked to perfection, sizzling until golden around the edges with a still gooey yolk.
When our breakfast decadence casserole arrives, I immediately prick the yolks to create a rich dressing that seeps into the delicately fried calamari. Our fried egg vendor hands me a brown paper bag with pieces of fresh bread and nods knowingly at the pan. The next 20 minutes are a blur, but I remember asking for more bread and licking squid sauces off my fingers as we devoured the plate, along with Louis’ enormous pork belly baguette with exotic mushrooms and – you guessed it – fried eggs.
New customers were already looking at our seats, but we took the time to sip Spanish cava and cold beers while gathering the courage to face the rain in Spain again. This time, however, with full bellies, a bag of Spanish market produce and satisfied hearts. DM/TGIFood
With an area of 13,631 square meters, La Boqueria is the largest market in Spain. In 1871, market candles were replaced by gas lamps and some 30 years later electricity was installed. In 1914 the era of the open air market ended (much to our relief during the rainy season in Spain in more modern times…) when the metal roof or “Maquinista Terrestre i Maritima” was installed. Since then, the market has remained a thriving hub for locals and tourists alike – the beating heart of Barcelona. La Rambla, 91, 08001 Barcelona, Spain. instagram @la_boqueria