The Boqueria market

When you walk down Barcelona’s La Rambla, you feel that it could not have changed much through its history. Your feeling may be correct. As far back as 1217 CE, there was apparently a pig market near a gate which stood where Miro’s mosaic can be seen at Pla de l’Os. This was then part of a larger market, which now seems to have taken over the whole of La Rambla. But if you want to see a real food market, you have to duck into the Boqueria market, whose entrance is on this road. Among the things we didn’t know about it was that you can find Catalonia’s oldest nougat here. The sample we had did not taste 242 years old!

The Boqueria market

The meat stalls stand at the entrance to the market. The variety of hams hanging there left me stunned. Most of the sales people seemed too busy to have a chat about the differences between the meats, even if we had a shared language. The pig market was moved here in 1840 after a convent was removed. As you can see in the photo above, the current structure is very modern, but atop it stands a high structure of iron struts which is clearly older. At the edge of the photo you can see the even older stone pillars, which mark out a covered gallery running around the market. This older structure houses lots of restaurants and tapas bars.

Vegetables at the Boqueria market

We moved into the crowded fresh produce section of the market. Although I saw nothing which I have not seen before, all the produce looked extremely fresh. The chilis that you see in the photo above are wonderful when they are grilled. We had a plateful of that much later in the evening. Some of the fruit stalls have fresh juices available. It was still extremely warm and the fluids looked welcoming. We took our time selecting the juices we wanted to drink. Fresh pressed orange juices were our breakfast staple in Spain, but here there was a large variety: from tropical fruits like guavas to European summer berries.

Relaxing at the Boqueria market

We moved on, and found the usual selection of cheese. Stopping there would have been sad, not just because I don’t know much about Spanish cheeses, but also because we did not have the leisure to select a few of them to taste over days. I wish we had the time to go back and walk through the market a few more times at leisure, sampling a larger variety of tastes. It would have helped us enjoy what the city calls one of the world’s largest markets if we had access to a kitchen while in Barcelona.

The friendly San Miguel market

We walked out of Plaza Mayor in Madrid through the north-west exit, and we were in the San Miguel square. In front of us was a wrought iron and glass structure from the beginning of the 20th century: the market of San Miguel. In recent years Madrid has converted many indoor spaces to the equivalent of food courts, from this to the upmarket Platea near Plaza Colon. We were in Madrid for too short a time to try more than one.

The main business of the market started behind the stall with fruits and vegetables. The sides of the market are lined with shops selling interesting tapas: fish on toast, cheese on toast, hams, stuffed olives, and so on. We diffused through the market slowly. The central aisle had long tables where you could sit and eat what you had bought. This part was crowded, and we realized that we would have to wait a while to find a place.

A very pleasant discovery was a counter for wines. I had my first tasting session of wines from the Rioja and Ribera del Duero areas here. We had discovered the grape varietal called Tempranillo a year ago in Portugal. We met it again. My previous experience with Spanish wines was inadequate. I resolved to repair this gaping hole in my experience during the trip. There was also a counter with sherries and vermouths, which could serve us over another evening, if we had one.

Decades ago, I had my first view of live performances of Flamenco in Tokyo. The cultural compliment seemed to be returned here. I tasted something called Gulas which adapts Japanese cutting techniques to create a dish which looks like eels on toast (click on the thumbnail above to see the details). Later I found a stall selling sea urchins. I’d only ever had it before as the wonderful raw goo that is called uni in Japan. This is different, as you can see in the photo above (if you haven’t seen sea urchins before, click on the photo of the things which look like hairy doughtnuts).

The Family found a stall with Sangria, and I got myself a Rioja. We found seats at a table and settled in for a bit of tapas: some fish, some ham. I’d not had much experience with the cheese of Spain. This was a good opportunity to try out the varieties available here. Madrid has an olive which I had not tasted before: this variety looks bright green, and has a different flavour (you’ll see it in the bottom rack below the stuffed olives if you click on that photo). The sweets did not seem specially Spanish. There were macaroons and chocolate of various kinds, and the Portuguese Pasteis de Nata, all of which looked and tasted authentic.

We thought it was a nice place to have an early evening’s drink. Dinner, as always in Spain, comes much later, well after sunset.

Bolhao market and Portuguese food

In late spring markets in Portugal were already full of summer fruit; we’d found very sweet cherries and peaches already. At the same time, good strawberries were still available. Since we had an apartment in Porto, we decided to go to the city’s famous Bolhao market to see what we could find.

Inside the Bolhao market in PortoAs we entered the front gate of the market the aisles were lined with booths which seemed a little touristy, and were surrounded by tourists. A few steps further in, the tourists were thinner on the ground, and we could spend some time looking at what was on sale. The front was full of cloth which had something to do with food, embroidered table coverings, for example. The Family stopped here to buy a few things. I looked at a stall across the aisle from this which had a variety of wine. I hadn’t yet found my feet with Portuguese wine, so I looked carefully at what was on sale. The front half of the market, until the central fountain (photo here) seems to sell mainly finished products.

Cheeses in Bolhao market made from cows' milk Cheeses in Bolhao market made from sheep milk

Stall on the left aisle had cheese. I’d quickly looked at a couple of blogs on Portuguese cheese before leaving, and had been tasting them every day since, so I’d begun to know my way around them. Mentally I’d started dividing them in the most obvious ways: were they made of cow (vaca), sheep (ovelha) or goat (cabra) milk, and was the milk cured (curado) or raw (cru). I hadn’t begun to look at the DOP label, which marks out a protected designation of origin, ie, geography. What I’d met till then were the semi-soft and hard cheeses. I’d liked several, but was looking to try the really soft variety. Unfortunately, it seemed that you could only buy the full rounds of these. Since The Family does not eat cheese, this would have been too much cheese for our stay in Porto. I hope there will be opportunity to extend my familiarity with Portuguese cheeses in future.

Bread in the Bolhao market in Porto

I couldn’t miss the bread stalls nearby. I could tell that they open early, because the shop keepers had begun on an early lunch. Portuguese bread comes in a large variety. We’d become fond of the soft crusty rolls which we would eat for breakfast and dinner. Here we tasted some of the larger breads, especially the darker varieties, and liked them. Again, we did not buy the loaves because we were not going to be able to finish them during our short stay. The Family and I don’t like to discard uneaten but edible food, and this limits what we can taste while travelling. For now we discovered that the art of bread making is well-developed in Portugal, and we would have a good time discovering more about it in future.

Sardines in the Bolhao market in Porto

No description of Portuguese food is complete without talking of fish. Preserved cod, called bacalhau, is everywhere. The Family loved this, and would eat it with steamed potatoes every few meals. I loved the sardinha (sardines, see the photo above), which were mostly served grilled. The corner of the market where you could find fish was fascinating. We saw a large variety, including some which we didn’t have the faintest idea of how to cook. We sighed over a large swordfish, and moved on.

The upper level of the market was a splash of colour (see the featured image). It was where you could buy crisp and fresh vegetables and fruits. We lingered over the fresh produce, and bought a large quantity of fruits. We were walking a lot each day, and one can eat quite a bit of fruit while walking. The avocados, tomatoes, garlic, pumpkins and chilis were eye catching. We looked at the vegetables and sighed. We had a kitchen, but no spices. Our time in Porto was too short to set up a kitchen which was stocked well enough to cook with all the fresh vegetables on display.

We loved what we ate in Portugal, and the market showed us what ingredients go into the Portuguese kitchen. We saw nothing which was completely new to us, but everything looked fresh. That is possibly the real secret of this style of cooking.