25 Apr 2012

La Boqueria

La Boqueria : You've arrived
          La Boqueria is Barcelona's most famous, fantastic and frenetic market. It is one of the city’s highlights and the very best reason for going to The Ramblas. Those of you who read my Ramblas post (and those of you who haven't will I'm sure be doing so straight after completing this or I'll want to know the reason why) might have come away with the sensation that I was a little jaded by The Ramblasthis shows you are sensitive and intelligent readers who are aware of nuance and I praise you for it. La Boqueria is different however. I am not jaded by The Boqueria. Jostled, yes. Jiggled, yes Jaded, never.
La Boqueria 1 Chilli Fronds

You can get a taxi to The Boqueria or you can get the Metro to Liceu (Green line) but the best way to reach it is to walk down Las Ramblas from Plaza Catalunya taking in the human statues as you go until you get to the Metro station at which point you look to your right and there it is set back a little from the main street but still basically unmissable. If you do miss La Boqueria then you can be sure you've missed lots of other things in your life like buses, trains and the subtle irony of Jane Austen.
          It is said that the best time to go to La Boqueria is very early in the morning when it is all just setting up and the tourist crowds haven't arrived. This is the kind of virtuous, puritan travel experience this blog will have no truck with. Instead, I would advise getting there around half past twelve. Your eyes will be less red and you will be in a much better temper. There are other reasons but I will come to them later (this is a writing technique called introducing unresolved tension into the narrative in case you were wondering).
          Do not be put off by the crush around the front. The entrance to La Boqueria is a bottleneck and like all bottlenecks in Southern Europe it seems to be mainly filled with confused Scandinavians presumably blinded by unfamiliar quantities of light. It has to be admitted that Scandinavians do tend to grow quite tall and a group of them can look initially daunting but they are essentially amenable and won't mind if you just firmly push through them.
        I wouldn't trouble yourself too much with the first few stalls. Though outwardly they appear to be greengrocers (and I'm not saying they wouldn't sell you a red pepper if you asked) there main business appears to be providing overpriced iced fruit drinks to tourists. The real greengrocers lie at the back of La Boqueria and can be identified by clear prices and queues of hawk-eyed abuelas (old ladies). While it is often true that queues of old ladies indicate a stall worth patronising, one cannot blindly rely on it as a guide. The BigBarcelonaBlog's grandmother, for example, swears by Aldi baked beans.
          Anyway, back to the front. Once past the first few stalls just wander at will. Don't go straight through. You will miss loads!  You can see and buy pretty much any food you can imagine here and quite a few you won't want too. The butcher's stalls, for example, show you all the stuff normal butcher's keep hidden in the back. Want to know what tripe looks like or skinless rabbits with their eyes still in. You've come to the right place.
La Boqueria 2 : Jellies
          But, before I put you off, let me stress how magical some of the stalls are. There are  spice stalls with vibrant strings of dried chillis hanging like fronds of the Amazon forest, The sweet stalls piled high with chocolates and jellies look like they were designed by Willy Wonka's Oompah Loompahs. There are super-specialist stalls. One dedicated solely to olive oils. One dedicated only to eggs! There are butchers, bakers and, though I've yet to find him, I'm pretty sure there is a candlestick maker in there somewhere. It is marvellous.
          The paths, often filled by traders pushing trolleys piled high with fresh produce, are narrow and curvy and give the whole place the heady feel of a maze. I defy you to know in exactly what direction you are pointing in after you've randomly wandered down a few of the alleys. It all adds to the excitement. You don't know exactly where you are and you don't know exactly what you're going to see next.
          But however, random your journey eventually you will find yourself at the fish market. The fish market is basically a market within a market and sits right in the centre of La Boqueria. Each stall is layered with trays of shining ice and arranged on top all manner of varieties of fish. They are all labelled in Catalan so I can't tell you what most  of them are. Until I saw La Boqueria for the first time I had absolutely no idea how many types of seafood you could eat. Eels, Lobsters, Crabs, Squid, Octopi and strange new fish after strange new fish after strange new fish. 

La Boqueria 3 Complain here at your own risk

 And this is before I even get to the bi-valves. Surrounding the fish are stalls that are a heaving mass of mussels, whelks, clams and other things in shells. To someone who grew up thinking markets were places where people sold power tools and anoraks it is utterly overwhelming and completely magnificent.
          There is nothing to do except eat some of it (apologies to vegetariansthere's an organic place at the back on the right which will sort you out).
          This is why I told you to get here for about half past twelve. Because now it's about half past one and time for lunch. And luckily for you, you are in the perfect placenotice what a caring blog this is. Think about how you haven't yet clicked on an advert. Put that right and then come back and read the rest of the article. See how much better you feel. There are lots of little bar/ restaurants dotted around La Boqueria. It would be pointless to recommend one as you can just choose by looking at people's food as you wander by (don't expect too much privacy while eating.) Wherever looks and smells good is where you should eat. There will be more than one option.  The prices are stuck up on the stall so you can get a fair idea of what you'll be paying. Now all you need to do is get a seat.

A waiter expertly not noticing me.

Sometimes you will be lucky and there will seats available. Most of the time you will be unlucky and there won't. There is no obvious queue but there are a number of people milling round. Are they waiting too or are they just people who like milling?     Who can tell? The question is what to do next? You must try and catch the eye of one of the people behind the bar. I'm not pretending this part is necessarily going to be easy. When it suits them waiters are experts at not noticing you. They expect you to go through the full gamut of fluttery half-completed hand gestures and nervous semi-waves that are the hallmarks of the polite traveller trying to gain attention. Fortunately they are possessed of some mystical sixth sense which allows them to anticipte the moment just before you about to give up and go and try somewhere else. At precisely this exact moment and not a second sooner, they will look at you.
          This is no time for dawdling or indecision. Seize the day. Shout lustily the number of people in your party and back up the information with your fingers. The waiter will nod briefly. He will then not look at you again until your places at the bar are ready. In the next five or ten minutes while you wait you may begin to lose conviction. You may feel the waiter has forgotten you. But keep the faith. As long as you stay within sight of the bar you will get the places. Believe!
La Boqueria 4 Seafoodorama
          Spend the time wisely. Wander up and down looking at peoples plates and choosing what you want to eat because the dish itself is far more reliable guide than a menu. Though they will make other things it would be a crime not to focus mainly on seafood as it will rarely be fresher and all they do is grill/fry it add a bit of oil and serve.  This is not the place to eat things like paella or arroz negro as they just do not have the space behind the bar or the time to make it. In fact it is a marvel in itself how the tiny bars manage to serve so many people to such a high standard with such a tiny food preparation facility.
          Instead I would recommend going for raciones of grilled sardines, whitebait or squid and maybe a razor clam if you're feeling adventurous. If you must have something green go for the pimientos del padron and add stodge with the pan con tomate. A cerveza or a glass of vinto tinto and you have done La Boqueria as well as it can be done.

Useful Spanish Words/Phrases:
PerdonaExcuse Me
¿Cuánto cuesta esto? - How much does this cost?
Uno/dos/tres/cuatro para comer, por favorOne/two/three/four places to eat please. (It is wise to specify you want to eat at lunchtime)
Las sardinas : sardines
Pescaditas fritas : fried whitebait
Calamares a la plancha : grilled squid
Las navajas : razor clams
Una cañaa beer (from the tap)
Una botella de Estrella/MoritzA bottle of beer (choose your brand)  
Los pimientos del padrónFried tiny green peppers
Pan con tomate : Bread with tomato
La cuenta, por favorThe bill please

If you fancy chatting:
Perdona, Me disculpo por la molestia pero ¿qué es el nombre del plato que estás comiendo?  Excuse me, sorry for interrupting but what's the name of this dish you're eating.
¿Dónde está el fabricador de los candeleros? - Where is the candlestick maker?
Ese artículo es muy largo. Le cuesta mucho al escritor.  Voy a los anuncios para hacer un click. - This article is very long. It must have taken a lot of effort by the writer. I will go and click on an advert.