“Today, for most people, the Ramblas is Barcelona.”
—  Robert Hughes, Barcelona the Great Enchantress

The Ramblas, Barcelona

The Ramblas, Barcelona

“The humanity of the Rambla!  It’s an inscrutably human street!  So many stories come and go every day from these cafes, shops, and stairways!  The air is saturated with their human feet.”
— Josep Pla, The Gray Notebook, translated by Peter Bush

“The Ramblas is and always will be one of the great, seedy, absorbing theaters of Spain, or for that matter of Europe.”
—  Robert Hughes, Barcelona the Great Enchantress

Mercat de la Boqueria

Mercat de la Boqueria

My favorite part of strolling the Ramblas was our little detour into the grand food market, Mercat de la Boqueria, which reminded me of Seattle’s Pike Place Market and the one on Granville Island in Vancouver, B.C.  An overwhelming panorama of vibrant colors, prepared dishes, and raw food.

“[The Boqueria] is the hub and heart of both Barcelona’s gastronomy and its everyday eating.  Its site was originally occupied by the sixteenth-century convent of Sant Josep and the fourteenth-century one of Santa Maria.  Hang me for a gluttonous atheist if you will, but compared to the increase of human happiness afforded by this great market, the loss of a couple of convents is nothing. . . .

For any serious lover of food — which most Catalans aggressively are — there is no other place in the world quite like the Boqueria, that vast covered space crammed with stalls that display just about everything short of human flesh that could conceivably be eaten, from skinned rabbits (their moist eyes still peering reproachfully at the hardhearted shopper) to soft brown hills of newly shot but unplucked partridges, neatly tied fagots of expensive but irresistible angullos or jamon Serrano. . . . If there were a grocery, butcher, and fishmonger attached to the Garden of Eden, in which one could sample what terrestrial food tasted like before the fall of man, it would be something like the Boqueria.”
—  Robert Hughes, Barcelona the Great Enchantress

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The Food of Spain

October 26, 2015

” . . . it cannot be denied that you get more enjoyment out of visiting a famous town if you are well housed and well fed.”
— W. Somerset Maugham, “Somerset Maugham’s ‘Spanish Journey’: Interlude at Oropera,”  Chicago Tribune, March 3, 1985

One of many meat shops in the Mercat de la Boqueria in Barcelona

One of many meat shops in the Mercat de la Boqueria in Barcelona

I returned from Spain very well fed.  Truly, the food of Spain was one of the highlights of my trip.

A ham shop in Madrid

A ham shop in Madrid

Busy slicing ham, through a shop window

Busy slicing ham, through a shop window

Ham seems to be emblematic of Spain, and it is a delight to still see so many small, independent butcher shops in the residential neighborhoods.  Many of the tapas bars displayed hams hanging from their ceilings.  We even saw ham-flavored potato chips for sale!

Ham-flavored Ruffles potato ships

Ham-flavored Ruffles potato ships

“One of the glories of Spain is her bread, which the Romans remarked upon a thousand years ago, and which is said to be so good because the corn is left to last possible moment to ripen upon the stalk.  It is the best bread I know, and its coarse, strong, springy substance epitomizes all that is admirable about Spanish simplicity.  It is rough indeed, and unrefined, but feels full of life . . .”
— Jan Morris, Spain

Spanish bread

Spanish bread

My friend Carol had forewarned me that Spain has the best bread in the world, so we both threw diets to the wind and took every opportunity to partake.  Bread was offered at every meal.  When I was in Baeza, I saw a man selling bread from the back of his van parked in the church square.  I imagine this was a regular stop, because the town women steadily approached to fill plastic bags with their purchases.

Selling bread from the back of a van in the church square, Baeza

Selling bread from the back of a van in the church square, Baeza

The bread man

The bread man

While we were on our week-long train tour with Al Andalus, all meals were provided, and we were fed very well indeed.  Lunches and dinners were served either on the train or at a fine restaurant at one of our stops.  Each lunch and dinner was a four-course meal, and the menus were predetermined — everyone was served the same dishes.  It was a relief to leave the food selection to our expert hosts; each dish was a surprise and utterly delicious.  Here is an example of one such lunch, which we ate at the parador in Ronda:

Appetizer: tomato mousse tartlet and priced bread with cheese and quince spread

Appetizer: tomato mousse tartlet and spiced bread with cheese and quince spread

First course: fish and shellfish puff pastry with mushroom sauce

First course: fish and shellfish puff pastry with mushroom sauce

Main course: beef tenderloin with cheese and potatoes

Main course: beef tenderloin with cheese and potatoes

Dessert: wild fruits custard with white truffle and almond cake

Dessert: wild fruits custard with white truffle and almond cake

When we were on our own (not on the train tour), Carol and I usually ate more casually.  We found a perfect way to sample lots of savory dishes by sharing two or three small plates of tapas.  The selection was varied and not at all simply snacks; tapas were rather like down-sized portions of complicated or savory dinner dishes.  One of our favorites was a plate of roasted artichokes, which I finally had the presence of mind to photograph after we had already eaten (inhaled) five of the six beautifully prepared artichokes on the plate.

Artichoke tapas

Artichoke tapas

Other tapas: potatoes brava, and beef with roasted potatoes

Other tapas: potatoes brava, and beef with roasted potatoes

Truly, I cannot imagine going hungry in Spain.  I was so impressed that Spain has not lost the tradition of small, independent shops and restaurants to cookie-cutter chain stores.  Each shop had so much individual character and many were cluttered with abundant and varied inventory.  How I wish that towns and cities in the United States could replicate this way of living.

Sandwich shop in Barcelona

Sandwich shop in Barcelona

A fresh fruit and vegetable shop in almost every residential neighborhood

A fresh fruit and vegetable shop in almost every residential neighborhood

A store and deli in Ronda

A store and deli in Ronda

Bakery

Bakery

One experience that Carol and I were determined not to miss was eating churros and chocolate.  After walking through a festival and street fair in Alcala, we decided churros and chocolate would provide a much-needed energy boost.  My oh my!  The chocolate was nothing like the hot chocolate we drink at home.  This was on the order of a thin pudding, perfect for dipping sugar-glazed churros into.

Churros and chocolate

Churros and chocolate

Churros and chocolate in Catalonia

Churros and chocolate in Catalonia

Food was such a pleasurable part of my trip to Spain, that I will be revisiting the subjects of tapas and Barcelona’s Mercat de la Boqueria in future blog posts.  For today, I want to mention one more Spanish food surprise:  Nespresso!  All the hotels we stayed in, the Al Andalus luxury train, and many shops and restaurants offer espresso drinks made on Nespresso machines (or similar k-cup-type machines).  It makes me wonder if the barista’s art of hand-crafted espresso drinks is dying in Spain.  I don’t see the same trend in Seattle where the barista still rules the coffee shops here.