“Welcome to the best market in the world.”
I love a cooking class, especially if it includes a local market tour, and this one promised to be outstanding. We were buying the ingredients to make paella, the unofficial national dish of Spain.
Located on La Rambla, a tree-lined street that stretches for three-quarters of a mile (1.2 km) in central Barcelona, the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria has officially been open since 1836, although historical documents show open-air meat stalls selling their wares on the site as far back as 1217.
La Boqueria is home to more than 200 merchants selling meat, poultry, eggs, fruit, vegetables, nuts, fish, seafood, spices, olives, offal, and more, as well as cafes and bars where you can enjoy prepared food and beverages on site.
Near the main entrance to La Boqueria is Pinotxo Bar with its famous bartender, Juanito Bayen. While Juanito, who is 82, has been working the bar for 75 years (he began helping his mother serve coffee when he was six years old), his fame perhaps reached a crescendo when Anthony Bourdain featured him on No Reservations a decade ago.
Since then, Juanito has been awarded the Ciutat de Barcelona prize as the most emblematic ambassador of the cuisine of Barcelona and of Catalunya.
His smile is infectious, and he radiates energy as he serves the market’s freshest offerings for breakfast every day beginning at 6 a.m., accompanied, of course, by a glass of Spanish cava no matter the hour.
We wove our way through the colorful stalls toward the hub of the seafood section, in search of cuttlefish, mussels, and prawns for our paella.
Surrounded by flying fish scales as market vendors deftly cleaned their wares, Marco taught us about preparing cuttlefish by dramatically pulling out the head. He also pointed out some of the sea creatures we’d only seen scuba diving, rather than on a plate, like scorpionfish.
We meandered through the thousands of cheeses (be still, my formatge-loving heart!) on our way to the charcuterie section of the market in search of the famous cured Spanish hams.
Cured pork is both an art and a delicacy in Spain, and Marco explained that the finest type, jamón ibérico de bellota, is from free-range pigs that roam oak forests eating sweet, meaty acorns, which makes their own flesh that much sweeter and nuttier. The meat is cured for three years before being sliced into salty, paper-thin sheets of deliciousness.
Once we’d secured our ingredients, it was time to head back to the Cook & Taste kitchens to make our four-course Spanish meal.
First on the menu was gazpacho de remolacha y sandía, a fresh beet and watermelon gazpacho. This cold Spanish soup was perfect after a hot walk around the market and was topped with jamón ibérico de bellota and a dash of olive oil.
Roasted bell peppers and eggplant over flatbread, coca con escalivada, featured a savory black olive tapenade and tangy goat cheese that Mike loved, despite not being a big roasted vegetable fan.
The star of the show was, of course, the paella, and all eight culinary students had a hand in the delicious product. Paella de marisco, or seafood paella, is but one version of this enormously popular dish, and Marco explained that it could be scaled down for a meal for two, but the real beauty of paella lies in its communal qualities. It’s best made for a group, when first courses of cheese, jamón ibérico, gazpacho, and wine can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. As he wisely stated, “Paella doesn’t wait for us. We wait for paella.”
And, boy, is it worth the wait. Paella is one of those dishes that has everything going for it — texture, color, scent, flavor, and, perhaps most importantly, anticipation. It’s a dish you work for, wait for, and then pleasurably savor. And if you’re part of the cooking process, as we all were, then you take great pride in making something that’s able to contain so much affection and give it back to you with a dose of communal spice.
You think you’re about to pop with fullness and happiness, but it wouldn’t be a Latin meal without something sweet to send you on your way.
Our final recipe was crema Catalana, the Spanish take on crème brûlée. The crème itself was made by the two teen twins in our cooking class, and each student had the opportunity to dust the top of his or her individual ramekin with sugar granules before applying the fire that gives it the satisfyingly crunchy cap.
After four full courses and several snacks, we were absolutely stuffed. And we couldn’t stop smiling after the new friends we’d made and the new things we’d learned.
We loved Cook and Taste Barcelona and La Boqueria, and we’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. Although we’d need a nap first.
Recipe: Paella de Marisco de Cook & Taste Barcelona Cooking Classes
4 shrimp or prawns
0.5 cuttlefish or squid
300g of clams and/or mussels (1.1 lb or 17.5 oz)
2 cloves of garlic
1 or 2 tomatoes
1 red bell pepper
1 small sweet onion
6 tablespoons olive oil
320g of rice (1 lb/14 oz)
1 liter of fish stock (4.4 cups)
8 to 10 saffron threads
Heat the oil in the paella pan and fry the cuttlefish and prawns until slightly browned. Set aside the prawns and continue cooking with the cuttlefish. Chop the onion and green pepper and add them in the same hot oil and fry slightly. After a few minutes, add the chopped garlic and fry over medium heat. Stir in the grated tomato and deglaze [with white wine]. Let all the water of the tomatoes evaporate. Add the rice and fry for some short minutes. Then stir in the stock (it should be already boiling). Rice can’t be touched beyond this point! Increase the heat to medium-high and cook for (+/-) 8 minutes. Add the clams and mussels, pushing them slightly in the remaining liquid. Reduce heat to minimum and cook (+/-) 10 more minutes. At the last moment, add the prawns in a decorative pattern just to heat them up. Let it stand for about 5 minutes before serving.
Next up: We saw the same Barcelona sights everyone else sees. Here are our photos!