It is often said that the central food market in Barcelona, la Boqueria, is the best in the world. As you amble through its produce-stacked aisles, it is hard to disagree. Here you can find stalls specialising in fruit and vegetables (much of it displayed in mesmerising, GaudI-esque formations), charcuterie, olives, bacalao (salt cod) and tuna. There's a stall dedicated to despojos (animal scraps) and another to lobsters. There's even a butcher selling beef from bulls slaughtered in the ring. The meat from such animals is exquisitely tender, supposedly, because of the frenzied state in which they have died.
Like everything else in Barcelona, la Boqueria is superbly designed: housed under an elaborate wrought-iron canopy the size of two football pitches, it is laid out in a grid. Towards the centre, however, the grid mutates into concentric circles; it is around these that the market's 44 seafood sellers display their wares. The stallholders in this section are all women - apparently because it is known in Spain that women make better salespeople than men. The fish they display - much of it caught by fishermen at the nearby Barceloneta port - has the tell-tale glossiness of extreme freshness.
The usual frustration of being a tourist in a place such as this is that the produce remains tantalisingly out of reach: you want to buy it and cook it immediately, but the best you can do is purchase a few packets of Jabugo ham or chorizo and hope that they survive the journey home. Fortunately, at la Boqueria, there is a chance to sample the produce immediately: the market is studded with snack counters serving food from the surrounding stalls. Some of these seem overpriced, but at one, called Bar Boqueria, we stop for a wonderful plate of mussels, razor clams, sardines and coley fillets. These are cooked for us by a smiling old lady who, between working the grill, tends a bubbling pan of what, when I ask, turns out to be stewed tripe.
Barcelona is a city of endless culinary variety. There are restaurants specialising in traditional Spanish food whose menus can't have changed in a hundred years. At one of these, in the Raval district, we have a supper that starts simply with a plate of unadorned steamed vegetables. Elsewhere, we enjoy wonderful tapas: salads of broad beans; peppers stuffed with salt cod; mini-baguettes filled with cheese, ham and dates. Barcelona is also the centre of the "Catalonian new wave", a movement of culinary surrealism pioneered by Ferran Adria, whose El Bulli restaurant is two hours away. In Sant Pere, to
the east of the city centre, we have a lunch in this style: cucumber
gazpacho with a dollop of tomato sorbet; creamed salt cod in a grilled pepper with a sharp rocket salad. None of it is entirely successful. Give me a plate of freshly grilled seafood, any day.