Once upon a rainy day in Spain: Fried eggs at Mercado de La Boqueria
The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, Julie Andrews promised in My Fair Lady. That’s untrue. It falls on the plains and in the cities and on every other imaginable surface during the few weeks of the year in Spain’s rainy season. Best pack your gumboots if you’re going at the time we were there, in March.
By the time we reached Mercado de La Boqueria on the famous La Rambla street in Barcelona on a recent visit – in the middle of the rainy Spainy season – my leather boots were filled with water. But that was an afterthought. It was our first morning in Barcelona and after a 13-hour connecting flight with only microwave meals and no room to move, my husband and I were eager to devour the world-renowned fried eggs and braaied Spanish sausages of El Quim de la Boqueria.
The La Boqueria market of Barcelona is a grand old lady dating back to the Middle Ages. Records go back as far as 1217 when the famous La Rambla street was but a wall-lined stream, designed to keep the Mediterranean Sea at bay. It was here where a representative of King Ferdinand III of Castile bestowed upon a citizen a plot of land for selling goat meat, called “boc” in the local Catalan language. Hence, the name “Boquería”.
Centuries later, about 200 years ago, more merchants moved to the old convent of St Josep, creating what locals now know and love as the El Mercat de la Boqueria or La Boqueria Market. It’s one of the most visited spaces in Barcelona with an immense, multi-coloured entrance door off La Rambla – the main street connecting Barcelona’s many tourist attractions from Gaudi to Picasso and every imaginable tapas bar and café. At 8am, huddled under one incompetent umbrella in the torrential deluge, the hubby and I skipped all those. In Barcelona, in any case, no one is up before 10am, except for the market and its vendors. Here, a low rumble of voices creates a warm atmosphere as shoppers haggle and vendors explain their catch of the day. The market smells of seafood, but not the fishy murky kind. Rather a scent of the Mediterranean’s bounty from where the freshest seafood is caught daily for the market exclusively. It smells of seawater and clamshells and still-squirming octopus or polpo, as the Barcelonians refer to this favourite local delicacy.
On our first day, we skipped the polpo and stuck to something more familiar. Smaller Mediterranean mussels harvested from the Barcelonian coast are much tastier than the mussels harvested up north along the French Riviera, the vendor promises us, and a taste of the raw mollusc – still in its natural ocean brine – confirms. Elsewhere, legs of fatty cured pink Jamón ibérico are propped up in their clamps like regal trophies (which they are) and skimmed in a slow, ceremonial way by pleased butchers. Small slivers are handed to hungry passersby to sample and appreciate the nuances of flavour.
The finest Jamón ibérico, we learn, is made from a special breed of Black Iberian pig which is fed a diet of nutrient-rich acorns. The result is an ultra-decadent whole ham that releases the fatty moisture into the meat of the hind leg when hung to cure and propped up in the iconic fashion with the hoof aloft.
Pre-breakfast further consists of a punnet of early spring strawberries grown outside the city and a couple of naartjies – the sweetest we’ve ever tasted. At the end of the northern hemisphere’s citrussy winter season, we’d sample many more of these sweet oranges and mandarins as we meander down the east coast towards the renowned citrus centres of Valencia and Seville.
But first, one tradition at La Boqueria awaits.
We’ve come a long way for a simple dish of oozy fried eggs and baby squid at the famed El Quim in the heart of the market, and not even the hefty price tag of 25€ would deter us. The colourful stools packed around the u-shape of this busy market kitchen are never vacant and if someone dares to lift a left cheek, you better jump. Luckily, my husband is able to sneak a pair of chairs from two hungover Aussies after they’ve had their fill.
A menu and small pencil are handed to us by one of the 14 heavyset chefs grilling sausages and frying eggs and eating sandwiches in the inner den. From our vantage point near the centre of their small kitchen, I have a view of the entire operation. To one side, a built-in braai with live coals is manned by a dedicated sausage and pork braaier, sandwich in hand. Next to him, fresh loaves of bread are buttered and toasted on a flat grill and further along, the frying station sits.
Here, five chefs with small pans deep continually fry eggs. This conveyor belt is well-oiled, so to speak. All plates eventually end up at the frying station, as the main ingredient of El Quim is eggs. It all started with eggs, too, some 35 years ago in 1987 when chef and owner of Quim de la Boqueria, Quim Márquez, first opened his stall in a 3m bar with only five stools. He’s come a long way, but today still, eggs feature prominently and in every dish. They’re cooked to perfection, sizzled until golden brown on the edges with a still-oozy yolk.
When our pan of breakfast decadence arrives, I immediately poke the yolks to create a rich dressing that seeps into the delicately fried squid. Our egg-fryer man hands me a brown paper bag with chunks of fresh bread, and nods to the pan, knowingly. The next 20 minutes is a blur, but I do recall asking for more bread and licking some squid sauces from my fingers as we devoured the plateful, plus Louis’ humongous pork belly baguette with exotic mushrooms and – you guessed it – fried eggs.
New patrons were already eye-balling our seats, but we took time sipping Spanish Cava and cold beers as we mustered up the courage to face the rain in Spain again. This time, however, with full tummies, a bag of Spanish market fare and content hearts. DM/TGIFood
With a surface area of 13 631 square meters, La Boqueria is the largest market in Spain. In 1871, the market’s candles were replaced by gas lamps and some 30 years later electricity was installed. In 1914, the market’s open-air era came to an end (to our relief in Spain’s rainy season in more modern times…) when the metal roof or “Maquinista Terrestre i Maritima” was installed. Since then, the market has remained a thriving hub for locals and tourists alike – the beating heart of Barcelona. La Rambla, 91, 08001 Barcelona, Spain. Instagram @la_boqueria