Glutton Abroad: Barcelona, Part 3

Whole swordfish for sale at Barcelona’s commercial seafood market

I stayed up late after returning from Gramona, mainlining coffee and watching “Below Deck” on the couch in order to stay awake. It was imperative for me to make it to the seafood market, if only for the bragging rights of being able to say I went to a market that would be closed off to me under normal circumstances. I imagined that once we got there, we would simply browse through the merchandise as Jordi explained to us the different types of seafood from around Spain. I did not expect to have one of the greatest meals of my life.

Cordero, who originally hails from Bolivia, said to me that his trip to this market truly opened his eyes to the breadth and variety of seafood available to Barcelona. What I will say is that, although we Thais are quite spoiled, seafood market-wise, Barcelona’s is a great market, full of great products from all around the world — Icelandic salmon, Maldivian tuna, local sardines as glittery as any jewel.

We arrived at 2 in the morning, and although the market was presumably in full swing, the walkways were mostly taken up by beeping box-movers (I do not know the term for this vehicle) and the occasional roaming pack of smoking men. There were no lookie-loos besides us, as entrance is supposed to be strictly limited to people with a professional badge. All the same, they did not give us trouble in spite of the fact that we were very obviously tourists, here to get in everyone’s faces with our idiotic questions and invasive iPhones.

Jordi explained that he expected us to choose what we liked best out of the floor, and then we would take it upstairs to be cooked at one of the three tapas bar/restaurants upstairs (Jordi preferred the middle one). But in doing so, we would have to walk the expanse of the market, which was roughly the length of two football fields. We saw various large tuna in different stages of breakdown; countless big cuttlefish in their ink; and Jordi picked up a few feisty lobsters — one from France, one from Canada, one from Spain — to demonstrate their desirability. He then showed us how to pick a good fish with various snippets of advice, some of which we already knew (bright eyes, red gills, shiny, non-slimy scales) and some that we didn’t (picking up a fresh fish and it remaining somewhat stiff is the sign of a strong swimmer with good and delicious muscles).

Jordi discussing the merits of this channel rockfish

All the while, Jordi is greeted by various people who seem delighted to see him, and we have to wait more than a few times, shuffling uncertainly from foot to foot in our cold-weather jackets (the temperature inside is understandably brisk), as Jordi discusses this or that manner of business with one of his many market friends. It becomes evident that we need to make a decision as quickly as possible, so I point to the limpets — known as “lapas” in Spanish — and say, “What about those?”

Jordi seems less than enthused, but picks one up for me to suck at. “Do you know how to eat these?” he asks, and to be honest, I think I’ve had them before, but I don’t remember. Right there on the market floor, he breaks off the “horned” part of the limpet before handing it to me, instructing me to suck the coral-colored stuff inside the rubbery “stem”. As for the scaly cloven side, he tells me to break it apart with my hands, picking at the pink meat with my fingers. It is all very sweet and indescribably fresh. There is juice on my face and hands. I look around for a trash can. There isn’t one. Jordi tells me to just drop the remnants onto the floor.

He directs my interest instead to the langoustines, which we tried yesterday and which Jordi declared to be “mid”, as the kids would say (I spent 6 months with kids, so I know all about “mid” and “riz” and am now cool by association). We watched a seller “unpack” langoustines from Scotland by picking them, live, from tiny tubes lined in paper like candies, tossing them unceremoniously into a bin on the floor. Jordi picked one up, showing me how to run my finger along the shell: “It needs to feel smooth, not slimy,” he explains before bending the langoustine a bit to show the skin underneath the rim of the shell. “The meat needs to be thick and strong here, or when you cook it, it will break apart. This langoustine is no good,” he declares, tossing it back into the bin before the vendor picks it up himself, breaks off the head, sucks the head, and peels the tail to enjoy as a sort of mid-early-morning snack.

We decide to follow suit, picking up langoustines that Jordi deems much better, like the one above. There is obviously something transgressive about eating a vendor’s wares raw right in front of him, but the taste of the langoustines made it worth being rude: the tail sweet and briny, the head like good sea urchin.

Obviously we pick up a pack of these. We also, on Jordi’s suggestion, pick up another set of red prawns from Galicia, Jordi choosing them himself from a large box nearby. “See? No water,” he says, explaining which ones to buy. He tells us to steer clear from langoustines and prawns languishing for hours in a pool of melted ice. “Choose like this,” he says, pointing to his selections.

Of course, we have to sample these raw on the market floor too. The prawn heads are almost better than what I’d tasted at Jordi’s restaurant, when they were topped with caviar.

To go with our shellfish extravaganza (to which my husband is actually allergic), we also pick up three baby sole which Jordi says are good for frying, as well as a passel of the unicorn-shell sea snails that we had the day earlier. To end the meal, Jordi selects a large Alaskan cordova — a fish he’d used to demonstrate to us what red gills, bright eyes and glossy scales looked like — with the intention of baking it.

We troop up the stairs with our wares into what looks like a stereotypical tapas bar, but with a view overlooking the market floor. Inside, at 2:30, it’s quiet: most vendors are on a break, chatting over coffee, with only one other person going to town on an enormous plate of scrambled eggs. No one is drinking, but I feel thirsty (for beer, at least) so we all end up ordering a nice pint each while Jordi explains to the chef what he wants done with the seafood and orders us some tomato bread and a large fluffy tortilla to start. I remember that he and Cordero have probably not eaten at all since their dinner service ended at 1 am.

The baby cod arrives first, and it’s as good as Jordi said it would be: the skin crispy and brittle, the meat inside almost cloud-like. We pour olive oil over the white flesh and dine on the fins and small bones delicate enough to crunch in our mouths.

Next came the prawns, which were barely cooked and christened in a generous spray of rock salt. These things, once again, blew my mind. “I don’t know why people talk about lobster,” said Jordi. “These prawns are so much better,” and I have to say, I totally agree. Touched with heat and coarse salt, the heads have taken on a deep umami flavor that my brain translates into tasting like dark chocolate. It is one of the best things I’ve ever had.

The main point of the evening arrives next, hot from the kitchen, the shells billowing steam. It seems unfair to them that they have followed the red prawns; it’s like Fred Kaps following the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. All the same, they are sweet and fresh and everything you’d want from langoustines.

Obviously, Jordi is friends with the proprietor and they exchange pleasantries, as he has with everyone throughout the evening. But Jordi says he had a hard time at first making connections with people, as he was only one small restaurant; most of the customers here are big hotels and restaurant chains. I imagine the Michelin star would have helped things along; besides, the big clients rarely actually make it to the market themselves, preferring to order their seafood for delivery.

By this time, we are almost full, but Jordi’s special pick, the cordova, is on its way. It comes hot from the oven, skin blistered with the scales still on and in a puddle of fresh olive oil. We summon up what’s left of our appetites and attack, stripping the skin to reveal glistening juicy flesh without need of anything else (although, being Thai, I wouldn’t turn a seafood dipping sauce down). By the time we are done, only the carcass is left and even the head has been dismantled. The cost of the seafood: 160 euros; the cost of the restaurant meal: 70 euros, including beers for all 6 people.

Jordi and Cordero very generously drive us home, and by the time we get there, it’s 4 in the morning. It’s still dark, but the sidewalk in front of our rental is heaving with as many people as there are when it’s 4 in the afternoon. I understand that the meal I just had was a once-in-a-lifetime deal, which makes the meal even more special; the guidance of a Michelin-starred chef is similarly unlikely. Or maybe it’s the incredible seafood. In any case, I will always remember this meal, even though it has thrown my sleeping patterns off for the foreseeable future.

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