Thursday, March 31, 2011

Freaky Fruit in Barcelona

Oh my god, is it hot here! There were record breaking temps in LA today, 92 degrees I think – and Riverside is EVEN HOTTER than LA! It definitely hit 100 at some point. So I think I will be hitting the gym this evening for a date with the treadmill, otherwise I may be at risk for heatstroke if I run outside. (In other news, it’s snowing in New York. WTF weather??)

Speaking of warm places (OK, bad segue, but whatever, my brain is fried from the heat), I wanted to continue my espousing of European outdoor markets by talking about La Boqueria, the famous market in Barcelona, right off the Ramblas (it’s actually a covered market, but is open on the sides). While Borough Market is great, it is most definitely a gourmet market – you won’t find a lot of people doing their regular shopping there, partially because of the expense and partially because it’s only open three days a week. La Boqueria, on the other hand, is open all day, every day. I was only in Barcelona for a few days on vacation, so I didn’t get to explore other markets and can’t speak for the price of goods compared with other ones that are in a less-touristy area. Being smack in the middle of Barcelona’s tourist-town I’m sure drives the prices up. But, my gosh, was it gorgeous! Naturally there’s an abundance of meat and fish stalls (lots and lots of ham and other pork products, of course – vegetarians and kosher Jews may lose a few pounds vacationing in Spain). The seafood was especially interesting: I went there early one morning before the crowds descended, and the fishmongers were unloading the day’s catch. Everything was so impeccably fresh – which makes sense considering Barcelona is a coastal city - that some of the creatures were still alive and kicking. Literally – I was almost hit in the face by a particularly rambunctious shrimp that sprang at me when I leaned in to get a closer look. It was so, so cool, but I must admit the smell made me a little woozy.

There are little tapas bars scattered throughout the market where they prepare food right from the stalls – at an exorbitant price, of course, but you know it’s fresh so it’s gonna be good. I had my first taste of razor clam: freaky looking, like fat worms kinda, but tasty nonetheless. And the paella was amazing, naturally. There’s a lot of tourists at these places naturally, but I also heard quite a bit of Spanish and Catalan being spoken, so it seems the locals like them too. I’m sure the people manning the stalls eat there for a considerable discount, at least.

Besides the meat and fish, La Boqueria also contains bakeries, candy stalls with every kind of chocolate and nougat imaginable, it seemed – I loaded up on some fruit jellies in all kinds of interesting flavors, and polished off the bag in about a day and a half – and fantastic fruit and vegetable stalls. These were especially interesting because at the fruit stands, the salespeople blended up juices made up of whatever fruit they had on offer in all different combinations. I saw literally hundreds of permutations of fruit juice, conveniently lined up in plastic cups on shelves of ice in front of the fruit displays, straws already in place. You just grabbed whatever you wanted right from the ice, and the turnover is so high they never get a chance to get cold. I had a juice made from just one fruit, and I am still frustrated about it because I have absolutely no idea what it was! It was brilliant purple – like, almost alarmingly purple – with little black seeds. I think I saw some whole ones too, and there were definitely some cut up in the plastic bowls of fruit salad also on offer. It tasted a bit melony, so I think it was some sort of melon, but all the labels were in Catalan, and sometimes Spanish, but never in English. Not a problem for the less exotic produce of course, but alas, I may never know what that glorious juice was made from. It may not even have an English translation for all I know. Sigh.

Upate: By googling the words "purple," "fruit," and "la Boqueria," and doing a bit of Interner sleuthing, I have discovered the identity of the mystery fruit (and no, I don't know why I didn't just use Google earlier, either). It's called a Pitaya, or "dragonfruit," according to my source for all knowledge, Wikipedia, and it's the fruit of a type of cactus native to Central and South America, also grown in Asia, Hawaii, Israel and Australia (not sure where mine were from). It's got deep red skin with these green leafy looking things on it, and either white or purple flesh with lots of little black seeds, and a taste "reminiscent of watermelon." Definitely what I ate in Barcelona. Mystery solved! Thanks, Internet!

I did actually encounter one other type of outdoor market in Barcelona during my stay, located right on the pedestrian thoroughfare known as Las Ramblas: outdoor pet shops. Not kidding. Every day hundreds of cages appear on the street with all kinds of little critters on sale, from your typical rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters to turtles, birds, lizards and occasionally more exotic rodents, like some sort of chipmunk-looking thing whose label was, again, only written in Catalan and the shopkeeper didn’t know the English translation. It was cute, but probably didn’t taste as good as my purple juice. There were also lots of chickens and pheasant-type things. Not sure if those were meant as pets or as supplements to whatever you picked up at the nearby Boqueria. My friend who I was with looked it up in her guidebook and it said this was a popular place for parents to bring their children to buy pets. Weird.

Oh, and lest you think I am completely biased toward Europe’s markets, know that I have had some great experiences with farmers markets in the U.S., which I shall tell you about in a future post. Now I’m off to the gym, and then I’m going to submerge myself in ice water until this heatwave breaks.

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