On the tourist hell hole that is Las Rambles, past the drunks, the hen parties, the touts peddling their tat, the terrible generic restaurants serving a pre-packed paella type concoction to the culinary naive who think they are eating a local meal, you will find one of the finest food markets in the world: La Boqueria.
La Boqueria is one of those chaotic, giant markets where it is easy to lose your bearings whilst walking in the midst of its narrow corridors. Like all the best food markets, the noise, the crowds, the smells, the stalls after stalls of fantastic products are intoxicating. Near the centre you will find the circle of fishmongers selling the most amazing and freshest fruits of the sea. Just to walk around and watch them fillet, skin and bone fish with perfectionist ease is a sight that does not get tiring. Working outwards you will find fruit and vegetables displayed in vivid colour; stalls of butchers selling every part of the beast, mounds of tripe around every corner; Iberico ham being thinly sliced off the bone. But, there is one thing that puts La Boqueria at the top of the league tables of foods markets: the tapas bars, making it not only a great place to shop, but a great place to eat. You can trawl the market, stopping to eat some jamon, baby squid, croquettas, patatas bravas, stewed meatballs and all the typical tapas of the region.
It really is a marvellous place, but will it continue to be? La Boqueria is in the midst of the tourist district and this is unusual for a food market. This has always been the case of course and it has long had to suffer the fanny-pack crowd pointing at exotic ingredients (“oh my god Brandine that fish is looking at me”), but tourists are now finding more and more ways to disgruntle the locals. Travelling is easier and cheaper than ever, so maybe there is just more of these vexatious wanderers, but now they have bloody selfie sticks, cameras on their phones and can even broadcast a live video account to their loved-ones back home whilst walking around.
Thankfully we don’t know anyone who has a selfie stick. We would sort of prefer not to know anyone who has one. The type of person who might have one of these apparatuses of vainglory; someone so morbidly self-absorbed, that they must have their pouting head in every picture, well this type of person is someone we would be happy to go without in our lives. Are these the same sort of people who tweet every dish from the table during every meal? Maybe they are the same narcissists who tweet the restaurant before their meal so the restaurant knows to prepare for their arrival? Whoever they are, it would be super if they would just stay at home. What was I saying? Oh yeah, La Boqueria is now suffering from this plague of bobbleheads. Just walking around is a chore as one must dodge these protruding appendages every two feet and pirouette around the kneeling traveller doing their best impression of Annie Leibovitz.
Why is this a problem? Doesn't tourism help the market thrive? Well yes some tourists, like us, do buy some of the markets great produce and some, also like us, stop at the tapas bars to indulge on the local delights. Thankfully there are still plenty of this type of adventurer, but the market will only continue to thrive if the locals keep coming every day and the cracks are starting to show as more and more stalls are selling juices and fruit cups, mostly to tourists who want to claim that they bought something in this famous market. For a local it must be tempting to go instead to Saint Antoni Market, which is around one kilometre away and whilst it does not have the grandeur of La Boqueria, it doesn't suffer from the same onslaught of posers and path-blockers.
No matter what happens to this great food hall and regardless of how growing tourism continues to dilute the old quarter of Barcelona, turning it more and more into a sort of sad tourist strip, there is one man to bring us back to Barcelona again and again. That man is chef Albert Adria.
Sometimes patronisingly referred to by journalists as Ferran Adria’s little brother, with whom he worked with for 23 years in elBulli, Albert runs a handful of hugely successful restaurants based around the Avenue del Parallel. We have written here before about two of Adria’s places: Bodega 1900 and Tickets, so we won’t go through the food again now, only to say that we returned to both recently and the experience was as good as, if not better, than our visit last year. On the space that was occupied by 41 Degrees, a short lived restaurant in which Adria served 41 courses, Tickets has been expanded and developed a dessert room. This is Willie Wonka type space where one goes at the end of their meal for their sweet courses. This isn't just a more efficient way to turn tables in the main dining room, but also changes the mood of the guest to something more a kin to child like wonder. It worked on us at least, we had five desserts.
This year we added in another of Adria’s eateries, Nino Viejo. Here Adria has created the flavours of Mexican street food and in typical Adria style it manages to serve really accomplished food in a fun and informal setting. This is what is so special about Adria’s restaurants; he has managed to create a collection of intoxicating, relaxed and colloquial restaurants, but all with fantastically talented kitchen teams. Make no mistake, the dining room, the setting, the ambience are all a key to the success of this empire and play a big part in the experience, but they are secondary to the fantastically delicious food.
Albert Adria is one of the industries greatest talents and is recognized as such by many industry luminaries that worked alongside him in elBulli. In his restaurants he has managed to create sublime menus showing a combination of great skill and childlike imagination that very few chefs possess, but you never get the sense he is trying to show off. He doesn't want you to leave thinking about him or go home remarking about what a talent he is and what a privilege it is to eat his food. Instead Adria wants his guests to leave after having a great and fun experience. Technique and innovation, although evident, is not important, instead the flavours, the spirit and the heart of the restaurant is what Adria manages to convey to his guest.
There are a few common themes running through his establishments. The service is always friendly, jovial, a little bit cheeky at times and extremely hospitable. There is no pomp and circumstance, certainly no stuffiness and, in the case of Bodega 1900 and Tickets, this keeps a sense of a more typical tapas bar. In all his restaurants you can chose not to order off the menu, but instead let your server pick out their favourite dishes for you. At any time, you can ask for more dishes, or decide that you are done, or ready for some dessert. Not knowing what is coming next, or even how many courses are yet to come, only adds to the fun and intrigue of the experience.
This summer Adria will open his latest, and his last, restaurant in Barcelona. Enigma will be Adria moving further away from the elBulli, even dropping the spherified olives which are the opening act in most of his current restaurants, and he states that it will be his most ambitious project to date. We will be booking a visit to Barcelona to eat here as soon as we can get a table.
Albert Adria’s stands in no one else’s shadow and to suggest so is to be disrespectful to one of the worlds’ greatest chefs and restaurateurs. He alone is one of the primary reasons we will return to Barcelona over and over again.