We meet Isidre Gironés at the busy entrance to La Boqueria, just off Barcelona’s main tourist drag of Las Ramblas. The proprietor of the world-famous Ca l’Isidre is easy to spot among the scruffy travellers: he is the only person wearing a morning suit and tie, an island of calm among the seemingly chaotic tide of people pouring into the market, even at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning. For Isidre Gironés, La Boqueria is not a place, it is a way of life: part of a daily routine stretching back several decades that has allowed this former waiter from the provinces to build up a loyal clientele that don’t think twice about private-jetting in to Barcelona with the sole purpose of eating at his restaurant.
As we enter the market with our guide, he tells us that he has been coming to La Boqueria every morning for the past few decades. He shops around, haggles with the traders and stops to chat every now and then, usually finishing the restaurant’s mammoth €2000 daily shopping list by nine am.
Near the entrance of the market, Isidre points out the fruit stalls selling row upon row of impeccable fruits and vegetables arranged into perfect walls of red, green and purple. ‘Nobody realises it, but these people arrive at four, five o’clock in the morning to get it to look like that. Not many people know how much work they put in.’ A call from his chef (he knows how to answer calls on the iPhone, but ‘nada mas’) and Isidre picks out a good-looking vine of beefy Montserrat tomatoes, a strain characterised by their irregular shape. The more irregular, the better the taste. After insisting that he could guess the weight of the produce without the scales (he was a little under), Isidre points out a stack of purplish fruits, each with a scar down one side: higos de brena, the first figs of the season which grow so rapidly that the skin tears, struggling to contain the sweet flesh within.
We weave deeper into the heart of the market, Isidre pointing out stalls as we pass and loudly tossing out insults with a smile. ‘This stall, these people are alright…but what they lack is character.’ The stallholders wave him on like a naughty schoolboy. He points out snippets of history that are scattered throughout the market: here, a photo of the market that happened to catch Picasso doing his shopping as a young man, old face beneath an improbably full head of thick, dark hair. There, a plaque to commemorate the life of local food innovator Ramón Cabau.
As we pass a particularly lush seafood stall, our guide stops suddenly and picks a lobster from the bed of crushed ice, much to the bemusement of a passing tourist. The creature flails its claws and then, when turned upside down, its legs as Isidre points out where is best to check for the quality of meat, the whitish, fleshy part on the underside of the tail. ‘It’s all alive’, he says as he plants the crustacean back down with its friends and tickles another to elicit some further claw-waving, ‘you see?’
We learn about the difference between Maine (€9) and Breton (€17) lobsters (he prefers Breton), the wonderfully bloody 200kg Gibraltar strait tuna we see being filleted by one of the fishmongers, and the little-known (in the Anglo-Saxon world at least) parrot fish, a real favorite with Isidre for its white, tender flesh.
Next stop is the family-run salt cod stall Alimentacio Pujamar, where the ladies (most of the stalls are staffed by ladies, as Isidre points out) tell us they have seen something of a boom in business, especially at the pricier end of the scale. The central cut is the best as it is the least bony, and can go for up to €50 per kilo. We are also offered a sliver of mojama: the fishmonger’s answer to Spanish serrano ham, a dry-cured tuna served thin cut and in a variety of tapas, before heading to Quiosc Modern for a quick coffee, where Isidre tells us about his life. Born in Tarragona, he arrived in Barcelona as a teenager and began working as a waiter in a restaurant on the Passeig de Gracia. He later began running bars for himself, starting with a high-turnover, economical place near the university (‘because I wanted to learn how to serve people fast’) before moving on to his current endeavor, Ca l’Isidre.
Serrano ham is next on our list, and Isidre points out some of his recommendations at Mateo, although he tends to go to Andalucia to buy several legs at a time direct from the supplier. The price is not important, he says. So what is? The appearance (slightly mottled, transparent), the scent and the flavour: the best ham has a sweet, nutty note.
El Mas del Mercader, among the shops and bars that nestle around the outskirts of the market, stocks a huge range of oils and vinegars including those produced by Forum, a company who produce boutique wine vinegars (we tried chardonnay, merlot and sauvignon, priced at €8 to €10 for 250ml) and which just happens to be run by one of Isidre’s four children.
Before we say our farewells, we ask Isidre one final question: what do you eat at home? It turns out that our Masterchef is a fan of simple food: egg and chips, arroz con conejo or rice with rabbit (‘because for €8, 4 or 5 people can eat rabbit!’) and, he slows as we reach one stall in particular, roast chicken. The stallholder hands him two boxes of precisely that.
Address: Calle Les Flors 12; 08001 Barcelona
Tel: 0034 93 441 11 39
Opening hours: 13.30 to 16.00h and 20.30 to 23.00h. Closed Sundays and public holidays.
Menu del dia: €40
Address: M. Boqueria 729, 08001 Barcelona
Tel: 0034 93 302 05 83 or 0034 617 241 782
Address: Mercat de la Boqueria parades 395-396-397, Passadis 7, 08001 Barcelona
Tel: 0034 93 301 99 53
El Mas del Mercader
Address: Mercat del la Boqueria, c/Portics de San Josep 10, Barcelona
Tel: 0034 933 42 84 83
Open: Monday to Saturday, 0900 to 1900h