The fish stalls in the center of La Boqueria, the massive market just off the Ramblas in the center of Barcelona that sells every food item available in southern Europe, are a cacophonous sensory onslaught, and they don't stink at all.
I walked circles through the stalls for half an hour, trying to find something I could cook for dinner back at our rental apartment, yet another tourist stunned by variety and quality. Dozens of types of fish and shellfish lounged on sofas of ice as the fishmongers, most of whom were women, cleaned guts and heads, wiped bloody knives on their aprons, and slapped bags onto scales while simultaneously haggling with customers, pulling on cigarettes and rearranging stray hairs with scale-flecked fingers.
Overwhelmed with possibilities, I was about to chart my third circle when I decided that I needed a categorical approach to limit my choices. The Boqueria labeling system provided the item's name and its sea or ocean of origin, so I decided on something non-farmed and local, as buying something from Peru or Iceland while in Spain seemed a missed opportunity. Looking for wild Mediterranean seafood presented its own problems, since much of the stuff didn't resemble anything I'd seen before back in New England, and their confusing names prevented me from knowing, say, whether that white-fleshed fish would act more like halibut or sole. Other stuff revealed the gaps in the cooking equipment I had packed for the trip, my lack of an oven, and the like. I grew flummoxed.
And then I spied the pile of gambes: six-inch shrimp, black-eyed heads intact, resting pristine and pink across the ice between some silver sardines and a few bloody monkfish heads. I had seen two dozen different kinds of shrimp throughout the market, from tiny sweet bits to massive beasts two evolutionary generations removed from lobsters, and none had called out to me. But these gambes under my gaze seemed perfect in every aspect, and I could imagine several fine ways to cook them with the equipment and ingredients on hand. I decided that I had to have them.
A closing transaction, however, proved difficult to initiate, as commerce refused to pause its bustle for me. Possessing neither rudimentary Catalan nor Spanish, I managed to point and shrug sufficiently to find out from the fishmonger that the gambes cost 17 euros per kilo -- at least, that's what it sounded like to me -- but I didn't know how to move from inquiry to acquisition. Not that I hadn't thought about the protocols of purchase all morning; indeed, I had done the rest of my shopping before this last step, so that I could discreetly wave my bags of wild mushrooms, lemon, onions, and artichokes around to prove that I was a genuine local.
However, my bag didn't offset the dozen or so of my other touristy traits, and thus my strategy was failing. I resorted to more bastardized mime: I pulled out a 50-euro bill, pointed at the gambes, and, in an attempt to get half a kilo, said, "Demi! Semi!" while chopping my flattened left hand into my right palm, arms extended. The crowd guffawed; the mime worked. The woman set her cigarette on the edge of a thick, messy cutting board, exhaled a smoky sigh, grabbed a plastic bag, and lifted the gambes gently into the bag and then onto the scale: just over 700 grams. "Gracias!" I said, relieved and willing to pay for the 200 gram bump. She placed the gambes into a plastic container and then into a bag of ice, while I fished out the fifty to pay for the ten or eleven euro charge.
Upon seeing the bill, she pulled back the bag and rolled her eyes. "No," she declared, and she grabbed a piece of wet paper and a grease pen and wrote "52." I looked at her, confused; she glared and sighed more smoke. Then she wrote on the other side of the paper, "70/Kg." The gambes cost seventy, not seventeen, euros per kilo.
Flustered, I began apologizing in French, fished a coin out of my pocket, blurted "Gracias" repeatedly as she handed the shrimp over the ice to me, and walked away, having both made an ass of myself and blown the dinner budget on the most expensive seafood I'd ever bought.
To recover from the sticker shock, I popped into Escribá, the legendary bakery behind the Modernista storefront on the Ramblas, and grabbed a cafe con leche for the walk home. It started to spit rain, so, ducking my head, I hustled across the Ramblas, down the Carrer de la Boqueria and the Carrer d'Avinyó to our little red apartment above the Carrer de Milans. Riding up the elevator, I glanced at my watch and realized that I still had a couple of hours before my wife Andrea would be awake from siesta. I slipped into the apartment, placed the produce on the counter and the shrimp in the fridge, grabbed a rain coat, and headed back out into the streets of the Barri Gotic.
The skies opened up as possible gambes dishes bombarded my brain. Seeking refuge from both rain and recipes, I slipped into a pulperia to nurse a pair of San Miguels and crunch through a plate of fried octopus. The beery fry-haze emboldened me to duck back outside and face the exorbitant purchase head on, if in a more appropriate venue. I turned down the street so that I could wander through the Maritime Museum at the Drassanes, or Medieval shipyards, which rest at the terminus of the Ramblas, where the harbor waters lap at the old city's base. I toddled past the massive Christopher Columbus statue down to the gray stone buildings that housed the museum, coating my shoes with muck as I searched round the site for an exit from the pelting rain.
Once inside, I bought a ticket and inhaled the dank, granite air. Catalunya rose to prominence in the 14th century largely because Barcelona was a port. Filled with silt and dreck, it was not the greatest bay on the Mediterranean, but it proved to be a valuable port nonetheless. The city built substantial trading and fishing industries, and the hulking but delicate arches of the Drassanes were filled with the ships that had sailed those commodities into and out of town. Others in the museum were drawn to the Columbus exhibits or the huge Royal Galley in the center bay of the museum, but I kept returning to the trawlers and longliners at the edges. On these tiny boats in all weather, generations of fishermen had sailed out into the Mediterranean to fill their holds and floors with fish, squid and shrimp. Though little fishing occurs anywhere near the Barcelona harbor these days, the elemental methods used to prepare that seafood -- grilling with a bit of olive oil and salt, say -- reflected the quality of the product then and do so now.
Walking around the rudimentary boats, I realized that, far from parading the gambes in an elaborate get-up meant to show off my culinary expertise, I needed to get out of their way: I would boil them just until done, in water as salty as sweat, then douse them with a squeeze of lemon. Simple, pure, and clean. I pulled on my sopping coat and headed back to the apartment, dodging grocery sacks tied around the day's garbage scraps, irritated tourists, puddles of sloppy dog shit and the odd, sudden scooter.
Back at the apartment, there was a lot to do, and I got right to it. The arbequin olives would be a good starter, so I put them out and opened a bottle of wine. The stunning wild mushrooms from Laurenc Petras needed separating, cleaning, and cooking just to doneness, but that last should wait, since I'd want to cook them individually just prior to plating. The Catalan blue cheese I had found looked like it would go well with the local bacon for a crude but rich pasta sauce, so I started water on one burner and dropped half a cup of minced onion into melted butter in a pan on another. Turns out that I had figured a lot out when I was working hard to avoid thinking about those gambes.
When everything else was ready, I set a pot of water on high and added a fistful of kosher salt, causing the water to roil briefly. I grabbed the shrimp from the refrigerator and plunged them into the water, bringing it back to the boil and, while counting to 200, set a bowl with ice and water out on the counter. When the shrimp were done, I plunged them into the chill to stop the cooking, dried them briefly, and put the remarkable beasts on a plate, arranged in a spiral with wedges of lemon at 4, 8, and 12 o'clock.
The rain had stopped, so Andrea had wedged the apartment's small table onto the balcony overlooking the slim Carrer de Milans, and I piled it with the night's meal. We sat down and poured more wine. Next door someone was frying garlic in olive oil, which zipped through the smell of the wet streets wafting up the building's facade but didn't erase the hint of lightly scented urine that the rain had moistened. A clot of besotted club kids poured onto the street a few doors down from us, shouted giddy German at each other and retreated to a club next door called Manchester from which "Lust for Life" blared.
Much of the food I had prepared was great, though none was spectacular. I had slightly overcooked several of the mushroom varieties, pushing their meaty earthiness a bit too close to muck. The pasta clumped due to too little water in the inadequate pot, and the sauce lacked balance: the bacon had a sour note that made the blue cheese even more feety than usual. The rioja and the arbequins cut through the courses like knives through our tongues.
And then we were faced with, and by, the pristine gambes. Peeling off the shell and revealing the flesh of the first one, I bit and immediately exhaled through my nose as my mouth filled with a sweet, buttery, powerful taste of exponential shrimp that I'd never tasted before. As I had when eating my first raw oyster and fried clam, I knew immediately that I was experiencing an important evocation of the sea in an elemental form, a deep and pure pleasure. I finished off that one greedily and snapped off the head of the next -- when I found, on the end of the shrimp's body, a greenish, reddish, brownish gunk.
Growing up in New England, I had learned how to eat a lobster on the knees of both grandfathers, who treated such rituals with absolute seriousness, and save for gills, shells, and cartilage, no part went uneaten. Faced with the gambes gunk, I had no choice but to forge on, but I hesitated. I knew of course that the gunk on the end of the body was the stuff in the hundreds of heads I had crunched through when eating pepper and salt shrimp in our local Hong Kong-style Chinese restaurant. And yet, I paused, unsure as to whether I wanted to have the purity of this shrimp flesh defiled by whatever the hell that stuff was.
Squinting my tongue, I popped the whole tail, gunk and flesh both, into my mouth. I was ecstatic.
The next several minutes were rapturous. Breathless, I peeled, licked, bit, and sucked my way through a series of carcasses. I felt a primal frustration if I couldn't somehow pry every bit of rich mucous from each gambes shell; their broken heads littering my plate, dead eyes scattered. Picking up yet another, I pulled off a head and balanced the large dollop of gunk delicately on the end of the tail, placed it in my mouth -- and recoiled.
The flavor that filled my mouth had all of the same components -- sea water, fat, tang, umami -- yet the slightly varied proportions attacked my senses with violence. The tang became bleach, the umami rancid; the clean brine disappeared, replaced by the water sitting in a coffee tin in which your tadpoles died days before. And my unbridled, ecstatic pleasure was replaced, at once, by disgust.
I grabbed my glass and filled my mouth with wine, then drank a tumbler of water. Turning back to the gambes, I tried a couple more, both of which were stellar, but the ecstasy was replaced by mere appreciation. Meanwhile, my napkin grew dark with green, brown and red smear.
The next morning, I woke up restless at dawn, the sugar jolt from the wine getting a hand from the Germans' boisterous return home after a long night of drinking, and decided to wander alone down to the Ramblas for a pastry. I arrived at Escribá just as it started to stir, the delivery truck dropping off pastries baked elsewhere along with others ready for the shop's ovens, the aroma of caramel mingling with the stinks of piss and motor oil. A young woman smoking a cigarette raised the metal shutters to reveal the pristine interior of the bakery, and a moment later the front door opened to exhale.
I got a croissant and walked home, eating it slowly as Barcelona woke around me. It was simply perfect, and smelled only of purest butter.
Chris Amirault (aka, well, chrisamirault) is Director of Operations, eG Forums. He also runs a preschool and teaches in Providence, RI.