“Eating with the fishes” in Sardinia’s Boqueria
August 23, 2018
“Why Boqueria? I thought that was the market in Barcelona”. Sardinia has strong Catalan roots, so I guess the etymology is the same. I believe the name La Boqueria is a derivation of the Catalan for Butchery.
Locating the Mercato Civico in Alghero is easy enough. It’s a squat, dilapidated building in the centre of town, just outside the historic city walls. According to Googlemaps, it stays open until 8pm, but we arrived at lunchtime on our first visit, which turned out to be fortuitous.
The central aisle boasts three greengrocery stalls. There’s no air conditioning, and it was unusually hot and humid, even for August. The elderly lady who served us was fanning herself; “we’re too close to Africa” she observed with a rueful smile. Her produce was good stuff, and we were pleasantly surprised when she totted up our bill.
On three sides of the market’s interior there are small shops: a baker, a decent little grocer selling cheese, wine and prosciutto, and three butchers proudly offering Sardinian meat. One specialises in suckling pig, another, horsemeat and donkey.
Next we bought some swordfish ventresca steaks (belly) from one of the half dozen or so fish stalls, and asked the fishmonger to keep it in his fridge for us. He indicated that he would be winding down at around 1.30, and definitely closed by 2.30.
“After 3 o’clock, there’s no point trying to sell fish here”.
It didn’t take long to work out why, once we found Boqueria, the simple trattoria which occupies the fourth side of the market. It finishes serving lunch at 3pm.
As someone who worked at Borough Market in London, to me it’s the perfect example of what a restaurant in a food market can be. You’ve seen the fish on the stalls, and that’s exactly what you’re served on your plate. The shopping activity isn’t disrupted by people wandering in front of you stuffing themselves with burgers (donkey or otherwise), or whatever takeaway is available.
Boqueria describes itself as a “Fresh fish and meat grill, with raw seafood” – in fact there are 31 fish and seafood offerings on the menu. The meat option is limited to grilled sausage with pancetta – I didn’t see anyone order it.
At one end is a counter where the fish are displayed and people gather, craning to see, deciding what to order, and working out the random queuing system.
Some customers who have already been seated are deciding how many prawns or langoustines to order, as their portion is weighed on the scale. Swordfish steaks are huge, as are the plates of fried calamari or fritto misto di mare. Some species are unfamiliar (the skin of Moray eel looks disconcerting similar to snakeskin). You can order Aragosta in advance – the Sardinian Rock Lobster.
The kitchen is dominated by the scorched chimney of a glowing open grill, manned by a calm and unflustered cook.
There’s a young guy who is constantly occupied, boning, shucking, skinning and filleting. Front of house is masterminded by two girls; an older couple (their parents, perhaps?) and their helpers are constantly operating at a run, clearing and serving tables.
There’s a portable air conditioning unit in front of the counter; anyone standing in front of it is briskly asked to move, allowing some cooler air to reach the diners. The queuing system seems to revolve around a pad next to the till, where you can put your name down, otherwise you just wait for the girl who runs the show to allow you to catch her eye. Patience is rewarded eventually.
Once you’ve secured your table, you place your order:
Prawns. Red Mullet. “How many?” Squid. “Roast or fried?”
Side orders are confined to a bowl of chips, and a salad of iceberg lettuce. Bread and a basket of condiments in sachets (olive oil, mayonnaise, vinegar) arrive with your glass of Vermentino. The tables are bare. It’s hot.
It wouldn’t do for everyone.
I loved it.
Boqueria, Mercato Civico, Via Cagliari / Via Sassari, Alghero, Sardinia.
+39 334 274 2322
Lunch only. Opening hours (as far as one can tell) midday to 3pm.
Why “Eating with the fishes?” Regular readers may have noticed my mild obsession with The Godfather movie trilogy, and the more pedantic among you will of course know that the real quotation is “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”.
What that fails to recognise is my more important obsession: eating seafood as fresh as this.