Eat, drink and go on a tantalising tapas journey in two of Spain's most spectacular food markets in central Madrid and Barcelona. Here’s your guide to our pick of stalls
An Ibérico ham stall at La Boqueria
It would take a cold, dark heart not to love Barcelona's legendary Boqueria – justifiably considered to be one of the finest fresh produce markets in the world. The name comes from the old Catalan word boc, meaning, depending on which report you read, goat or sheep's stomach, but either way it is most likely a nod to the butchers that first traded their beasts here in the early 19th century. It is both figuratively and literally the belly of Barcelona – a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables blazing like jewels, fish gleaming like bullion, stalls literally sagging beneath the cheese and charcuterie – and has been around in some form or another since the 13th century.
Settle in at one of the several counter bars among it all and have yourself a feast (after all, there is no restaurant more fabulous or tapas bar more deserving). Gab with locals over breakfast at El Quim de la Boqueria, where it's perfectly normal to quaff a glass of cava with frilly fried eggs liberally sprinkled with baby squid, chorizo, or autumn truffles from Llorenç Petràs' stall nearby. Admire the Art Nouveau stained-glass signage of the fish stalls, perhaps nibbling on a slice of mojama (cured tuna) from Bacallaneries Gomà, or a slice of the country's famous pata negra Ibérico ham from Mas Gourmets de l'Embotit as a preamble to lunch. Trust me: a simply grilled chunk of Tarragona atún roja (red tuna) at the Kiosko Universal paired with a crisp, white Pansa Blanca from Alella (less than half an hour away, it is the city's closest wine region) is one of the most memorable meals you might have.
A Boqueria seafood vendor
Madrid's Mercado de San Miguel is a whole other story. Built in 1916, it was saved from ruin in 2003 by a group of private benefactors who lavished love and money upon it, transforming it into a sparkling new vision of its former self. Enclosed by gleaming glass walls and gilded columns, its former stalls were spruced up and it was transformed into the sort of gourmet food hall that London's famous Fortnum & Mason could only dream of, and one that now attracts more than 60,000 visitors a year.
Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid
While there are still a handful of stalls for home cooks hankering for forest mushrooms, cherries the size of plums, and spears of wild asparagus, they come here mainly to tapear (have some tapas). Kick off at Lhardy, the market-stall face of one of the city's most iconic dining destinations, where the amontillado-laced consommé has saved many a weary traveller from Madrid's infamously late nights.
Macarons from Mercado de San Miguel
Thus fortified, have a pre-lunch aperitif of vermut de grifo (vermouth on tap), paired with olives, anchovies and encurtidos (salty Spanish pickles), or grab a flight of six sherries from the Sherry Corner and roam the market with them, picking off hits such as Daniel Sorlut for a plate of Bordeaux oysters so fresh they wince when the lemon hits them, or El Señor Martín for gigantic Galician prawns, sweet as lobster, but oh-so much better. And while it's not strictly speaking a Spanish delicacy, it would be churlish to leave without a Parisian macaron in rainbow colours, or a Portuguese custard tart. You'll need the sugar hit. San Miguel, you see, doesn't close until the small hours.
La Boqueria, Rambla, open Monday to Saturday, 8am-8.30pm, www.boqueria.info. Mercado de San Miguel, Plaza de San Miguel, open Monday to Wednesday, and Sunday, 10am-midnight; Thursday to Saturday, 10am-2am, www.mercadodesanmiguel.es