If you’ve spent more than five minutes with me, food has probably come up in the conversation. I’ll shamelessly instagram my lunch and love to order that thing on the menu no one actually knows how to pronounce. Luckily for me, foodies come in all shapes, sizes and nationalities. I fit right in at La Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria in Barcelona, a huge covered market filled with local vendors of fish, vegetables, fruit, spices, crepes and more. It’s the best kind of sensory overload.
The first thing you need to know about the Mercat is that it’s located on Las Ramblas, a swarming pedestrian walkway packed with upscale shops and a handful of museums and small restaurants. Basically Las Ramblas is tourist central. With its enormous black iron roof, La Mercat is easy to pick out from the sandy buildings surrounding the walkway. When we followed the crowd cramming their way in the towering gates on Saturday morning, I noticed a decidedly different atmosphere. While it was still a bit like being in a can of sardines, I found myself rubbing shoulders with a more balanced mix of tourists and locals.
La Mercat de la Boqueria has been a fixture in Barcelona for a long time. When I say a long time I really mean it. It’s been growing with the city since the 1200s when local farmers would sell their wares in front of a gate of the old city’s wall because the city inside could not provide an a large enough space. Eventually this small market and several from neighboring towns joined forces in 1826 to create La Rambla de Sant Josep. A decade later the city of Barcelona moved the growing market to the former site of a covenant and began construction. Throughout the next century, la Mercat expanded with the population and in 1914 the iconic black metal roof was installed. Besides offering a hub for vendors and shoppers of all kinds, La Mercat also offers cooking classes and restaurants that make use of the local ingredients.
Bustling would be an understatement for la Mercat. It’s packed with grey-haired abuelas who mean business and won’t let you stand in the way of their produce. Small dogs yap at the heels of their owners and kids dart through ankles to get to stalls packet with candy. From raw fish to curry powder, different smells hit you as you move past each booth. Despite the hectic atmosphere, the vendors appear to be anything but stressed. For the most part they generally seemed to enjoy their jobs, yelling jokes to vendors across the aisle and doing their best to make clueless non-Spanish speakers laugh and hopefully push a sale. Many of them should be very used to it though. It’s not uncommon for the current owners of these booths to be third or even fourth generation employees.
For me, the market brings up a lot of interesting questions about the practicality of grocery stores in the traditional sense. I haven’t noticed any large supermarkets in Spain like those in America. Instead people buy food from smaller sources that specialize in things such as meat or vegetables. For Barcelona, this system seems to work very well with la Mercat. It makes sense for consumers to be able to buy fresh, organic food locally. It also allows the money to go directly to the vendor instead of indirectly through the larger supermarkets like in much of the United States.