I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion the importance of the market culture in France. The produce and products are not only always fresh, but the prices are good; and the few hours of socializing with vendors and fellow villagers does way more for the soul than a trip to the supermarket. When you see how even the elderly or barely mobile make the effort to drag their shopping-bag-on-wheels behind them for the weekly or twice-weekly market in town, you quickly understand that it would have terrible consequences if the market cornerstone was removed from the culture’s foundation.
The fact of the matter is that this is true for all of Europe. I was in Barcelona for a workshop recently and of course felt compelled to check out one of the most famous (covered) market places in Spain: Mercat de Sant Josep, otherwise known as La Boqueria, where the barrage on the senses begins with the stained-glass bow that frames the entry.
The Mercat de Sant Josep has been known since its inception as a traveling market in the most important pedestrian street in Barcelona, called La Rambla.
Since 1863, the market has had a permanent spot where the convent of the Carmelitas, the convent of Jerusalem, and the church of St Joseph once stood. There were various inceptions over the next 50 years. In 1914, it became a covered market with an added metal roof.
Throughout its history, La Boqueria has become the home of impassioned salesmen, the root of local family traditions, and a place where tourists gather to gawk, taste, and select from the abundance of all that is good and wholesome in Catalan and in Spanish cuisines.
The abundance and variety of products—like fresh seafood, salted cod, giant hams and other delicatessen, multitude of egg varieties, fruits and vegetables, fragrant spices, breads and pastries, restaurants, wine, and handmade pastas—and the third- and fourth-generation market vendors who praise the goods loudly to the passersby, are what make up the sum of this place and the international recognition it has gained.
What draws me the most to the markets—any market—is not just the food, but the people. Having arrived early, I was able to enjoy watching the people of Barcelona filing in for a morning coffee and then grabbing what they needed for lunch at the office: a cup of fruit or a juice, a loaf of bread, a few tapas (Spanish finger food), and a bit of jamón (dry-cured ham).
I listened to their rapid-fire conversations in the Catalan language (different from Spanish) and wholehearted laughter. I spotted the affection between vendors and long-term customers. I watched fish mongers drape the morning’s fresh catch over beds of ice.
I marveled at the variety of fruits being lovingly cut into pieces or swirled into refreshing mélanges of fruit juice. Cup by cup of shaved ice was distributed among the serving cups to keep it refreshingly cool in the heat of the Mediterranean summer.
And then the tourists came, breakfast seemingly over and ready for a day of sightseeing. They crammed the alleyways between the stalls in record time, obliterating any chance of my quiet enjoyment. It was my cue to wade through the crowd and find some vendors at the periphery of the covered market to speak with.
I met a fruit vendor who showed me some exotic varieties I’d never seen before as I sipped happily from one of his concoctions. I marveled at the sight of dragon fruit, which is scalloped like an artichoke and shaded in delicate colors of pink and green on the outside and has beautiful white flesh freckled with black seeds. I wondered how frequently the artfully stacked fruit, layered with dark green ivy, needed to be replenished. The answer was every other day, which really blew my mind given the plenitude not just in his stall but in many!
I was a little sad when my juice was finished and immediately wanted another! The kind vendor suggested I try his own favorite and marched away to find a cup with dragon, passion, and mango juice. Without much obvious communication between them, a girl popped up by my side to collect the money, making it clear that everybody had their function in the stall despite the chaos of activity around them.
I happily paid another 2.50 Euro for my dragon fruit cocktail which was hands-down the best freshly made juice I’d ever tasted in my life. Thanking the vendor profusely for his time, he happily posed for a picture and off I went in search of a candy vendor who told me that all of his marzipan, in the shapes of hamburgers and fries and fruits, would be sold out by mid-day! I bought some soft fruit candy for Stampson and paid a whopping 15 Euro for about 150 grams of it (and later forgot to pack it before my flight back to France).
My dad always said there is much more good food, than there are good deeds in the world. In this covered market in the heart of Barcelona, Spain, where the locals have trusted their salesmen to select their produce just as they like it for well over a century, I got the sense that he was right. In early morning, a potent cup of coffee in hand, La Boqueria is a mistress of seduction with color, flavor, and possibility curling through your senses.
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