Barcelona has long been a city with a reputation. Its rich cultural past has been attributed with shaping the face of a number of modern art forms, while its artistic alumni (Gaudi and Picasso among them) continue to inform global trends in creative expression. Elsewhere, its intricate gothic architecture still draws tourists in their thousands. But it’s Barcelona’s redefining of traditional Catalan cuisine that has been at the heart of the city’s recent renaissance.
There’s no better place to experience the finest in Catalunya’s developing cuisine than in the winding tracks of the historic La Boqueria market. Mercat de La Boqueria started off life in the 13th century, as an open-air market on the outskirts of Barcelona’s city walls, where farmers would trade their fruit, vegetables and livestock. Back then, Barcelona was too small to house a market inside its walls, so La Boqueria’s location outside was thought to be essential; trouble arose when traders from rival nearby towns started to encroach on the market’s territory.
Eventually the market relocated inside the city walls, but the focus of its traders’ rivalries merely shifted; the market’s popularity had grown over centuries, so competition to trade on its stalls grew fierce. The situation came to a head in 1826 when, for the first time, the market became regulated under the General Captain of Catalonia. In 1836, decades of regeneration commenced, and La Boqueria as we currently know it – with its striking metal structures and densely packed stalls – wouldn’t be inaugurated until 1914. Now, as the city’s largest, and most diverse, food market, third- or even fourth-generation traders keep the traditional staples in ample supply, but are joined by a wealth of modern pintxos (tapas) bars, and street food vendors offering innovative food from Europe and beyond.
Locating the market itself is easy enough; two-thirds of the way up La Ramblas, its imposing iron gates are difficult to miss. But La Boqueria isn’t for the faint hearted – as you enter the market, the swaying crowd may seem intimidating, so it pays to take a minute or two to let your eyes adjust and your surroundings sink in. At first glance, you might be struck by the cow heads dotted around on butchers’ tables, but look closer – dozens of cuts of cured meat hang from the ceiling, joined by hundreds of strings of dried red peppers. Both of these ingredients are essential to the rich layers of Catalan cuisine, with ibérico ham one of Barcelona’s most sought-after culinary exports, and the peppers a key ingredient to Catalan food’s ubiquitous salsa romesco.
Stacks of multicoloured fruit juices line a number of the market’s pathways, with ice and discarded fruit skins spilling out onto the floor. These juices, freshly squeezed and making good use of Barcelona’s abundant exotic fruit supplies, are well worth their 1EUR price tag (coconut and lime is a firm favourite, but the wealth of choice will cater for every taste).
Many of the stands are dedicated to the ingredients essential to Catalan cuisine – herbs, nuts, spices and cuts of cured meat – so if you have access to a kitchen, it might be time to try your hand at a spot of cookery. Many traditional recipes hinge on fresh seafood, plucked from the nearby Mediterranean, which can be found on La Boqueria’s many beds of ice. One such recipe is the Esqueixada – a salad that combines peppers, tomatoes, onions, red wine vinegar and a shredded salt cod known as Bacalao. The cod gets its unique taste by being preserved in salt and soaked before serving, and can be easily sourced at the market’s fish stands. For uninitiated Catalan cooks, this dish can be a good place to start, the simple ingredients delivering the ultimate in Catalan flavours, with relatively little planning or preparation.
For more adventurous cooks, the Suquet de Peix might be worth a bash – a seafood stew that combines potatoes, garlic and tomato with whatever has been hauled from the sea that day. Any fish can be used, so this dish is flexible and appropriate for each season. The market has a dedicated food school for aspiring chefs who want to get serious about learning the secrets behind successful Catalan cooking (boqueria.info/aula-introduccio.php).
If you don’t have access to a kitchen, fear not: olives, barrels of nuts, stacks of local cheese and freshly baked bread make for an excellent picnic (if the weather is nice, take a stroll to the nearby Parc de la Ciutadella – about a 20-minute walk). Ibérico ham can last for many days without being refrigerated, so along with a selection of candied fruits and nuts, can make for a delicious late-night snack in your hotel room.
Of course, you can also park up at one of La Boqueria’s many pintxos bars and settle in for salt cod croquettes, calamari and fresh, grilled vegetables. This is a great way to soak in the atmosphere of the market, while getting off your feet and removing yourself from the bustling crowds. The most popular of these bars is El Pinotxo (pinotxobar.com), though the bar’s 14 stools are barely ever untenanted.
You may want to shield the eyes of any accompanying children when you pass one of La Boqueria’s many vibrant sweet stalls. Row upon row of sweet treats – from the standard ‘fried eggs’ and ‘cola bottles’, to more bespoke marshmallow tennis balls – will inspire the sweet tooth in adults and children alike. Keep an eye out for the many handcrafted marzipan delicacies, which can take the form of anything from a tiny cabbage to miniature slice of cheese. Delicious as they look, the intricate work on these treats makes them almost impossible to eat.
One lap around La Boqueria never seems like enough, but it’s almost impossible to make it around once and have room in your arms for the extra swag a second lap would provide. But fear not: if its history is anything to go by, you’ll have hundreds of years to make that return trip.