25 May2006

La Boqueria, Barcelona

by Marketman

boq1

The Mercat San Josep or better known as “La Boqueria” in Barcelona was absolutely fantastic! Located on La Rambla (or Las Ramblas or Les Rambles, confused folk those Catalans…) in the Raval District (next to the gothic District), it has certainly earned a place in my list of “Top 3″ favorite markets around the world. Along with the Union Square Market in New York and the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, La Boqueria took about 5 seconds to cast its spell on Marketman. There are lots of terrific and charming markets around the globe that I have seen, and many that I have not, but a few markets standout as places I would have no problem living next to and exploring again and again. boq2I am particularly fond of small neighborhood markets like those in Paris, San Francisco and Bangkok but when you need variety, a large city market is a must! There was so much hype about La Boqueria that I was worried it would be a bit of a letdown. The first apartment we reserved in Barcelona was literally above the entrance to the market on the left side (in case you have been there). Unfortunately, that fell through and we booked another apartment around the corner, about 3 minutes walk from the market…close enough indeed.

La Boqueria traces its way back to the early 1840’s and its central location in a high density and high-foot traffic neighborhood, its large selection of goods and hundreds of merchants make it the undisputed king of Barcelona markets for the past 160 years! boq2It has at least 10 aisles and perhaps a good 250+ stalls. If you count the florists and other nearby vendors it probably comes close to 300 merchants. It is spacious, clean and airy and sits under a huge roof that towers above the stalls. There is an outdoor market area (which I suspect the locals get better deals at) and little groceries, bakeries, provedores, etc. on the periphery of the market. It combines little tapas bars, produce sellers, jamon experts, seafood provedores, fruit, pastas, rice, etc. etc. I was so overwhelmed on my first visit at 8 am on a Tuesday as the market came to life that I vowed to return daily (which I nearly did) for the six days we stayed in the city.

It is such a tourist destination that I was certain it would not have the “heart” of a real market. But if you avoid the market after 10 am and before 5 pm, you boq3probably get a better feel for what it really has to offer. Despite the thousands of sightseers on the premises during most of the day, this market IS frequented by many of the locals. In the early morning you also find the neighborhood cooks, many of them Filipinas, with their carts buying their provisions. I tagged along behind a few locals and they definitely seemed to get a better pick of goods and bigger price breaks…that is to be expected and I suspect I could command the “insiders” price after a month of daily visits and a few thousand dollars worth of language classes.

The vendors realize tourists are part of their market’s continued success but their bread and butter comes from serious customers that buy in bigger quantities. boq5After all, how many crayfish is the average tourist likely to purchase? In a bow to tourists, the market has SPECTACULAR candy stalls, dried fruit, fresh fruit, prepared salads and of course the tapas bars that are not only crowded by locals at the start of the day but descended upon by hoards of tourists who often haven’t the foggiest clue what they are ordering.

Despite being early May, the selection of produce was stunningly good. Of course quite a bit was probably imported from other warmer climates, there was an abundance of boq8items in season such as artichokes, asparagus, baby lettuces, oranges, etc. The first cherries from Southern Spain were also making an appearance and the berries (blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, etc.) were already on offer. Not sure if many of these were greenhouse products but the sheer variety and for the most part, high quality was truly impressive. Prices were frankly, somewhat astronomical except for items that were local and plentiful…think 9.50 Euro for a kilo of cherries but just 1 Euro for a kilo of artichokes!

As you enter the market, the first stalls are clearly set up to “wow” the visitor. Fruit is painstakingly arranged in spectacular pyramids of unblemished examples of each fruit resting on green leaves. Visually, it was the most amazing displays I have seen outside of Japanese and Korean department stores that are notoriously anal retentive about their fruit. But don’t reach out and start grabbing some fruit for the vendor to weigh, they frown on this. You have to tell them what you want and THEY pick it out. Not sure if this applies to locals but it is a turn-off for a serious market denizen. Sure enough, you see brilliant berries on display but they give you some of the dregs as well.

Just keep wandering the aisles and come across a small but stunning seafood section, several meat vendors, incredible offerings of offal and other unusual animal parts, endless boq7ham and sausage vendors, tapas bars, cheesemongers, etc. Go early if you want to get a really good feel for the market and what it has to offer. Some of the vendors were a tad snooty but once they realized you were buying to cook, or if they mistook you for a Filipino major domo, they seemed to warm up a bit. Of course, inevitably, money talks…if you asked for the finest tiniest forest strawberries, the most artisanal of jamon jabugos and the freshest seafood, you inevitably got some respect… I regret that our rented apartment had a minimally appointed kitchen so we only cooked basic meals but if I could bring my kitchen at the beach to within a few meters of this market I would probably never leave the area again…

La Boqueria was an absolute pleasure…definitely worth a visit, or two, or more. I will post more photos in upcoming entries as well as doing sub-features on offal, hams, seafood, etc.!

 

COMMENTS:

  1. ivan the streetwalker says:

    Marketman,

    When I visited the La Boquera sometime ago, I found their fruit displays to be one of the best I have seen anywhere. I mean, even if the fruit wasnt as appetizing, the fact that they displayed it in such colorful creative way will merit an attention to the passers by.

    Their candy section is colorful too and would a child with a sweet tooth would sure go mad. And I loved the turo-turo pasta stall…a very hearty breakfast (with fresh fruit juice), enough to start your day in Barcelona with a smile. ;o)

    May 25, 2006 | 8:17 pm

     
  2. kulasa says:

    All I remember is the smell! The aroma of fresh fruits, the jamons and chorizos, candies, beef, seafoods, flowers. Each area so distinct. Not to mention the way they display their goods. Unforgettable!

    May 25, 2006 | 9:17 pm

     
  3. Marketman says:

    Ivan, thanks for your pre-trip tips… we took the hop-on and hop-off bus and had a great afternoon. Also, we saved on meals by preparing many of them ourselves… though actually Barcelona/Spain was generally the CHEAPEST of all of the European cities we visited… kulasa, you are right, this was a special market indeed.

    May 26, 2006 | 11:20 am

     
  4. Ivan the Streetwalker says:

    MM,

    Cheapest? We found it to the most expensive of the Spanish cities! Imagine, eating Chinese ( I know you’ll cringe but we just had to take a break from tapas at that time!) and spending 35 Euros just for 2 persons! Geez!

    That said, Barcelona’s such a fun city eh? The Catalans are just outrageous!

    May 26, 2006 | 4:05 pm

     
  5. locel says:

    hi there! we have the same photo of mercat san josep except for the red and white tarp.i took the photo in april 2001. i also love the vibrant colors of the market and the smell of chorizo… and of course the enjoyable walk with the mime performers on the way to the la boqueria. the mime performers also visited our bay walk (roxas boulevard) i think 2 or 3 years ago.

    Jul 25, 2006 | 7:28 pm

     
  6. frida says:

    I was fortunate enough to work in Barcelona last month and enjoyed the walks into the labyrinth of a market which you wrote about. I’ll be going back in Oct and will try some of the ‘tips’ out!Gracias! Great blogs!

    Aug 27, 2006 | 6:21 pm

     
  7. zena says:

    I LOVE La Boqueria! I stayed in Barcelona for 1 week for a convention and lived in a small hotel off the Paseo de las Ramblas. Unfortunately, I discovered the market on my penultimate day as it seemed to be closed on the weekend or I hit some strange holiday as I had not seen it previous. Everything was just gorgeous and it was all i could do not blow my pasalubong budget. But as it was the 1st leg of my trip, I settled for the cured/aged meats and sweets. But I bought fresh cherries. =)

    Nov 20, 2007 | 9:17 pm

     
 

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