Mercado Madness

By Jill Paat

When going to Barcelona, most people will probably bring up FC Barcelona, Gaudi or The Sagrada Familia. I guess I’m not most people. Since both my brain and stomach are constantly focused on food, eating my way through a city is my favourite way to spend a day under the Spanish sun. To fulfil my needs, I spent an afternoon at La Boqueria; one of Barcelona’s finest mercados. And I wasn’t the only one.

A mercado, which is Spanish for public market, offers a large selection of fresh and local produce. The indoor food feast is home to a diverse number of vendors, selling goods such as fish, meats and greens. Every day, hundreds of locals and tourists enter the mercado madness to order a platter of pintxos or to run some errands. Sounds like heaven to me. There’s plenty of room to take a seat and enjoy your purchases. In need of vino or cerveza? Most mercados have a bar to keep you hydrated whilst you’re there.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of January as I’m walking towards La Boqueria. Although Barcelona has thirteen(!) different mercados spread all over town, I choose to visit this specific one since it’s the largest and most well-known mercado of the Catalonian capital. You’ll find La Boqueria right next to the famous shopping street La Rambla, which is centrally located in the centre of the city.

Before I’m actually going in, I bump into a small group of Italian girls cheerfully posing in front of the entrance. I ask them what brings them here. Valerie (23) answers: “It’s our first time in Barcelona. Of course, we did some research online. We like the fact that this market is so close to La Rambla, so we can combine food with fashion.” The girls look like young puppies, dying to go inside. So am I.

As soon as I step inside, I’m overwhelmed by all the different impressions. There is no structure of directions whatsoever. Two older señoritas are fanatically squeezing a bunch of galia melons over at the fruit section, while on the other side a loud voiced lady is trying to up-sell the beach crabs as their catch of the day. Some people seem to know exactly where they need to go, while others seem to be completely lost standing still right in the middle of it all, figuring out whether to make a left or right. It’s quite crowded, but there is no pushing. I see a young man getting hit by a selfie stick in one of the narrow paths, while two love birds are being indecisive over the flavour of a one euro juice. Oh, how I love it all.

In the meantime I’m in awe over the wonderful smell of fresh fruits and fried calamaris, so I start making my way towards the pig’s ears instead. That’s what happens when I have too many options. I get confused, resulting into me doing the most illogical things. Although the pig’s ears look tempting, I’m more interested in the man selling them.

José (41) is a butcher at La Boqueria for almost thirty years now and has recently taken over the stand from his father. “Every day is different”, he says. “It never gets boring. The people from the market feel like my family, since most of them have been here for years.” When I ask him about the diversity of visitors, he says it’s well balanced. “Yes, we have a lot of tourists. Especially during the holidays and in summer. They’ll take pictures and buy a lot of products that are unusual to them. But don’t get me wrong, we also have a lot of local customers. To them, this is just the place to get their groceries.” After a quick “excusa”, José needs to get back to an impatient customer who is aggressively waving his hand at him. I give José my best pronounced “Mucho gracias”, when I start the search for some Spanish snacks myself as well.

While I’m strolling around, I see dozens of ham-specialized stands. There’s small bags of sliced Jamon Ibérico everywhere, strongly reminding me of the Dutch fries. I try some olives along the way. Then I sit down at a Pintxos corner to try some tortilla and patatas bravas. When I pass a patissier, I can’t resist to try their churros and a small crema catalana. I must have gained 10 pounds the last 45 minutes.

I’m full, satisfied and ready to go. That’s when a Japanese stand catches my eye, right between the chorizos and the croquetas.
Sushi and wakame galore. And yet, no customers. It’s a sad sight. When I try to make a conversation with the selling couple, I find out my Spanish and Japanese language control is not good enough. I smile and decide to just order some dumplings in hopes to get out of this awkward situation.

If you’d ask me, La Boqueria is a must go-to whenever you’re in the neighbourhood. These mercados in general are the perfect way to get a taste of culture and live like a real Catalonian for a moment. Even though a troop of tourists might block your way every once in a while, the highly flavoured local products will definitely make up for it. I’m a fan. One down, twelve to go.