It is said that any city serious about its food is the sum not of its restaurants, but of its markets. Unlike Madrid, Barcelona still has one proper food market (“mercat” in Catalan) for each of its 48 barrios (neighbourhoods), making it one of the most market-friendly cities in Europe.
Aficionados can, and do, dedicate entire stays to exploring them, and this has not gone unnoticed by the local ajuntament (city council), who have given them their own website.
Grounded in an age-old way of shopping and cooking – that is, doing it daily as opposed to filling the boot of your car at some colossal warehouse on the outskirts of town once a week – is an integral aspect of Barcelonian’s identity. Markets aren’t just about shopping, they are the glue that holds society together, the great oracle of local news and gossip that can be washed down, between paradas (stops), for a civilised flute of cava – considered appropriate at any time of day in these parts – and a nibble on something hot and crunchy, such as a buñuelo de
bacalao (salt cod fritter) or a few slivers of jamón Iberico de Bellota (don’t try to fob locals off with anything else). Slowly the city is renovating every last one of the markets, and this path reveals four of the best.
Contrary to popular belief this is not the oldest market in Barcelona, but it was one of the first markets to be covered. Established in medieval times outside the city walls in order to dodge taxes, today it is arranged in long, slender corridors by product, with fruit, vegetables and dried goods on the outside, meat and cheese on the inner rim, and fish and seafood deep in the middle. Back in the days before refrigeration, the deeper into the market you went, the less accessible it was to flies. Like a miniature town in its own right, the stalls are interspersed with places to eat and drink, too, ranging from legendary vendors like Juanito, who rules the market from Bar Pinotxo (try creamy white beans with baby squid), El Quim de la Boqueria (breakfast eggs scattered with shaved truffles, or chunks of spicy chorizo) and Kiosko Universal (pristine, simply grilled seafood), to more pedestrian pizza, sushi and falafel. You’ll see just as many locals pulling up a stool as you will switched-on tourists, because in this town everyone knows: the closer you are to the source of your food, the better it will taste on your plate.
Barcelona’s food-loving public wait with baited breath for the Mercat de Sant Antoni to reopen at some point in 2016. Under renovation since 2009, the splendid wrought iron, modernisme (Catalan modernism) structure – reinforced by stained glass, red brick and tiled murals – was built like a cross, with a pulsating central heart and four arms reaching out to hold its spoils. Between them in the future, says the publicity, will be lively plazas filled with cafes and tapas bars. By far the most striking of the city’s markets, and an architectural treasure in its own right, it is worth striding by even as the doors remain closed – while it also gives visitors good reason to return. In the meantime, mooch across town into El Borne to shop at the Mercat Santa Caterina instead. This also benefitted from long years of renovation, orchestrated by husband and wife architects Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue. Sadly, Miralles died before it was completed, but Tagliabue carried on and now its tiled, undulating roof-of-many-colours is emblematic of the city’s market heritage. If you’re peckish stop at Bar Joan for his sublime golf-ball sized patty of mashed potato stuffed with delicately spiced meat and topped with spicy brava sauce and allioli.
After a major facelift by local architects b720, Els Encants, one of Europe’s oldest flea markets, reopened in a blaze of glory in 2013 beneath a gilded, cantilevered roof that slices through the Mediterranean sky. Its once unruly stalls are now organised into a spiralling three-storey structure that starts with the rag-and-bone merchants on the ground floor, where you can haggle over tatty antiques, threadbare rugs and bargain crystal glassware, before gradually moving upwards to the first floor where hipster craft stalls hawking buttons and yarns stand cheek by jowl with vintage leather biker jackets and designer cocktail dresses and cheap pants. Less famously, there was always good eating to be had at the traders’ cafés if you could find them (now shoe-horned into characterless boxes on the ground floor), but if you work your way to the top of the building, you’ll find a street food market where bustling bars serve hot, crisp fried fish and cold beer, juicy burgers, hot dogs and lusty local wines to punters squeezed together at communal tables.
To get a sense of how market culture hasn’t just survived in twenty-first century Barcelona, but thrived, look to the newcomers. Palo Alto was among the first to burst onto the scene with a regular monthly slot as the love child of hipster/vintage cool and street food extravaganza – in short, a proper day out with a festival atmosphere. The monthly market is based at the vine- clad, red-brick compound of the studios of iconic Catalan graphic designer Javier Mariscal. It has attracted the city’s most up-and-coming designers in search of an outlet for their creations, musicians looking for somewhere to play, and hot young chefs with talent to burn but not a penny in their pockets for a place of their own. Its success has been unprecedented, and while the city now has many more alternative weekend markets, none shine quite so brightly as this one. Since it’s only open the first weekend of every month, if you don’t manage to coincide, hop on the train to Mercantic in Sant Cugat instead, open Tuesday-Sunday, where you can browse the high-quality cast-offs of well-heeled Catalans before snacking on organic fast food, or bagging a paella lunch followed by live jazz at the weekends.