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"By their markets ye shall know them." OK, no one actually ever said that, but on my travels I have often found it to be true. After all, what lovelier way to learn the nuances of a foreign culture than rubbing shoulders with the locals, tasting the flavors of their land? Well yes, there is literature and art and music, but we certainly can't appreciate those on an empty stomach; and so, before heading to the Prado or the pyramids or a voodoo ceremony, you may just find me visiting the local public market for a fortifying cultural immersion.
In Spain, my favorite market is without doubt the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, a huge tin-roofed building located roughly midway along downtown Barcelona’s celebrated Las Ramblas (at No. 91), a grand promenade stretching from the Plaça de Catalunya to the Mediterranean Sea. With roots in the 13th-century open-air market set up outside one of the gates of the then city wall, an enclosed structure was inaugurated in 1853, and the current covered market building we see today dates from 1914.
The dozens of stalls – most run by third and fourth generations of sellers – can be general, but many specialize in, say, meats, fish, produce, or dairy (and some can get very specific indeed, such as Franca Torrens’ "Simplement Ous," Catalan for “Just Eggs”). You’ll notice some intriguing local quirks, of course, such as a taste for rabbit, snails, cured ham, and oxtail than you might find elsewhere. And that sack of wrinkly little things at the dried fruit and nut stands? That would be xufes, the raw material for a milky, locally popular soft drink called orxata aka horchata (not like the Mexican kind, which is rice-based). And lest you think it’s only about sightseeing and great photo ops, I’d totally recommend bringing your appetite, because there are also about a dozen sit-down counters dishing out both tapas and heartier fare traditional and nouvel alike – all market-fresh and utterly sublime (just keep in mind that depending on the time of day, you may end up having to stand with your goodies, because these places are popular but their stools are not plentiful).
The Boqueria’s managers have also kept up with foodie and culinary tourism trends by launching a cooking school with morning/midday classes held in a third-floor venue toward the back of the market. They’re especially aimed at young people but open to all, and range in length from two hours for a hands-on workshop and tasting (15 euros) to four hours for the workshop, a full meal, and a tour of the market (35 euros). An integral part of the experience, of course, is visiting the market stalls to scope out the ingredients. A local outfit called Boqueria Bites also offers a series of tours focusing on different aspects such as meat, fish, sweets, and wine/cheese; they include food and drink, natually, and start at 35 euros for two hours. In short, Barcelona's Boqueria market is a great place to roam and soak up local colour and flavor, quite literally. To get more of a sense of this grand old market in action, check out this video (subtitled in English): http://youtu.be/A7qRg-i5Ri0 Will you include La Boqueria on your next visit to Barcelona? We'd love to know :-) i
photos | Barcelona.cat, WordRidden, Chakchouka