Listen to this article
It’s not yet breakfast time and I’m standing in one of the best food markets in the world — a combination of conditions a psychotherapist might call my “happy place”. Lucky food travellers tell of the Tsukiji in Tokyo, the Ferry Building in San Francisco or the Rialto markets in Venice but La Boqueria in Rambla Sant Josep, Barcelona, knocks spots off them all. Under a threadwork of cast iron and glass, dozens of stands sell superlative Mediterranean fish, the sort of veg that would make a food stylist dribble, some of the most expensive charcuterie in the world and slabs of meat apparently butchered by surgeons. Whenever I make a pilgrimage here, I have to stand for a few minutes and just let the crashing wave of culinary opulence beat me flat.
“The first 20 per cent of stalls, the ones to the front, they’re like Disneyland,” says Oscar Ubide, the urbane managing director of the Boqueria traders’ association. “Let’s walk around.”
Annual turnover of Barcelona’s markets
We weave between the stalls, Ubide acknowledging the greetings of the stallholders — even the legendarily grumpy ones on the fish section — and straight out through the back door. Tourists used to be warned against venturing behind the market. Stay inside and buy the jamón. Out the back you could buy only drugs or sex, and only in the brief seconds before your pocket was picked. Now, as the last cranes and tarpaulins are being packed up, there is a clean plaza, with trees, seats and the foundations of a new art college.
Ubide leads me to a stainless-steel lift door and we descend through two floors of clinically clean storage facilities into a bunker that would make a Bond villain consider relocating. Long curving ramps bring full-size trucks into a “logistics facility” hewn into the city’s bedrock. Behind 20m-high metal doors, three machines the size of battle tanks compress recyclable waste. The investment has been vast but behind and beneath the Boqueria, someone just quietly inserted the mechanism of a 21st-century superstore.
As Barcelona developed through the 19th and 20th centuries, planners built neighbourhood markets and, throughout its politically turbulent history, the city never relinquished ownership. In the years leading up to Franco’s death, the markets fell into decline but 20 years ago, with a display of organised, collective vigour that may be uniquely Catalan, Barcelona committed to its markets and began to invest.
At City Hall, I meet 36-year-old Raimond Blasi, Barcelona’s youngest councillor, who is responsible for the city’s 40 markets. His evangelical energy is compelling. It’s a huge role but you only begin to realise quite how big as he starts to roll out figures: “The markets turn over about €1bn each year. There are 62 million visitors. There are 7,500 people working in the markets so we are the largest enterprise in the city, divided into 2,700 shops.”
Annual rent paid by traders per square metre of stall
Today the Mercat del Ninot reopens. Built in 1933, it is imposing in a vaguely fascist way; tall, pillared and vaulted with high arched windows at either end, giving a kind of ecclesiastical light. Núria Costa, head of communications at l’Institut de Mercats de Barcelona, walks me through a surging mass of excited shoppers. As we enter we can see the market on a mezzanine level, great chrome stalls with vague echoes of showmen’s caravans but draped in hams, chicken, rabbits — and, in one place, a biblical-looking eel casts a clear eye over fascinated children. The displays of fruit and veg run for metres, stacked higher than your head. There’s a marble-lined counter where at least 20 varieties of salt cod are soaking. All this is reached via a glass drawbridge over a lower level where a full-size, regular supermarket lurks.
“The city council makes the investment in the market but the supermarket usually contributes about €3m to be here for 25 years — and this is apart from the rent which they are going to pay every month,” says Costa. This is a “big contribution for the renewal of the market but the traders also play a small part, depending on the square metres they have”.
Jordi Torrades, director of the institute, joins us. “It’s €1,500 per year per square metre of stall. Beyond this they pay for the construction of their stall — a private cost. So we take this contribution to the whole from the stallholder, plus the money from the supermarkets and restaurants, and the rest is from City Hall.” As a matter of policy, he explains, they favour family businesses. Many stalls are owned by the third or fourth generation, and traders are discouraged from forming “chains” by trading in more than one market location. “One butcher’s stall, a young woman, [represents] the second generation of her family business. The investment for her stall was €300,000. And she will, of course, continue to pay rent,” says Torrades.
Amount spent renovating markets in past four years
The most important thing about management of the markets, Costa adds, is this collaboration between public and private. “The market is a municipal body which establishes the bylaws to manage the market. The traders have to pay for security, cleaning, etc. This is the main idea. But what we have been doing for the past 20 years is changing the markets, renewing them.
“When the market is in a bad situation, we first make a commercial analysis of the neighbourhood and the market. We decide the commercial mix that’s going to be profitable for everybody, then we design the market — the supermarket, the parking areas, the logistics underground.” The idea, Costa says, is that “we revitalise the neighbourhood through the market. It’s a wider vision. We are not working only for the markets, we are working for the city.”
I’m baffled by the supermarket though. In the UK it seems impossible to imagine that a traditional market could coexist in the same neighbourhood, let alone the same building. I ask how it can work. Costa and Torrades seem puzzled by the question. We walk down to the supermarket and stand in a small greengrocery section while I try to make myself understood.
“There are tomatoes here, much cheaper than upstairs. How can the market survive this?” I ask, pointing at a crate of perfectly formed and identically shiny generic tomatoes.
Visitors to Barcelona markets every year
“Of course, for many people, particularly in recent years, price is very important,” Torrades patiently explains. “But in the markets you have the opportunity to buy both cheap and expensive products . . . because of the variety on offer. In the supermarket you have two or three kinds of tomatoes. Upstairs there are 12, 15, 20 varieties. It’s about quality.”
As I stand and watch, crowds of shoppers mill straight past the supermarket entrance. The glittering displays and the narcotic clouds of saffron and paprika draw them over the slim glass bridge like some kind of irresistible glutton-gravity. I am struck speechless by this. The idea of British shoppers, irrespective of social class, passing up cheap food and actively seeking quality over cost is unthinkable. When Costa explains how sheltered accommodation has been built at Santa Caterina market so that elderly people can be encouraged to shop daily for healthy food, I finally crack. Is there nothing in this utopia that causes friction between traders, customers and the city?
Torrades smiles. There is a constant battle to stop the market traders closing at lunchtime and going home to bed — which would leave the supermarkets as the only supplier. This is not tolerated. “It is anti-commercial,” he says with feeling, “and remember, above everything else this has to be profitable.”
Barcelona City Hall has spent €133m renovating local markets in the past four years. Over recent decades, 34 out of its network of 40 markets have been overhauled at a cost that would make a British city council choke on their spreadsheets. Various political factions have been in and out of power but has nobody ever argued that the city shouldn’t run the markets? Blasi, back at City Hall, looks at me with something that in a less polished diplomat might have been pity.
“I understand the question but I cannot imagine the answer. It’s a public service. It is a collaboration of the city with the private sector and the shoppers. I think it’s a good combination.”
Amount spent renovating markets in past four years
But is there no political party that wants to sell the markets to the highest bidder and let market forces take their course? “No. I don’t think so,” says Blasi. “Things could change. But I think ours is a strong model and we must continue to promote it. We must keep up the same level of investment. During this administration we have invested €130m but the stallholders have invested around €150m.”
Barcelona’s markets have changed from an interesting historical anomaly to the envy of cities all over the world. The model of public/private funding, of a market director who’s a city employee, partnered by a strong traders’ association, alongside the physical structure of stalls and market halls, is regarded as best practice for social regeneration. The city does well out of the markets, financially and in global reputation. Barcelona University offers degrees in municipal market management and administration. City planners visit from around the world.
I’ve been to the Boqueria (a lucrative tourist destination) and Mercat del Ninot, the latest showpiece. Is there anything else, asks Costa, I’d like to see? Well, yes. How does this work in a tougher area? I can’t imagine five bijou jamón specialists, a small supermarket and a fish restaurant surviving long out in the barrios. Can I see one somewhere a little more challenging?
Investment from stallholders over the past four years
Next morning I pull up outside Provençals, fortified by tall blocks of social housing. The market building itself is an ugly reinforced concrete structure channelling a Cumbernauld bowling alley reimagined by Albert Speer. Take away the blue sky and I could be in Deptford.
Here, the supermarket is less flash — a Co-op to Ninot’s Waitrose — but it still doesn’t seem to be cannibalising the main market, which is heaving with locals of all cultures and ages. I am met by market director Marta Mitjanes. She tells me about a recent “tapas night” when the market stayed open late, with traders selling snacks and drinks while the kids promenaded and flirted and old ladies bickered and set the world to rights. Even here there are three charcuteries, a dried cod specialist and a horse butcher who, it turns out, also supplies many of the internationally known chefs of the region.
As I get ready to leave, Mitjanes shakes my hand: “I hope I’ll see you again. Maybe in Camden or Portobello?”, an idea that provokes a rueful chuckle. As we walk to the car our way is blocked by a video crew shooting a politician, campaigning for local elections, answering questions from the public.
“They always do this, she smiles. There is no better place to reach the people than in front of their market.”
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer. He was a guest of Barcelona City Hall
Just outside of Barcelona, close to the airport and the harbour, lies Mercabarna, the wholesale market that services the city and much of the surrounding area. This is the engine that powers the Barcelona market network. Josep Tejedo, general director of Mercabarna, explains operations in the foyer of his office tower. It feels like meeting the Mayor and, judging by the enormous scale model he shows us, that’s exactly what he is.
Mercabarna is by any standards vast. To get some idea of the size, consider how London has separate markets for fish, meat, fruit and vegetables and flowers and that all of these have, at various times, been moved out to new locations on the outskirts of the city to expand.
Mercabarna has all of these facilities, each individually larger than the London equivalent, but in one location. Alongside the markets it also has huge acreages of cold or freezer storage, banana and pineapple ripening sheds and one of the largest abattoirs in Europe. The facility is secure, fenced and patrolled, and within its perimeter encloses a road network, shops and restaurants to service the workers, a kindergarten and branches of all the main banks in Spain as well as the market’s own independent bank. At the centre of the site sit the administration blocks, gorgeous examples of the sort of enlightened concrete modernism at which Cataluna excels, draped in plants and arranged around a central reflecting pool. It took funds and a seriously utopian vision to even imagine this. The thought of finding it at Smithfield, New Covent Garden or Billingsgate would be amusing — if it weren’t so sad.
Perhaps the most impressive is the fish market which, according to operations director Josep Garcia, handles 80,000 tonnes of fish per year — 60 per cent of which is caught locally. Arrive in the early hours to see it at its busiest; the market, though, is so huge that on entering at one end it is impossible to see the other as it recedes into the distance. Garcia reels off statistics about the speed with which the stock moves through, the annual tonnage of ice used and the flow of salmon, langoustine and hake bought from British fishermen who get a far higher price here from Spanish buyers.
“It is simple, he says. We are in love with fish”.
Els Encants Vells
As well as the food markets, Barcelona’s City Hall also controls Els Encants, the ancient flea market originally sited on a dusty piece of land outside its borders. By tradition, traders would take a marked square on the ground and fill it with the junk they had accumulated — by fair means or foul — and an auctioneer would sell the whole lot to the highest bidder (“Encants” refers to the voice of the auctioneer “incanting”) who would then take over the pitch and sell off what he had bought, piecemeal. As the city grew, it embraced the market but did little to update it.
In 2013 the Institute moved the traders off the site, dug out the huge secure underground logistics area then threw up a huge, shining mirrored canopy over the market.
Trading still takes place on the open ground floor, with genuine bargains to be had from house clearances or possibly more dubious transactions. Around the central space though, a gently spiralling walkway rises, lined with stalls selling everything from lightbulbs and giant pants familiar to marketgoers all over the world, to some of the most sophisticated antique shops in Barcelona. As well as losing none of its original function, the market is now a successful tourist attraction and the core of a regeneration project that will transform the site to a new “city centre”, taking pressure off the Old City.
Photographs: Ciro Frank Schiappa
Get alerts on Food & Drink when a new story is published