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Why you need to visit La Boqueria in Barcelona

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Why you need to visit La Boqueria in Barcelona
La Boqueria is a riot of colours, smells and flavours in the heart of Catalonia’s capital city of Barcelona: here is why you need to visit and eat there
What makes a great food market? Is it the glorious displays of just-picked fruit and vegetables, the savoury aromas of home-cooked local dishes to eat on the spot, the chance to taste artisan cheeses and other delicacies, the sight of fresh fish and crustaceans glistening on shaved ice, the cries of the market vendors hawking their wares?
Beneath its high, hangar-like roof, Boqueria has all these in abundance. The vast, open-air structure is crammed with 250 stalls and nearly a dozen bars and restaurants, offering a taste of everything from local fruits and vegetables to speciality meats and cheeses and home-cooked Catalan dishes.

What is La Boqueria?

La Boqueria böhringer friedrich WMC
La Boqueria (officially named Mercat de Sant Josep) is one of the oldest food markets in Europe. Its roots go back to the mid-18th century, when travelling markets and vendors scattered along the street called La Rambla had become a public nuisance. The city’s efforts to relocate and centralise the sellers, a process that began in 1837, was intended to clean up the area; few could have predicted that it would eventually result in a veritable food lovers’ Mecca.
Construction of the building that houses the legendary market began in 1840; a few years later, a portico of large stone columns was erected and still frames the market today. The following decades brought iconic additions, like the dramatic Modernist arch at the main entrance, rendered even more dazzling by the Gaudí-esque stained-glass mosaic.
"La Boqueria is one of the oldest markets in Europe; its roots go back to the mid-18th century"
Early each morning the market’s vendors, many of whom are third- and fourth-generation sellers, begin arranging their offerings: piles of Valencian oranges, luscious strawberries, purple-tipped artichokes and strands of dried chillies at produce stands; pristine whole fish and molluscs, fat Palamós shrimp and langoustines in the fishmonger’s section at the market’s centre; the country’s famed Ibérico hams, chorizo and other cured meats at charcuterie stands; and a vast range of fresh meat and poultry, mushrooms, dried fruits, spices, sweets, and everything in between (sheep’s and cows’ heads, offal, even dried insects).

Ibérico ham

The ham market stall at La Boqueria; ham joints are hung up, and ham is displayed on the counter
The charcuterie stalls of Boqueria Market are hung with hams. The best are designated Jamón Ibérico, which are produced according to strict rules. The rich, red flesh is marbled with translucent fat—the ham comes from pigs grown plump on acorns foraged beneath holm and cork oak trees.
"Ham from pigs which are fed only on acorns is the most expensive"
Ham from pigs fed only on acorns is the most expensive: for the very best look, for the label jamón ibérico de bellota. Hams from pigs fed on grain are jamón ibérico de cebo; jamón ibérico de recibo indicates a mixed diet of grain and acorns. Served in wafer-thin slices, the ham is sliced just before serving so that it remains moist.

Tapas on the trot

A full fruit and vegetable stall at La Boqueria
A thorough exploration of the market’s crowded aisles can take hours, but a bite to eat at one of the cramped, no-frills restaurant counters shows that there’s nothing wrong with fast food when it’s this fresh. Two outstanding counters are Bar Pinotxo, near the market’s entrance, and El Quim de la Boqueria, towards the rear. At these popular spots, nab a prized bar stool at the jam-packed counter to watch the cook griddle razor clams, sauté squid in garlic and olive oil, or serve up savoury stews.
"Veteran proprietors scour La Boqueria's market stalls every morning for the very best ingredients"
Veteran proprietors scour the market stalls each morning for the best ingredients, featuring them in soulful dishes like slow-cooked chickpeas with pork-blood sausage (at Pinotxo) or a sauté of baby squid and eggs sprinkled with sea salt (at El Quim). Regardless of the hour, it is customary to wash down the food with a glass of crisp cava and cap it off with a cortado (Spanish espresso). But visitors should resist the urge to touch food displays or face a sharp rebuke from vendors!

Quality is king

Many people stream through La Boqueria looking at the market stalls
Though La Boqueria is one of Barcelona’s main tourist attractions, the majority of its patrons are Barcelonans—mothers shopping for dinner, students meeting between classes, chefs seeking inspiration, elderly couples sharing lunch. The variety of patrons, and the market’s sweeping scope of edibles, reflects the city’s passion for good food.
"Though La Boqueria is one of Barcelona's main tourist attractions, most patrons are Barcelonans"
Maybe that’s why this market remains superior to all others. Everyone, from the mushroom vendor who has written a book on the subject, to the talented yet humble chefs turning out tasty dishes in tiny kitchens, to the home cook who makes a beeline for the same seafood vendor every time, is serious about eating well, and that means an almost obsessive focus on excellent ingredients. Plus, where else could you find wild hare, olives and goose barnacles under the same roof?

How can I get to La Boqueria?

Hundreds of people walk down a Barcelonan street, lined with lampposts, trees and market stalls
Mercat de Sant Josep (La Boqueria) is off La Rambla, Barcelona’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, a five-minute walk from the Plaça de Catalunya. The closest Metro station to La Boqueria is Liceu. The market is open every day, except Sunday, from 8am and begins to wind down at about 3pm.

Best of the rest: Some other incredible food markets

Many people throng through the entrance to London's Borough Market
  • One of Vietnam’s largest floating markets, Cai Rang consists of hundreds of boats that meet early in the morning in the Mekong Delta to trade bananas, papayas, pineapples and leafy greens, as well as noodles, rice, coffee, beer and wine
  • At Mexico City’s sprawling Mercado de la Merced more than 5,000 stalls are packed into several gigantic buildings. Patrons take their pick from limes, nopales (cactus paddles), guavas and more in the vegetable produce market; the butchers’ section offers local specialities like chicarrón prensado (pressed, spiced blocks of pork skin); and there is no shortage of stews and quesadillas (tortillas filled with a savoury mixture) 
  • London’s bustling 257-year-old Borough Market is bursting with stalls, shops and restaurants. Shoppers munch chorizo and arugula (rocket) sandwiches from Brindisa, potted shrimp in butter from Furness Fish & Game, or artisan cheese from Neal’s Yard 
  • Named for the red jackets once worn by children at a nearby orphanage, Marché des Enfants Rouges, a covered market in Paris’s Marais district, offers all the makings of an excellent meal: fresh produce, crusty bread, charcuterie and wine. Prepared dishes, such as North African-style couscous or rotisserie Bresse chicken, are also sold 
  • In a tangle of narrow streets in Palermo, Sicily, Vucciria market is the place to go for just-caught fish, seasonal produce and delicious, salty, fried snacks: calamari, artichokes, and chickpea-flour patties
Banner photo: Why you need to visit La Boqueria, the world-famous market in Barcelona (credit: Kukiaries (Wikimedia Commons))
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