In Barcelona, Making the Markets Fresh Again

Oct 20, 2014 No Comments by

Pere Sirvent strode into the food market in the Sants neighborhood of Barcelona on a recent morning and looked around with satisfaction. Under the vaulted ceiling of the 1913 building, which reopened in late spring after a four-year, 10-million-euro renovation, the fishmongers arranged ruddy wedges of tuna on crushed ice. Produce sellers bagged glistening cherries. At a large stall offering prepared foods, customers eyed the truita de patates, a crustless quiche made with potatoes.

“Half the shops here used to be empty,” said Mr. Sirvent, who oversaw the renovation as director of projects for the Barcelona Municipal Institute of Markets, a program that has remodeled 21 neighborhood food halls since 1992.

None of them, of course, will ever take the place of La Boqueria, the beloved central food market in this Catalan capital on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. But that cornucopia just off La Rambla is also a tourist magnet. And with the fruit vendors at its entrance hawking hyper-colored juices to the fanny-packed hordes and backpackers milling around and eating from plastic takeout containers, it can sometimes feel as if tourists outnumber locals.

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Not so at the 38 neighborhood markets scattered throughout the city, where the piles of produce are just as high and sellers banter with customers they have known for years. And after renovations that have repointed brickwork, repaired terra-cotta tile, and rubbed grime off stained-glass windows, many can be appreciated for their architectural as well as culinary offerings.

Most of the markets were constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reflecting the architectural styles of the day — or even pioneering them. The airy Born Market — designed by the Catalan architect Josep Fontserè, and erected in the 1870s — was Barcelona’s first cast-iron and glass building. The structure, which resembles a fanciful greenhouse the size of a cathedral, today encloses not food stalls but an archaeological site and visitors’ center — under the market, ruins were uncovered of structures predating the Spanish conquest of the city in 1714 — but it’s worth checking out if only to admire the building.

Later markets were smaller, but no less impressive, breaking out in the curves and naturalistic motifs of Modernista architecture. The Galvany Market, in upscale Sant Gervasi, is perhaps the prettiest of the elaborately decorated brick food halls of the early 20th century. Exterior tilework depicts urns erupting with ripe fruit.

By the 1980s, many markets were languishing. The buildings were in disrepair, and vendors were locked in competition with supermarkets.

“It was war,” said Raimond Blasi, president of the Barcelona Municipal Institute of Markets, established to revive the food halls, which employ about 7,500 people and represent 10 percent of the city’s commerce.

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Its renovation program not only spruces up historic structures, it also adapts them to modern life. At the Sants Market, in a middle-class neighborhood west of the city center, a space was carved out underneath the building for separate refrigerators for produce and fish — including one for smelly cod. New underground parking for garbage and delivery trucks relieves the surrounding streets of noise and congestion.

Supermarkets have been tucked into renovated markets in the hopes that they will complement, rather than compete with, the traditional sellers — allowing a customer to, say, grab milk at the supermarket and the makings of dinner at the market stalls.

While markets traditionally were open only on weekday mornings, the program requires sellers to extend their hours — a boon for working women who cannot shop the way their mothers did. At Eixample’s Concepcio Market, Saturday-morning children’s crafts workshops free up parents to shop. The Barcelona Municipal Institute of Markets has jumped on Twitter and Facebook to publicize events, such as the October festival in front of the cathedral, with vendors from markets around the city offering wines and tapas.

Some renovations have introduced arresting architecture. The Barcelona design firm EMBT unfurled a rippling canopy of colorful oversize mosaics over the Santa Caterina Market in the Old City.

Meanwhile, La Boqueria itself is in the homestretch of a renovation, and five more markets are being rehabbed, including the city’s largest, Sant Antoni, in Eixample.

While the program has been praised for saving historic structures, the refurbished interiors can feel slightly less authentic. During the renovations, smaller, older vendors sometimes bow out, supplanted by more ambitious sellers who expand their stalls. Before its renovation, the Sants Market had 90 sellers; now there are 36.

“If a vendor in a little stall selling lemons and garlic wants to continue, we’re happy with that,” Mr. Blasi said. “But sometimes they’re 65 years old and decide they want to do other things.”

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