Santa Caterina Market, Barcelona, Spain

Food & drink, Food politics
Santa Caterina Market, Barcelona, Spain

Markets have been the social and cultural hubs of towns and cities for centuries,  millennia, even.  They’re meeting places, trading places, places to eat and drink, places that play a central part in the community they serve.

The traveler can gauge the temperature and mood of a town by heading straight for its market.  Ambling between the stalls and looking at what’s on offer is a great way for anybody who’s vaguely interested in food to get the measure of a town or city, and it’s something I’ve done repeatedly over the years.

You can see what the locals do, what they grow and farm.  You can see what swims in their seas and what grazes on their fields.

But most of all, you can see how they eat.

Santa Caterina Market in Barcelona, Spain

Santa Caterina is one of Barcelona’s many excellent municipal markets.  It’s a wonderful place, built a few years ago with an overtly modernista slant to it, so much so that I walked right past it initially, thinking that a building with such an impressive, waved roof couldn’t possibly be a simple market.  But, this is Barcelona, a place that takes its art and architecture very seriously…building a beautifully designed market in Gaudi’s hometown is, after all, fitting and appropriate.

Despite this, Barcelona isn’t happy, or at least Jordi William Carne, President of the Municipal Institute of Markets isn’t.  He wants more:

The municipal markets constitute one of the relevant pieces of the social fabric of the city. At present, this prominence is insufficient: we need to face up to the need for a major transformation so that the markets become once again civic spaces of coexistence that combine commercial activity with ludic and cultural activities.

Signor Carne is being hard on himself.

His markets have everything he claims they lack.

Santa Caterina is fairly typical.  It has butchers, fishmongers, stalls selling little more than Iberian ham, but tonnes of it, cheesemongers, grocers, a small stall selling chickens, whole birds and wonderful ballotines, boned out birds stuffed with mincemeat, walnut and apples.  It has restaurants around the outside and tapas bars inside, people sat on high stools eating small plates of patata bravas, stuffed peppers, anchovies and drinking coffee as others shop for their groceries behind them.

It’s a community hub and a social space as well as somewhere to buy food.  I can’t speak Spanish, but I can tell from the overheard chatter at the tapas bars that this is a place where friends come to meet.

Santa Caterina Market, Barcelona

The most striking thing about Santa Caterina and the other markets in Barcelona is that they’re used by an astonishingly wide range of people.  Research in 2005 indicated that 60.3% of people surveyed do most of their food shopping in the city’s markets, which strikes me as a staggeringly high figure.  This is most likely because there is a very wide spread of markets across Barcelona, and a lot of people have easy access to them.

That said, satisfaction with the city’s markets ran at an incredible 89% positive, which is more indicative of the quality of the experience and the goods on offer.  People use the markets, and they like them.

Iberian ham in Santa Caterina Market

Carne is correct to refer to his markets as civic spaces and as part of the social fabric of the society of a town or city.  I think that this is a level of understanding that’s lacking in Britain. We tend to think of our markets as ‘cheap’ rather than artisan, and many of them are under threat, including Leeds’ Kirkgate Market.

Kirkgate has seen better days, and it stands up fairly poorly against Santa Caterina, but it serves some of the same purposes.  It has life and soul, and it’s a part of the city.  It’s where Marks met Spencer and they started to sell things together, for goodness sake. It needs preserving, and if it gets a little tender loving care, is there any reason why it can’t be as great as some of the world’s finest markets?  No, there isn’t.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the plight of Leeds Market, have a look at what The Friends of Leeds Kirkgate Market are up to, and to become even more jealous of Barcelona, check out Santa Caterina Market’s website.

I know, I know.  It’s a market, but it’s got its own website.  They’re miles in front of us…

10 comments… add one

  • Miquel Jun 19, 2010

    Very nice article. I am from Barcelona myself (although now living in the UK) and markets is one of the places I always take visitors to when I am back home. It was a good read. thanks!

  • The Mom Chef Jun 19, 2010

    What an outstanding review and "story" of this wonderful place in Spain. Thank you for sharing a piece of a place I may never get the opportunity to visit. I loved it.

  • JulesLt Jun 19, 2010

    I think one thing that would help Kirkgate market would be if they opened until 6-7pm.

    They've made relatively little adjustment to changing employment patterns – my fiance works near to the city centre – close enough that she could shop at the market . . . if lunch was actually an hour, rather than 30 minutes.

    By the time we've both finished work, the only places open are supermarkets.

    Whereas, when abroad (Germany or Spain) it's evident that working and shopping times are largely staggered – so that office workers typically have a couple of hours after work in which they can shop. It's much easier to shop on a daily basis.

    And of course are cities are structured very differently – all the quality bakeries and delis I can think of tend to be out in areas like Horsforth, Rawdon, Chapel Allerton, Bramhope, West Park – the middle class suburbs.

    It's also notable that the Polski Schlep and continental food stalls of Harehills tend to be open later – these are stores that serve communities – but it seems to me that a lot of our traditional food retailers (butcher and bakers as much as market stall holders) haven't moved with the times.

    Bluntly – the dual income households have the money, but don't shop during the day.

    • rich Jun 19, 2010

      Ah, you've read my mind…I have a 'what the hell is wrong with Britain's markets?' type post planned, and your points form some of the central arguments!

      You're quite correct about opening times and accessibility. i have absolutely no chance whatsoever to shop at a market during the week. It's simply impossible.

      That said, my local butcher has stretched his opening hours back to maybe about 6.30pm, and I regularly drop in there after work for a couple of chops or whatever. He seems busy at that time of day with people who've obviously just finished work doing the exact same thing.

      It seems that there's money to be made during that 5 to 7pm slot…

  • bunkycooks Jun 19, 2010

    I was in Barcelona for the first time last October and fell in love with it. The markets are amazing and seeing your photos makes me want to return ever more!

  • Sevgi Jun 20, 2010

    So interesting! Times have really changed. I don't really have markets like that around where I live. For most, grocery shopping is a chore rather than an experience. I don't have local butchers nearby and have very few local bakeries. The experience taking the time to smell, taste, and touch have almost disappeared. It's 'grab and go' atmosphere. Your story brought back some nice memories of going to stores like this as a kid. Thanks for sharing.

  • Magic of Spice Jun 22, 2010

    Great article…Love this write up! A great market as well…

  • Elle Jun 23, 2010

    I could drop a fortune in a market like that–it's beautiful, and everything looks so fresh. Tough to find markets like that around these parts.

    • rich Jun 23, 2010

      You know, I did exactly that. I bought this fantastic chicken ballotine (yes, the one I cooked and forgot to take photos of…) It was fantastic, but weighed in at about 15 euros. Other stuff was cheaper…ham was a steal, for example, and only the sheer practicalities of airplane travel with a big leg of cured pork prevented me from returning with one…

  • Gina Stanley Jul 8, 2010

    Bella! That's a market I could spend all day in!

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