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 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.
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.
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…