Spain is losing its traditional food markets

Barcelona’s renowned market, La Boqueria, was recently named the best in the world by Food & Wine magazine, surpassing Paris’s Marché des Enfants Rouges and Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori. However, locals, who have long since abandoned the historic 13th-century market to the throngs of tourists, were unimpressed. Once a destination for rare items like wild boar, pheasant, goose barnacles, tamarillo, or edible insects, vendors now sell fruit salad in plastic cups, paper wraps of jamón serrano, and pre-mixed sangria. This shift makes economic sense, as it’s more profitable than selling traditional produce.

A few specialty stalls remain, selling items like Barbary duck, foie gras, fresh herbs, and wild mushrooms. Yet, for chefs and food lovers, the market is essentially a relic. Visiting means enduring the crowds on La Rambla and being photographed or filmed for social media as you shop.

In a bid to curb this tourist takeover, the city council has introduced “civic agents” to dissuade tourists from loitering and taking photos, trying to remind them that the market’s main purpose is to sell food. The decline of the Boqueria, officially named Mercat de Sant Josep, symbolizes the broader erosion of Barcelona due to mass tourism, echoing WB Yeats’ lament that “all my priceless things are but a post the passing dogs defile.”

The problem extends beyond La Boqueria to markets throughout Spain, where traditional markets are endangered. Celebrity chefs once praised these markets for their authenticity, but the younger generation shops less at markets, preferring the convenience and cost-effectiveness of supermarkets. Traditional markets remain crucial for quality seasonal produce and expert sellers, but their future is uncertain.

The stallholders themselves are aging, and their children often choose different careers. For example, one fishmonger’s daughter works as a lawyer in the Cayman Islands rather than taking over the family business. The annual auction for vacant market stalls in Barcelona saw only 12 of 104 stalls filled this year. Since 2000, over 2,000 food stalls have disappeared despite significant investments from the council to upgrade market facilities and attract visitors.

Efforts to sustain markets include tastings, tapas tours, and other activities geared toward tourists, transforming markets into food courts rather than places to buy fresh ingredients. This trend is evident in Madrid’s San Miguel market, now more a monument to Spanish cuisine than a traditional market.

Shopping at a market requires time and patience, traits increasingly scarce in modern life. The process involves visiting multiple stalls and potentially waiting in long queues, with the understanding that social interaction and personal service are part of the experience. Markets foster a sense of community and personal connection that supermarkets lack. They also maintain high standards through trusted relationships and hands-on expertise.

Even in large cities, markets offer a village-like familiarity. For example, my long-time butcher once lent me €50 when I forgot my wallet, allowing me to complete my shopping. This personal touch and trust highlight the unique value of traditional markets, which could be lost if they continue to decline.

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