If you’ve lived in New York for any stretch of time, you understand the dynamics of crowds all too well: the tourist presses in Midtown and down Broadway in Soho, the dSLR-wielding would-be photographers swarming Union Square on a Saturday morning, the crush of commuters on a weeknight 4 train. I live with eight million other people, you think, so naturally I’m ready for any crowd, anywhere.
Visiting El Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria (otherwise known as simply La Boqueria) on a Saturday is an excellent way to test that theory. I’ve spent weeks now trying to come up with some sort of analogy to what the Boqueria experience is like, but the problem is there really isn’t a pure analogue. Fairway is a full-fledged brick and mortar store, the Greenmarket feels positively airy in comparison, and Eataly is…well, we’ll get back to Eataly in a bit. In the meantime, let me try to give you an idea of what it’s like to wander around this massive market.
<<begin second-person narrative>>
The layout of the market is grid-like, save for the ovular center where the fish and shellfish can be found:
Generally speaking, the stalls are organized by food type, though some get dispersed as vendors change and spaces become available, as is suggested in the map above. The greatest congestion can be found down the main aisle and around any of the stalls that serve food, because diners are numerous and stools difficult to come by much after 10 in the morning. Juice stands line sit very close to the entryway, tempting you with €1.50 cups, and even though you know it’s a bit pricey given how small they are, it’s a welcome and reviving treat—just enough to power you through the crowds and photograph everything you see, if you’re so inclined.
That crowd will shunt you to the center of the market regardless if that’s where you want to go or not, which contains one of the most impressive displays of seafood an ordinary consumer will ever see. If you are a cook without a stove, you will internally weep like I did because you cannot take any of these fine specimens with you and make something fabulous with them, and you will vow like I did to rent an apartment the next time around in order to rectify that situation. From there you can gather your bearings a little easier and start winding through the grid, your eyes stepping in for your mouth to devour everything in sight, and if you’re very lucky you can grab a stool at one of the bars in the market and finally get a taste of that magnificent food.
If not, you’ll promise yourself that you’ll come much earlier the next time, because you must try something before leaving Barcelona. But more on that in a later post.
<<end second-person narrative>>
It’s an understatement to say how much I loved visiting this market; the sheer possibility of “what if” was pervasive, constantly leaving me in a state of unfulfilled anticipation because there wasn’t much I could do about it. The next time we come here we’ll probably have to rent an apartment for a few days, if only to have the simple pleasure of cooking with those ingredients for ourselves for a few stolen meals. If I’m feeling really ambitious, I’d try to get a few of my European-based friends to join us, essentially recreating the treks-to-Fairway/dinner-making escapades we do now whenever someone visits us in Stamford.
It would be a completely different experience, of course, because unlike the Fairways or Wegmans or even Eatalies found here in the States, La Boqueria is a market that does not aggressively court its shoppers; the product speaks for itself, and you can buy it at one stall or head over to another if you think you’ll get a better price.
As for Eataly…well, I’m now convinced that the intent of Eataly NYC was to bring something of the magnitude of La Boqueria to New York in an Italian way, but it’s more old-school-department store food hall than innovative food market. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s certainly a bustling store two years after opening—but a few strolls around Barcelona’s flagship market was a convincing argument that food markets especially should be less about a slick, varnished appearance and more about the simple goodness of the foods they sell.