Heresies in a Culinary Cathedral

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Geoff Pingree

Pasta stand at Barcelona's Boqueria.

As guests gathered jovially on a summer Saturday afternoon to celebrate the opening of the newest stall in Barcelona's famous Boqueria market, an elderly man pressed awkwardly to the front of the crowd. He quickly congratulated the new establishment's owners, then, with a wistful smile, turned and left. Jaime Ross had previously owned the stall, which he had run for 60 years. It had been held by his family for four generations before him. But it was more than the name of the proprietor that changed when a family bereavement forced Ross to sell: What had once been yet another of the market's hundreds of bountiful fruit and vegetable stands was now devoted exclusively to selling squid-ink spaghetti, eggplant ravioli and other fresh pastas, served hot during lunch hours and in containers for home-cooking. Watching four young entrepreneurs in chef's jackets serving their guests paper plates piled with steaming pasta, Ross and other veterans of the Boqueria were reminded of the profound change underway in their venerable institution.

For eight centuries, the Boqueria has been a daily produce market, where today, still, neighborhood housewives poke at thick slabs of hake to test their freshness, and families come to choose fruit, vegetables and meats for their Sunday dinner. But in recent years, as hordes of tourists have swarmed under its iron roof each day, the Boqueria has become dotted with stands selling packaged goods (pre-cut watermelons wrapped with forks) or cooked food (pizza by the slice). To some purists, however, the replacement of a longstanding vegetable stall with Pazzta, the tile-and-chrome fresh pasta store, is a reminder of how much the character of the Boqueria is changing. For others, it's simply a case of the market adapting to the tastes of its clientele.

The Boqueria remains primarily a produce market whose vivid colors (more than a dozen types of tomatoes), pungent scents (over a hundred classes of vinegar), and boundless array of tastes (nearly two hundred different kinds of salt) combine to create a palace of epicurean delight. "I never thought we'd get a stand here," admits Oriol Ibars, one of four partners in the Pazzta venture. Speaking reverently of the culinary cathedral he had visited each Saturday with his father from age two, he adds, "It was a far-fetched dream." By sheer luck they happened onto Don Jaime's fruit and vegetable stand when he had to put it up for sale, but they had to wait a full year to gain approval from the market's archaic administration — largely controlled by the local families who have sold produce here for more than a century — to change a produce stall into a pasta store. "The merchants all have to agree to let a vendor sell something new," explains Ibars. "Out of the four hundred stall owners, one guy voted against us." He declines to explain how he and his partners convinced the holdout to change his vote.

The Boqueria, whose origins lie in an open-air market that began during the 13th century and which took its current position along the city's iconic Ramblas boulevard in 1840, embodies the city's sense of continuity. "I see people buying fish from my son who are the great-grandchildren of people who bought fish from my grandmother," says Manel Ripoll, president of the market's merchant association and a retired fishmonger. Though his children are the fifth generation to run the family stall, his grandmother might not recognize the Boqueria today. Fishmongers still dominate, but immigrants now run several of the produce stalls. Greeks and Koreans sell, respectively, kimchi and stuffed grape leaves along the market's edges. And a short walk from the wild mushroom stand, hipsters dish out vegetarian lasagna.

Many long-time lovers of the Boqueria view such change as a betrayal of a sacred tradition. Sniffs Guy Bonrepos, who has owned a French cheese shop at the market for 20 years, "A lot of the old produce stalls have been bought and changed for the tourists. They take rotting fruit, cut off the bad parts, and wrap the rest in plastic. Can you imagine? Plastic!"

But the proprietors of Pazzta see their artisanal pasta as a continuation of what is unique about the Boqueria — the special relationship it offers customers with what they eat. "People want to know who provides their food," says Ibars. "They want more of a connection with what they eat than they get at a supermarket."

Pazzta's fate, in fact, will likely reveal less about its owners' culinary skills or business savvy than about the kind of rapport 21st century Barcelonans seek with their food. Ripoll is optimistic. "The Boqueria is about more than food," he says. "It's about health, about quality of life, today as well as in the past."