I’ve lived in Barcelona since 2007. I’d say I know this city fairly well, and I shop at local markets on a regular basis. A few months ago, the team at Context Travel invited me to join them for a “Farm to fork” tour of La Boqueria market & surrounding areas. I’m never one to say no to a food tour, so I joined, but would I learn anything new, or discover new food spots?
Discovering the world on our door step
So often we travel around the world for hours or days to experience far away places in search for something new. I’m guilty of that myself as I’m typing this from a hotel room in Vietnam. And there’s nothing wrong with going far, there are so many places to discover in the world, but let’s not forget what’s right outside our door step.
Travel doesn’t have to mean going far. Sometimes it can also just mean exploring your surroundings, and looking at your home town in a different way. For that, I found Context Travel’s Boqueria market tour to be a great option.
Context Travel promotes the idea of “deep travel”: understanding the historical and cultural background of a place and going beyond the basics – providing a context to a place. The tour I joined was a food tour. It did include a variety of tastings, as most food tours do. But in addition to that, our guide – Context calls them docents – shared an incredible amount of historical and cultural information, anecdotes and stories around the food we sampled and the people that provided it.
Esther, our guide, was a local food expert and truly passionate about Catalan produce and cuisine. As an independent traveler, I’m happy to organise my own transportation, and walk around sights and cities on my own, which is why I don’t often book tours. But it’s that deep knowledge about a place that you can only get from a local which does make tours worthwhile, whether it’s at a holiday destination or in a city you’ve lived in for years.
Barcelona’s La Boqueria market & beyond
Here are some things Esther taught me about Barcelona, La Boqueria market and the areas around it:
The story behind the mysterious signs on the ground
Ever stepped on one of these signs in Barcelona and wondered what they are all about? These plaques are presented to businesses that have been operating for over 100 years. The icons represent the different trade guilds of the city. You’ll often find beautiful old buildings if you follow these signs. Plus, managing to stay in business for 100 years is a pretty good sign of quality, so step in and check out these historic places!
With tourism booming and rent prices in the city center going up, there’s a lot of pressure on many of these shops, and some of them have been forced to close or move to locations further from the center in recent years, often times just making way for tacky tourist souvenir shops. Support these places!
The first place to serve Cacaolat
One of these historic shops is Granja Viader, a dairy shop and café just around the corner from La Boquería. Granja Viader is famous for inventing Cacaolat, a local favourite particularly with kids. Essentially, it’s chocolate milk, but it does have a unique taste. Catalan kids love it for breakfast or merienda, an afternoon after-school snack usually consisting of a pastry and a glass of Cacaolat. You can get Cacaolat pretty much anywhere in Barcelona, but going back to its roots is kind of cool, and Granja Viader makes some of the best Ensaimadas I’ve ever tasted.
One Way Only
Have you ever discovered one of these horse carriage signs in the old town of Barcelona? They’re street signs regulating one way streets: as the streets are so narrow, especially in the old quarter around La Boqueria, horse carriages could only go down one way. Have you ever tried backing up a horse carriage? Not easy and better to avoid.
The signs indicate the entry (“Entrada”) and exit (“Salida”) point of each street, making sure there’s no head-on horse collision.
There’s no way you can visit Barcelona and miss how much people here love their football team. They’re obsessed. Life evolves around Barça games and as an event organiser, I have to plan everything around their matches. Literally nobody will show up to an event if there’s a Barça match going on at the same time. Forget it. Stay at home, or go to a bar and watch the match.
But did you know they even decorate market stands in team colours? Great marketing, if you ask me. This stand in the Barça colours “blaugrana”, red and blue, was hugely popular with local shoppers at La Boqueria, so it must be working.
The Bacalao obsession
That white fish that’s being sold everywhere, possibly worrying you as it’s not really being cooled… it’s Bacalao, salted cod fish. The Catalans love it. It has a long tradition, the salting and drying of the fish was done way back before everyone had refrigerators. Most of this fish comes from Iceland and the nordic countries, which I found curious considering there’s so much fish in the Mediterranean.
By the way, if you’re buying salted cod here, make sure you soak it in water for a while first, it’s so salty it’s not edible otherwise! If you’re looking for an instant Bacalao snack, head to one of the “buñuels de bacalao” vendors, who will sell you fresh deep-fried crispy cod-meatballs on a stick. Highly recommended!
More impressions from the Market
The market vendors are out to impress at La Boqueria. Selling colourful fruit and vegetable is easy, selling brown eggs – not so much. This stand stood out with its decor.
Fruit and vegetables are hugely popular with the locals, who prefer to buy produce at a local market rather than at a supermarket.
Catalans love mushrooms. This stand specializes in dried mushrooms – every kind imaginable. Arros amb bolets, mushroom rice similar to an Italian risotto, is a Catalan staple.
For those with a sweet tooth, like me, there’s also a range of different stands selling cookies and chocolates. Barcelona has a rich chocolate history (Context Travel even does a dedicated Chocolate Tour!), so I highly recommend you try some chocolate here. I told you to. Now you have an excuse to do it!
As a German, I love the fact that Catalunya also loves its meats and cheeses. The Spanish jamón is famous worldwide, but there’s a lot more. One of the Catalan specialties is Botifarra, a pork sausage that is typically offered grilled (often with white beans or chickpeas) or as cold cuts for sandwiches.
Another thing Catalans love? Snails. It took me a few years to get my head around that and try them, but last year I finally did. I was dreading it, but was actually positively surprised by them. I had grilled snails which were covered in a garlic sauce that made them taste pretty good. Still, I’m a stickler when it comes to food consistency and slimy-chewy isn’t top of my list so I probably won’t be making them at home. But if you’re out to try something unusual, this isn’t a bad dish to go for.
Seafood galore! Barcelona does have a port after all, so in addition to the beloved Bacalao, there is also a ton of fresh seafood. My personal recommendation – passed on from Esther, our Context docent, would be the Balfego tuna, bluefin tuna from a sustainable fishing project on the Costa Brava (north of Barcelona). Or try the Gambas de Palamos, huge king prawns from the town of Palamos on the Costa Brava.
About Context Travel tours
Context Travel is a “network of scholars and specialists” focusing on in-depth walking tours with the goal of building cultural bridges to foster tolerance and understanding. They are currently offering tours in 37 cities and destinations across Europe, Asia and the Americas.
I chose the “Farm to Fork” food tour because I love food and everything that surrounds it. The in-depth lecture on Barcelona’s rich culinary history and culture was perfect for me. If your passion lies elsewhere, they also offer tours with a focus on history, architecture or art and even some running tours for those with more sporty talent than me.
You may find the tours a bit pricier than your average city tour, but Context has two things going for it that make the tours worth the price: one, the guides are extremely knowledgeable locals who speak fluent English and often have formal education on the topics of their tour, and two, the groups are really small at max 6 people. In a place like the Boquería, that group size is a huge advantage, and it probably is an advantage in most crowded cities. You are able to get a more local experience. Many traditional small cafés and bars in Barcelona for example are quite small and wouldn’t be able to fit big tour groups. And lastly, a small group means you’re able to ask a lot of questions! I asked our guide for recommendations on where to buy the best fish at La Boqueria and she personally took me to the stand she recommended – and I had a great fish dinner that night!
You can check out Context Travel tours here.
And I’ll leave you with this wise message from Granja Viader…
What do you think about the idea of “deep travel”? How do you learn about the places you travel in depth?
Note: I was invited to the Farm to Fork tour by Context Travel. The links to their tours are referral links and I receive a small commission if you book a tour through those links. My opinions are my own though, as always, and I will only recommend things to you that I truly enjoy!