El Mercat del Ninot opened way back in 1894, but recent renovations have breathed new life into this L’Eixample market. From time to time, the local government has updated noucentistes (19th-century) municipal markets in Barcelona, keeping the essence of the buildings but bringing them up to speed with current needs and trends. The Mercat de la Llibertat in Gràcia and Mercat de Santa Caterina in Born have received their facelifts, and the amazing Mercat de Sant Antoni is expected to open in 2016 after more than six years of construction.
As for the Mercat del Ninot (“Doll Market”), the building was closed for five years, and the market moved to a temporary tent on an adjacent street. Architect Jose Luís Mateo made numerous improvements, such as bigger stalls, green climate control, Wi-Fi and space for cooking workshops, but kept important details, such as the original wooden doll for which the market became known. The doll was a ship’s figurehead rescued by a tavern owner’s daughter from a fire that took place after a ship was dismantled. It became part of the decoration and identity of the tavern, which was located right by the market. The figurehead was kept in the Maritime Museum in recent years but has been returned to its place on the building’s façade.
One of most exciting modernizations to the Mercat del Ninot is the opening of tasting bars and restaurants among the market stalls. Traditionally in Spain there were always two or three cafeterías inside the markets, separate from the vendors and offering simple tapas, coffee and drinks for buyers and sellers. While the cafeterias still exist, these days, eating within the market itself is an important – and highly enjoyable – part of the experience.
Among the stalls offering prepared food are cured meat and cheese vendors, preserved foods and salt cod sellers and fishmongers. Fish shops like La Medusa 73 or La Barra offer fresh oysters, clams, mussels, barnacles and prawns for eating on-site accompanied by a chilled glass of wine or cava, as well as daily specials like homey seafood rice and ortiguillas (battered and fried anemones). There’s confited tuna at Peixateria Ribera, and many of the fishmongers will even cook to order whatever fish you purchase – which you can then eat there with some wine or beer, of course.
Perello, a classic (open since 1898) cod and conserves stall, serves the excellent Casa Mariol vermut alongside traditional dishes like esqueixada, a kind of Catalan ceviche made from salt cod and dressed with tomato, fresh pepper, onions, olive oil and vinegar; rocs, cod brandada battered and fried in crispy pieces and served with allioli and romescu sauce; and smoked salmon and cod chops.
At the formidable butcher shop De Cruz Morales, there are txuletones, beef chops cut Basque-style, with meat from various Spanish origins as well as Normandy and Nebraska.
Another update that has made the market more accessible is to the open hours, which now run from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (it was previously open only in the morning). That’s plenty of time to spend eating and drinking your way around the market.