A person passing through Barcelona on April 23rd each year would be hard-pressed to believe this is not a flower-mad city. And Sant Jordi is certainly a day when almost everyone dishes out for some of them. Otherwise, however, apart from special occasions, Barcelona is not a place with a long tradition of buying blooms. In comparison to floral capitals like Paris or Amsterdam, the city can fairly be said to come up short on a daily basis.
This lack of floral flair around the city is exactly what Jaume Esteve and the rest of the flower wholesalers at the new Mercabarna-flor flower market hope to see turn around. “The flower industry is not like the automobile or fashion industry in Spain, which have topped out, because there is still a lot of room for growth in the flower market,” said Esteve, director of Mercabarna-flor.
Until as recently as 25 years ago, buying flowers was for the upper class, and anyone with less disposable income than a member of Barcelona’s bourgeoisie was not likely to buy them. Furthermore, in the past many men were embarrassed to walk down the street with buds in hand. In fact, a man would often have a florist wrap a bouquet in newsprint to conceal his romantic gift. But times are changing and, according to Esteve, so is Barcelona’s ‘flower culture’, which is good news for Mercabarna-flor.
Even banking on a changing attitude, it seems that Mercabarna-flor was something of a gamble at a cost of €24 million. The new building is extremely stylised, consisting of an off-centre structure decorated in a rainbow of colourful stripes. The 15,000-square-metre, two-storey market alongside the highway to the airport and Castelldefels, opened in October 2008, although it is still unfinished. Currently open for business are the fresh-cut flower, decorative items and plant sections, which comprise 49 private booths. Upstairs there are classrooms for aspiring florists and the skeleton of what will one day be a restaurant. Also on this floor is an enormous conference centre, which Mercabarna-flor will have available for corporate meetings (its location near the airport is an advantageous selling point).
Prior to the new Mercabarna-flor building, Barcelona’s flower wholesalers have been forced to move about every 20 years. At first, fresh flowers were sold right on Las Ramblas, then these wholesalers and florists took over a corner of La Boqueria market. When they outgrew La Boqueria in 1962, they moved to what is now the dance theatre, Mercat de les Flors. In 1984 they were made to move again, this time to the Zona Franca, only to have that entire market go up in flames in 2001. It was then that they decided to build a brand-new market with cutting-edge features and a high-tech ceiling sprinkler system. Jaume Esteve, who has worked in the flower business since 1981, has seen the market go through many changes, he said, getting progressively better.
Part of the reason he is so optimistic about Mercabarna-flor’s future has to do with his own amazing story of transformation. In the Seventies, Esteve worked slaughtering cows in a slaughterhouse, and when it shut down he took a job as an assistant in the flower market. The florists took a shine to him, and year after year he was asked to fill the position of director. He always said no when they asked. “Who was I? I had been a slaughterhouse worker. Not a director of anything.”
Finally (and to his wife’s relief, he said) he accepted the position, becoming the director of what has grown into a €24-million market, which promotes beauty, romance and appreciation. The moral of the story: anything is possible. The same charm that landed Esteve the director’s seat 28 years ago keeps him on good terms with the flower growers today at Mercabarna-flor.
He, and the vendors, have had to increasingly adapt to a globalised market. Some of the blooms sold here are grown in the Maresme, and at other spots along the Mediterranean coast. However, Spanish flower producers cannot compete with growers in Holland, Colombia and Ecuador. Many of the fresh-cut flowers at Mercabarna come from outside of Spain, which is another reason for the market’s airport location, and Esteve keeps up with all of it.
There are around 450 retail florists with shops in Barcelona and 2,200 in Catalunya, according to Esteve, and they are keeping a weather eye on the financial crisis’s gathering clouds. The question now that the new market is up and running is how those shops will be affected by the troubled economy? Like theatre tickets and expensive meals out, flowers are categorised as entertainment. “It’s not been as bad as we thought it would be,” he said. “Christmas and holiday sales were normal.”
For a report on how florists are faring in these uncertain times, the ‘flower section’ of Las Ramblas, in front of La Boqueria, is a good place to enquire. The Ramblas’s florists all know one another. It’s a community, and at its centre is Carolina’s flower stand. Carolina’s goes back four generations to 1888. These days, Carolina’s famous flowers are looked after by sisters Mercedes and Carolina Pallés. The business has always been in their family, passed from great-grandmother to grandmother to mother to daughter. In the back of their little stand there is a bulletin board with newspaper clippings and photos of all the women who have come before them. There’s a picture of their grandmother Carolina Ruiz with a quote reading, ‘Contemplating violets is like seeing God.’ They know their flowers and it shows. The stand is one of the more stylish on the Ramblas, and their arrangements are some of the most attractive.
The most pressing problem here, it turns out, is that neither of the two sisters have had girls to eventually take the reins. “Mercedes has two boys, so maybe one of them will run it someday,” said Carolina Pallés, as she selected a few stems of magenta gladioli from a bucket, seemingly unruffled by the crisis. “We have loyal customers who have bought their flowers with us for generations.”
While its good reputation is probably enough to carry the stand through any rough financial waters, other vendors along the Ramblas may not do as well. Up at stand 15, Flors Maria is for sale, and has been for some time. At another booth, Flors Carme, florist Carmen Romero complained that unlicensed sellers are taking away business from legitimate florists on big sale days like Sant Jordi.
Time will reveal the fate of Barcelona’s florists and the sleek new Mercabarna-flor. Hopefully, Jaume Esteve will be proven right and the flower industry will continue to blossom in Barcelona.