El Mercado – The Vibrant Village Market

Donald B. Harris | May 2020

As we take each tentative step towards normal life, I think of what I miss most about Spain right now. For me it is Spain’s vibrant local markets, a place to discover amazing produce, the freshest seafood, a cornucopia of sausages and jamones, and delicious café con leche and hot churros. But most of all, I miss the welcoming community of vendors and customers, coming together to celebrate the mundane yet vital act of procuring good food. Below is a classic article from 2014 all about Spanish mercados, hopefully we can all travel to Spain soon to enjoy them in person!

One of my most satisfying everyday experiences in Spain is to visit the many local food markets, where I marvel at the fresh produce and chat with knowledgeable vendors. The local markets come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, from a little group of stands in a small village to the huge festive markets of Barcelona and Madrid.

My first exposure to local food markets in Spain was during my first Navy Mediterranean cruise back in 1965. While walking along the amazing Ramblas esplanade in Barcelona, with all its attractions and distractions, I happened upon the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueri, commonly called La Boquería. I guess the only word I can think of is that the market is "astonishing" in the depth and breadth of food of all sorts, and the welcoming community of vendors and customers.

I am sure many of you who read this have visited there yourselves. One lasting image for me is when I was sitting next to a shellfish counter with a shipmate enjoying a cup of café con leche, I was startled to see that a few cigalas lobsters were crawling toward me. Fresh indeed!

In many people's eyes, La Boquería is the granddaddy of all food markets in Spain, but my personal choice is found many miles away in Andalucía, in the ancient and evocative city of Cádiz, located on a thin spit of land reaching into the Atlantic Ocean. Many times I have boarded a ferry from my former "hometown" of El Puerto de Santa María to take a beautiful 20 minute ride across the Bay of Cádiz. When you get off along the waterfront, it is just a 10 minute walk past the cathedral and the flower stalls to enter an amazing display of all the creatures of the sea which are fit to eat. There are curious animals of the ocean that I never even thought about, but the Spaniards know how to enjoy them. A favorite memory is of a cheerful fishmonger who burst out in operatic song as he sold his beautiful seafood. 

La Boquería and Cádiz are two of the big markets with vast displays. But often I prefer the smaller cities with more modest markets and friendly vendors who have the time to chat and show you their amazing offerings. Long ago when we were a young family, we would make short trips around Spain with our children and customarily we would stop by a random market to gather the ingredients for our picnic lunch. We would get a crusty loaf of locally baked bread, a chunk of Manchego cheese, perhaps slices of Jamón Serrano, a few juicy fresh oranges, peaches and pears or strawberries – whatever was in season. So we visited markets everywhere.

I recall that forty years ago, when I was a young father with my family at the Naval Base in Spain, I would get up early on Saturday morning and head for the Mercado Municipal in El Puerto de Santa María. The market was essentially the same concept as my local farmers market here in the USA, except that it had vastly more variety - two floors full of local vendors offering fresh vegetables, meat and fish, cheeses, herbs and spices - not to mention the adjacent Buen Pastor bakery and Charro Salgero Veniga that provided us sizzling hot churros.

In those days I regularly visited my favorite “spinach lady" who always had the crunchiest greens; then there was the fisherman who would offer truly fresh shellfish and shrimp direct from the Atlantic Ocean (which was almost within eyesight). I remember one day he carved me some steaks from an immense swordfish, only for me to discover that I had left my wallet at home. He said, “Don’t worry about it, you can pay me later when you come back.” Then he paused, reached into his pocket and gave me a Mil, a thousand peseta bill, and said, “Here, take this so you can finish your shopping for your family.” What an honest and trusting neighbor!

Another favorite image is the lady at the entrance to the market in Sanlúcar de Barrameda who, in the spring, is often tending a huge bowl of tiny land snails. The snails are delicious with a little garlic and parsley, but they are also quite frisky. So the ever vigilant lady constantly swept them back as they tried to crawl out of the bowl!

Last year while wandering about the countryside of Castilla-León, we stumbled across a real treasure: the medieval of the village of Ayllón, where vendors gather every Wednesday morning as they have for centuries. I have never seen such gorgeous heads of cauliflower, greens and vegetables of all sorts, along with homemade sausages, cheeses and other treasures. We stopped at the rustic hotel in town and were served roast suckling pig

These fresh markets are a major reason why dining in Spain is so enjoyable. Many people grow up visiting the markets where the food could not be fresher. Therefore, high quality fresh food is expected at the humble truck stop, as well as at the fine restaurant. The other week I was in rural Córdoba at a Hacienda with my extended family for several days. Each morning the chef would ask what we would like to eat that day. Three or four hours later fresh merluza or huge rodaballo (sole) would be on our platters. 

Traditional Spanish cuisine is straightforward and not dependent on sauces and other means to mask the original product. We try to capture this elusive freshness for you both directly and indirectly. We work with small farmers to provide fresh calçots for you to grill every spring; in the summer, we get shipments of Padrón and other peppers you can sauté; and even fresh judias verdes broad beans (especially tasty sautéed with sliced jamón). 

Similarly, we work closely with small family companies in Spain to provide our preserved vegetables and seafood. Spanish farmers form by hand the mounds that guarantee that the emerging asparagus spears are white. We assure that the piquillo peppers are roasted and placed in bottles the same day - very much like home preserves that you might make. Anchovies and shellfish are hand prepared within hours of harvest.

The United States is another country and another culture. But in the last few years many people are trying to recapture the country market virtues via the farmers market movement. I am especially looking forward to the beginning of the season of our local farmers market where I can greet some of the local vendors who over the years have provided me with some amazingly fresh Boston lettuce, delicate spinach, deep red beets and, of course, carrots with their greens still attached – so my guinea pigs (the delight of my grandchildren) can feast with this special treat. 

Setting community virtues aside, surely the goal of going to a farmers market is so that you can bring home fresh natural food to serve at your table - produce which was just recently plucked from the vine or tree. Part of the problem of food delivery in the United States is that we live in a huge continent, and furthermore, we are serving 300+ million people. So from a logistical standpoint, it makes sense to grow most of our celery in California, grapefruits in Texas and tomatoes in Florida. That being said, two or three-week old celery or last week’s eggs are not the same. 

Our local farmers market started modestly twelve years ago – each Saturday a few gardeners began to locate their stands of local produce in the center of Market Square. Today there are three dozen vendors bringing the best of local Virginia grown products including oysters, fresh chickens, apple or bumbleberry pies. I have to get there no later than 8:30 in the morning to get my local strawberries and peaches in season. 

Most of all I enjoy the community feeling of being amongst my neighbors from all walks of life (many of whom bring their dogs along for a stroll). I enjoy seeing children playing together and the proud parents with their babies in their immense strollers. I think that is why so very many people flock to the farmers market on Saturday morning. It is not just the fresh food and the flowers; it is an opportunity to experience neighborliness. 

I hope our Spanish friends appreciate what they have. With the availability of huge international grocery stores such as Carrefour, and the pressure of working families that need two incomes, it is faster and more convenient to eschew the experience of absolute freshness and a leisurely community feeling and succumb to the supermarket. Then comes the necessity of preservatives and additives. There is no shelf life problem with produce bought daily from the "spinach lady"! May our farmers markets prosper in America, and may the Spanish people continue to value their centuries old treasure: the local markets of Spain.