It didn’t take long in Spain for our routine to begin revolving around the central market. In our first week here we went to the Mercado Central de Valencia five times. You could argue that we don’t plan our shopping trips very well, but in reality we just love going to the market. It is the best place to see and buy the ingredients that make up the local gastronomy.
The central market, the indoor food market at the center of many Spanish cities where locals shop for traditional regional products, is one of our first stops in each city that we visit. The Mercado de Ataranzas in Malaga dates back to the 14th century when it was a shipyard of the Nasrid empire. The current market building was completed in 1879 and then renovated between 2008 – 2010. We were blown away by the quantity and selection of seafood in Malaga, more so than any other market we visited.
The central market in Granada, the Mercado de San Agustin, is in a site that was a convent until the 19th century. It became a traditional food market in the 1970’s with local produce, fish and meats. It has also undergone recent renovations adding a gourmet section and several bars where you can pull up for some tapas and beer or wine.
The Mercado Central of Valencia, also called the Mercat Central, is one of the largest indoor markets in Europe. The stunning Modernist building was completed in 1928. The large iron and glass dome overhead floods the market with light, illuminating the lively scene taking place on the floor below.
The energy is intimidating at first. Bewildered tourists stand in the center aisle taking pictures, unsure of how to enter the scene. We started out watching the activity from a distance, but once we dove in to do some real shopping, we went from outside observers to participants in local tradition.
We hear it all around as we walk through the aisles of food stalls.
“Do you want something?” the vendors are calling out, inviting us to become engaged.
“Si!” Yes, I do. As much as I can carry please!
There are nearly 400 food traders in a space of 8,160 square meters selling fresh produce, spices, nuts, cheese, olives, meats both cured and raw, and mind boggling seafood. There are even vendors dedicated to nothing but snails, an important ingredient in Paella Valenciana.
A complex mix of aromas awakens the senses, changing from sharp spices to sweet strawberries and then to the warm scent of cured meats as we traverse the maze of stalls.
Some of the vendors will offer tastes of ham, almonds or olive oil. We bought a bottle of the “second best olive oil in the world.” I’m skeptical of the claim, but it is very good.
Eating healthy is going to be so easy with the abundance of fresh locally grown produce, like the prized Perello tomatoes that are grown in a small town outside of Valencia near the beach in the sand. Most of the produce here is seasonal, so it is super fresh, ripe, and ready to eat. Late August is still summer fruit season and we’ve been filling our bags with big juicy peaches and sweet figs. They call it fig and pig season here, as the Spanish figs pair perfectly with salty slices of jamon. Xinxols (jujubes in English) are also coming into season. These were new to us, but a little old lady next to me at the fruit stand said they are “bueno.” So I got some. Now I just have to figure out what to do with them.
In the pescaderia, piles of shellfish of all shapes and sizes, sea urchins, barnacles, and colorful shrimp lay on beds of ice. There are fish that I have never seen before and tanks of live eels. In Malaga, there were huge cross-sections of swordfish, known as emperador in Spain.
The monkfish (called rape in Spanish) made for the most dramatic display with their big toothy grins, but in Valencia they tend to remove the heads, making the fish appear less sinister. Walking through the pescaderia, there is no strong fishy odor but only the scent of fresh seafood. The fish glistens under the lights, accentuating the freshness.
At one popular stall, we can’t get anyone’s attention. The fishmonger skins and filets out a whole fish in seconds, wraps it, exchanges it for cash and then calls out a number. Dang! We realize that we forgot to take a number – a very important step at the most crowded stalls.
The most intriguing areas for us are the meat sections. The center of the market is filled with stalls selling jamon (ham) and other cured meats, such as chorizo, sopressata, and morcilla. Hundreds of legs of jamon, including serrano and the famous jamon iberico, hang in the air with a wide range of pricing. We’re working our way through them by trial and error. The jamon is available prepackaged or they will slice it right off the leg for you.
Fresh meat vendors line the edges of the market, selling every cut of fresh beef, pork, lamb and fowl that you could imagine including heads, feet, and tails. Many stalls sell whole rabbits, another crucial ingredient in Paella Valenciana.
Every visit to the market has been a learning experience and a great opportunity to practice our Spanish. Most vendors speak a little English and are very friendly and willing to help. We pay careful attention to how the locals place their orders, listen to the names of unfamiliar items, and ask questions about anything that looks interesting.
Each day we return from the market excited to try all of the delicacies we found that morning. Fortunately, much of Spanish cooking involves very simple preparations. With ingredients that are so good, the goal is to not mess them up. A drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of salt is often all that’s needed.