The moment I peeped over my sunglasses to look at the bijou iron and glass structure of the Mercado de San Miguel I knew that this was going to be a memorable food experience.
I am standing at one of the entrances of the Mercado de San Miguel, in front of an automatic sliding glass door, supported by a brown cast iron construction. The market is a historical and architectural edifice dating back to 1916, which was recently revived to become the gastronomic centre it is today after trading and activity became idle for quite a number of years. Inside is an explosion of colour and noise. I walk in surrounded by buzz, abundance and aromas to discover more than 30 food stalls serving and selling almost anything you would want to put into your mouth. My heart starts pounding in my ears; my smile is stretched from ear to ear. My instinct says, ‘eat first, shoot later’ and this explains how I ended up with only a couple of photos of this superb market.
The exclusively designed series of stalls serve a variety of foods. Fish and seafood, fruit and vegetables, tapas, wines, sushi and deli stuff, coffee and cakes. There is a butcher, a fishmonger, a greengrocer and a florist. Yet, it is not that kind of market where the stench of fish or raw meat infiltrates your nose. It feels like one vast and elegant gastronomic store. This is a market which concept deviates from the traditional food market which we find in many towns and cities across the globe. Mercado de San Miguel is a combination of a tasting hall lined up with tiny eateries and food counters, which sell produce by weight to be consumed or cooked at home.
The market is close to the popular, iconic Plaza Mayor and is earmarked as a tourist attraction. In fact, underneath the soaring wood and iron ceiling the chaotic but pleasant crowd was composed of many tourists, but locals filled the spaces too. What singles out tourists from locals are their eating habits. Food is culture, therefore, enjoying food in Madrid means having lunch at two in the afternoon and dinner not before nine in the evening. Madrileños kick start their days late and eat and drink into the small hours. Indeed, during weekends, the market remains open till two in the morning and it becomes chockablock with grown-ups sipping their Spanish wines, Sangria or beers and munching on delicious bites, merrily with family and friends.
I was hovering over the gourmet food stalls, inundated with excitement. Although the market was mobbed, I felt detached, engrossed by the smells and the colours of this indulgent food market. Isn’t this world of food a nice one to be in? I moved gently around in this temple of nourishment, camera in hand, with lens cap still on, watching men clad in black aprons gracefully slicing thin pieces of the finest and most expensive jamón ibérico de bellota, cured ham from Spanish pigs who spend the last days of their lives on a strict acorn based diet. I had butterflies in my stomach. I wanted to taste everything. I wanted to spend the entire day there, sitting on a stool in the aisle of the market, perceiving the life of marketgoers, sampling the varied delicacies from the stalls and traders lining up the market. My husband must have felt jealous.
Meanwhile, my father was in a feeding frenzy. The tasting experience started off with the creamiest and juiciest olives I ever tasted – a variety of green pitted olives, threaded on wooden sticks like lollipops combined with anchovies, onions, green or red pimentos. Then oysters, divine French oysters splashed with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and gulped down with a glass of Champagne at the bar. Mum was waiting for a table to clear up so that we could rest our glasses and plates but nobody seemed to have had enough. Standing up, we twirled the gulas around a fork in a little bundle, as if eating noodles and tried to figure out what this stuff is made of. Gulas look like tiny baby eels, in fact an imitation of angulas, the real baby eels which today have become an extravagantly priced delicacy. You can be asked to pay around 100 euro a serving for the original ones! The gulas, made from processed surimi, apparently are a popular alternative. Commonly served with garlic, pepper and olive oil, but even with mushrooms or prawns and attended to with bread sticks.
I was all eyes as people around us were rustling and carrying different kinds of edible possessions in hands. Some held newspaper cones filled with fried squid and baby fish or with mini chorizo sausages. Locals were carrying crunchy baguettes jutting out from paper bags or at the coffee bar having a café cortado, the Spanish espresso topped with velvety, frothy milk. Others were nibbling nuts and drinking vermouth at the corner stall
Our tapas feast continued with a selection of toasted bread topped with salted cod cooked in different manners from La Casa del Bacalao and a glass of Spanish beer. Finally, we managed to find a couple of stools where to rest our feet and place our plates. Sitting down we could comfortably eat something more elaborate, so my husband headed to order the Pulpo a la Gallega – Galician style octopus. Slices of boiled, tender octopus are arranged on a wooden plate around a whole boiled potato and dressed with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pimenton (smoked sweet Spanish paprika).
El Mercado de San Miguel is a fantastic indoor food market. It is a gastronomic public square where residents and visitors can mingle and socialise surrounded by a quasi confusing variety of first rate products which make you drool. It is, as many describe it, the market of the 21st Century and it makes me wonder why Malta is still deprived of such concepts. Just imagine transforming the afflicted covered market in Valletta into an edible and vibrant area gathering high quality, local, and international, produce and selling prepared foods which can be consumed at the market. After all a European capital of culture to be cannot ignore a main pillar in any culture….gastronomy!