July 10, 2011

The changing nature of Spanish markets and cuisine

I am strongly pro-market. Not in the political sense, of course: I mean food street markets. I grew up above the largest (bi-weekly) market in Milan, Viale Papiniano, at the shouting soundtrack of ‘belle le pere mille lire, signora, le pere!’. Despite the obvious downsides in terms of noise, traffic and occasionally smell (the fish stalls were at the other end of the street, fortunately), the market institution became something very familiar to me. I also learnt from my father’s advice, although it wasn't always logics-proof: ‘before buying from a vendor, you must become familiar with him’ – but how on earth can I socialise with a vendor without buying from him... Later on, Milanese street markets became for me the ‘battlefield’ of political campaigning. Their replacement through private shopping malls and supermarkets, where campaigning as well as begging are forbidden, is not just a defeat for good food: it is a defeat for democracy and the social texture of urban places.

My interest in markets, however, increases proportionally to the distance from Milan. Far away, it is, unlike supermarkets, a way to practice language (I learnt to count in Mandarin in Xi’an and Beijing night markets), learn about new food and its preparation (the fish market in Sandakan, Borneo, beats any maritime life museum), and experience local customs, such as bartering in Morocco. Generally the quality, choice, price and freshness (especially for fish) are better than in supermarkets – even in a rather ugly and impoverished Coventry, the retail market is excellent.

San MiguelSpanish markets are particularly interesting, but also undergoing deep changes that are at least ambiguous. In Madrid, the historical central San Miguel market, round the corner from the flat were I was staying, has been elegantly restructured and turned into a ‘market + tapas bar + gastronomic fancy boutiques’. The opening time (10am-2am) reveal that the ‘market’ component is just ornamental and reduced basically to one fruits and veggies stall. The gastronomic stalls are very touristy, and the variegated tapas bars a place for tourists during the day and a ‘place to be seen in’ for Madrid’s middle-class youth at night. All pretty and enjoyable, but not what a market is supposed to be.

San AntonThe same fate has been followed by the San Anton market in Chueca, the gay village. This is not a heritage building and it has just been reopened in a stylish setting, with excellent, if pricy, food stalls on the ground floor, a supermarket in the basement, tapas bars on the first floor, and a restaurant/bar with terrasse, open all night, at the top. In the restaurant you can ask them to cook what you bought in the market, for just a 4 Euros extra per person – an excellent custom I had first enjoyed in Morocco. It may be because of the novelty, but the place is packed with people at all hours. It might be an effective recipe for ‘reborn’ markets.

The same cannot be said for markets turned into posh shopping malls. This has happened to the Puerta de Toledo market, now a cold and deserted agglomerate of soulless posh shops. The same is going to happen to the Barceló market, subject to a current expensive rebuilding project.

La CebadaFortunately, there are ‘real markets’ that survive as such. In the posh Salamanca district, there is the excellent Mercado de la Paz, the only XIX Century surviving one, apart from the San Miguel. But I prefer the more popular ones, of which in the centre survive Anton Martin and especially the largest, La Cebada. The great thing of Spanish markets, compared to the rest of western Europe, is the amount of spectacular ‘real’ food you can see on display. Not for the fainthearted: entire tunas and swordfish being chopped, live shellfish and crabs, whole suckling pigs and quarters of muttons and beefs. And a special place is reserved to offal: brains, livers, hearts, oxtail, bull’s testicles, tripe... Rabo de toro, criadillas and callos a la madrileña have all important roles on Madrid’s tables. Offal is the most socialist food I can think of: cheap, nutritious, good, and achieves great value through labour. In some western countries it is strangely despised, although it is routinely eaten, unawarely, in the shape of hamburgers and sausages. The fish stalls are also great. Unfortunately, in the huge Cebada restaurant half of the stalls are shut: crisis is looming and I dread it might be turned into a shopping mall too (too big for a tapa bar). In Spain, as already in the UK, popular markets are largely kept alive by immigrants. For a broader appeal, I can only think of two developments: a major increase in fuel prices that might discourage trips to retail parks and hypermarkets, or proper culinary education – not through TV chefs, but through visits to the market.

Last mention in Madrid, even though it is not technically a market but one large, 100-year old pavilion, is the Pescaderias Coruñesas, the best, if pricy, place to buy fish in a city that despite its distance from the sea is considered as ‘the best port of Spain’. Their website includes interesting information on any sort of seafood, and an exceptional variety of cooking suggestions: a few ways of cooking octopus that I did not know of, for instance.

In Barcelona, the market story is similar. The Boquería market off the Rambla is a major tourist attraction, the food is still great (Ferran Adriá declares that he shops there, which is quite a strong endorsement), and in some bars you can eat fish straight from the counter. Also in the old town, the Santa Caterina has been completely restructured with the addition of a futuristic roof, but it is still ‘a market’. In the stylish Exaimple, the Mercat de la Concepció is quieter and excellent quality, while the huge, historical Mercat del Ninot is undergoing complete restructuring – the fact that the stalls have been moved to a temporary market make me hope that it will reopen as market. In the outskirts, the picture is more mixed and supermarkets are more aggressive. The Sant Cugat’s market is a little gem with fantastic fish, but the Vallvidrera one is shut and its future is still unknown.

Once you have bought Spanish ingredients, there is the issue of what to do with them. And here I have a theory on the evolution of Spanish gastronomy.

Spain has exceptionally good produce. It shares with only France and Morocco the privilege of access to both Atlantic and Mediterranean, with the result of a double variety of fish and seafood – for instance, percebes are one of the great discoveries of my Spanish stay. The land extension means that most agriculture, at least before the greenhouses of Almería, has been much less intensive then elsewhere, resulting in greater variety, more taste, and more care. From tomatoes to ham, from eggs to fruits, the quality is generally outstanding – they do not have anything to envy the more famous French and Italian produce.

However, such great produce combined, until recently, with delayed social progress, and notably an obscurantist aristocracy, relative isolation and extreme land poverty. Central Spain is also far from any port and from any other countries, and therefore, from the XVIII Century to Franco, less open to circulation of ideas and gastronomic fashions than most of Europe. Neither aristocracy nor bourgeoisie nor merchants engaged in status-symbol cuisine as they did in France, but to some extent also in Portugal and Italy; while the poor peasantry and emerging proletariat, given the quality of row materials, did not need to elaborate sophisticated techniques to make up for shortages in the way, for instance, the Moroccan or Chinese did.

Therefore, the traditional Spanish cuisine is, if varied in terms of ingredients, extremely basic if compared to the rest of the region, not just to France and Italy, but also Portugal and Morocco. I have learnt to cook a few Spanish dishes, and they are stonishingly simple. Nothing requires the same skills as a French sauce or Italian handmade pasta. Paella can be spectacular, but extremely straightforward to prepare in comparison to risotto, which involves more careful cooking and the tricky step of mantecatura. The cocido madrileño and the potaje de garbanzos y bacalao are tasty and nutritious, but the only skill they require is the capacity of reading a watch and check the cooking times of the various ingredients. No Spanish soup, and even less pudding, can compete with the Portuguese or French ones in terms of elaboration. The only gastronomic field on which I admit the Spanish have traditional talent is eggs, from tortillas to revueltos. For the rest, the theory goes, excellent produce combined with remoteness, oscurantism and poverty do not provide incentives for great cuisine. Pan

To test my research hypothesis, I have also tried a number of traditional Madrid and Castillan restaurants. The ones with the best reputation are the related Casa Lucio and El Landó, in the old town. And they both confirmed mSant Cugaty theory exactly. The service and the atmosphere are very old-fashion, and so is the food. Outstanding ingredients and produce, from the bread with tomato, to the cured anchovies, to the tartar steak, but the dishes are extremely simple: the roasted lamb shoulder was the best I have ever eaten, but thanks more to the animal than to the chef, who, actually, had massively overindulged with olive oil (and I love olive oil). All this for substantial bills of 70+ Euros, so that at the end I only wanted to plead the chefs to just tell me where they bought those tomatoes and that lamb – so to never need to come again.

There are of course many cheaper places to eat good Castillan food, for instance Casa Perico in c/Ballesta, or a couple of places around and within the above-mentioned Mercado de La Paz. The lunch menus tend to be excellent value, but again, good real food but little sophistication.

There is an important corollary to my theory. More recently, as in general with Spanish society (e.g. gender), as a reaction to such traditionalism, a boom of revolutionary innovation has exploded. While Italian food remains identical to itself, Spain has become the forefront of innovation, with strong spill-overs from pioneers of new techniques. Of course, normal eateries do not engage in molecular food nor cook everything sous-vide, but a lot of new trendy restaurants and tapas bars in Madrid present innovative, sophisticated dishes. For instance, the recently opened Treze in c/San Bernardino.

And as another major recent development in Spain is immigration, ethnic food is great. In the Spanish case, this means essentially Latin American food, which in turn means largely Peruvian or Mexican, the two great cuisines of the New World. Apart from a number of honest cheap Latinos places (for instance the historic Cuban Zara in Chueca), the Entre Suspiro y Suspiro is a nice arty Mexican off Plaza Isabel II, and with regard to Peru, Madrid has the only European restaurant by Astrid and Gastón. Gastón’s story has been told by none the less than Nobel prize Vargas Llosa: a Peruvian law student at Complutense who got into food at the time of the transition, learnt the newest French techniques and now recreates the most authentic Peruvian tastes (the first spoonful of cebiche sent my mind straight to Lima) with the smartest, neatest texture and presentation.

Final acknowledgment: my comments on cuisine refer to Madrid and Castilla: of course, Galicia, the Basque country and Catalunya are different stories and will deserve more research.

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