Saturday, November 1, 2014

Show Me the Markets!!!

En guarde?

Madrid: Check.

Though our time in the city was primarily intended as a brief period to sleep off our jetlag, it was inevitable that we would scour the streets for a few memorable meals and food experiences. Prior to our arrival, I secured a list of restaurants and eating spots that were sure to please, from pintxos and tapas to haute cuisine, and everything in between. We didn’t make any reservations; instead we elected to play it fast and loose and see what we were in the mood for when the time came to eat. And since Spain is the land of little bites, I figured we’d work our way through at least half of my list by the time we left.

That was before we found the markets.

To most people, a market is little more than the place where you buy your toilet paper and milk and eggs, a chore along the same lines as a trip to the bank or the mechanic: get in, get it done, get out. But for a chef, a market is an almost magical place, capable of occupying our eyes and ears and imaginations for hours. The sights and smells of a market, especially one in a foreign country, are a huge source of inspiration and education if you’re willing to take the time. One can find species of fish and cuts of meat that are completely unknown or unexplored; the produce that grows locally or the spices and flavors popular to that region can unlock ideas for a new dish, or simply leave the intrepid explorer salivating dreamily.

As it happens, El Mercado de San Anton was on our list of spots to visit, due to its well-known status in Madrid and the fact that it had a restaurant on its top floor. We figured we’d head to the Chueca neighborhood, where it’s located, spend some time perusing the market, then start eating our way around the rest of the neighborhood. What happened, instead, is that we fell under San Anton’s spell and ended up spending over two hours wandering its three floors, taking our time and getting lost in the myriad foodstuffs we encountered.

The massive directory at the market’s entrance set the stage for what we were to encounter. Julia literally had to pull me away as I read the day’s offerings on the many chalkboards, mesmorized: a stall that specialized in nothing but the many forms of bacalao; an olive oil purveyor boasting hundreds of olive varietals; and the crowned jewel (as far as I was concerned): a food stand devoted entirely to foie gras.

Directory to Heaven

We strolled through the aisles slowly, our eyes poring over cuts of meat that made our mouths water (hello, Lomo Iberico!), wines made from varietals we’d never even heard of, and Spanish delicacies that you can’t find anywhere that side of the Atlantic. One such delicacy in particular that caught our eye was a beautiful pile of delicate cocoches, or cod throats. To the uninitiated, ‘cod throat’ sounds more like a medical condition than a delicacy; but if you’ve tried it, you know its beautiful, supple texture is unlike anything else, and prepared correctly, it is one of the tastiest treats the ocean has to offer.
Throat is the new belly.

As we wandered, we chatted with some of the purveyors; turns out the fishmonger with the cod throats actually had friends in Sonoma, and we reveled in comparing stories about California, cuisine, and travel. He expressed his appreciation of our own appreciation of his goods, noting that chefs are always his favorite customers to talk to. He even busted out a massive monkfish that his apprentice was on his way to butcher so that we could take some pictures of the mighty beast. We thanked him warmly and continued on.

Bottoms up!

Tentacly spectacular!
As our bellies informed us it was time to eat, we headed to the 3rd floor restaurant to sit for a bit. We ordered octopus, sliced and topped with a cold sofrito, pan con tomate, and gazpacho, which arrived to the table in a bottle. Admittedly, we were a bit confused as to the proper etiquette, but we eventually figured out that pouring it into our water glasses was the way to do it.  The tangy tomato soup was rich and creamy, and drinking it like a beverage somehow made it even more delicious.

First name basis...
We then moved one floor down to the food vendors: I made an immediate beeline for the foie booth, and Julia scanned the line until she found some seafood. Skewers of chili-citrus-marinated olives and pickled anchovies hit the spot, and the mussels escabeche were tasty, though not the best I’ve had if I’m being honest. My toast with a thick slab of foie gras, balsamic, and apple butter, however, awakened feelings in me that I haven’t experienced in years: its over-the-top richness and goosey, fatty flavor, offset by the apple and balsamic, were like a long lost lover. Each bite elicited barely audible sounds of pleasure from deep within me, intoxicating my palate and stretching a grin across my face.

These are a few of my favorite things...

Satiated and in need of a walk, we realized there wasn’t much room left in our bellies for the rest of the neighborhood, so instead we strolled through the Jardin Real before eventually heading home. Little did we know that fate had more food in store for us; after a wrong turn and subsequent detour, we were nearly at our hotel when a brightly colored fruit display caught Julia’s eye. “Let’s check that out,” she suggested. I shielded my eyes from the sun and read the sign: Mercado de San Miguel.

My first reaction upon walking in the doors was nothing short of HOLY SHIT.* While San Anton had a pretty even mix of food eating and food shopping, this place was one massive eating extravaganza. The open-air, grange-style building housed at least thirty different food vendors ranging from the regionally typical to the surprisingly unique: highlights included a booth sporting massive pans of squid ink paella, a pastry vendor with nine kinds of baklava, and a cart offering all dishes centered around burrata and fresh mozzarella. Not everything was intrinsically Spanish, but everything looked incredible. The center of the space was filled with squat tables, designated as the drinking area, giving the whole place a sort of Oktoberfest vibe. You made your rounds, chose your beverage and your snacks, then (with some luck) found a sliver of table to pony up to. The atmosphere was loud, jovial, and electric; I cannot think of a better place in all the world to meet with friends. The food was ample, the drinks flowed, and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. I was absolutely beside myself that luck had led us here.
"Sometimes you wanna go… where everybody knows you're hungry…"

We snacked on stuffed olives and sipped Sangria that tasted uncannily like my very first glass in Segovia almost twenty years ago. Julia bought pistachio baklava and a piece of honey cake that absolutely blew our minds. Had we not been in serious need of a siesta, I think I could have spent the entire day there. I will say this: to any food-lovers heading to Madrid, I would put El Mercado de San Miguel at the very top of my list of places to visit.

If you think about it, it’s not surprising that markets draw us in they way they do: historically they have been the epicenters of culture in cities, villages, and communities all over the world. They weren’t just a place to get your food or your supplies; they were the place you connected with your community and all its facets. Markets are rich with culture and alive with the pulse of a city, and time spent in one is time spent fully immersed in that city and all its character. As travellers abroad, we will always look for them, and we will never stop being amazed.

Now, on to Segovia!

*For the record, Julia felt my profanity here was lazy and unnecessary. I felt, quite strongly, that it was imperative to convey my authentic reaction.

1 comment:

  1. You're killing me with this! I don't think it does the computer much good for me to drool on it! I remember that it was in Turkey that I first figured out that in Europe a "supermarket" is where you buy toilet paper, detergent boxed cereals, etc. The REAL food is at the markets, and the people selling it are incredibly helpful, and justifiably proud of their goodies. The fact that they INSIST that you sample a tasty morsel (!) really makes the experience blissful. Great blog; keep it coming! Hi to the bride! Love, Cokes