Through our travels, we always end up at Market, whether that is a “farmer’s” seasonal market or a permanent structure. It’s always the best way to see what people eat, what is in season, pricing and how food is handled in different cultures. It can be frustrating however, as a hotel stay prevents buying any raw produce to cook yourself – this is why we opt for staying in apartments so we can do a blend of restaurant meals and ones prepared at home.
This year I’ve spent time in food markets throughout South East Asia, Argentina, Iceland, Canada, and now Spain. At home we use our neighbourhood farm markets to get wonderful produce in season. It is also a very social experience, far different from the heads-down approach to shopping at the supermarket. And it takes more time.
Something that is clear is that traditional markets are having a hard time attracting new customers to their form of buying, going from stand to stand and choosing those ingredients with confidence. Is is because there are so many options to eat out? Are people generally not cooking that much at home despite the abundance of food information available? Whatever the reason, the numbers are down around the world. We’ve seen more and more prepared food stalls between the raw product vendors, even the Mercado da Ribeira in Lisbon has switched almost entirely to prepared foods as the younger crowds were not buying whole fish, raw vegetables and meat. The challenge with these however, is that they can start to feel like a “Disney” version of the real deal.
Now I’ve experienced a new blended approach that simple makes sense.
The Mercado de la Cebada in the Latina neighbourhood of Madrid is a real, working market, unlike some of the other “markets” that are basically tourist attractions, similar to a food court. We actually walked right by it looking for a place to find lunch at first, expecting nothing other than alleys of fruits, vegetables, cheese, seafood and meat stalls. On a chance visit with no other ambition than to gaze and snap photos, we were so surprised to find a serious house party with people celebrating like it was their birthday. Crowds of party goers, dance music, laughing and roars of toasts and clinking glasses made us wonder if there was a local festival or celebration at hand. No, just Saturday afternoon.
We were told by a vendor that the market had become less busy, especially with young people and stalls were left with excess food at the end of the work week – the market is closed Sunday so Saturday was the last opportunity to have a busy day of sales. Certainly there would have been dissenters, and not all places stay open but a good dozen or more stalls switch from retails to “food truck” mode at noon, selling cooked items by the place and bargain priced wine and beer.
The feeling was not like a restaurant or bar but rather like a festival, a speakeasy, a house party, a … I’m not quite sure to tell the truth. It is serious fun, loud and inviting. With young and old, kids here and there. And what seems to be groups of friends or relatives getting together for nothing more than celebrating the good stuff in life. Anna was spotted but fans of her tv show so we were instantly brought into the fold of a small group. We made out way around then found a second floor that was less busy to took a look. There we found a number of smaller, quieter places and settled near a family fish shop, mom and dad in the back and their daughter, studying to be a dentist out front. It felt like a picnic, you could have your choice of 6 different wines, or beer or soft drinks, who cares. By the way, these Madrid people eat and drink like it is their last day on earth, and they all appear to grow very old gracefully (what the hell?) – another story.
Anyway, we spent an hour or so visiting, chatting with the daughter and a counter man, really nice experience. We ate boquerones (vinegared white anchovies), escabeche, steamed clams and salt seared shrimps. What a feast! However the coolest thing was the welcome, the genuine smile, the fact that we were not seen as customer$ but guests (sounds like a training manual for a formula restaurant). I felt as though a warm embrace of human kindness had come our way, we enjoyed the time and left with a smile, waving goodbye.
Should this be happening at St Lawrence Market in Toronto and Jean Talon in Montreal? Without question, yes. Of course the fun police would be convinced that serving drinks to the public with music playing while tasting and learning about food would lead to anarchy but I do not agree. It is simply a modern way to get good food to people who might not otherwise visit markets, see the product on the raw form or ever learn a simple way to prepare it at home. This in turn reduces food wasted, keeps the hard working market vendors in a healthy business state and everyone wins. See you at the market.