To the unknowing eye what lies beyond these walls can easily go unperceived but take a peek inside and you will find the essence of Madrid’s cuisine. Each of its neighborhoods houses a thriving market representative of its surrounding. Individually, they captivate you for their unique offerings, each with its own distinct character. Collectively, these markets paint a vivid picture of what it means to really live in Madrid through its food, a city where Spanish heritage meets modern global. Places where community, tradition, craft and the contemporary all clash, creating unique spaces in which to savor the city.
The Mercado de San Miguel is the quintessential market for the hungry tourist seeking to get a taste of the Spanish traditional cuisine. Set in the heart of the city at the foot of Calle Mayor lies the eclectic structure, but a short walk away one can find an even more classic scene in the everyday of life in Madrid. Take a stroll through the Plaza Mayor towards “La Latina” and you will find yourself in one of Madrid’s most castizo, pure and traditional, neighborhoods.
At the center of it all lies the Mercado de la Cebada, an iconic site which forms part of the urban landscape with its colorful murals and corridors in which you will find rows of olives, cheeses and wines on display right next to the local butcher urging you to try the artisanal chorizo. Among all the action, there are a few select bars where one can get a beer, or a caña, with the creme on top, “not to be mistaken for the foam,” as Madrilian beer purists will clarify.
On the weekends, this place is crawling with locals, stopping by for a glass of wine and a tapa with locally made sausage. Head over to the opposite side of the hall to El Mar Cantábrico, where the crowds gather for freshly boiled shrimp, mussels or octopus, from the fishmonger’s closing down for regular business only to serve up the day’s catch as made-to-order traditional pinchos. It’s far from luxury, but this is what eating tapas in Madrid really is. Going from stand to stand, one caña after the next, one delicious bite after another.
Tasting the Continents
As you approach the Mercado de Los Mostenses you encounter a traditional looking building juxtaposed against tall modern towers just one block away from the hustle and bustle of the main avenue at the edge of what is known as Madrid’s “Hipster Neighborhood,” Malasaña. Walking through its doors, you suddenly find yourself in a labyrinth of aromas, accents and tongues. In one corner, the chitter chatter of two old Gatos, the name given to Madrid locals, conversing while eating a pair of chorizo sandwiches.
In another, a small Chinese woman placing her order from across a sea of colorful foreign-looking vegetables followed by a stand with tropical fruit hailing from Latin America as the sound of Colombian cumbia music plays in the background and a crowd of customers pile around. It’s a weekend afternoon and the energy in this market is palpable. In a quiet corner you will find one of the many surprises of this place, Lily-Xu. Specialized in Chifa cuisine, a fusion of Chinese and Peruvian food, a complex and strangely compatible flavor palette dating back to late 19th century Peru and the influx of Chinese immigrants then, Lily’s is the perfect definition of this market on a plate.
The combination of Chinese flavors with creole ingredients washed down with Spanish beer confuses the senses and brings three seemingly distinct cultures to the table in unison.
Head over to the Chueca neighborhood and check out the modernized Mercado de San Antón, a sleek building with a bustling rooftop. Known as the city’s LGBTQ neighborhood, Chueca has all the right qualities to house such a market where the tradition of the city market meets the global progressive attitudes and finds the right balance between community, chic, and the art of craft. Among its various floors you will find varieties of market stands, from fresh organic vegetables from local farms, to artisanal charcuterie, to a careful selection of wines all in a modern urban environment. The true experiential “gold nugget” lies in their rooftop restaurant, La Casa de San Antón.
What makes this place so particular is that you may either choose from the established menu, or, select the ingredients as you’re shopping your way through the market while sampling cheeses and nibbling on bread and take your purchase straight to their rooftop restaurant where they will prepare it as your meal. It’s a take on interactive cuisine guaranteeing freshness and a certain level of experimentation. Continue to allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised by the cosmopolitan experience and head outside to “El Cielo”, the heaven, for a masterfully prepared cocktail and sit on a couch surrounded by dim lighting and a view of Plaza de Chueca.
Streets of Flavor
Walking through the streets of Lavapiés can at times feel surreal. Each corner you turn houses a lineup of businesses, generally owned by immigrants from all over. Walk down the street of Lavapiés and you will see Indian restaurant after Indian restaurant. Head over a few blocks and a row of Middle-Eastern restaurants awaits. Look down the other corner and you will find a courtyard filled with the scent of spice and cinnamon among Senegalese restaurants. This is the essence of modern-day Lavapiés.
A medley of cultures thriving as a community. Juxtaposed is the recently upgraded Mercado de San Fernando. In an effort to attract more Madrid locals to this neighborhood and encourage a greater sense of community through the use of this vast commercial space, the market was turned into what has become, one of the city’s hot-spots for the curious, the homesick, and nostalgia mixed with a love for food that crosses cultural boundaries. It has become a weekend favorite to head to the market to sample something different each time.
Like Bendito, where a wine, cheese and charcuterie connoisseur mixes his passion for vinyl with the traditional flavors of Spain handing out plates of palatable cheeses, cecina and jamón to accompany a delectable bottle of wine. If you’re craving some greek flavors then head over to Exargia, where a bed of fresh Feta cheese and flaky spanakopita await. Have a carefully crafted cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin in Carmen’s terrace seating and enjoy the warmth of the sun, listening to children play in the nearby plaza while a mix of culinary scents fills the air.
These are only a few of the many opportunities to taste Madrid through its city markets.
Words by Andrea