Surf & Turf in Southern Spain - El Mercado Central, Cádiz
When you arrive at the effervescent Mercado Central de Cádiz you know you’re near a serious seafood port. The stately white, block-long market building, whose 19th century arched windows brighten several aisles of food stalls, has recently been refurbished. The Spanish government is on a happy campaign to support traditional markets, many of which are of historical importance, by restoring them and promoting their accessibility; the side benefit of this trend is to foment old-fashioned ways of purveying foodstuffs. Old markets are busier than ever, as demanding European shoppers seek out the best, freshest ingredients from local farmers and fishermen.
With its winding, crooked streets, inviting, well-preserved plazas, and lots of cool bars and peña clubs (where Flamenco is performed on weekends), the port of Cádiz is a city that looks inward, with no waterfront, no malecón. But you don’t get to the essence of a place until you see what the residents eat and where they shop. And in Cádiz you are, without a doubt, in a fish town.
I recently visited this teeming agora of gastronomic activity on a crisp November morning. Stands proffered typical Mediterranean fruits and vegetables in tall, exuberant formations. Regal, gleaming, purple eggplants were piled next to crisp, frilly fennels and ruby colored tomatoes, which practically burst through their skins. Citrus of every size perfumed the air.
A curious curly green vegetable called tagarninas, related to the artichoke, was featured as its fleeting season was in full force. Alas, I learned, you have to be invited to someone’s home to sample this exotic delicacy—it doesn’t show up on restaurant menus. Sra. Gómez was a stout, austerely dressed shopper who seemed straight out of a Garcia Lorca play and knew the recipe. I pleaded with her to have me over, provoking gales of laughter, but I didn’t snag the invite. My consolation was some early dessert at one of the churro stands that line one wall outside the market building.
Andalucía unlike northern Spain, Valencia and Catalonia, does not abound in highly sophisticated or elaborate culinary traditions. A lot of fried fish and seafood – albeit expertly prepared – is consumed. And several of the ‘greatest hits’ of Spanish cuisine come from the area: gazpacho, in its various manifestations – the pale, refreshing emulsified version, nothing like the chopped salad that usually passes for gazpacho overseas, thick and red (salmorejo), or white and thickened with almonds (ajo blanco). Sangria and Vino de Jeréz, known to the world as sherry come from the region. Some influence of the now remote Moorish occupation remains in the cooking. In Sevilla, for example, I sampled a stew sweetened with dried fruits and perfumed with cumin and other North African-associated spices. I ate a simple salad of bacalao, orange slices and perfect green olive oil. The orange/oil combination reminded me of something I had tasted in Tangier, with the addition of the mildly salty cod, an ingredient the Spanish know how to use better than anybody. Desserts of dried fruit and nuts sweetened with honey recall the Magreb. As the region is highly saturated by mass tourism, it is harder to find good restaurants than in less visited places like Galicia and the Basque country. Tourist traps, almost always mediocre, in Granada, Sevilla and Córdoba, offer the Spanish cliché package of gazpacho/paella/sangria/flan. The visitor has to look hard to find the ‘real thing’. But it’s there.
And in Cádiz, it was that fried fish that got me. Pescadito frito a mixed plate of small fish, calamari and other seafood can be the best in the world. Cazón en adobo, morsels of shark done in a cuminy batter is irresistible. Especially when washed down with a hearty local crianza.
Which brings me back to the market. It was the fish purveyors that really blew me away. An incredible bounty of glistening seafood attracts throngs of shoppers of all ages and classes. There’s shellfish in all shapes and sizes. Navajas (razor clams) so alive they slither daringly in and out of their shells to peek at the customers. They are eaten all over Spain, usually sautéed or broiled in olive oil and garlic. Several sizes of round clams. Fish, from tiny sardines to huge merluzas (hake) so fresh they seem to shimmy like Egyptian belly dancers. The squid family, each variety having its own name: tiny chiperones, mid-size calamar, huge sepia. The variety and freshness of the catch makes this one of the most visually exciting markets in Europe, an inspiration to any chef, pro or amateur. And then there are vendors themselves: many of them well-built, swarthy guys, fishmonger versions of Antonio Banderas (and I attribute their healthfulness to eating well and good genes).
It was all a reminder of why I love markets. I could have stayed all day, listening to the ebullient hawking and haggling. But my stomach got the best of me and I decided to do something I like even more: go eat lunch.