Why Spanish Mercados Are The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Jamón
Perhaps the greatest contributing factor to my quality of life as an American expat in Spain has been my proximity to and frequenting of the neighborhood mercado.
There is no American equivalent of these large indoor markets packed with independent vendors. Sure, bigger cities have markets with varying stalls, CSA organic local produce, designer cupcakes, what have you. The unique chaos of the Spanish mercado, though, is of character that can only be built up over the centuries. It’s necessarily a little grimy in the corners, and it shies not away from entrails.
The layout and the customs of the mercado tend to be fairly overwhelming for casual passersby. Even seasoned Spanish shoppers adjusting to a new mercado will result in some necessary amount of trial/error. It’s worse still if you are a foreigner wholly unaccustomed to navigating foodstuffs out in the open. As such, you’ll more frequently spot guiris stocking up on their plastic-wrapped picnic supplies and Don Simón sangría boxes in the air-conditioned Carrefour.
Error. It’s certainly less intimidating for foreigners to browse the familiar fluorescent aisles, but you miss out on the best fresh ingredients the country has to offer, not to mention my favorite activity of daily Spanish life. Hacer la compra doesn’t have to mean lonely choices between twenty different types of digestive yogurt. At a mercado, vendors who know you personally will happily recommend the best of what the season’s got to offer.
These days, I hit up the supermercado (the indoor chain markets similar to American grocery stores) for toilet paper and little else. El Mercat de l’Abaceria Central in the heart of the Gracia neighborhood in Barcelona is my go-to destination for everything else. I live a two minute walk from its doors, and I visit about every other day.
I’m likely an outlier in terms of frequency, but:
- My ingredients are always ultra-fresh,
- I can choose what I want to eat based on last-minute cravings, and
- It’s a genuine pleasure to go — so why not visit all the time?
Nine reasons you should do your shopping at a mercado
1. You’re far more likely to buy healthy stuff.
Or at least unprocessed. There aren’t many goods for sale here with an ingredient list longer than a couple items. Most stuff is simply fresh, and the ripe peach pyramid looks way more attractive than the galleta aisle. Don’t worry — you can still pick up canned/jarred goods (tomatoes, artichoke hearts, etc.) from certain stalls.
2. Your impulse purchases are way more interesting.
Instead of being tempted by clever packaging, you’ll feel impelled to pick up those gorgeous walnuts, and would you look at these beautiful cherry tomatoes on the vine, and hey, isn’t that goat??
3. You’ll learn something every time you go.
You’re going to see oozing cheeses you never knew existed, a plethora of totally alien mushrooms, and a ton of other stuff you can’t identify. I will sheepishly admit it took me several good months to figure out those omnipresent salty white slabs were bacalao.
Lucky you: each stall comes stocked with a resident friendly expert. I find they really love what-the-hell-is-that? curiosity. They’ll also proudly tell you the source of anything they’re selling, plus offer cooking tips (often unsolicited!).
4. Choice of quality.
There’s an intricate invisible ecology woven within each mercado. An initial glance shows eight competing fruit stalls, but buy a raf tomato from each and you’ll quickly discover the difference, both in price and quality. My experience is that each mercado includes one ultra high-end fruit and veg stall, plenty in the middle on a non-linear scale of quality-price ratio, and a few less expensive options with discount products. Depending on how big the place is, the same may also be true for meat/fish and cheese/embutidos. My own mercado even has a gradation amongst the egg vendors.
This all means you can choose to pick up top-notch carabineros for a special occasion, plus be able to snag bargain basement onions on the same trip.
Note that mercados are usually surrounded by independent specialty shops, and among them is usually a very cheap frutería or three. Careful with these. In my days as an auxiliar de inglés (a.k.a. broke), I definitely went for this option more often than not — but make sure you find one that’s not pushing rotten food. Yes, this definitely happens, and somehow they still have faithful clients seeking a deal at all costs. If you prefer your vegetables mold-free, take a close look at what’s on offer before you buy. I’ve never seen this practice within the walls of an actual mercado.
5. Choice of quantity.
Want just one head of garlic? Curious about membrillo but don’t want an entire block of it? Need a solitary chicken breast?
Maybe it’s a function of living alone, but I found I ended up wasting way more food when I shopped at supermercados. Uncool. Guessing they design their packaging for families, so unless you’ve popped out a few kids or live in a commune, the quantitative flexibility of a mercado is way more convenient.
Going to pick up the evening’s groceries is a social event for me. I’ve gone to the same chicken lady, fruit guy, and cheese girls enough that they not only recognize me, but they remember what I picked up the last time and ask me about it. They’ve gotten to know my general tendencies, and they usually recommend what’s in right now that they think I’ll like. The fruit guy even knows when and where I’m going on vacation.
Small talk (… stall talk?) goes way beyond the weather, if you want it to. It’s the ideal post-work mini-socializing.
By the way, should you chance to run into a real jerk working the stalls — it does happen, occasionally — the solution is incredibly easy. Pick a different one. Don’t be intimidated by one bad apple. By and large, the folks working in the mercados are incredibly kind, especially when you arrive armed with a grin.
7. They’re aesthetically awesome.
Regardless of whether we need to buy anything or not, I always take foreign visitors on a jaunt through the mercado. No matter where you look, there’s something super interesting, from the vinegary vats full of every kind of olive to the giant cheese blocks sweating oil to the jars piled high with bright yellow chicharrones to the ubiquitous glistening legs of jamón. I love the iridescence of the morning’s mackerel lined up shiny atop the ice, the plastic plates overflowing with multi-colored odds and ends of mushrooms not pretty enough to sell on their own, and the delicate collections of different sizes and qualities of egg, up to and including ostrich.
The smells are also multi-faceted and fascinating, although not nearly as strong as you’d suspect since everything’s so fresh. Think salty, earthy, and herbaceous.
The ever-popular tourist shot of La Boqueria’s rainbow cornucopia is definitely along the right track. It’s glammed up there for the Intragram-happy crowd, but even the humble neighborhood mercado is a sensory paradise.
8. A chance to practice your Spanish.
The quantity of expats here with crappy Spanish is totally unacceptable, and it’ll never get any better if they keep avoiding interaction with locals. Mercados are the perfect playing ground for you to trot out your new vocabulary. Not knowing the name of something you want to buy isn’t a big deal if you can describe it.
9. Special orders for whatever you like.
Can’t find egg whites in bulk? No one ever has tarragon? Wanna roast a juicy baby pig this weekend? Let vendors know a couple days in advance and they’ll order just about anything for you — including the elusive Thanksgiving turkey.
11 essentials for successfully navigating a Spanish mercado
1. Choose your vendors.
This is the most difficult and most critical part of shopping at a mercado. You’ll probably need a seafood guy, a cheese guy, an egg guy, a red meat/pork guy, a chicken guy, and almost definitely a fruit/veggie guy. Depending on market availability and your antojos, you might also need an olivemonger, an herb agent, a vino vendor, a jamón huckster, etc.
Obviously, you don’t have to choose these all at once. The first time you visit your neighborhood mercado, plan for significant time to walk around the place and take in all the action. Compare competitors in terms of quality, variety of goods, popularity (you don’t necessarily want the most popular place!), and how the vendor interacts with the clients.
Prices aren’t usually on display, so you’ll have to ask. It’s highly unlikely you’ll be hoodwinked — these guys live on their reputation — but it is possible you’ll accidentally purchase some extraordinarily expensive greens (but damn if that wasn’t a tasty salad!).
Chances are great that certain stalls will look more your style than others, and the only way to find out for sure is to give ‘em a try. When I’m trying out a new place, I usually make it a point to just buy one item as a trial run.
2. Know when to stick and when to switch.
You’ve already read many reasons why it’s mutually beneficial to get to know your favorite vendors. Keep tossing visits towards customer loyalty and it’ll go infinitely further than any tarjeta cliente.
That said, if someone gives you food that’s no good, if everything’s too expensive, if they never have what you’re looking for, or if you just get a bad feeling interacting with a vendor, switch right away. There’s too many good mercado experiences waiting to happen for you to get hung up on inferior product.
It’s happened that vendors have tried too hard to push cheap juices on me along with my produce purchase (guy, I’m savvy to your chicanery - I know that’s made with the overripe fruit). I’ve gone home with rotten cauliflower before. I’ve had folks read me the riot act for being caught without small bills (although, admittedly, this is to be avoided — see number 6 below). I’ve even had the frutería guys I’d been going to for months suddenly inquire as to whether I was a lesbian, and if not, would I like to hit the bar?
Again, don’t feel in any way obligated to keep going to places you don’t love. Vote with your euros.
3. Explore all your options: each mercado usually has its own speciality stalls.
Meats and veg and bacalao are standard, but there are usually some really sweet small specialty stalls awaiting your discovery. Plenty are regional — I’ve seen Russian, Japanese, Latino of all sorts, Korean (kimchi!). Some are product specific, like teas and spices. Keep your eye out for otherwise “normal” vendors that dedicate a small section of counter space to rarer goodies.
Mine has a Greek place (L’altre Riba) that has baba ganoush so good I’ve stopped making my own. If you’ve been privy to my little obsession with filling the house with the scent of roasting eggplant skins, you know the stuff must be serious.
4. Fear not the embutidos.
The huge variety of cured meats on offer in Spain are known as embutidos, and they’re most frequently sold alongside the cheeses. I remember being seriously attracted to them upon coming to the country — is there actually anything better than jamón? — but felt too shy/uninformed to pick some up for myself. I had no idea about any of their names, not to mention what to do with them once I bought them (do you… boil them?).
The name thing: get over it. Point and ask about the ones that look delicious — that’s all of them. Ask what’s in ‘em. Here’s what you do with embutidos: you eat them. Seriously, the large majority of them are best simply cut into thin slices and consumed. Add bread/crackers to the mix if you like. No need to play with them further for this first round.
You can buy whatever quantity you want of most of them. Tell the vendor how many grams you want (100g is a good sampling amount if you’re not sure you’ll love it), or ask for a small piece (“pedazo pequeño”) if it’s a sausage.
Do get over your squeamishness re: blood and eat the morcilla.
5. Be friendly and respectful. Ask for recommendations.
It should be a given, dammit, but too frequently silly folks let their discomfort translate into stiffness, coldness, and general distance. Don’t let this be you! Language mistakes and even cultural gaffs are infinitely forgivable when accompanied by apologies and a goofy grin (because, hey, you’re the weird one here).
Friendliness will get you everywhere. Asking for recommendations from the vendors will get you even further. Ask what’s in season, ask if the mandarinas are good yet, ask how many chicken wings you need for four people, ask if they’ve tried the wine-washed cheese.
6. Have small bills.
If you’re buying heaps of pricey mariscos and spending a pretty penny, chances are that the vendor will have a credit card swiper. If not, they either won’t have one, or it’s a bit rude to use it (since they’ll be charged a commission).
As with taxis, small bills are highly preferred. Independent vendors aren’t change machines like Mercadona. Try to buy a barra de pan with a 50€ bill and thou shalt know the wrath of man.
7. Don’t touch anything without asking.
This part’s the hardest for touchy-feely Americans to swallow, but don’t even think about squeezing the peaches. Part of the whole mercado ritual is vendors selecting, weighing, and bagging the goods for you. If you’re buying something like tomatoes that you’d prefer a certain ripeness, you’re often prompted for your preferences. You can even tell then in how many days you want your avocados to be ready.
If something’s much more within your reach than theirs, you can offer to grab it — but ask first (“¿Lo cojo yo?”).
There are usually stand-alone fruterías outside of the mercado walls that advertise themselves as “auto-servicio,” meaning you grab your own grapes as you please. Be advised: the quality’s usually lower.
8. El último system: how to know when it’s your turn.
This one is perhaps the very most important out of the whole list if you don’t want to cause mass chaos when you buy bread. Unlike the fetishistically orderly queues of the Brits, Spaniards crowd around vendors higgledy-piggledy.
A simple, invisible system governs the madness. When you decide you want to buy something at a busy stall, find out who’s currently last in line by asking the gathered crowd, “¿El último?” Someone will respond “Yo” (or point out who it is if they’re not within earshot), and then you assume the title yourself.
That means, when the next shopper comes along asking for “¿El último?”, it’s your sworn duty to respond “¡Yo!” If you fail to pass on the title, people become generally cantankerous — so pat attention.
You also must remain vigilant of the person who was el último before you. As soon as they start their buying process, you’re on deck. Listen for the vendor to call out “¿El próximo?”, the cue that it’s your turn at last.
Bumbling about the mercado, asking silly questions about the squid, fumbling linguistically — that’s all fine and dandy. Do not play with el último system. It’s simple, functional, and fair. Don’t be the weirdo who confuses everyone else by skipping a step. Worse still — for you — is failing to start the process by asking in the first place. You’ll never enter the pecking order at all, and thus never get to pick up that beautiful rack of lamb.
9. Do ask for cooking recommendations, and don’t be surprised if what you already had in mind is weird.
Who better to tell you the proper desalination techniques for bacalao than the little old lady who’s been hawking it for decades? Vendors are usually pleased as punch to offer insight on getting the most out of their ingredients. Unsolicited advice is common, but asking for it specifically is useful flattery.
Be aware that if you’re planning on doing anything with an ingredient that isn’t within the Spanish school of dining (or at least European), you will likely get some funny looks. No problem there. You are a funny person, who happens to have a taste for exotic delicacies. Wear it with pride.
10. Ask for what you’re looking for if you don’t see it. If they don’t sell it, feel free to ask if they can give you any leads.
Herbs in particular are often hidden behind the counter, along with extra stockpiles of other goods. Ask.
If they don’t sell what you need, ask if they know of anyone else who does. Vendors typically know most everyone else selling in the building, and will be happy to recommend you to a friend.
11. Eggs are not refrigerated and don’t need to be. Also, it’s totally and completely worth buying the good ‘uns.
I’m not going to go into this in detail, because too many other trendy internet articles already have. Americans refrigerate their eggs because they are paranoid about cleanliness. Europe leaves eggs’ natural defenses against bacteria on the shell where they belong. That means they can sit out in the mercado, and also on your counter. They’re way more convenient to cook with at room temp, too.
Here’s the wiki for reading the egg numbers. Three’s the worst, zero’s the best. Yes, the zeroes are at least twice as expensive, which amounts to, what, another euro? If you eat eggs at the same rate I do (massively), invest in the best. They’re far more nutritious, and you won’t believe the difference in flavor.
Gather up your chutzpah and go check out what’s in season. Let me know how it goes, either if there’s anything I’ve missed, or what you discover and love. ¡Buen provecho!