Worlds Collide in Markets of Madrid

Photos by Juan Alcón

The markets of Madrid are transforming. Since the mid-19th-century, every neighborhood had its covered food market, with stalls selling vegetables, meat, bread, and various dry goods. The markets were owned by the city and the stalls rented out for a modest fee. A good deal for everyone: there was little overhead, meaning affordable food for the neighborhood, a good opportunity for small businesses, and an outlet for small local producers. Moreover, the market served as a public space, where neighbors ran into each other and gossiped, commenting on those little elements of daily life--who has fallen sick, and who has had a baby, and who got cheated by his landlord--that make a community.

This is where, rather predictably, the idyllic tone shifts to a lament: then came the big chain supermarkets, open at all hours, undercutting prices. And the processed foods, cheaper and faster than local produce. And the collapse of neighborhoods: who has time to talk to strangers?

So, all over Madrid, the markets have been slowly losing their clientele. The luminous halls go dark as one stall after another gives up and shuts down, and the old folks who remember what the market used to be wander forlorn between stalls which can scarcely afford to stock inventory. A few markets have been razed to the ground, others have been privatized and converted into shopping malls.

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But there are some that flourish. Antón Martín, Maravillas, La Paz, los Mostenses: a bright flurry of escarole, gleaming olives and crates of twitchy shrimp. Crowds of people of all ages, tasting and haggling and elbowing each other in line. How have these markets survived the general decline?

Mirror of a Changing Neighborhood

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Photo by Juan Alcón

El Mercado de los Mostenses was one of the first two indoor municipal markets to be built in Madrid, though the magnificent original building, inaugurated in 1875, was demolished to make way for the construction of the Gran Via in the '20s. The market is now housed in a modest brick building just behind the Gran Via, at the edge of the neighborhood of Malasaña.

It's not fancy and it's not groomed to impress. This is a highly functional market, about buying and selling foodstuffs. The novelty here, and the reason for which this market is booming while others languish, is that the foodstuffs sold here are from every corner of the world: shining mounds of Asian cabbages, Brazilian beans, manioc, okra. Products unheard-of and unknown in Madrid just a few years ago, but suddenly in huge demand thanks to recent immigration.

Some 15 years-ago, a few merchants in El Mercado de los Mostenses began to sell a small selection of Latin American products, and found an enthusiastic public for their wares. The idea caught on. Eventually the market became a point of reference for immigrant communities all over Madrid: that rare place where one could find the taste of home. Now, people flock to the market from all over the region. Many of the shopkeepers are from Latin America or China and specialize in products from their home countries, many now grown in Spain to accommodate recent demand.

In other stalls, typically Spanish products cohabit with international ones. Old Madrid adapts to a new reality, cheerfully pragmatic: "I don't touch the stuff, I don't know how to prepare it, but I certainly sell it. Everyone likes their own food, that's normal." But gradually tastes begin to overlap, as another shopkeeper observes: "At first people only bought their own foods. But now they try other things. Lots of young Spanish people come to buy yucca or plantains..."

Beating the Supermarkets at Their own Game

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Photo by Juan Alcón

El Mercado de Maravillas is also one of the classic old covered markets of Madrid, and has also flourished in this age of decline. Part of its success must be its location: the Calle Bravo Murillo runs right through the densely populated and traditional neighborhoods of Estrecho and Tetuan. But its prosperity can largely be attributed to an economy of scale: it's enormous. A half a kilometer around, to be precise, with 260 different stalls. When, some 15 years ago, the managers of the market saw the threat presented by the newly introduced supermarket chains, they opted to beat them at their own game. Why do people go to supermarkets? Because they're convenient and comfortable. So the Mercado de Maravillas invested in a free underground parking lot, escalators, racks of shopping carts and all the other amenities which make supermarkets so irresistible to many shoppers. There the similarities end: the market conserves its status as a public market, the stalls are still small family businesses, and the inventory they stock is dazzling.

The sheer size of the market permits it to accommodate all tastes and all price ranges. There are mark-down discount stalls and there are stalls which, as one shopkeeper boasted, retain generations of clients devoted to the green beans grown in a particular garden in Málaga, or asparagus from a certain patch in Aranjuez.

Many of the shopkeepers specialize in products from their home regions: there are different stalls for beef from Asturias and beef from Extremadura, suckling lamb from Ávila and from Burgos. There are stalls entirely devoted to mollusks, and others consecrated to legumes of every color and shape. You can find quails, pheasants, partridges, and ducks, as well as their respective eggs. Cheeses run from oozy, ashy, family-made cabrales to mass-produced gouda. You name it.

A Saturday morning in the Mercado de Maravillas is a magnificent scene. Restaurant suppliers, neighborhood regulars and devotees from all over the city crowd the aisles. Knives flash, splitting chickens and filleting fish at a terrifying speed. The little bars scattered throughout the market fill as shoppers pause for a cafelito or a sol y sombra (brandy and anise). There is haggling and gossiping, there is much tasting and poking of foods. So glad its not a supermarket.