Mercado de San Miguel: A Jewel in Madrid’s Culinary Crown (Spain)
There’s a thing called “place attachment” , a special fondness for locales or regions that one identifies with. Add the fact that childhood memories are firmly anchored by the senses - smell and taste in particular - and you have a powerful pull for a specific place in time indeed. Case in point , me with Madrid (Spain), where my brothers, parents and I lived for months at a time at different stages of our lives and I’ve always associated with my matrilineal line. How could I forget my first taste of Jamon Serrano at the age of eight, which I’d eaten straight out of the wax wrapper just outside the butchers, or horchata, that milky white, sweet beverage made out of tiger nuts that was introduced to Spain by the Moors . I thought I’d died and gone to heaven the day I savoured churros con chocolate, a crispy fried-dough pastry traditionally washed down with chocolate so rich a spoons could stand in it. Forging a friendship that transcended time with my cousins Paloma and Elena, we’d pick up where we left off despite the years that passed in between. With our mothers now gone, I felt a yearning to re-connect with my roots on a recent 9-day stint in Madrid.
Paloma: “What do you feel like doing while you’re in town?”
Me: “Hang out with you and Elena. Talk non-stop. Eat amazing food.”
What followed was my introduction to the most popular market in Madrid, Mercado de San Miguel , a stone’s throw from one of the city’s main hubs, Plaza Mayor.
More gourmet tapas hotbed than traditional market, Mercado de San Miguel brims with a mind-boggling, tastebud-bursting array of pintxos, tapas, oysters, paellas, prime beef, hams, seafood, pastries, croquetas, caviar and every conceivable Spanish culinary delight that you can dream up. Even better, your selection from t his gourmet extravaganza can be enjoyed on the premises and washed down with your favorite tipple, whether it be beer, wine, sherry, champagne, a cocktail or freshly squeezed juice. With 33 stalls and a multipurpose central area capable of hosting food expos and concerts, Mercado de San Miguel is a culinary temple where the product is king and shopping a recurrent pleasure. It’s no surprise that the market receives, on average, 60,000 visits per week.
HISTORY: The real estate on which Mercado de San Miguel sits dates back to 1430, which corresponds with the first known urban site for medieval Madrid. Originally surrounded by ramparts, some of which still remain today, the bastions featured a series of doors that gave access to major roads that eventually became the main arteries of the city. Traditionally used by transporters and traders, women from Leon regularly brought in fish by cart and sold them from makeshift stands in the 1800s. By 1835 the area was transformed into a public square. Impromptu stalls made up of carts and crates packed with perishable goods began appearing on the scene, eventually becoming fixed structures.
The original iron-and-glass “Parisian Style” edifice of Mercado de San Miguel was constructed and completed in 1916 under the direction of Alfonso Dubé and Díez. I t operated until the Civil War 1936, when it was forced to close to all activity. Reopening in 1951, it supplied Madrileños with their fish, meat, tripe, poultry, vegetables, fruit and olives from villages and towns near the city. For a long time after, the market was the purveyor to the finest restaurants in town.
The 1980s heralded Mercado de San Miguel’s decline, thanks to the rapid urban expansion, isolation from wide access roads with little space for transit, and the speculative growth of the surrounding environment. In 2003 it was salvaged and its stunning transformation began. Today, the new market of San Miguel is the only steel structure market that has survived in Madrid and was finally declared a Cultural Monument of interest in its category.
BACK TO THE PRESENT DAY... Paloma, Elena and I made a beeline for La Casa de Bacalao (Stalls 16–17) the moment we entered the market. After acquiring half a dozen different tapas of salmon, cod and tuna atop mini toasts for 1 euro apiece , we strategically went in different directions, one of us to grab 3 beers from the cervecería, another to do a quick recce on the seating situation, and the other to sniff out other goodies that might take our fancy. Propping ourselves up on the stools and spreading our culinary delights on the steel table, we ate and drank with gusto, acquiring more delicacies on the whim of our appetites as morning stretched out into afternoon: fried calamari, jamónes , three different cuts of beef, seared and sliced to perfection. Casting my eyes over the tapestry of humanity around us, I drank in the sights, smells, sounds and vibe, another memory anchoring itself in my psyche.
Whenever one feels less than secure, one tends to seek out sensual memories of a distant time and place that has nourished the soul. While my memories may start and end with family and friends, in the midst of it all there is always food.... and a very special place for Mercado de San Miguel!
OPENING HOURS: Monday to Sunday from, 10:00 am. to 10: 00 pm. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays the market is open until 02:00 am.