The Ultimate Guide to a Traditional Spanish Market
In Spain, most of the fun takes place in the markets. The markets are in every bigger town throughout Spain, and they follow more or less the same, unwritten, yet well-known and strict rules.
Not everything happens inside the market building. You can also find a few people selling things like wild asparagus, snails, dry and fresh herbs in front of the market.
BASIC RULES OF MARKET BEHAVIOUR
DO NOT TOUCH!
Whether the seller specifically asks in the form of a handwritten card or not, touching is always considered a big "NO". This is true for vegetables, fruit, fish, meat and basically everything else. It's a clever, centuries-old rule that prevents spreading germs.
Naturally, everything is governed by a a simple rule: First come, first served. Some stands have a dispenser where you can take a number and wait to be called, but there are usually not many of these stands.
At the rest of the stalls, you need to join the crowd of people waiting and loudly shout "Último?"( meaning last). It might sounds kind of rude to you, but trust us. You must be really loud, otherwise you have no chance of anyone answering you. Spanish people are used to this and consider this not rude at all. As soon as you hear the last one responding to you, you can stop noticing the dozens others waiting and fix your gaze on your close predecessor, and wait for your turn. It's not just that one doesn't have to remember all the people in front of him, but also that you officially join the queue. As soon as you hear another "último", you need to yell "yo!" to let the person know you were the last.
It's not always easy to know who's next
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
There are usually price tags for vegetables and meat, but not for fish. Rather than the intention to fool tourists, the point is that fish prices often fall towards the end of the market.
FRUIT & VEGETABLES
Buying fruit and vegetables is quite simple. The salesman might ask you if you want to have the leaves of carrots, radishes, etc cut off. You can point at a specific piece of artichoke, melon or onion, you especially like ( without touching!) and you will usually get it without any problems. Be careful when purchasing strawberries, avocados, mangoes, and similar. Usually the best pieces are beautifully displayed in a kind of pyramid, from which you cannot buy and which hides immature or overripe pieces. So always check exactly what pieces are put in your paper bag on the spot.
A mixture of local and exotic produce in one stall
With meat, the situation is a bit more complicated. Generally speaking, butchers will do whatever you ask them to do. They are real butchers, not just ordinary salesmen. They have been learning the craft for many years as helpers before they can open their own stall at the city market, and they know how to use a knife properly.
If the chicken is quite small (about one kg), you are expected to buy the whole piece. If it is a larger chicken, you can take either both thighs, both breasts, or a breast and a thigh, whatever you like. Most butchers have their thighs and breasts cut separately if you only want a quarter of a chicken. You can ask the butcher to get the skin removed, chop your chicken into smaller pieces, de-bone, get the breasts or thighs cut into thin fillets, everything is allowed.
If you want to buy some minced meat, you have to tell the butcher what part of the beef or pork it should be made of. It is very common for a butcher to grind in some fresh parsley into your meat mixture. When buying some minced lamb, be ready you have to get a whole leg, which the butcher will de-bone and grind.
When buying pork, you can choose from pork and Iberian pork, which is 2x and up to 5x more expensive. Unlike dried Iberian meat, fresh meat usually does not indicate the quality of feeding and breeding, but the butcher is usually happy to answer your questions about the origin. No order is too small, no request is too bold. The butchers are used to the demanding wishes of customers and like to show off their cutting skills with huge knives. You can also find salted dried bones and skins for sale directly on the counter. These are used in Spanish soups and cooked meats in a pot.
You can often find when buying beef, the same parts come at different prices depending on the breed. For a "chuleton" (rib eye steak) you pay from 10 to 30 euros per kg depending on the degree of marbling and the quality of breeding. Beef marrow bones are often for sale too.
Butcher's stall with a rich offer: meat, salami, dried bones, olives, eggs, extra virgin olive oil, and wine.
FISH AND SEAFOOD
Fish deserve a special article, because there are so many of them and each species has its own specifics. Here are some basic notes by individual groups of fish and seafood.
Order the amount you want, but don't expect a salesman to clean these ( take a skeleton off) for you. These go in a bag, you pay and that's it.
Handy tip! Shrimps often pierce the plastic bag you buy them in and release some juice, which can smell really badly, so be careful.
Small squid up to the size of about 10 cm is rarely cleaned as it is too much work for the salesman. With larger pieces, they might do so but usually only after you ask. They often son't do a great job and it is up to you to clean them at home properly.
Most retailers don't have time to do anything with fresh anchovies. Some sell whole anchovies for one price, then more expensive headless anchovies and the most expensive anchovies without head and spine. If you see this three offers on the counter, it is obvious not to expect the anchovy seller to clean your anchovies for free.
However, it is more complicated when there are only whole anchovies on the counter, which is the most common case. It's a good idea to ask if the seller can do this job for you or not. Some sellers make their own anchovies in vinegar and parsley, which they then sell in plastic trays at a naturally higher price.
Anchovies often cost 2-3 Euros per kg. However, cleaning them is not the easiest job. As a result, you usually have to clean them yourself at home.
You can ask for de-gutting, but as filleting is very time consuming it is usually not done on the market.
Bass, bream, etc.
"Escama y tripa" is the most common instruction, meaning scales and entrails away. "Para al horno" can be added, which means nothing else to do with it. Another option is to have the fish open for frying in a pan "abrir para la plancha". The last option, which not everyone is ready for, is to have the fish filleted, which is relatively coarsely done.
If you want an extra head for a broth, just ask. If you are lucky, this will be for free, but sometimes you will be charged . Often hake or monkfish are cut up similarly to a cow, and then the head is sold for a low price than the meat.
As these are usually larger fish, they are often cut and sold as smaller pieces. But you can also ask for a larger part to have cut off and spine removed.
Monkfish is really not an easy fish to clean, and the salesmen are therefore equipped with knives, scissors and swords to help them master this skill. Smaller fish (up to 1 kg) are sold as a whole one piece. Bigger fish are sometimes too, but not always. You can have "La cola" ( the tail) which is the body with meat, either cut into transverse round pieces or left as a whole one piece. The skin is taken off automatically, and the head is also cut off.
In addition to the central markets of large cities, the Spanish markets are often found in simple functional old buildings.
A traditional Spanish market would not be complete without a great selection of jamon as well as salami and cheese. You can find hand-sliced whole legs or boneless pieces in at least two quality grades on offer. When choosing your jamon, take a good look at the displayed products and choose the one that looks the freshest.
Especially with more expensive hams, it often happens that they dry out and oxidise due to less turnover, and it is therefore necessary to look closely. If there are no prices displayed, you should ask, because you can pay up to 20 euros for 100 g of good Iberian ham!
If you visit a country where market culture still exists, take advantage of it. The market experience is always very lively and refreshing, rarely monotonous. Visiting a market is fun because it is simply diverse, constantly surprising, and a fabulous way to explore other cultures.