Mercado Central de Abastos, Jerez Market, Jerez, Spain.

Tripe and Trotters, Hairdryers and Handguns — Jerez Market

If the way to a culture’s heart is through its stomach, then the people of Jerez, whose market feeds them some of the finest produce on earth, must be the happiest people in Spain, if not the world. And they do seem to be a jolly and friendly lot.

Our first morning in the city, we hit the local market as we normally do. Conveniently located just around the corner from our current ‘home’ on Plaza Arenal, the grand old Mercado Central de Abastos may be compact but its stalls sell some of the best produce we’ve ever seen anywhere. And we mean anywhere in the world. And it’s all local, from the Cadiz province, and surrounding regions. We’ve been back a couple of times since and today the market was packed full of locals heading to their favourite vendors.

At the market’s centre is the pescaderia or fish market, and when we visited at noon it was packed although produce was running out fast. As we slowly wandered by the stalls, checking out the merchandise, the friendly fishmongers would pick up a fish and show us their bright red gills, a sign of freshness — with a grin.

All the stalls at the market are named and numbered, which we love — it means the proprietors are proud of what they do, that they want to be known, and want to develop a loyal customer base. And the local shoppers clearly have their favourite merchants.

Surprisingly, compared to most markets we visit, there seemed to be a lot of stalls run by women, and these appeared to be the most popular. Two busy women operated Hnos. Muñoz (despite the name, Hnos is short for hermanos or brothers), a seafood stall with a crowd that was swelling when we walked by, and, as a result, the only stall with a machine for patrons to take tickets for their turn. Their produce was spectacular — glistening, gleaming fish with bright eyes — which explained the throng. Mantina (No 5), also run by women was almost as popular, with little old ladies lining up to buy the last of their merluza and dorada.

The locals were also crowded around A. Delgado ‘Chaqueta’ (No 27) where the fishmonger was chopping up a colossal piece of fish to order while the ladies were trying his tuna steaks — marinated in olive oil, they told us, after they interrupted the poor man to insist he stop what he was doing and pass us the plate to try it for ourselves. It was delicious and a lot moister and flavoursome than its colour implied.

In the outer-market halls are stalls selling fruit and vegetables, cheeses and dairy, olives and pickles, meat, ham, sausages and cold cuts. The fruit and vegetables were the best we can recall seeing — enormous in size, perfect in form, and absolutely flawless — not a bruise or cut on anything. ‘E. Rubiales — Frutas y Verduras’ (No 37) sold what must be the most colossal strawberries known to mankind — from Cadiz, they were plump and fragrant and just coming to market that week.

Wild asparagus (a local speciality) was everywhere, thin, bright green and looking far less ‘cultivated’ than the bundled ones you see in the usual markets. Many stallholders had snails as well, another local favourite.

In the butcher’s hall there was lots of tripe and trotters among other ‘finer’ cuts of meat and local specialties painstakingly displayed beneath spotless glass counters — even the lamb’s brains were neatly presented in small plastic containers.

Carniceria El Migui (No 51) had a row of hooks above his counter upon which he hung little carved wooden signs to advertise the specials of the day, ‘Carne de Toro’ (bull’s meat) and ‘Carne de Cordero’ (lamb’s meat) when we visited. This butcher has a great reputation and we bought our oxtail here for our ‘local dish’ we were making. ‘Jose Antonio’ (No 64) seemed to have the choicest cuts of bright red meat — his specialty was ox tail — while Magdalena Sanchez (No 65), who had a lovely smile, had the largest variety of crumbed things, from Veal Schnitzel- and Chicken Kiev-like pieces of meat to all kinds of different croquettes.

On a stroll around the town yesterday (which we’ll post about another day) we discovered that the sense of pride in selling quality produce, on presenting it agreeably, and the tendency to focus on selling just a few things extends to other areas of retail in Jerez. Stores here specialise in everything from ribbons and buttons to hairdressing products and handguns.

There are two Carrefour supermarkets and an El Corte Ingles department store on the outskirts of town — we haven’t come across a big shopping mall yet — but the locals seem just as happy buying their new flat screen TVs from the tiny shop opposite our building. And who can blame them when they know the name of the owner and service comes with such a warm smile?

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