To my surprise and pleasure, my first week as a working woman passed without major incident and the weekend arrived almost before I’d got properly started. Nevertheless, not wanting to waste three and a half glorious days of freedom (my weekends begin at lunchtime on Thursdays), I made plans to spend Saturday at the San Miguel Mercado near Plaza Mayor and Sunday at El Rastro, the infamous and enormous flea market in La Latina.
San Miguel is one of the oldest covered markets in Madrid and was recently restructured to attract a new generation of foodies. Fascinating as its architectural history is, I was more excited (to put it mildly) by the promise of 33 different food stalls and bars, offering a wide variety of tasty morsels from an unexpected range of countries (you can even get sushi) for the delectation of hungry madrileños and tourists alike. It’s like a glorified cocktail party with catering by Masterchef on speed. Unsurprisingly, at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon it was bulging at the seams. Following my two equally ravenous English companions, I squeezed myself up the steps and through the glass doors. I was instantly hit by a wall smells, colours and sweaty people. Believe it or not, it was more inviting than it sounds. Looking to my left, I could see a mini-restaurant, the front of the bar concealed by people sitting at high stools, drinking café con leche or caña con limón, whilst wolfing down bocadillos, or sizzling prawns on plastic plates. To my right was a stall offering numerous samples of jamón; passed that was one selling slabs of cheese and behind it I could make out a little booth filled with croquettas and a table strewn with oysters. Struggling through the crowds, I caught sight of the dessert section and practically convulsed. My stomach felt stuffed from the instantaneous visual feast, yet somehow I’d never been hungrier. My only complaint about San Miguel Mercado is that there is almost too much on offer – I felt besieged by potential gastronomic masterpieces, wanting everything at once and too overwhelmed to decide whether I felt more like mozzarella and smoked salmon bruschetta, goats’ cheese strewn with caramelised onions or a Japanese iced tea. In the end, I did what seemed most logical and plumped for a Caesar salad kebab. Interesting how putting something on a stick can complete remaster a familiar culinary experience. Rocking up with friends is also a good technique for diluting the dithering; we made sure that we each went for different options and eagerly shared our varying conclusions – and occasionally our food. The dessert section was particularly visually appealing. The swirly-tipped meringues, pastel-coloured macaroons and enormous, whipped-cream-topped ice-cream sundaes that adorned the glass counter-tops sang to me of a life of frivolity and delicious decadence. Showing enormous self-restraint, I decided to limit my sugar intake* and purchased a frozen yoghurt, dripping with passion fruit sauce and sprinkled with chocolate-covered almonds. That first spoonful instantly rocketed to number one on the *metaphorical* list of my top ten moments with food. San Miguel Mercado is now my favourite place in Madrid – I don’t think I’ve ever felt such instantaneous chemistry with a place. Needless to say, we’ve got a second date this Saturday. My taste-buds are already bursting with anticipation.
*By this I mean that I managed to control my urge to leap over the counter and dive headlong into the chocolate éclairs and baklava
On Sunday, I took my market-perusing in a slightly different direction with a trip to El Rastro (meaning ‘the trail’), the most popular open-air flea market in Madrid and another place where tourists and locals congregate. I had been warned that El Rastro is busy to the point of claustrophobia, but I didn’t appreciate exactly what people had been talking about until I tried to get onto the metro two stops away from La Latina and, after ruthlessly elbowing my way into the carriage, was forced to stand with my face in a fat man’s armpit until the doors reopened. It then took a good ten minutes to get from the train to the exit, as the swarming crowd shuffled its way up the three escalators. However, once I reached the open air and miraculously located the familiar face of my friend I was meant to be meeting, El Rastro began to get steadily better. We followed the throngs of people and headed down the road, away from the metro. After a few minutes the rhythm of the crowd changed as small tables covered in goodies began to crop up along either side of the road. Before long, the market was in full throng. El Rastro seems to have everything you could even vaguely want and – perhaps to its detriment – no filter for crap; you can find anything, from retro movie posters to nylon t-shirts to brightly coloured jewellery to flamenco dresses to gas masks. Like San Miguel Mercado, there was almost too much on offer.* I eventually settled on a couple of vintage Spanish-themed coasters. I’ve always kind of liked coasters, in a Monica from ‘Friends’ kind of way. I also managed to pick up a ‘silver’ ring for 3 euros. And it hasn’t turned my finger green yet. Total bargain. After we had finished navigating our way through the maze of tables (it stretches far beyond what you first imagine) we headed to Plaza Santa Anna and sat enjoying the sunshine with a cold glass of tinto de verano and some patatas bravas. On reflection, it was my favourite part of the afternoon. El Rastro was diverting as far as markets go, but, with me, it always comes back to food.
*Most of the chaos/moments of interest are best conveyed through photos, which is why I am including some.