Choosing the best food market in Madrid shouldn’t be too difficult. Madrid is, after all, a city to be eaten through, a city of interminable tapas, taverns, restaurants and bars with as much solid as liquid sustenance.
And now it is also a city of markets, revitalized after years of decay.
When I was a child growing up here, we went to the market, and I remember learning how to – in those pre-cellophane days – gently nudge produce and look for the crispest celeries, the greenest salads, the reddest radishes.
Eventually the time-consuming habits of housewives – you rarely see a man shopping in a Spanish market – evolved towards convenience. Shopping carts on wheels replaced wicker baskets hooked lazily over an arm, and produce markets gave way to supermarkets. Women had entered the workforce and no longer had time for leisurely shopping. Nor did all middle-class families have a maid, usually a young girl from the countryside.
The result of this shift was the beginning of the end of large, weekend markets. Until relatively recently, what are now considered Madrid’s two best food markets were slated for destruction, no longer relevant, no longer needed.
Both San Miguel and San Antón had become carcasses, yawing industrial hangars with spiderwebs instead of shoppers.
Enter the municipality of Madrid, which saw in these sprawling emptinesses some great possibilities. They set to work.
Mercado de San Miguel
San Miguel wasn’t always a covered market. In medieval times it was a large open square, flanked by stalls with fresh produce, especially fish. Eventually a church was built on the little square and then destroyed by fire, rebuilt and finally razed in the 19th century to open up the heart of Madrid. It became an open-air market again and by the mid-1800s hosted some 200 merchants.
Hygiene was poor, traffic increased and the city fathers began thinking of covering it with a permanent overhead structure. Initially only a facade was built to ‘hide’ the market from the street but by the early 20th century covered markets were all the rage. This particular one was inaugurated in 1916 and after decades of use was remodeled and refurbished in 1999 – just in time for it to fall into disuse and abandon.
Taking Barcelona’s Boquería market as a model, a group of historians and food lovers took over San Miguel and decided to save it from certain destruction. The result: a gastronomic superstore where eating on the spot is far more important than buying to take home.
As I stood munching jamón de bellota – acorn-fed ham – this morning (it’s just to the right of the main entrance) a commandeering woman waved a Brazilian flag above her head, calling her flock to her.
“We’re now on the tourist circuit,” said Veronica, slicing slivers of the famous ham straight from the leg. “This has revived the area.” I’m not sure about that – the area in question is Old Madrid and its enormous central square, the Plaza Mayor, is just across the street and hugely popular.
But I get her point. Without the investment tourists wouldn’t have come and without tourists, the market would have died a quiet death. “They don’t just look,” said Veronica, “they actually buy.”
A quick glance at the lunchtime – anytime actually – crowds will tell you the wager has paid off. I don’t know if the original investors have recouped their money but the market is full to breaking, and I wouldn’t visit Madrid without stopping here for some jamón. Or some pimientos de Padrón. Or some navajas.
Neither should you.
Mercado de San Antón
As I prepared this most recent visit to Madrid, I happened to read an article about San Antón market, one which called it “the new San Miguel, the market San Miguel would like to be.”
Like waving the proverbial cape at a toro, these are fighting words, a gauntlet thrown down daring me to get me off my feet and take up the challenge.
I arrived in Madrid on a Sunday afternoon, so the grocery stalls weren’t open but helpfully housed behind light grills and easy to see. A fishmonger, a butcher, a dairy, all delicacies behind bars, the chorizo and hams and Manchego cheese tauntingly beyond my reach.
On the second floor my world began to rock as I wandered among the various ‘food stalls’ – or tapas stalls or stand-up restaurants or call them what you may. While San Miguel specializes in more Spanish fare (which doesn’t stop it from showing off pizza and a few other non-Spanish foods) San Antón is a little more out there, its clutch of international fusion-food and foreign stands appealing in a different way.
The Spanish have belatedly uncovered their love of foreign foods so a sushi market rubs elbows with a trattoria and a seafood bar, a bit like a food court that has something for everyone. A Greek display looks tempting, but I come to a screeching halt at Foie, where unusual liver mixtures are Spanified – croquetas with mushrooms and foie gras, for example.
The architecture is far more modern, having been built recently after the old building was torn down. It suffered a similar fate to its cousin San Miguel across town. When San Antón’s habituals drifted away to supermarkets and malls, the market had to fend for itself and began its downward slide. By 2007 the association of San Antón’s merchants weighed in, aware they would have to do or die.
Like San Miguel, this market has now found its niche. It lies in the heart of Madrid’s trendy gay neighborhood and its mixed nature – restaurants, stalls and groceries – is perfect for the location.
We may decry the disappearance of traditional marketplaces, with their crunchy fruit and bumpy vegetables but far from autodestruction, these two Madrid markets have simply traded in last year’s complacency and decline for this year’s stylishness.
So which of the two is the best food market in Madrid? Given a choice I’m partial to San Miguel, by nature preferring the older to the new. But if you like soaring spaces, fusion food and modern decor with rooftop bars, head to San Antón.
Either way, if you’re a foodie visiting Madrid, both are a must.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- Both markets are easily accessible by public transportation. To get to San Miguel, take the Metro to Sol. Walk down the Calle Mayor for a few blocks and it will be on your left. If you’re hit by a yearning for chocolate, halfway down the Calle Mayor on your right is the fabulously famous San Ginés, which serves one of the best chocolate con churros in Madrid.
- Getting to San Antón is equally easy. Take the Metro to Chueca, then ask – it’s only a couple of blocks away.
- You’ll find more information in English on the Mercado San Miguel’s website. San Anton, unfortunately, only has a Spanish site.
- You can easily eat until midnight at both but check if it’s Sunday – schedules are different.