Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel was absolutely heaving on Saturday. Right by the Plaza Mayor, the dainty ironwork structure dates back to 1916 and housed a neighbourhood food market until a couple of years ago. Changing shopping habits meant that it been struggling to keep going for years, with an increasing number of empty stalls. Then the city council decided to close it down altogether and revamp it as a gourmet market with stalls and bars selling shellfish, wine, cheese, charcuterie and all manner of tasty titbits. There is still a token fruit and vegetable stall, but it’s really more for show than anything. It has been a huge success since it reopened in May last year. I was there that day, and thought the crowds were attracted just by the novelty of it all, but it has really caught on.
People buy a plate of prawns from one bar, some oysters from another, order glasses of wine, vermouth or cava, and jostle for a space somewhere to enjoy it all.
It is a different story about a mile down the road at the Mercado de La Cebada, a huge food market on two floors. This one has been on its last legs for years too, and is slated to be rebuilt, although the plan seems to have come to a halt for the time being. On Saturday morning, traditionally the busiest time for food shopping in Spain, there were only a handful of customers and I hardly had to wait at any of the stalls. Lighting was dim and the overall vibe was just a bit depressing to be honest. That said, the produce I bought was fabulous, much better than at that lone stall at San Miguel.
There’s not much worth saving at La Cebada now unfortunately. The ugly 1950s building replaced an iron structure designed by Calvo Pereira in in 1875, based on Les Halles in Paris. It looks lovely in old photographs. Before that, grains, cereals and dried beans were bought and sold on the street here, a practice which had been going on since the early 16th century, when it was just outside one of the city gates.
Unlike San Miguel, La Cebada will still be a normal food market for the local community when it is rebuilt, although there are whisperings of incorporating a shopping centre too. There was a sports’ centre with a swimming pool alongside, which has already been demolished, but it is unclear whether a new one will be built, even though it was the only municipal facility in the centre of Madrid.
This area, La Latina, is the most traditional part of Madrid, with the oldest buildings in the city, but it is also really lively and fashionable. Cava Baja, the curving street that traces the line of the old town wall, is packed with upmarket tapas bars and restaurants.
So why not open a few delicatessen stalls and bars in La Cebada market? I’d do it right now, as goodness knows how long it will be before the structure is rebuilt. With San Miguel’s popularity set to become a problem, La Cebada could easily become the cool place to hang out away from the hordes of tourists, and locals might just start shopping there a bit more often too.