We arrived in Cádiz after a 3-hour train ride from Córdoba, our heads still spinning from the rum garrafones of the night before and both of us hungry, especially hungry for something salty and fried. It was already 12:30 in the afternoon and all we had eaten that day (at the train station in Córdoba) was a horrible little chocolate “muffin,” a croissant, and a pathetic breakfast sandwich filled with what claimed to be tortilla (Spanish omelet) but what was actually just a greasy mash of day-old potatoes. As the train pulled into Cádiz station, I darted right off and dragged my boyfriend straight across the main plaza, passing the cathedral and all of the beautiful sites that one normally stops to take a picture in front of. Not us. We were on a schedule. We were bound directly for the coast. From there it would be 5-minute dash to the Mercado Central de Abastos. And for me this was priority #1 in Cádiz.
The market was originally designed by Torcuato Benjumeda in the shape of a Neoclassical quadrangle with Doric columns around the entrances. It was first opened in 1838 and remained practically untouched until 1928, when it was refurbished under the leadership of Mayor Ramón de Carranza, and the building in the central space within the Neoclassic walls was constructed. From 2006 to 2009 it also underwent intensive remodeling and was finally reopened to the public in October 2009. The market now boasts 57 fruit and vegetable stalls, 54 fish and shellfish stalls, 44 meat stalls, 7 grocery stalls, 4 bread and pastry stalls, 1 olive stall, 1 stall selling bags and paper and a cafe located on the first floor.
The interior of the market (the more modern building, last renovated in 2012) is reserved for seafood and is absolutely spectacular. Everywhere you turn it´s shrimps, prawns and langoustines, octopus, squid and cuttlefish, this type of crab, that type of crab, barnacles, oysters, razor clams and almeja clams, mussels and heart clams, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, bonito, bream, turbot, sole, monkfish, mullet, bass, grouper, hake, cod, skate, trout, salmon, and (of course) the king: the ruby red, glistening bluefin tuna. Tuna in Cádiz is caught with the ancient, originally Moorish “Almadraba” method, which involves setting a maze of nets that leads to a central pool called a “copo,” raising the floor of that central pool in order to hold up the tuna and then easily slaughtering many of them at once. This usually happens in the spring, when the fish enter the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic.
The outer ring of the market (the space between the ancient columns and the new building constructed in 1928) is lined with stalls selling meats, cheeses, cured and dried seafood products. But what make this area one of the most beloved social hubs of the city is its rincón gastronómico (culinary corner) made up of various ready-to-eat food stands where people line up for different types of fried and grilled seafood dishes, tortillas, olives, cheese and charcuterie, various types of tapas, beer, wine and sherry. We chose DKY Gastronomía Gaditana de Abastos, specializing in local favorites. They offer chocos (cuttlefish), almejas (clams), and puntillitas (very small squid) fresh from the market and cook these in a kitchen visible across a counter. They also make a typical sandwich from Cádiz called a dobladillo, which contains two slices of mackerel and tomato between bread, and is called a dobladillo (doblar = to bend) because the oil dripping from the mackerel stains your shirt if you don´t lean forward when you eat it. The line at DKY was the longest so, naturally, we got right in, and after a few minutes we were contentedly walking to the nearest wine stall with two plates full of yummy local eats.
These small fried cephalopods are called castañitas or almendritas (meaning “little almonds” to refer to the almond-shaped calcium shield that covers the soft body). They´re similar to squids, slightly chewy and with curly tentacles that get entangled in batter, crisping up nicely when deep-fried. Thinking that the shell was soft enough to eat, we did just that, crunching on them and swallowing down all that crushed up limestone, which is now probably deposited somewhere in our own digestive systems, waiting in vain to be processed. We only found out afterwards that these are not meant to be eaten and that the animals had not been properly cleaned before frying. I guess next time I come across something like this I´ll make sure to pull the body off and discard what is clearly a thin sheet of rock attached to it… In the moment I was a bit too excited and famished to do so.
And then the famous tortillitas de camarones, an Andalucían must-have. This is a thin fritter made with a batter of wheat flour, chickpea flour, water, onion, some parsley and a type of very small shrimp of the species Palaemon longirostris, which is difficult to find outside of this region. The shrimp are so small and their shells so thin that they are not shelled or cleaned before they are eaten. They´re just thrown into the liquid batter and fried up whole in plenty of searing hot olive oil to create what looks like the crustacean version of a scene from Pompeii. It´s a very cool-looking snack indeed: bumpy, uneven sheets of golden batter accented by green dots of parsley, with curled up shrimps and bits of onion stuck here and there. The flavor is very nice, salty and slightly sweet from the shrimp, with the savory depth of chickpea flour fried in oil that reminded me of the crunchy exterior of falafel. It was also very crispy, snapping pleasantly into bite-sized shards as we attacked from both sides.
The rincón gastronómico area of the market, complete with stands selling delicious seafood paired with fresh local wine, is the mandatory Step 1 in fully experiencing the Mercado Central de Abastos in Cádiz. Step 2 comes when you leave the market and meander through the maze of narrow streets around it, completely lined with restaurant terraces (white-tablecloth or informal) and some random culinary performance artists right outside the latter. Folks shucking oysters, chopping fresh urchin and ladling miniature shrimps into paper cones, as restaurant patrons sip their sherry, eat their more intricate fish dishes and watch. It´s like a circus, an entire neighborhood worked and enjoyed by food lovers, and one very difficult to pull me out of.