Introducing: My Butchers…
When I look at these faces, it’s hard not to smile. There is, what I might call, a good-natured glow that washes over me. Once you take your eyes off the pig, I’m sure you’ll feel it too. For me, this photo sums up much of what I love about living in Spain, simply because it represents a more personal approach to where and how we choose to buy our food.
But before I bombard you with praise for covered markets and their individual stands (in particular, the butcher’s stand), I should admit something. As loyal of a client as I am today, covered markets were initially one of the things that intimidated me most about life in Spain. I was happy that they existed, and even included them in my list of must-see-sights for visiting friends, but never once did I actually purchase anything there.
The reason was simple. At first, I was completely captivated by this old-world way of shopping, much like anyone who grew up getting lost in stadium-size supermarkets. But this initial excitement gave way to fear, when I realized that no one had explained the protocol to me. Language barriers also played a role of course, but even after beefing up my Spanish (no pun intended), I still hesitated to approach the knife-wielding carnicero.
What worried me most was the barrage of questions the butcher might ask, exposing me for the food-dunce I was. “Was it for stewing, the grill, or the oven? How should I prepare it for you? Is this too thick a cut?” The possible tangles were endless. Instead, I convinced myself with that there was little difference between things like supermarket ground beef and what the butcher offered, an argument that fell apart when I actually saw and tasted the two side by side.
My first purchase at the butchers
With that experience, I finally worked up the courage to make my first purchase at a carnicería. In Madrid, you don’t have to go far to find a butcher. They’re scattered across the city center, along with the hardware stores, the drug stores, and so many other mom and pop shops that will hopefully be around for the next generation.
For me however, it was important to seek out a butcher in a covered market in order to get past the look-but-don’t-touch impression I had of markets. The Antón Martín covered market was the closest to home, but it also had an attractive, uneven polish from years of regular use.
Although as I entered the market, a new dilemma crossed my mind. How would I know which butcher was best? Their meat was all equally red, moist and plump looking, and most stands had a large number of people waiting their turn. In the end, I got in line at Javier Florez’s stand, simply because it felt the most welcoming. This was due almost entirely to the bantering between Ramón and Tomás, who were egged on further by the customers. I didn’t know butchers could be such entertainers.
Ramón, who helped me that day, claims not to remember our first encounter. I’ve told him how much that hurts… I’d timidly ordered 100g of carne picada (ground beef), for a grand total of 70 cents. Other butchers might have scoffed at such a pittance, but Ramón smiled, and simply said, “muy bien,” in a warm, upbeat voice that would have made anyone smile right back.
But my relief at the prospect of a problem-free exchange was cut short by his next question, “ternera o cerdo?” Beef or Pork? I’d never heard of ground pork, let alone thought I would have to choose it over beef one day. Seeing my hesitation, Ramón added, “o mezclado si quieres”. Mixed?? I could order mixed meat?
After a moment of silence, Ramón offered up that he personally liked to combine the two. I nodded and smiled again, the way you do when someone repeats their story and you’re still lost.
His patience with me that day solidified my return, as did the quality of the beef, which to be more accurate, is actually veal.
The real veal in Spain
If that makes you uneasy, I should explain that veal calves are not reared as intensively in Spain as they are in other countries. Compared to French and Italian veal, Spanish veal is sacrificed when it’s nearly twice as old (between 8-12 months). It’s what the British would call rose-veal, due to the meat’s darker color, especially when compared to the traditional milk-fed white veal.
Of the two cuts you see above, the one on top is ternera (i.e. rose veal), while the darker cut below is the older vaca (i.e. cow). Carnicerías like Javier’s typically carry much more veal than cow, as veal’s subtle taste and softer texture is preferred by most of his customers over the tougher, heartier cow. If you’re looking for something in-between, you can try añojo, the designation for animals sacrificed between 12-24 months old. If you’re main concern however is simply avoiding baby veal, just stay clear of ternera blanca, which by definition, is sacrificed between 0 – 8 months.
Besides the above guidelines, another helpful hint is if the meat has a protected place name, such as Madrid’s Sierra de Guadarrama. A protected place name (I.G.P. in this case) guarantees that the meat comes from a specific breed(s) – typically native to Spain – and that these animals were born and raised in that geographical area according to rules established by a regulatory body.
In the case of Madrid’s Sierra de Guadarrama, the IGP acts as a sociedad, and as a butcher, you have to become a socio to be able to purchase their meat. Although socios have to pay a membership fee, the advantage is that the meat bypasses the city’s wholesale market, Mercamadrid. Instead, it comes straight from the abattoir. Abattoir is such a nice word, isn’t it? It sounds much more appetizing than, straight from the slaughterhouse.
The only drawback to the sociedad, is that you have to buy whole animals… Javier (or Javi, as most call him) admits that this means more of the less-desirable cuts that are harder to sell, and fewer of the sought-after pieces that fetch a higher price. When stock gets low, the only solution is to buy more of those delicate cuts from his supplier at Mercamadrid, as everyone else does. So how do you know which meat is from the Sierra de Guadarrama IGP and which isn’t? “Just ask,” Javi said.
Besides pork, lamb, and beef, Javi also offers a selection of tasty cured sausages. He explained to me that in the past, homemade sausages were the best way for butchers to take advantage of less aesthetic, but yet perfectly good cuts of meat. This way, little went to waste. With Spain’s entry into the EU however, new sanitary laws restricted sausage production to those businesses with a separate license. The strict compliance requirements, and the additional space needed to carry them out, meant that few butchers have continued to make and sell their own cured sausages, one of the drawbacks of EU membership according to some.
Regardless, the chorizos that Javi, Ramón and Tomás sell are some of the market’s best. I’ll pick up a few to add flavor to my lentil stew, or to simply slice up and sauté. To commit that extra sin, I mop up the pan grease with a thick crusty slice of baguette…
My relationship with these three wise men has grown to the point where I now stop by just to chat whenever I’m in the market, which is almost daily. Once, on a slow afternoon, Tomás offered to take me down to the storage chambers beneath the market. I ran home to get my camera. As we descended the stairs the temperature quickly dropped. After leading me past a dozen chambers owned by other vendors, Tomás introduced me to Dani, the fourth member of the group and the one responsible for enduring the cold in order to break down the carcasses into the appropriate cuts.
After a very short conversation – I didn’t have a jacket on – I thanked Dani for showing me his “office” and turned around to head back upstairs. As Tomás followed me, he picked up a large bone that had been stripped bare. Inspecting it, he launched into an explanation of where it had come from, what meat it’d contained, how that meat should be cooked, and numerous other details that I’ve long forgotten. After a pause, he looked up and said, “But now it’s just good for shooing away pesky kids with cameras!”
The above two photos are another – albeit odder – example of that more personal approach to shopping I mentioned at the start. And while your local greengrocer probably won’t be attacking you with an artichoke anytime soon, no doubt they’ll be able to answer your questions on where that food came from and how it arrived in their store.
When this subject comes up in conversation, I try not to drag on too much about the benefits of covered markets vs. supermarkets. I risk being called pesado (“heavy” – i.e. a pain). Regardless though of the reason people give for relying exclusively on supermarkets, it’s hard to ignore the globalization of food scandals that keep cropping up. The supermarket ground beef you just bought for example, might very well have a tad bit of horse-meat folded in for good measure. Where did it come from? Possibly the US, where a black market has been shipping slaughtered race horses into the EU supply chain for years. This is sadly one more reminder of the lack of control supermarkets have over their suppliers, and in turn, the lack of control we have over what we consume when we opt for “convenience” above all else.
Things as simple as identifying the type of meat before the butcher slices off your portion, or seeing what goes in to the grinder and what comes out, can go a long way in generating confidence in what you eat. We shouldn’t let the faces below make us uncomfortable with the origins of our food – after all, they’re smiling. And wouldn’t you rather trust them over the industrial food supply chain?
Unfortunately though, the repeated food scandals have done little to slow the I-don’t have-time ethos that dominates life in most big cities, leaving the butcher’s future less than secure. Javi, Tomás and Ramón believe they’ll be able to retire from the trade, but can’t say if it’ll be around for the next generation. “We’re not the only ones,” Javi adds, referring to the fact that the covered market’s own survival is in question, with several in central Madrid having reinvented themselves over the past few years in order to turn things around. Will the Antón Martín market be next?
What about your own food environment? Do you have a local butcher nearby or a covered market that you rely on? How does the future look for them?
Carnicería Hermanos Lopez – Stand #39 inside the Antón Martín covered market on calle Santa Isabel #5. Open Monday – Friday, from 9am til 9pm and Saturday from 9am til 3pm. Metro Antón Martín (Line #1).