One of the joys of writing this blog is that I never know where it will take me. Three weeks ago, thanks to a post back in February, it brought me to a memorial for six Limerick men who died in the Spanish Civil War. Last weekend, I found myself standing in front of a group of 20 people from Bilbao on a gastronomy exchange…
I was giving a tour of the foodmarket and the Puertochico area of the city. Not only was it in Spanish but many of those on the tour already knew Santander well, some had studied here and a few were even from here. Rather than try to re-invent myself as a tour guide, I took a more literary or journalistic approach. Instead of listing off a stream of facts and dates, we walked the market and the city, stopping off at stalls and businesses to understand the concerns of those working in the food business in the region. But let me step back a bit first and explain how I got to this point…
It all started here one year ago when I wrote a blogpost called ‘The Market of Hope since 1904’ describing why I love the city’s foodmarket. I’ve always been interested in markets and love seeing them wherever I travel. Earlier this year, for example, on a family trip to Rome, I was very keen to visit the Campo de Fiori street market and we did a walking tour of the market which included tastings at stalls and at nearby local delis. It was rounded off by a pizza-making session which was the highlight of the Rome trip for the kids. It was a great opportunity for me to cross paths with the owners of some stalls, delis and restaurants that will serve me well every time I go back to the Eternal City. While walking the cobbles of Rome, it struck me that a similar tour would be brilliant in Santander. I was encouraged, on my return from Rome, to see that the market is going through a period of self-reflection. I was very lucky to attend a lecture on 11 June given by the (very sadly) late historian Jose Luis Casado Soto on the ‘Stores and Markets of Santander’ in a new public space inside the market. I loved the talk and I really liked the approach the market was taking – showcasing itself to the city and beyond.
A few weeks later I was contacted by Paz Gil, the owner of the Libreria Gil bookstores here in the city. Paz told me she was co-ordinating a gastronomy exchange between Bilbao and Santander and would like me to lead a tour of the market. This was back in July so it seemed like a good idea to take on the project.
Fast forward three months and I am standing in the sunshine outside the Town Hall at 11am waiting for my Bilbao Santander Sin Cocina group. I’m in the company of Oscar who is on the Market Traders Association and Domingo, an architect, painter and all round supporter of the market. I met Oscar earlier on in the week at the press conference for the event and he and Domingo were my back-up for facts and faces in the market. Also beside me on the tour was my brother. Luckily I have a brother who is a photographer and likes the architecture in the city. Unfortunately, it was my other brother Conor who had hopped on the plane from Dublin to Santander. I threw the camera at him anyway and here’s what happened:-
I introduced myself, explained a bit about why I was there and and outlined the structure the visit would take that morning. We walked around the block to the market where I gave a bit of context about the building and in we went. If you want to know about the history of the market, you can read my earlier post here.
My primary concern in the market was not to loose anybody and that I achieved. My main objective was to open up dialogue between the visiting group and the stall owners. And that was also very successful. I knew it would be tricky to manoevre the market with a large group on the busiest day of the week but the charisma and warmth of people such as Marta (on the Traders Committee) in the fish market made us feel like VIPS. Of course, we did have market royalty in our group – Begona – the president of the Ribera foodmarket in Bilbao was there and it was a joy to see her and Marta meet each other. I’m glad Marta is travelling to the Ribera Market in Bilbao tomorrow as I know she’ll enjoy meeting Begona again and meeting more of the stallowners in Bilbao. Marta is looking to arrange an exchange trip for the traders of both markets and is suggesting dates which are holidays in one region but not in the other – which is a great idea. I hope tomorrow kick-starts the process.
My oldest buddy in the market is Javi who works on one of the busiest stalls in the place for a few years now. He’s the friendliest fishmonger I’ll ever know. I first met him when he was working near Cuatro Caminos. I used to buy my fish from him with the three small kids swinging out of me so he’s sees me ‘warts and all’. He’s always so welcoming when he sees me in the market and was no different this day. His stall was doing a good trade in ‘bonito’ (tuna from the North) when I was there and I’m not surprised at 4.50 per kilo. It had been as low as 3.90 earlier on that week he said which shows the value that can be had at the market.
We also met the President of the Market Traders Association, Jesus Diaz, who had a huge queue of customers backing up so we weren’t able to speak with him for long. Jesus is very proud of the educational projects the market is involved with and told me of a two year waiting list for school tours to visit the ‘plaza’ and it’s no wonder. It sounds amazing. The visiting class is split into groups and each is given a shopping list and a recipe. The kids have to buy their ingredients and prepare it (with the help of a chef) and then they get to eat their meal (and Jesus tells me how teachers are amazed that even the fussiest of children eat up the meals they have helped prepare). It sounds like a great tour and a brilliant way for children to learn about and explore the market and see that food doesn’t need to be sold in polystyrene and plastic. It’s not just the kids that can benefit from these lessons!
After exploring the fishmarket in depth (and being told on many occasions that the price of fish in Santander was much lower than in Bilbao), we went upstairs to the meat, dairy and fruit and veg section. I suggested that the group look up at the ceiling which is a beauty and architect Domingo explained in detail some of the features that I had mentioned earlier such as the iron structure and the influence of Les Halles in Paris. (You can read all of this in my original blogpost here).
I guided the group from the fruit & veg stalls to the dairy. Both Ana and Mari-Carmen were up the walls and we were tight on time but provided some cheese I had ordered earlier for a tasting.
We stopped at the newest stall which opened last year and then went on towards one of the oldest stalls. Here again my best efforts of the previous few days were scuttled. I had planned to speak with Carmen the third generation of her family (and Oscar’s mother-in-law) to run the stall which opened with the market in 1904. But a customer with a long shopping list got in their ahead of us so it wasn’t to be. (I’m delighted the stalls were busy by the way – it means the market is working and will be around in another generation.) I brought the group over to examine some old photos hanging in an exhibit of the history of the market and then it was time to go downstairs to meet Emilio. By now, we were running about 10 minutes late really but what’s 10 minutes between friends.
Emilio Gutierrez is one of the new generation of chefs that is shaking up the culinary scene in Santander. I was introduced to him a few years ago by a friend Edurne Sanchez, who has tracked his movements across a number of kitchens of Santander. I saw him cook up some wonders a few weeks ago for the celebration of the bonito season together with Floren Buey who is the Head of the Chefs Association in Cantabria. I made a mental note to get Emilio involved in my session. I must have corned him on a good day in La Malinche, where he works and he agreed to come along and talk about what the market and Cantabrian food in general means to him. Emilio and Floren met us on the ground floor of the market and the talk was spellbinding. Emilio is a great orator and communicates food brilliantly. He talked about cuisine in the North of Spain and highlighted the local dairy industry as Cantabria’s often unsung hero. He whetted our appetite and we were enjoying ourselves so much, time flew and we had to say our goobyes to the Plaza. But we weren’t going far.
We walked behind the market to the city’s newest craft beer shop called 3er Tiempo run by Arnaldo. Also waiting inside was Andrew – the revered creator of one of Spain’s most popular craft beers, Dougalls. Andrew kicked off straight away and gave us a spectacular overview of the beer industry in Spain and why he started producing craft beer. A very witty delivery coupled with the beer which was washed down with bread made by Sandra Ubeda (a friend of Arnaldo’s) using Dougalls stout. We also got to taste the cheeses we had ordered from the top deck of the market (cheers again Ana and Mari-Carmen). Time restrictions dictated that we only sample two of Dougalls beers ‘942’ (Cantabria’s dialling code) and ‘Raquera’ (named after the raquero kids). Both were delicious as was the bread and cheese and we thoroughly enjoyed the visit although my time for the city tour was cut back to 30 minutes so off we marched at a keen pace.
We left the market and walked down Juan de Herrera which was a good location to explain the effect of the devasting fire of 1941 on the layout of the city centre. After some discussion about the difficulties of rebuilding a city in the post-war years, we crossed into Pereda Gardens where I spoke about the ever changing face of Santander. I highlighted Paseo de Pereda, the Ferry Station and the Botin Centre as well as Pereda Park itself which has received a massive facelift in the past 12 months. I spoke of the work taking place on the Botin Centre and how the building is uniting the city centre with the bay. I didn’t say it specifically but it struck me that Bilbao has its own (very positive) experience of a landmark building in the city centre with the Guggenheim and I’m sure Santander could and is benefiting greatly from the knowledge and experience in neighbouring Bilbao.
We made our way past the Old Crane and onto the Palacete and it was time to hop on the boat. Before we did Domingo gave us a nice sketch of the layout of the city showing how much of the centre is built on reclaimed land. I circulated a map painted in 1575 to illustrate this also. As we hopped on the boat, I gave everybody a 1958 map of the city of Santander by painter Esteban de la Foz. It was recently reprinted by an organisation I row with called Santander en Boga and it seemed like a nice memento of the city to give to our visitors. I had more maps to share thanks to Pedro but as the Pedrenera boat took leave of the port, and the light flickered on the bay, it felt like time to meet people properly and enjoy sharing the special views over a glass of wine and some great food. The tour of the bay was spectacular and everybody agreed that Santander from the water is a very beautiful sight.
Back on terra firma, my final task was to make a few suggestions for the afternoon which included exploring the Puertochico area in more detail, having an ice-cream from one of the many excellent ice-cream parlours (Emilio did a great job of selling the experience and quality of Cantabrian ice-cream earlier so I didn’t have to), taking the funicular up to the high streets of Santander and appreciate the view from the top, or continuing on towards the beach and exploring the sculptures in the parkland of the Magdalena Palace.
I have so many people to thank:
- Paz for putting me forward for the task and supporting me and my blog
- Domingo for his love and support for the market and more specifically for providing the nitty gritty architectural context to the morning
- Oscar for being my man on the ground and introducing me to many of the people in the market
- Marta also for her great introductions and her contagious passion for life
- Jesus for his openess and kindness (I promise I will return your book!) and his visionary education programme
- Arnaldo for being the friendliest new entrepreneur in town. And for having the patience of a saint also 🙂
- Andrew for being a great guy who makes the best beer ever. Visit his brewery near Lierganes as soon as you can. I’m hoping to take my brother out asap…
- A very large shout out to EVERYBODY WHO CAME ON THE TOUR. Thank you for spending the morning in Santander with me and making it such an interesting experience. Please use social media to hook up with me or stay in touch by email.
To those of you who have yet to experience the market in Santander, what are you waiting for? Let me tell you that I am now better well-versed than ever on the plaza and surroundings. Come on over to Santander and we’ll take a walkabout ourselves…