This is my fifth Christmas in a row in Santander. As you’d expect, ‘Navidad’ is very different here in Spain and nowhere is that more evident than at the dinner table. Fish and fishing are an important part of Cantabrian life and for the next two weeks (Christmas lasts right up until January 6 when the Kings bring the presents) I’ll be consuming quite a lot of fish.
Fish is everywhere – in the markets, in the shops, on the bar and restaurant menus and of course, in the home. People here go fishing, they talk about fish, they think about fish and they eat a lot of fish. I’ve seen stats suggesting that Spaniards eat their weight in fish each year. It’s hard to establish exactly what is eaten outside the home, but the average Cantabrian consumes a whopping 33 kilos of fish in their home in a year which is 24 percent more than the national average.
Given the importance of fish in this part of the world – one of the most interesting visits I’ve had this year was to the wholesale fish market in Santander called the ‘lonja’. I’ve fantasised about seeing this place since I moved here. You see, everywhere you purchase or consume fish in the city says that its produce is sourced at this mythical ‘lonja’. I hoped somehow or other this blog would take me there and thanks to a rather foodie-focused second half to 2014, I was in!
My invite came from Marta from Pescaderias Marta y Enchi in the Mercado de la Esperanza (if you don’t already buy your fish there – you should start). Marta collected myself, my brother and city architect Domingo on a Monday morning at an ungodly hour from our various points around the city. It was pitch dark when we reached the market at 6.30am and we could barely make out where we were so we didn’t hang around outside. Auctions used to be held in the afternoons, Marta told us, but throughout Spain the switch was made from afternoons to the early mornings. Marta says the schedule is much easier now – the early rises are hard but then you have the afternoon free. We went inside…
As we walked into the main building, we were spotted straight away and Marta was greeted with a dry-humoured request for ‘pasaportes’ by some of the guys there. She explained to us that she usually brings in somebody from the ‘outside’ once a year. I can’t bet on it but I reckon we probably stood out a bit more than her last group!
Inspecting the Produce
Inside, our eyes took some readjusting to the bright lights and there, it was, in every shape, size and colour – fish! I was in my element walking around the lines of crates that had been taken off the boats that very night. As you’d expect with so much fish, there’s a lot of ice and water and before we stepped out of the car Marta told us to be careful with the slippy floor. She was right too – it was like an ice-rink. I gripped my camera extra firmly – didn’t want that taking a bashing, whatever about myself!
Looking around, I could see the buyers were doing pretty much what we were doing – checking out the crates to decide what looked good. I was surprised by the difference in each crate’s content and presentation. Most crates were filled with just one species of fish – although I did spy a handful of ‘lucky dips’. And most were beautifully displayed. A few of the crates contained a single large fish – we learned that these bigger items tend to be bought by restaurants rather than the market traders or buyers for the supermarkets.
By the time we’d reached the end of the hall, it was time for the auction to begin…
Going going gone at the Fish Auction
Everybody had been friendly outside but in here it was business. Before we walked in, Marta mentioned that she felt very self-conscious when she went in with strangers – and I knew what she meant when we opened the door. The room is set up like a lecture theatre – with raised benches and desks – a real walk of shame! First you have to pass the auctioneer and then as you climb up the steps you go past all the buyers. There’s no slipping in and out – you’re there for everybody to see.
We crept in and went up to the back (behind Marta’s husband Enchi) as discretely as possible. You could hear a pin drop the place was so quiet. This auction operates Dutch style with the price starting high and falling until a bid is made and the item is sold. In the photo below you can see the white screen which shows the images of the fish crates going under auction, the black and red screen below shows the price (as it’s falling) and the name of the successful bidder when a bid or multiple bids are made. The guy in the high-vis jacket is the auctioneer who seeks a nod or some verbal confirmation of each bid from the successful bidder. There’s an element of tension in the room and a sense of competition amongst the buyers but the auctioneer is very relaxed or at least he appears to be with his steady voice and calm manner.
Alongside the auctioneer is the ‘niño’ – the boat’s rep who does the running and fetching on shore. Today that’s usually done by one of the crew’s wives or children. The ‘niño’ comes into the auction to observe the proceedings and to turn down a bid when it goes below whatever s/he felt was the reserve for that day. That morning we saw quite a few crates being removed from the sale by their ‘niño’. Marta said that those items might be offered instead to restaurants directly.
And what about the buyers, you ask? I’ve a soft spot for this profession since my time in Dell Computers. They were the rock ‘n roll stars of the entire operation and I was curious to see whether this was replicated here. I recognised quite a few faces from the market – including Jesus the President of the Traders Association. I was told there were quite a few buyers from the supermarkets – and while I was there I saw successful bids highlighted on screen by BM, Lupa and Supercor. I was surprised to learn that one of the buyers works directly for a restaurant – which is a new development here and not necessarily a popular one with the rest of the registered buyers as far as I could make out. I got talking to one of the supermarket buyers and he told me that technology was making his life a lot easier. Before he often found himself buying in response to a promotion set at HQ weeks earlier but today his supermarket is responding to his purchasing decisions practically in real-time.
Off the Boat
As we left the first round of auctions, we heard one of the smaller fishing vessels – a ‘bajura’ had just docked. Marta told us that priority is given to the smaller craft in the market – and when they arrive, all focus is on them and their catch. We went outside and it was beautiful to see the boat coming in and being unloaded.
And Into the White Vans
After all the auctions were over, the dockets issued and the bills paid, it was time for the bigger buyers to have their deliveries loaded up and the smaller buyers to load up their own crates into their vans. The dry side of the lonja was packed with white vans of every size and shape being loaded. We watched Marta’s Enchi wheel off their purchases – including a few crates of mackerel we’d seen Marta buy.
And that was it. We left the market.
It was only when we left that we got to see the outside of the building properly – it had been too dark when we arrived. The 5,769 square metres space (115 metres long x 30 metres wide) is an interesting structure designed by Juan Jose Arenas in 2003. If his name is familiar to you, perhaps you read my Llamas Park blogpost from this time last year. Anyway, these 20-odd flying buttresses which you can see in the image below (each measuring 7.5 metres) support the weight of the building – meaning the inside could be a wide-open space, free of columns which is exactly what you need in a market. If you’d like to know more about the design, you should see these images from the engineering firm which showcase the design brilliantly.
Whatever happened to the Old Lonja?
As you’d expect in a coastal city such as Santander, this new fishmarket isn’t the city’s first. Aníbal González Riancho’s creation from 1943 was demolished in 2006 – you can see an image of the ‘rationalista’ building one week before it was knocked here. Since then, the space has been used as a carpark but in a few weeks time, a new waterfront walkway and a playground will be opened. The mayor’s office expects the new cycle lane will be opened even sooner – perhaps this week. I knew the demolition of the old ‘lonja’ didn’t go down very well with the city’s architects. And many others including historian Jose Luis Casado Soto and parish priest for the area, Alberto Pico Bollada (two of the city’s great personalities who sadly passed away this year) had also campaigned for the building to be saved. There were no shortage of ideas for the space including a community theatre and a flower market. A number of architects put forward proposals which you can see here. It’s a real shame that a city so dependent on tourism didn’t save the old gem but it’s much too late for regrets now.
Who’s for Coffee?
History aside – the visit to the fishmarket was a real treat. Afterwards we went for a coffee at Enchi’s sister’s bar close to the site of the old ‘lonja’. I’m sure these walls have heard everything there is to hear about fish and much more. The hot coffee went down a treat after our early and chilly start. Marta was a real star and dropped us back into town before starting her day at the Mercado de la Esperanza market behind the Town Hall. Not many of the fish stalls open on Mondays but Marta goes in. Whatever she sells goes towards paying off a bill, she says, and she’s ahead of the game for the rest of the week.
So there you have it – Santander’s wholesale fishmarket! Have you been inside? Would you like to see inside one of these spaces? Some ‘lonjas’ are open to the general public. Do you think Santander would benefit by opening its doors?
Thanks, as always, for reading and have a lovely Christmas 🙂