Visiting Mercamadrid: The Second Biggest Fish Market in the World

Enormous Mercamadrid market

The gigantic Mercamadrid market.

When people think of fish markets, their minds understandably wander to busy port cities such as Tokyo, Sydney, or Singapore. Few people would ever imagine that landlocked Madrid is home to the second biggest fish market in the world, second only to the enormous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan. And while in Tokyo tourists make their way in and out of the giant market (with a certain number of tourists per year often permitted to see the early morning tuna auctions), in Madrid entry to the enormous Mercamadrid is limited to employees and buyers only.

That’s right– Madrid isn’t marketing its biggest market to curious tourists!

When a blogger friend of mine asked me if I’d like to take her place on an early morning tour of Mercamadrid, I jumped at the opportunity to sneak behind closed doors and see what the second biggest fish market in the world (and also the biggest market in Europe) looked like on the inside.

An Early Morning Wakeup Call

My alarm was set for 3:30 a.m. and as I stumbled out of bed to catch a taxi I began to second guess my decision to join this strange excursion. I arrived to the Ministry of Agriculture to meet the rest of the group, lead by the General Director of Food Industries in Spain, Fernando Burgaz, and the owner of one of the city’s best fruit shops, Luis Pacheco of Gold Gourmet. Among the journalists were correspondents for magazines like Elle and the Spanish version of Zagat guides, the Guía Metropolí.

We boarded our bus and set off for the market. Only a 10 minute drive, Mercamadrid is located on the outskirts of the city. It was only 4:00 a.m. but we were soon backed up in traffic, as we were arriving at peak hours. We finally made our way in to the complex, and the first order of business was suiting up– there was no doubt that we were the outsiders.

Visiting Mercamadrid

All suited up and definitely not blending in.

The Fish

Our first stop was the world famous fish market. As we entered, the first thing that struck me was that it didn’t smell like fish. I was also surprised to see that a lot of fish came in frozen. Lastly, I noticed that the fishmongers were all men– not even one woman graced the floor.

As we walked around photographing these early birds in their glory, I wished we could have tasted the beautiful tuna before us– then again, I knew it was for the best I couldn’t (see below).

Fish at Mercamadrid, second biggest fish market in the world

Surrounded by fish in the midst of the morning madness.

Workers at Mercamadrid market in Madrid

Mostly men were working at Mercamadrid.

Mercamadrid fish market

Good morning!

Mercamadrid Madrid's biggest market

Fish for sale at Mercamadrid.

More fish at Mercamadrid

More fish!

Spain and Tuna

Bluefin tuna has been fished in Spanish waters for many years, and unfortunately it should probably be stopped at this point. As fishermen often catch the tuna before it has had the chance to reproduce, the species is disappearing quickly. Last year regulators stopped the fishing season early in both Spain and France (although that certainly didn’t stop everyone) and conservationists are seriously worried.

Read more about the issues at Slow Fish.

Tuna at Mercamadrid

Tuna at Mercamadrid was gorgeous, but knowing it’s at risk makes me sad.

Tuna at Mercamadrid

The bluefin tuna at Mercamadrid

Working at Mercamadrid

Hacking away (with lots of skill).

Breaking Down a Bluefin Tuna at Mercamadrid

Watch as this strong fishmonger chops up the tuna– doesn’t look easy!

The Meat

The meat market was much more modern and less exciting. Each wholesaler had their shop and storage areas. Everything was as clean as could be– and again, there was no smell whatsoever. As we walked through the chambers where pigs, lambs, and cows were hanging I felt an immense respect for these animals, and it was obvious that the professionals working with them did as well. I am a big believer in limiting my daily meat consumption, and making educated decisions when I do consume. While it isn’t always possible, especially travelling so often, this tour only reinforced the desire to know where my meat comes from.

Meat at Mercamadrid, Biggest Market in Europe

Meat hanging in one of the storerooms.

Luís Pacheco Mercamadrid

Luís Pacheco has been going to the market for decades.

The meats have to hang for reasons of hygiene.

The meats have to hang for reasons of hygiene.

The Produce

The sun was peeking through the clouds as we made our way over to the produce area. Fruits and vegetables perfectly waxed and boxed were towering in all corners. Again, the hygiene was incredible. Fruit shops all around the city would soon be supplying their neighbourhoods with the bounty before us– but I found myself missing that disorderly market feel.

Mercamadrid market

Everything looked perfect in the produce section.

Fruits and vegetables at Mercamadrid

Boxed and ready to go.

Green vegetables at Mercamadrid

It was definitely a green time of year during our visit!

Mercamadrid market

A view of the produce area from above.

The Feast

After our tour we were invited to a breakfast in one of the market’s conference rooms. I don’t know why they called it breakfast, as this 9:30 a.m. meal was more like a Thanksgiving dinner! Featuring an enormous spread of products from the market, we tried all sorts of meats, cheeses, hams, and even foie gras. It is probably the first and last time I’ll have foie gras for breakfast…

salmon at mercamadrid

This smoked salmon was a deceiving start to what became the biggest breakfast I’ve ever seen!

The Facts

  • Mercamadrid spans 176 hectares
  • It is the biggest perishable foods market in Europe
  • It’s the second biggest fish market in the world
  • Over 20,000 people work at Mercamadrid each day
  • Over 17,000 vehicles make their way in and out of the market daily
  • The products sold at Mercamadrid reach 12 million consumers
  • Spanish bluefin tuna is a hot commodity, with an estimated 90% going straight to Japan and lots of overfishing and illegal fishing occurring in present day
  • Entry is restricted to the public

I feel very lucky to have gotten an insider’s peek into the inner workings of Mercamadrid. I respect the people who wake up so early each day to provide food to the masses. I also appreciate the respect that these people show the animals they are working with. Given the popularity of Tokyo’s fish market, I think it would be an incredible tourism initiative to one day make the market accessible to adventurous tourists. Food tourism is only growing, and I guarantee people would be interested.

What about you? Would you like to visit Mercamadrid?

Comments

  1. My dad worked for FedEx for years – the only business I thought I’d wake up for early was sending international packages! I live close to Seville’s market, but getting me out of bed that early would need a big tour like yours!

  2. Berthy Prins says:

    I believe that hords of tourists will make it very difficult to do their work hygienicly. But I would love to visit Mercamadrid and have such an inside tour!

    • Hi Berthy,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree– tourists would make things difficult, but they do it in Tokyo without too much trouble! They do restrict access there (which makes sense). I think in Madrid they could work with certain tour operators and only allow small groups. It would be really cool to show people this!

  3. Toni says:

    Estupendo blog. Lástima que sea en inglés.

  4. Kerwin says:

    Way cool. It makes sense why the fish is frozen as they are so far from the ocean.
    I love visiting meat/fish markets when I travel. You’ve inspired me to finally write my post about visiting the one in Japan. It was mesmerizing watching them work.
    From your pictures and story, this one in Madrid is quite different from that one in Japan though.
    I grew up in the country eating lots of fish and freshly killed meat, so I enjoyed your post. Thank you.
    I hear they are stopping the tours in Japan so hurry…

  5. Jenna says:

    What a cool experience! Who knew Spain would have the 2nd largest fish market in the world. They should definitely open it up for (limited) tourism, but I’m glad to see the inside perspective virtually! Hopefully they can step up on tuna conservation, the fisheries statistics are frightening.

  6. I would definitely love to visit a market like this- What a great opportunity you had.
    Though I feel conflicted if they turned this into a tourist attraction because when things become “tourist focused” it changes the dynamics of how things operate and why, and it would likely hinder how all the employees work + hygiene. However, if it was limited numbers and with a big emphasis on education maybe that be different. I’d be curious to know why Japan is soon to be closing it’s doors to tourists.

    Curious to know where most of the fish and meat are sold too? Restaurants? Butcheries? throughout Spain? or it exported like most of the tuna?
    Where does the Produce come from? Greenhouses in Andalucia? From other countries? Does most of the produce get bought by fruterias in Madrid?

    So many questions for ya- you may have another post to write. Ha!
    Great recap of your experience!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] fact: Madrid is home to the world’s second biggest fish market! MercaMadrid is 2nd in size after the fish market in Tokyo, [...]

Speak Your Mind

*