Mercado de la Cebada has been through some ups and downs over the last couple of centuries, but what didn’t kill it made it adapt. It’s one of Madrid’s only markets to have kept up with the times while also staying true to its roots, and this determined attitude echoes that of Madrid itself.
Mercado de la Cebada began its life hundreds of years ago at Puerta de Toledo. Farmers would bring their produce by horse and cart from the surrounding countryside and set up ramshackle stalls similar to today’s rastro.
In 1875, the city hall finally granted these weathered merchants a permanent home, building a beautiful Victorian-style covered market in the heart of La Latina.
Stall holders who couldn’t get a spot inside the market would set up their stall outside on Plaza de la Cebada.
The best part of a century after its initial construction, in 1958, the ageing market had become so unsanitary, with its rusting nooks and crannies and blood-stained floors, that it was torn down and replaced with today’s kitsch two-storey building.
But then, 25 years ago, stall holders faced a brand-new problem: supermarkets. Dozens of them appeared almost overnight, like sinkholes in a fragile mining town, snatching even the most loyal of customers away from the mercado.
“Almost every unit was empty and it looked like this was finally the end for Cebada.”
Many stallholders held on to the hope that these newly globalised shoppers would one day come back to the market, realising the value of local produce bought from local people. But after everything that Mercado de la Cebada had been through, a few years ago it nearly went to join its Victorian ancestor in mercado heaven.
It was to be torn down and replaced with a monstrous shopping centre under plans overseen by Madrid’s then mayor, Ana Botella, giving the neighbourhood its very own capitalist soul vacuum. Fortunately, these plans were stalled by local opposition and ultimately shelved thanks to a change of local government. The demolition never began, and Madrid’s new mayor, Manuela Carmena, last year announced that the mercado was here to stay – at least for now.
After decades of uncertainty compounded by an economic crisis, businesses are gradually repopulating the units and the market is regaining some of its former bustle. But, while Cebada will always have its traditional carnicerías, pescaderías and fruterías, it would struggle to survive without its new, innovative additions: wine bars, organic veg shops, international eateries and more.
You can find a butcher’s juxtaposed with a minimalist juice bar, and a neon-clad taco joint hiding behind a frutería. Upstairs, there’s an elegant Sicilian lunch spot opposite a pescadería – you can sit at the bar with an aperitif of limoncello whilst watching aproned fishmongers hose out gallons of fishy ice after a successful morning’s trading.
At 2 pm on Saturdays, traders end their day with a well-deserved caña at one of the rustic market bars while cheerful millennials take the edge off with a local Rioja in one of the new wine bars. Another new trend stands on the shoulders of Cebada’s traditional pescaderías – every Saturday, seafood stalls on the ground floor group together to transform the market’s central aisles into electric avenues of seafood bars, like Mercado San Miguel but without the tourists.
Mercado de la Cebada is modernising, but it’s ahead of the curve in recognising that not all change is good. It’s this harmonious contrast between old and new that gives the mercado its unique, eclectic vibe. During the week, it’s a place to do your weekly shop, to get a traditional Spanish menú del día, and to chat fish, meat and tomatoes with local vendors. But, when the weekend comes, the market transforms into a no-frills foodie festival, and the huge vaulted ceiling reverberates with the sound of laughter, conversation and a bit of clapping – let’s call it the madrileño hum.
And whilst many other mercados across the city have given in to globalised hipster trends (think cereal bars), Mercado de la Cebada is yet to succumb to this hype. For now, it’s the best of Madrid in a two-storey building, and let’s hope it stays that way.