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It’s 03.00 on a Tuesday morning and most of the raucous Spanish capital is unusually still. At Mercamadrid, however, the queues at the busy toll gates tell a different story. Perched on the city’s southern edge, the sprawling complex hosts hundreds of trucks ready to offload fresh fish plucked from the seas of Galicia and the Mediterranean, and off the coast of Morocco. Madrid may be landlocked but this is one of the world’s largest seafood markets.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first thing that confronts arrivals is the smell. But this is soon assailed by the sight of hundreds of frenetic customers jostling for space on the glistening concrete floor in lines stretching off into the distance. The central corridor is manned by an equally energetic army of merchants, eager to peddle the pick of the net to schools of fishmongers, chefs and supermarket sales reps. At 33,000 sq m, the Mercado Central de Pescados is just one of 50 buildings and warehouses that make up Mercamadrid. The hi-tech village-like complex has continued to grow since it was built in 1981. Today it serves as the hub for fresh food within a 500km radius containing more than 12 million consumers and is responsible for more than €1.3bn of trade annually. By 04.30 the flow of traffic on the loading bays lining both sides of the building has reversed: crates are being hauled back into trucks, ready for their final destination. More than three million kilos of seafood is sold here each week (a figure that nearly doubles during the end-of-year festive season), and stallholders recall visitors making pilgrimages from as far afield a Valencia, some 350km away.

“You have to eat fish because it’s good for your health,” calls out Ángel Onaindia, who is never one to miss a potential sales opportunity. His stall is named Casa Somorrostro and is loaded with fresh offerings as well as a conspicuous collection of Spanish flags. “We don’t go around the corridors stalking our customers; they know our product and where to find us,” he says confidently.

There are some 200 suppliers to choose from but many stalls have a speciality. A sturdy apron-wearing man makes a show of slicing succulent tuna fillets, while another merchant presides over large crates that are filled with hard-shelled Spanish delicacies, including razor clams, goose barnacles and periwinkles. Despite its seasoned vendors, the market has embraced innovation. There’s no cash in the building; instead transactions are conducted by quoting registered client numbers. The recent implementation of new digital system Setpesca allows clients to access past receipts, print labels and create digital records of the supply chain.

Back on the market floor, monocle meets 74-year-old Ángel Mozos Ramírez, who owns the Serpeska stall. It’s been a good day for the veteran fish merchant but it’s not over yet. As the owner of Madrid restaurant La Lonja, he understands the importance of eating fresh fish fillets and dispatches a qualified tip before continuing on his way. “Don’t order fish at a restaurant on a Monday,” he says with a coy smile. “The market is closed on Sundays, which means you’re most likely going to get the catch from the week before.” After 35 years the message on the Mercamadrid market floor appears to be as fresh as ever.

Fresh fish stalls

Mare Nostrum
“I’m one of the original stallholders from the Puerta de Toledo Market,” says owner Juan García Muñoz in reference to Mercamadrid’s predecessor, as he brandishes a 20-year- old Mauritanian lobster.

Pescados Bilbao
Owner Manuel Diáz Bilbao sells 3,000 to 4,000kg of the molluscs each week. He specialises in ‘pulpo’ or octopus ranging from 1.5kg to 10kg in size, which are sourced mainly from Morocco and Huelva in Spain’s south.

Congelados Ciento Cinco SL
Julia Gonzalo is one of the few female faces to be spotted around this male-dominated market but along with her brother Lorenzo she’s been swimming with the big fish since she first helped her father as a child.

Casa Somorrostro
Ángel Onaindia is one of the more established captains of industry on this market floor and commands a crew of 17 workers.

Serpeska
Boisterous owner Ángel Mozos Ramírez has been in the business since 1964. “There’s a much greater focus on quality now,” he says. When Monocle enquires about how recently these higher standards have emerged, he fires back, “It started when I got into the business!”

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