Mechanical, beautiful, merciless. There they stood, gutting and chatting, fishmongers all, masters of their craft, placidly ignoring the one or two mad people (hello) early enough to have arrived at the Málaga food market – the Mercado Central de Atarazanas – before the day’s wares were unboxed, the shutters rolled up, the fish disembowelled. They couldn’t give two figs that we were there. They weren’t going to rush; this is just how their days start. An easy flick of the wrist and the prepared anchovy whizzes into the box. New fish. Practised movement. Mind hardly on the task, more focussed on the chat, which, of course, we couldn’t understand – or look away from.
We were meandering through the market, staring openly. The language barrier somehow making us invisible, or so it felt as we gaped, openly, at the links of chorizo, dangling from hooks. The huge heads of swordfish, de-bodied and staring at the metal roof, pointing their rapiers to the sky. Fuzzy sunset-coloured peaches. Gleaming red, yellow, green tomatoes. Tightly packed Padrón peppers, bundled, waiting to be seared and sprinkled with salt back home.
A fishmonger upended a bucket of prawns with a whoosh, sending them skidding across the white marble countertop, bouncing off shards of ice, skittering off in multiple directions. His container upended, he placed it down and reached out as if to gather the delicate pink prawns into his strong, downy arms, only to slide them to his left; room must be made for the langoustines. Another bucket appeared. Another pink-grey deluge commenced.
Another stall was all about shellfish. Razor clams and winkles amidst types we’d never seen. Partitioned and perfect. Closed shells in shades of seabed, sand, and slate. Moving around the corner we found a miniature stall, not much more than a rickety white chest freezer. As the man slid back the lid, I half expected to see ice creams wrapped in foil. Instead, layers of creatures and crustaceans, arranged almost archaeologically in the ice, waiting for someone to send the stall-runner a tentative “pulpo?”. Diving beneath the cardboard shelves, pulling outside the packages and parcels of all sizes and secrets, he unearthed a small, round ice-tinged purply cephalopod with a triumphant grunt and a raised eyebrow.
A few laps later, my eyes landed on a few boxes in the far corner. Fresh herbs, perhaps? Finally? A teenage boy on his summer holiday (I presume) was there, stacking and grabbing with his too-big-for-him gloves. Moving bundles from one place to another. I pointed, energetically, at the bottom box, the Spanish for “mint” escaping me entirely. Gesturing and half phrases ensued, from him and me, before a big no-nonsense bear of a man appeared from behind the back wall of boxes to deftly unwrap a bundle, the smell of fresh damp mint escaping briefly, before pirouetting behind me to hand it to the greengrocer, who weighed, bagged and reached out for the requisite Euro. Quick, practised, graceful. Seemed I’d inadvertently found the herb man, delivering to the stalls who stock them, before his rounds. All the bunches still wrapped in brown, crochet-looking cloth.
Purchase made, we emerged, smiling, smelling cleanly of mint, and step out in the sunshine, blinking at its fierce 8am blaze, and off to cook.