Food markets in Extremadura: renew or die

Some have been converted into new gastronomic spaces, others survive clinging to the traditional concept and some, like the one in Mérida, have ended up closing their doors. In the era of shopping malls and online shopping, it seems that food markets and old galleries are forced to renew or die, and the truth is that in the last five years half of the 65 who survive in Estremadura They have chosen the latter.

In 2017, the Board launched a line of aid aimed at revitalizing and modernizing these spaces, which it considers "a key element for the development of commerce". A census carried out by the Ministry of Economy puts the total number of food markets in the region at 65, which together add up to 1,118 stalls.. But nevertheless, only 60% currently maintain their activity. Most are small and located in rural areas: 63% are in towns with less than 5,000 inhabitants. Don Benito, Moraleja, Castuera, Almendralejo, Guareña, Zafra, San Vicente de Alcántara and Jerez de los Caballeros are some of the municipalities that have benefited from this aid, which in total they have reached 36 markets for 46 projects.

According to data from the department he heads Rafael Spain, 2.9 million euros have been granted in aid and this year it is planned to launch a new call endowed with 800,000 euros from March. In order to qualify, it is necessary to make a minimum investment of 10,000 euros, that the market has an occupation of at least 35% and five positions in operation. It is also valued that it is open every day of the week, the variety of products offered to the consumer beyond fresh products or the improvement in energy efficiency.

traditional paper

The food markets or plazas were born to guarantee the supply to the population. Historically they have been agglutinating of an important economic and social activity, since they were the only locations that gathered in the same place a varied offer of food products. Its decline began in the 1960s and 1970s with the appearance of the first supermarkets and the novelty of self-service. In the 1980s, with the rise and expansion of hypermarkets, they ended up losing their hegemonic role.

The one in Mérida closed in 2018 for a remodeling and it has recently been confirmed that it will not reopen for commercial use: it will be transformed into a museum of history and archeology

So much so in Badajoz, the city with the largest population of Estremadura, there has been no food market for almost 20 years. Currently, the closest thing is the La Plaza shopping center, in Pardaleras, where the relocation was offered to the stalls that worked in Santa Ana before this space became a municipal library. The best-known market that the capital of Badajoz had was in the Plaza Alta, in the famous Metallic Building, which between 1975 and 1977 was dismantled and rebuilt on the campus of the University of Extremadura, where it remains to this day.

In Mérida there is no food market anymore. The historic building of Santiago Calatrava, in the heart of the city, was closed in 2018 to undergo a comprehensive remodeling due to the terrible conditions in which it was found. Looking at initiatives such as the successful San Miguel Market in Madrid, the Mérida City Council opted for privatization to transform it into a gastronomic space with food stalls and hospitality, but it did not go well. The tender was deserted and in a second attempt it was awarded to Larry Smith, the only company that submitted an offer and entered into bankruptcy proceedings before finishing the work.

Finally this idea has been discarded and the mayor, Antonio Rodríguez Osuna, confirmed in November the change of use of the building: now it will become the Museum of History and Archeology of Mérida after an investment of three million euros from the Ministry of Culture. “It makes no sense in the 21st century and in a modern city like Mérida to set up a 19th century food market, which was created for supply and subsistence. It makes sense in the municipalities that there is not a great commercial offer, but not Mérida," he defended in statements that have been criticized by opposition parties.

Something similar was tried with the Ronda del Carmen Market in Cáceres. In the last legislature of the PP he underwent a comprehensive remodeling in which one million euros was invested and in 2021 it celebrated its 25th anniversary with 18 fresh stalls open on the ground floor, but empty on the first. The idea of ​​the city council of Cáceres is to give this space a hotel and leisure use to turn it into a gourmet market, but the tender was deserted and it is waiting to start a new process. Meetings with companies have been held, but "there are no interesting offers on the table," they indicate from the consistory.

successful models

In a totally different situation are the markets of Plasencia, Don Benito and Villanueva de la Serena. The one in Plasencia has undergone a transformation in the last year and new improvements are planned thanks to to more than 200,000 euros of European funds that its city council has obtained. has been created Merchants Association of the Abastos Market to give more life to this facility that underwent a first reform in 2021.

It now has more than a dozen merchants and the last position was filled in December 2020, after 15 years without any new business. With the European funds that will arrive in the future, it is planned to install screens and signage, the acquisition of electric motorcycles for home delivery and the creation of a 'market place'.

In Plasencia, Don Benito and Villanueva de la Serena do work well and there are pending reforms for their improvement.

Another successful model is the Don Benit food marketor. It was built in 1930 on the site of the old Manzanedo square and is preserved as one of the most emblematic buildings in the city. Currently there are about 15 companies that make use of the facilities, although in 2021 the Día supermarket freed up a 600-square-meter store. It is a regular space for numerous neighbors, who come to do their shopping and in search of other services such as English classes, law or even musical productions.. In 2017, a reform was carried out with an investment of 116,259 euros and another one is planned in the near future.

The market of Villanueva de la Serena it will also undergo an upgrade to become a reference space. In this year's local budget, 1.9 million euros have been reserved for its transformation into a mixed building in which the traditional stalls of frescoes will coexist with those of restoration. While the work lasts, about 15 months, the shopkeepers will move to a space that has been set up on Chile Avenue.

By last, in Almendralejo The market installed in the neighborhood of the same name always worked, but in 2012 the municipal government moved the stalls to the Municipal Market of Las Mercedes because the building did not meet adequate health conditions. According to the latest data, it has 13 positions in operation, but the industrialists have been demanding their return for years because in the current area, further from the center, sales have fallen. Now, thanks to European funds, the remodeling and recovery of the old building in the Plaza de Abastos is planned, which could begin as early as 2022.

"We miss the market a lot"

Three generations has already been running the Sánchez Lázaro brothers fishmonger in Mérida. It was his grandmother who opened the stall in the Calatrava Market and his father, Galician by birth, one of the first to bring fresh fish to Extremadura from the coasts of Galicia and Andalusia.

They left the Mérida food market at the beginning of 2018 because it no longer met the necessary hygiene and health conditions. They now have a modern and extensive fish market at number 3 Calle Marquesa de Pinares de Mérida. The workforce is seven people (the two owner brothers and the rest workers), one more than in the market. "It has gone very well for us, but the market was something else. We miss him so much."explains Antonio Sánchez Lázaro as he prepares a cuttlefish weighing almost two kilos for Isabel.

She has been a lifelong customer and although she lives "on the other side of Mérida" she takes advantage of when she goes downtown to work to do the shopping. "Whenever you come there are people, the quality is unbeatable. It is somewhat more expensive, but I come because you know that the product is top quality and always very fresh", it states.

The Sánchez Lázaro brothers in their fish market. Jero Morales

The Sánchez Lázaro brothers' store has practically all types of fish, from the most traditional to the latest trends: sea bass, sea bream, salmon, sea bream, snapper, anchovies, sardines... But also caviar, eel and all kinds of shellfish, these last especially at Christmas.

It is one of the few neighborhood fishmongers that remains in the regional capital and as a result of the outbreak of the pandemic they have extended the home delivery service, which they already provided to restaurants and hotels, also to families. It is currently maintained due to its high demand, without minimum or extra transportation costs.

"I was going for my wages, not to get rich"

Abdona Caballero has run a fruit and vegetable stand in the Calatrava Market in Mérida for more than 24 years. He moved to a tiny premises on Santa Eulalia street when the renovation works began in 2018 and at 61 years of age, he is "throwing" there while waiting for retirement.

Leaving the market was not hard for her because she left with the illusion of returning to a modern and renovated building to which she now knows she will not return. The worst for her has come later: to reserve her new position paid bail of 4,000 euros to Larry Smith, the company to which the city council awarded the project and the management of the building. After bankruptcy, they have been forced to go to court to get their money back.

"It was so deteriorated that the same day I left the mayor asked me if he would compensate me, and I said yes. I wasn't going to the market to get rich, I was going to get a day's wages to live on," he explains wistfully as he prepares and packs a bunch of garlic sprouts for a client.

These are the details of traditional and local commerce compared to large surfaces: the produce is not only top quality, but its customers order artichokes, chard or green beans when they pass by on their way to work or shopping and pick them up on the way home prepared and packaged "without paying an extra supplement".

Abdona, in her greengrocer on Calle Santa Eulalia. Jero Morales

In his new store, Abdona retains a lot of "lifelong" customers and moving to the most commercial street in Mérida has helped new people to come too. Then came the covid and a very tough time for the business, which has survived thanks to home deliveries: in the toughest phase of confinement they even did so by crediting purchases. "We served people with covid, we left things at the door and when they recovered they paid us," he explains.

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