photo: Katy Bernal greets customers at her stand in the Central Market of Cádiz. / VANESSA KAHN
The Greek historian Herodotus described the old town of Gades, known today as Cádiz, as existing beyond the Pillars of Hercules in the, “non plus ultra,” the most prized possession in the ancient Mediterranean world. His objective was to protect the coveted peninsula where Cádiz sits to enjoy all for himself. In a letter to his mother in 1809, Lord Byron referred to Cádiz as “the most delightful town [he] ever beheld.” Three years later, under the siege and bombings of Napoleon’s troops, the city hosted the drafting of the first Constitution of Spain. Today, Cádiz is home to over 100,000 people and some of the best fish in the world, sold daily at the spirited Central Market. founded in 1838, the market maintains a network of vendors connected to history and to the surrounding sea.
Katy Bernal stands confidently surrounded by hundreds of her closest friends. She interacts with each of them personally as if they need to catch up on three months of compelling gossip. Her friends are dressed in rich crimsons and expensive shades of pink. She picks one up and strokes its head as if it were a newborn baby, then she snaps it in half and explains that you cook this kind of shrimp “with its head on to keep all the flavor in.” Katy is encompassed by a cornucopia of shrimp, crawfish and seafood that she regards fondly as if she were at a pompous cocktail party. Just like the peninsula of Cádiz, her life, and that of three generations before her, has been encompassed by the sea. Each generation passes through life like a wave to the shore, leaving the knowledge of the fish and the sea etched in the sand as it recedes back into the wise ocean.
Walk through the market with flip-flops on and you will have saltwater on your toes, accompanied by the smell of the morning’s catch in your nostrils and an earfull of friendly banter from one stand to the next. “That is not how we do things in Cádiz,” scoffs Katy at the thought of removing the head of the shrimp, which not only offends her but also her family and the shrimp itself. She points with pride to the name “Camilo” etched into the wood above the stand. “My great-grandfather, he opened this stand in 1927,” she says with satisfaction as she positions a live lobster on the counter, ready to perform for its audience and sell itself as the centerpiece of a typical Spanish rice dish. “My grandfather, my great-grandfather and my husband have all worked here,” she says, standing on tip-toe to tap the sign above her head.
Sometimes it is unclear whether Katy is referring to her family or to the fish, as she refers to both of them tenaciously as her kin. “They come from Cádiz, Huelva and all over the coast,” she says, gesturing wildly with her hands. She then holds a shrimp while talking of her friend Pablo, whose stand is next to hers, and motions across the market like a stockbroker on the floor of Wall Street bidding for an investment. Katy communicates with the other vendors with a fluidity that can only be developed through years of practice.
Although all battling to sell what appears to be the same product, personal bonds that transcend generations connect the numerous vendors. “Juan is Pablo’s brother, and Pablo’s great-uncle fought with my great-grandfather in the Spanish Civil War,” Katy explains. If you ran a piece of yarn between each of the stands to signify the relationships in this network of people, the market would be impassable. “We all know each other and we all provide different services. Everyone knows that Jorge’s stand has the best cut of tuna, and if you want snails you go to Stand 70. They even make a typical snail dish with tomato and chorizo if you want to try,” Katy proclaims, pointing to a stand 100 meters away, still holding the shrimp in her hand.
photo: Jorge’s stand has the best cut of tuna, according to Katy Bernal. / VANESSA KAHN
“You use different types of shrimp depending on what dish you want to make,” she continues, her eyes as wide as those on the recently-caught crustaceans. “This is the way shrimp has been prepared for years—with salt, with rice, with pasta, grilled—very little has changed in the way we cook food.” Katy’s head is the only thing visible behind the colorful mounds of seafood. However, surrounded by her friends and with her great-grandfather’s name above her, she occupies more than the space behind her family’s stand as she exudes an enthusiasm that goes beyond the sales she makes in any given day. Katy rarely goes a day without selling out early. “I’m really quite popular with my customers,” she laughs, “but I am only friendly with them; the fish speak for themselves.”
The “family” that is the Central Market is not confined by its surrounding walls. A step outside reveals the long-lost cousins of the “vendor family” in the form of less formal stands selling everything from sea urchins to snails. Manuel Bari has been selling the latter for 36 years. “My father passed the stand to me and we sell whatever is swimming in the ocean at the time,” he says, shifting large bags of snails on the table, causing a percussion as if the bags were full of marbles. “You just collect them, clean them, and prepare them. Snails are a typical dish of Cádiz,” he says, emphasizing the name of his hometown. He picks a snail out of the bag and begins explaining, shaking the mollusk to emphasize his point. “Look closely, you take this and keep it in the shell and you cook them with onion and pepper. It is important that they are alive,” he says. Manuel motions to a customer and fills a paper bag with snails unlucky enough to be selected by the silver scoop in his weathered hands. “Gracias,” says the customer, clutching the bag in his hand and patting the head of the little girl whose arms are wrapped around his leg. “Adios, guapa,” says Manuel to the girl, his smile causing the sides of his eyes to crinkle. The little girl shrieks and recedes into her shell like the poor snails. Manuel laughs and waves as she shrinks away with her dad, occasionally looking back at the man who continues to smile at them.
“We are all connected in a way by the sea,” Katy says while waving at a client she knows. “What do you need today, Antonio?” she says loudly to the hunched man in front of her. With legs wobbling, he leans in further to hear her better and explains the dish he is making. “Look, these are better for that,” Katy says, picking up a small fish and placing it into the outstretched hands of the man. He examines it, turning it over and over in his hands as it catches a glint of the fluorescent light. Katy looks on as proudly as a new mother, knowing that she has chosen the right fish for her friend. “One kilo,” he says, handing the fish back to Katy as if he means to pay with it. She accepts it happily, humming as she weighs the fish. A smile of satisfaction reflects in the steel scale as she hands the bag of fish to the man, whom she addresses fondly. “Until next time, Diego. Tell your wife I say, ‘hello.’” •