“Mexico is in its markets.” – Pablo Neruda.
I think Mexico City is a world class city. And I mean really world class. Up there with Paris and London and Florence and Barcelona and New York and Kyoto and Istanbul.
In one way, Mexico City is even better than all those other world class cities. Because Mexico comes with a discount. It’s less than half the price of most of those other cities.
Last month we rented a very attractive apartment in prime Centro Historico for just over 1000 pesos a night. It’s hard to get any hotel room for that price in any of those other cities.
If you’re in Mexico City for a few days and, like Don Day’s Wife, you like to cook, you want an apartment instead of a hotel room. If you’re in Mexico City for a few days and, like Don Day, you like to shop for things to cook, you want to be in Centro for that puts you within walking distance of Mercado San Juan.
Mercado San Juan is known as the chef’s market. Which means it sells the foods that are the darlings of people whose business (or pleasure) is food. You’ll find magret de canard, sushi grade tuna, foie gras, quail eggs, fresh truffles, chocolate clams, suckling pigs, stone crabs and something else that is my favorite reason to go there and the reason why I think one of the stalls at the San Juan Market is a world class value in this world class city.
But before I walk you over to that stall, take a little walk with my iPhone while it shows you some of those foods at the market that you may be and I’m definitely missing.
OK, now we’re going to my favorite stall in Mercado San Juan, the place where you’ll find that fat pig in today’s headline. Along with a lot of other delights.
Most of the stalls in Mercado San Juan don’t wear name tags. You find them via a numbering system. The number of the stall we’re looking for is 223.
Easier to find than the three digit number is the number of aged pig’s legs in the form of Jamon Serrano, Prosciutto, Jamon Iberico and Westfälischer Schinken hanging around the stall.
Or the cheeses piled high on the counter and jammed into the glass showcases. Or a couple of guys in bright white shirts embroidered with the name of the stall, Florencia.
Under the word Florencia, you’ll see the words Queso, pan y vino. Under the word Florencia, you should see the words Queso, carne, pan y vino. Because what Florencia mostly sells are baguettes generously stuffed with cheese and meat. What Florencia doesn’t sell but gives away is even more important.
Before you even pick up a menu, one of the guys in the embroidered shirts will probably slice off a piece of cheese and hand it to you. It won’t be just any cheese. It will be one of the world’s greatest cheeses. Perhaps Tete de Moins or Roncal or Brie de Melun or Saint Agur or Leonora or Gorgonzola.
Then, as you are trying to decide which sandwich to order, one of the guys will carve off a slice of Serrano Ham or Sopressata or Genoa Salami or Chorizo Salamanca and hand it to you.
You’ll struggle with your order because you’ll be tempted to select one of the meats and cheeses you may have just tried for the first time in your life while swayed towards another sandwich with your traditional favorites.
If you would like a recommendation as to what to order, especially if you are accompanied by someone, I would recommend one open-face cheese sandwich and one open-face meat. You will receive two very large sandwiches each, one of which you will exchange with your partner.
Though it may seem that Salami, Serrano Ham and Spanish Chorizo will fight with each other and cancel out each other’s individual tastes, they don’t. They work wonderfully together. And the same goes for the sandwich with Smoked Gouda, Provolone and Emmental.
After you’ve placed your sandwich order, you will be asked if you would like a glass of wine. If you go at 10:00 am as Don Day does, that may be difficult to answer. Until of course you realize that 10 o’clock is long past 5 o’clock which is your traditional start time for alcohol. When your glass is down to half full you will be asked if you would like it refilled. And, as it will still be after 5 o’clock, you will again say yes.
As you sit there eating your sandwich, you will be offered more samples of more meats and more cheeses. You may, like me, try a meat called Cecina de Lyon or a cheese called Mahón, neither of which you’ve ever savored in your very long life before.
The two of you will probably only be able to make it through three of the four sandwiches, so you will ask for a styrofoam box so that you may have it for a late night snack. I would recommend that you take the cheese home because there’s still probably at least one more cheese sample to try and one additional thing that includes a cheese, a surprise dessert covered in honey.
The dessert will require one last top-up of the wine after which you will realize, oh my goodness, there’s not even one last dribble left in the bottle.
But the best is yet to come. At a time when usually the worst is to come. It’s check time.
Now it’s pretty obvious that all of those samples of queso and carne were free. And, because you didn’t ask for it, you can presume there was no charge for the dessert. But there’s something else missing.
“Discúlpeme, but you forgot to charge for el vino.” (yes, my Spanish is sadly lacking)
“No, señor, el vino es gratis.”
You say goodbye to your new friends. Markets (and wine) are good at introducing strangers. And you walk away thinking…now is this a world class city on a discount or what?
Mercado San Juan is located about four hours drive from San Miguel de Allende, in an old tobacco factory, on Calle Ernesto Pugibet in Mexico City. The market is open from approximately 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, every day but Saturday. The best way to find it is to look for the enormous and ugly Telmex tower. The entrance is directly across the street. Do not confuse this market (as I once did) with the quite ordinary Mercado San Juan de Los Arcos de Belen which is only a few blocks away.