“Sei qui! Sei qui”. the cab driver called over his shoulder, pointing with a bent nicotine stained finger, “Mercado San Benedetto.” We’d arrived at the largest covered fish market in Europe, tucked away in the back streets of Caglairi in Sardinia.
The massive almost windowless 1950s brick building stretched across the street for a full block in both directions. Small market stalls selling leathers in unlikely colours dotted the pavement outside. Groups of Italian men, cigarettes bouncing on their lips as they talked, gathered in groups, chatting and gesticulating. Ladies laden with wicker baskets stuffed with bread, cheese and bright coloured vegetables hurried across the street, disappearing down the cobbled alleys of the Old Town.
We stepped through the narrow doorway momentarily fazed by the size of the place, only to be urged on by the nudges and tutting from behind us. There was serious shopping to be done and we were, after all, only sight seeing. Urged forward we headed in the direction of the waft of fresh baking and decided to leave the basement for later. Large, dark baked, crispy crusted loaves dusted with flour were stacked beside cellophane bags of Amaretto, soft almond discs with cracked domed tops, all the sweeter for being freshly made. The convoluted shapes of the Ziriccasa with the zig zagged fine dough filled with bright coloured honey based filling or Sapa a darker wine must filling, crammed one tray. Whilst the traditional Sardinian Pizzette Sfoglia a circular crisp puff pastry pie, stuffed with tomato and mozzarella filled another.
Shelves of local cheeses, pungent and musty, filled another stand. Large rounds of Fiore Sardo with a golden rind and a sour damp smell but creamy and delicious. Casizoludi Bidui, pouches of wax covered cheese made form the milk of Sardinian Modicane cows. Pecarino Nuovo used for desserts like the Seadas, parmesan and mozzarella all packed onto counters vying for space and proffered for tasting.
The fluorescent lights of the butchers counter’s on the far side of the market cast a hard glare over everything and an exaggerated glow over the meat. Bright red beef steaks and dappled Italian fennel sausages shared space with suckling pigs, intestines, trotters and pigs heads. This is true nose to tail eating and when traditionally prepared, very tasty.
Finally we ventured to the lower floor, the waft of fish creeping up the stairs to greet us. It wasn’t unpleasant but there was no mistaking this was a permanent fish market. Shiny eyed with some fish still flapping, the myriad of choice was amazing. Eels swirling around each other with gentle bubbles breaking the surface of the water. Teeny crabs in constantly moving mounds celebrating their last moments of freedom before being plucked from the box and served in the shell with bright orange roe, like a dolls house sized delicacy.
Slow moving octopus draped themselves over the edge of the stone and stainless steel counters. Small sharks lay belly up ready for gutting and mounds of mussels and mullet raised the question of just how much fish do the Cagliari eat? Ten kilometres out of town we were told it was too far from the sea to be served fish, much of this produce must be going to restaurants and hotels.
Finally we stepped out into the sunshine and the noisy street. We contemplated a taxi but decided, like the laden ladies before us, to take the cobbled alley ways down to the harbour and our hotel.
Address: Via Francesco Cocco Ortu, 50 09100 Cagliari
Opening Times: Monday – Saturday 7am to 2pm
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