Before the people of Malaga are even awake, Mercamalaga is bustling. It is the biggest wholesale market in the province and one of the principal ones in eastern Andalucía. The fruit and vegetable stalls open for business from clients all over the region from 3am, while the fish stalls open to the public at 5am - although their products start to arrive from 2am onwards.
Mercamalaga is like a city that never sleeps. Until the end of October this year more than 650,000 vehicles had passed through, 2.44 per cent more than in the same period last year. By the end of this year, Mercamalaga is expected to have received over 200,000 tonnes of goods.
December is not just any month at Mercamalaga. It is transformed, not only because of the festive decorations but because of the demand due to Christmas parties and company celebrations, and the excellence of the products. The market is well-known for its quality in general, but in December the stallholders offer the best of the best, premium quality and unusual products, not just from Spain but also imported.
“Mercamalaga is famous for the quality of its products, but at Christmas the standard quality is relegated to second place, because there are so many truly excellent goods on offer. You can find the best tomatoes, of all types, the best fruits, really diverse and exotic products, the freshest fish and shellfish from all over Spain. At Christmas we are like a shop window that everyone wants to look at,” says Andrés Rojas, the manager of Malaga Natural, one of the main market's biggest fruit and vegetable stalls.
With company celebrations already starting and many families preparing for their traditional Christmas Eve dinner,this is a hectic time of year for retailers and restaurants alike.
The increase in demand has already put up the price of some of the most popular fish and shellfish.
“In the fish market, everything changes as soon as December arrives. Although it's not like the summer, which is when we sell the most, there is more demand than usual and all the stallholders want the very best to offer their clients. The price of crayfish has already gone up by about 60 per cent, and it will continue to rise until Christmas. The prices won't drop again until after Three Kings Day on 6 January,” says Antonio Díaz, who runs Marpiex.
“I have been working at Mercamalaga for 18 years, and it's always the same in December. The quality is always good but at this time of year people want the very best. The biggest crayfish sell the same as they do in November; what people want now is top quality, and if the products are still alive then even better, even if it means having to pay 100 euros a kilo for them,” he explains.
José Luis Roldán, the president of the Wholesale Fishmongers Association at Mercamalaga, and owner of Mar del Sol, says December is a good month for sales, although not as good as August, when there is an increased demand for fresh products. At Christmas, many customers wait until the last minute to buy.
“We sell more mussels than any other type of product at this time of year, but there is also more demand for hake, monkfish, prawns, crayfish, lobster and clams. The hake and monkfish come from the fishing wharves in Malaga and Cadiz, and the shellfish from Huelva, although the crayfish caught off the Malaga coast is the most expensive,” says José Luis.
Last year 39,134 tonnes of fish were delivered to Mercamalaga, of which 33,570 were fresh fish, 2,047 were fresh shellfish; 2,388 tonnes of frozen fish and 1,129 of frozen shellfish. In December 2016, the fish stalls sold 2,875 tonnes in total, and they hope to sell even more this month.
Rafael Jiménez Sánchez, owner of the Ravidepa Malaga fish stall, believes bad weather and the cold increase the prices of certain fish and shellfish. “It's true that there is more demand, but the summer is best. At Christmas many clients order special things, which we don't normally have, but if we are unable to get them it can lose us a client. This is a really stressful month for us, because of course we want to keep our customers happy,” he says.
Not as seasonal
For the fruit and vegetable stalls, the situation is similar. Quality is everything. Every stallholder searches for the very best products from Spain and abroad, at this time of year.
“Produce is not as seasonal nowadays as it used to be. You can find just about everything, all year round. That is partly because restaurants on the Costa del Sol demand select products,” says Pedro Machuca, the president of the Fruit and Vegetable Stallholders Association, who owns Comercial Frutera Malagueña (Cofruma).
Málaga Natural offers about 800 different items. “If it exists and we can get it, then we will. That's our slogan. The busiest time for us in December is immediately before Christmas,” says Andrés Rojas, whose customers can buy products such as cherries which have been flown in from Chile or Argentina, and 'ethnic' produce such as Edo or Malanga, which is imported from Costa Rica. This is a tuber which resembles a potato, but has a softer texture and slightly sweeter taste.
In 2016, Mercamalaga received 3.98 per cent more fruit and vegetables than in 2015: a total of 176,857 tonnes, of which 82,607 were fruit, 82,215 vegetables and 12,035 potatoes. In December last year, the stallholders sold more than 13,180 tonnes. The market ended last year with a volume of business of 638 million euros on food products.