My first taste of the fish market in Cagliari was just that. It seemed to me that as soon as we got out of the car parked next to the market the air quite literally tasted of fish. Down a few steps into the fish section of the purpose-built covered Mercato San Benedetto, we were met with the sounds, sight and smell of fish being sold by 40 or so traders (almost all men) to a crowd of customers (men and women, more older than younger). The fishmongers are there to sell fish and seafood, that’s what the market’s about of course, yet this work requires them to spend a lot of time maintaining the display and the fish itself, especially keeping an eye on what is live (crabs and eels for example), cleaning and preparing fish for customers, and sharing their knowledge, not only about the quality of the fish and its provenance but about recipes too. This is something striking about fishmongers in Italy more generally – the sheer scope of their competence, and their style of instruction of what the customer should do with the fish once they get it home!

The space at San Benedetto is clearly structured, with solid marble counters and displays arranged in aisles and around the edges of the hall. The floor is very clean and dry, unusually so for a fish market. (For a contrasting account of London’s fish market, see A Day’s Work at Billingsgate.) There is a large variety of Mediterranean fish but to my surprise, some Atlantic fish too, such as sole or salmon. There was local sole too, if a little smaller. It was quite literally still flapping around on the counter. No need to check the eyes to assess the freshness of that! There’s a distinction between sellers of shellfish, wet fish, smoked, and frozen which I assume is part of the regulatory structure (and is common in other places too). There’s quite a range from large to small fish, from what’s considered to be prestigious to the ordinary: swordfish, tuna, bream, bass, gurnard, mullet, mackerel and much more. The shellfish includes local prawns, arselle (a type of clam found locally), small green crabs, the occasional lobster, mussels, and a kind of snail. Plus bottarga of course, the dried roe of mullet (or tuna), something Sardinia is famous for, ground to add to spaghetti, or bought whole then cut into small pieces and dressed with oil and lemon as an antipasto.

When I asked where specific fish came from, I was not only told that something was ‘Sarda’ but that it was caught off a particular stretch of coast at Villasimius or Cagliari for example. There’s a code that’s used uniformly in the displays that explains not only the country of provenance of the fish, but also whether it was caught at sea or farmed. Last week at a smaller market in Cagliari, I bought a local octopus and a squid from the Atlantic, probably near South Africa the fishmonger said, but brought in by air and on ice (but not frozen). (I didn’t ask the ‘where did it come from’ question until afterwards and hadn’t yet worked out the code…) I’m interested in the ‘length’ of the socio-economic process that brings fish from sea to table but hadn’t expected to see the produce of both such a short and a long one literally alongside one another in my local market…

Instead of taking pictures on my first visit to the main market at San Benedetto (it would have felt intrusive and I wanted to just look first), I decided to do a short (one minute) recording while walking around which you can listen to here: san benedetto 1 oct 2010. The recording highlights the presence of three distinct layers of sound that it’s hard to distinguish between when hearing them in real time (Makagon and Neumann, 2008). There is a low murmur of people talking, a collective sound in which it’s not possible to identify specific exchanges. There are knives being sharpened, a high-pitched screech that conjures up the image of a large blade. And there are the fishmongers making their sales pitches, playfully at times, and as much for the amusement of their peers as in an attempt to gain custom it seems. Indeed, humour is an integral part of the life of the market (Porcu, 2005). ‘Venga che imbroglio anche a lei!’ one exclaims provocatively. Come on so I can rip you off too!

There’s already a great selection of photographs of the fish market, the fishmongers and customers here (most of the first half are of the fish section, the rest of other parts of the market). And for close-ups of the fish, click here. And I expect I’ll be writing more about all this after my next visit…

1. Makagon, D and M Neumann (2008) Recording Culture: Audio Documentary and the Ethnographic Experience. London: Sage.
2. Porcu, L (2005) ‘Fishy business: Humour in a Sardinian fish Market’, Humour 18(1): 69-102.