Buying meat at the Cuenca markets: Who you know makes all the difference
By Christopher Lux
In the United States, my meat came from supermarkets. Wanting a little ‘security’ and familiarity for my meat purchases after I moved to Cuenca, I continued to seek out the supermarkets. While my produce comes from local markets (mercados), I was less confident about buying meat there.
Having spent a lot of time at the markets shopping and eating hornado, I knew there’s a world of meat to be discovered. I’d seen it, but I never ventured in.
I had heard that many of Cuenca’s better restaurants buy their meat in the markets, so I was curious about how to go about finding good, safe beef and poultry there.
In hope of moving beyond my “market-meat” fear, I met Jorge Mogrovejo and his wife, Lynn, at Mercado 10 de Agosto on Calle Larga last week to explore the unknown meat section.
I met them inside the market. I looked down the aisles of wet floors lined with vendors whose meats hung from metal hooks and spread out across counters. Deli refrigerators displayed even more meat. Ribs, sausages, loins, whole chickens with dangling heads, and chunks of meat I can’t identify were everywhere. Women stood behind the counters and low refrigerators wearing black aprons. Some were sitting down on stools with blankets wrapped around them in the cool market.
“So, you get your meat here?” I asked Lynn.
“Yes. And we haven’t gotten sick yet.”
Lynn, who was born in Virginia, came to Ecuador some thirty years ago. Her husband, Jorge, is Cuencano. His mother sold potatoes in the market, and his aunts sold beef and pork. Many of his childhood days were spent hanging around the market with is family. He got to know the vendors and the vendors got to know him.
Our first stop on the tour was Señora Aleja’s counter. She welcomed us with a smile, holding a large skirt steak (lomo falda) in one hand.
“You can take my picture if you take me to the United States,” Aleja joked as she stood behind hanging and piled-up red meats.
Aleja sells beef. “I have a cow killed every morning at the slaughterhouse,” she said. “Every morning except Sunday. The workers don’t work on Sunday.”
All of the meat she sells goes through Cuenca’s slaughterhouse to ensure proper health and safety standards. “I get a whole cow from there each day.”
At the market, she prepares different cuts of flank steak, some with fat and some with the fat taken off. She has tenderloins, sirloin, ground beef, and almost anything else from a cow.
The percentage of fat in the ground beef is up to the customer. “They tell me how much fat they want and I make it. I grind it fresh.” She showed me a small bucket of cut-up beef she will grind up when the next customer wants it.
Next, Jorge took me to a chicken vendor. Aleja had chickens, but, he told me, “You get the beef from her, and the chicken from another person.”
We walked over to Rosario. She didn’t know Jorge well, so he introduced himself. “You know Teresa Yunga? She sold potatoes?” he asked, pointing toward the potato section of the market.
She said of course she knew Teresa.
“I’m her son.” Rosario’s face turned to a smile and she looked surprised.
Jorge turned to me and told me in English, “If I come in the name of my mom, they respect me and treat me well.”
Rosario showed me a “Cuencano trick” for telling how fresh the chicken is. She pinched the skin of the chicken with the nails of her thumb and forefinger, but said nothing.
Lynn, who was standing next to me, explained that the easier the nails go through the skin, the fresher the chicken is. “That’s what she’s doing. She’s showing the chicken is fresh. She just got it this morning after it was killed.”
Lynn motioned for me to give it a try. I reached for a chicken on top of the pile and pinched the loose skin. My nails easily broke through. “If it’s hard to do, it’s old and you don’t want it,” Lynn explains.
Jorge asked Rosario to tell us about her chickens. “I get 45 everyday. From Challuabamba.” She only had about seven left at 4 in the afternoon.
“I don’t get them from the coast,” she explained proudly. “Some people get them from the coast where they feed them fish parts. It’s not good for the taste.”
I asked her about the yellow skin of the chickens. “It’s from the corn,” she explained. The corn-fed chickens have yellow skin. According to Rosario, if you want a good tasting chicken from the market, make sure the skin is yellow, and that the skin is loose and you can break through it easily.
Rosario and the other vendors sell their chickens whole or by pieces. If you buy it by the piece, she said, expect the price per pound to be a little higher. This is because the vendor has to deal with the remainder of the chicken.
She also warns buyers who buy by the piece: “Some people will sell you a breast with other parts on it. Part of a wing. The neck. Some fat.” She held out two breasts for me to see. One she had cleaned and one had other parts attached.
“They do that so they can charge you more for parts you don’t want,” Lynn told me. “Rosario cleans it up so it weighs less.”
The final stop was the pork. The vendor sat on a stool behind the counter. On one side was a pile of skin with a large stamp. It was the stamp from the slaughterhouse–her proof that what she had was good. On the other side was a very large bowl of lard and other pieces of skin hanging on hooks. On more hooks were large racks of ribs. On the counter was a pork loin, pork chops, and other cuts of the pig.
She told me her pigs are killed Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. “In the past, they were fresh everyday,” she said. “But big stores came and fewer people shop at the market now. So, the pigs aren’t killed as frequently.”
Prices for all meats will vary depending on the cut, the quantity, the day, the person selling, and maybe even the person buying. The best way to get a good price, I’m told, is by loyalty. Keep going back to the same person–as long as the product is good–and you will get treated well. And you might get a little extra tossed in for free.
As we left the meat section, Lynn pointed to the fish. “Maybe we should save that for another time,” she said.
Jorge agreed. “Yes. Fish is the hardest part.”
Editor’s note: To locate Aleja and Rosario in the 10 de Agosto market meat department, ask around and you’ll be pointed in the right direction.