Although our lunch at l’Espai del Peix in Palamos was impressive, it was the last day of our three day extreme eating trip through Costa Brava. We were feeling a little fatigued, and I knew there would have to be something extremely interesting to hold my attention for those final hours. I worried that a fish market would just not cut it, as we have been to so many fish markets before. But, the Palamos fish market had something special, something unique, which was certainly a first for us.
Seeing the Palamos Fish Market in Action
We had just finished a show cooking demonstration at l’Espai del Peix, where the chef cooked up some local Catalan seafood specialties. There was, of course, wine involved, and dessert. Although I had a coffee at the end, I was starting to crash. Looking at the itinerary, we only had a few more stops to make before dinner and sleep. The Catalan eating schedule was catching up with me.
I had assumed, somewhat naively, that when the itinerary said “Palamos fish market auction” that it would be an explanation of how the auction works, maybe a demonstration. My fish market experiences have been limited to Asia. In Tokyo, for example, you have to arrive well before dawn (a time of day we don’t like to see too often) to see any action.
In Palamos, though, the fishing boats arrive in the afternoon after a day on the water. While enjoying our seafood lunch, I could see the boats pulling into the harbor, the birds swirling overhead hopeful to catch a little scrap of fish.
Just outside the dining area of l’Espai del Peix, our guide escorted us to a viewing room overlooking the Palamos fish market auction space. I attempted to listen to her requests, that we sit down and watch a video to explain how the fish market operates, but I was mesmerized by what was happening down below. Why would I choose to watch a video, when the real thing was just through a glass window?
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Seeing the Palamos Fish Market in Auction
After the boats pull in, the fish is loaded into large, blue plastic crates and then weighed and categorized. A guy, with computer assistance, sets the price per kilo based on some algorithm, which tracks what similar fish sold for the days before. Then, each of the crates is placed onto a conveyor belt, and moved into a room.
The price per kilo is displayed on a screen for buyers from all over to see. The people actually in the room might be bidding for themselves, or acting as agents for others. When they want to purchase the fish, they press a button on a remote control, the fish is sold, and the next lot comes up for sale.
There were two things particularly interesting, and in fact, mesmerizing, about the process. First, the sheer volume of fish. Crates upon crates of squid with black ink, large octopus, ugly and brutish monkfish, and crate upon crate of prawns. Palamos is famous for its prawns, which actually come with a Palamos Prawns seal of approval. When the Palamos prawns hit the conveyor belt, it looked like a giant stream of bright red, punctuated by blue plastic, as one crate after another was sold to the next bidder.
Second, the auction process itself was unique. Normally, auction prices start low, and end high, as competition and interest drives the price for the product to the highest bidder. At the Palamos fish market auction, the price starts high. The screen displays the boat the fish came from. Everyone knows the captains, their boats, and their reputations.
Unlike art or antiques, which appreciate over time, the value of fish declines immediately, as they have a short shelf life. The value comes from buying low and selling high, increasing a quick profit margin, which is made with a day or two. The art of the Palamos fish market auction comes from waiting for the price to get as low as possible, without allowing someone else to beat you to the punch.
When we were able to spend a few moments on the auction floor, we were asked to be quiet, and stay out of the way, not to break the concentration of the bidders. The room was tense. But, every minute or so, another click of the conveyor belt would bring the next lot up. After a few seconds, the sale would be finalized, and another lot would come along. The room was relatively quiet, as there was no auctioneer’s gavel, just a change on the screen from red to green, red to green.
As tired as I was, I was on a fish auction high, feeling like I had been shown how the sausage was made. When we walked through the retail fish market, I was still intrigued by the colors and varieties of fish. But, I had a new fascination for the prices that were set, and the profit potential of the fish mongers. The Palamos fish market auction opened my eyes to a whole new world of fish, and an appreciation of just how local, and fresh, the fish is in Catalunya.
We were supported by Costa Brava Tourism during our time exploring Palamos, but my views, my yummy sounds, and my belly rubs are, as always, my own.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.