Excursions in Murcia: Mercadillo de Bullas

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Sunday, November 7th had been marked in my calendar since June, when I found out about the monthly artisanal market in Bullas, a wine-producing village in northwestern Murcia. Demonstrations featuring local know-how had been scheduled for each month of the year, and in November, goats would be the protagonists. Market-goers would get to see hand milking and the traditional process for making fresh goat cheese – I was sold!

Nonetheless, I didn’t start mentioning the plan to friends until several weeks ago. As a guiri, or foreigner, I can display the zealousness of a convert when it comes to all things local, which my friends from here appreciate, but which I nonetheless try to keep in check. To my relief, my friends were game (I knew they would be), and the date was made.

In the meantime, I learned a bit more about the market, El Zacatín, which takes place  in Bullas’s historic center. The name, a word with Arabic roots (meaning a plaza where clothes are sold), evokes the region’s Moorish past. Launched in the early 1990s, El Zacatín was the first of four village markets showcasing local products in the rural northwest corner of Murcia, a circuit branded as the Ruta Artesanal. These markets, which fall on consecutive Sundays, are part of a concerted effort to preserve and promote local traditions, threatened in part by decades of industrialization of food production in the region. The artisanal market as such is a relatively new phenomenon here, and the movement is gaining steam.

Given the months of anticipation, I was thrilled when market day in November finally rolled around. My friends and I arrived mid-morning, and organizers were just beginning to set up the goat demonstration. Fortunately, there were plenty of things to see, I mean eat, while we waited. It was a good thing we arrived hungry.

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I wanted to try everything, like the sweets – the donut-shaped rollos, flavored with orange, anise or wine, and the pastelillos de cabello de angél, cloud-like rounds stuffed with “angel hair,” candied spaghetti squash.

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My friend Inma bought a slice of torta de chicharrones, pictured above, for all of us to share. This lard-rich pastry found in various parts of Spain induces swoons for my friends here, but has admittedly been an acquired taste for me. Yet at first bite, this torta had me convinced – here I found a harmonious balance between the savory-leaning crispy chicharrón topping and the sweet cinnamon and sugar.

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Honey and homemade preserves were the specialties at this stand, and arrope y calabazate, chunks of fruits and squashes like melon, sweet potato, pumpkin and quince preserved in a rich fig syrup. I got to taste the pan de higos, a deliciously dense, energy-packed cake made with dried figs and almonds.

Bullas Mercadillo 010 On the savory side, several stands offered local cured meats. I sampled spicy chorizo and sausages flavored with sweet local pimentón, both made from meat of the chato murciano, an indigenous breed of pig that was nearly extinct by the end of the 1970s, all but replaced by leaner and faster-growing breeds.

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Artisanal cured meats such as these are the cornerstone of a regional project underway to restore the chato murciano to its former glory.

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At the stand selling encurtidos, pickled products, I tried alcaparones, the fruit of the caper plant; tallos, caper plant stems; and bitter green olives cured with fennel.

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And let’s not forget the wine, Bullas’s most important product. Bullas has its own Denominación de Orígen, chaacterized by full-bodied reds starring Monastrell (Mourvèdre in French) as the dominant grape. Several Bullas wineries offer tastings at the market. I picked up a bottle of Chaveo, 100% Monastrell, and another of Madroñal, a Monastrell-Syrah blend.

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As I filled up on samples, I kept an eye on the goat pen and demonstration area. Finally, it was showtime.

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You can see the swollen udders of these Murciano-Granadina goats – these gals are ready to be milked. This local breed is a milk-producing machine, generating around 1,000 pounds in a 280-day lactation cycle. Murcia’s goats merit their own blog post in the future.

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Following are some images from the milking process…

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And the cheese making process, which was actually done with pasteurized milk…

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Here the cheese maker slices through the thickening milk, curdled with vinegar and lemon juice. The magic has begun.

Bullas Mercadillo 033She proudly displays the final product, queso fresco, which has been shaped in a mold that imitates the marks left by the woven grass bands once used to form the cheese.

We of course grazed on some cheeses, too — the mild fresh cheese, of course, and other varieties made from the milk of the Murciano-Granadina goat, such as tangy, red wine-soaked Queso al vino, known in the States as Drunken Goat.

And the best part is, we got to take a bottle of the fresh goat milk home, which Inma boiled and strained and made into one of the most deliciously creamy rice puddings I’ve ever had. All in the name of tradition, of course.

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