Meat for lean times

MADRID — Persistence has paid off for butcher Luis Fuertes.

During Spain’s economic boom about 10 years ago, this seller of animal innards was in despair. Some of his competitors boarded up generation-old shops. Mad cow disease had made Spaniards queasy about using the products he sells, even though traditional Spanish cooking turns these secondary meats into delicacies.

“You see new faces come and go,” said Fuertes, while tending his stall at the Mostenses market, hidden behind the five-star hotels lining Madrid’s Gran Via. “But I always think: This will get big.”

Indeed, the tables have turned for Fuertes, for several reasons: Government marketing campaigns helped restore consumer confidence in the lesser cuts. Recent immigrants from former Spanish colonies sought out his products. And then the economic crisis made less expensive cuts more appealing.

In the hour I spent with Fuertes one weekday morning, his clients included immigrants from countries including Peru, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines. The only Spanish client he had was the owner of a restaurant frequented by Madrid’s immigrant community.

Spain’s immigrants are among those hardest hit by the economic crisis. Dramatic cutbacks are sweeping through the construction and service sectors where most of them work.

And as the economy worsened last year, sales of lesser-meat products — from pig intestines, to cow hoofs, to sheep testicles — jumped 10 percent, according to the National Association of Lesser-Meat Merchants (ANECAS). ANECAS president Josep Ramells projects an additional 15 percent increase in 2009 sales.

“Families suffering unemployment have to cut back and you notice it first in the kitchen,” said Ramells, a fourth-generation merchant of lesser meats. “Let’s not fool ourselves. We can’t afford to eat sirloin steak every day.”

Fuertes said he has not seen a jump in his sales, but during his busy day merchants at nearby stalls selling fish and other more expensive meat products had time on their hands to touch up their displays.

An unemployed Ecuadorian immigrant named Eduardo Mejia placing an order at Fuertes’ stall gestured at the neighboring vendors as he said that he used to buy veal and fish. “But now that I don’t even make it to the end of the month, I just buy what I can,” he explained as he pulled out a 10 euro bill to pay Fuertes — the last of his unemployment benefits. “That’s all I got,” he added as he double-checked he had everything he’d ordered in the bag he took with him.

Those with less purchasing power always have found a nutrient-rich haven in the lesser meats. Years ago, reporting brought me to central Florida, where a group of African-American church-goers invited me to a brunch that included eye-opening plates made from pig ears and intestines. My hosts explained that methods for cooking these delicacies had been handed down from the days of slavery — this was the food slave owners tossed aside.

Spaniards have long prided themselves in wasting nothing from a pig except its hair. Even Michelin-starred chefs find ways to use most of the pig. This month, for example, the menu at Sergi Arola’s Gastro restaurant in Madrid included a preparation of skate wing with pig trotters, vegetables and tabouleh, for example.

Fuertes, who is married to an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said most of his multi-ethnic clientele ask for ingredients to use in dishes the Spanish colonists and settlers first showed the indigenous people in Latin America hundreds of years ago.

Tripe is an old favorite. Fuertes sells bagfuls of it by the kilo, cleansed, bleached and cut up in squares. Thanks to the popularity of the dish “Callos a la Madrilena” — a mix of lesser meats dominated by cow stomach lining and stewed with garlic, onion, paprika, bay leaf and olive oil — Spain has to import 10 times as much tripe as it can produce. In an economy like this one, Fuertes hopes for similar success with the rest of his product line.