Smoky grilled squid, saffron spiked paella and jugs of dangerously drinkable sangria evoke very happy memories of my summers spent in Spain, mainly on the Andalusian coast where my grandparents retired.
Moving away from the coast and onto the cities capital, I’ve recently spent a lot of time in Madrid. In between working over there and visiting friends, I have eaten and drunk my way around the city, and should you be planning a trip to the Spanish capital, these are my culinary must-sees.
Tucked away in a side street in Chueca, Madrid’s go-to destination for gay culture and nightlife, you’ll find El Bierzo. Despite the constant trends entering and influencing this hip and happening area of the city, as far es El Bierzo is concerned, everything could well be frozen in the 1970s. Retro decor, old school waiters and a menu so Spanish it could be used as a dictionary reference for typical Madrileño cooking.
Big white fava beans cooked with fatty and flavorsome cuts of meat, fillets of white fish served with just a slice of lemon, right over to rich and creamy cooked innards (think kidneys and liver) in thick and boozy sauces; this is proper home-cooked comida casera. The time to visit is lunch, where a menu del día involves three courses and a beer or glass of wine for €11-13 euros, depending on your choice of main.
For my most recent trip, I started with sauteed artichokes with ham, cooked up with a portion of garlic that’d keep Dracula at bay for many centuries. I picked a tuna steak in tomato sauce for mains, and topped off this three-course delight with the ultimate classic in Spanish puddings – flan.
The artichokes were meltingly soft and thanks to the fried garlic,they held their own against the strong, salty influence of the jamón. The tuna in tomato sauce was less exciting, as the sauce element left the fish far more cooked than I normally would have liked. Still, it was perfectly passable and all was redeemed with the oh-so-old school flan, beautifully creamy with a sharp caramel sauce.
If you find yourself in Madrid on a Sunday, despite any post Saturday night hangover you may be suffering, hitting the tapas bars in La Latina is un must. A bar crawl with less booze and lots of food, this is the perfect way to sample various dishes and soak up all the different flavours Spanish cuisine has to offer.
Start with a taste of Basque tapas in Txirmiri, where montaditos (little tapas on top of slices of white bread) are served to be nibbled down with a caña, the equivalent of a quarter pint of beer.
Moving onto a slightly larger dish, the pulpo a la gallega at La Perejila is not to be missed. Rather than served on a bed of thinly sliced potato as I have tried it before, here the pulpo (squid) came with a cloudy, creamy mash. I welcomed the change and enjoyed this dish immensely. The thin slices of meaty squid topped with crunchy grains of rock salt and sprinkled with warm, sweet and tangy pimentón pepper was a dream mix of textures and flavours.
Walking away from La Latina and into Las Huertas, the literary district of Madrid, we stopped off at El Diario de Las Huertas; a full to the brim Spanish tapas bar, with a sit down restaurant at the back. As we ordered some glasses of vino tinto, before even glancing the menu, a morcilla mondadito caught my eye.
Different from the English black pudding, the Spanish equivalent morcilla often contains rice and slightly richer spices, and in certain parts of the country it can be found with raisins and nuts inside too. Here at La Taberna we tried it smashed across a slice of French baguette and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Fearing we had perhaps not been getting our five a day (unless potato does really count as a vegetable), we also ordered some pimientos de padrón. A futile attempt to eat veg, really, as these little green peppers come deep fried and covered in rock salt – and they’re all the better for it. Supposedly every one in ten is spicy, although I’ve never come by one that bites. A great finger food to nibble on, using bread to mop up the salty oil left behind is a right of passage.
As well as the La Latina taps crawl in the day, a bustling street to sample more Spanish food in the evening is Calle de la Cruz. Given that this street leads directly onto the main square of the city, the Plaza del Sol, you may well pass some downright dodgy looking tourist traps. If anyone offers you paella for dinner, run for the hills, or better still, head directly to Casa Toni, where you’ll be in for a truly traditional taps experience.
Truly traditional = guts and all. For an offal enthusiast like myself, this place is a dream – famous for their fried tripe, here in one sitting I managed to consume sweet breads, tripe and blood sausage. The tripe, albeit it slightly greasy, was actually surprisingly soft to eat, with an creamy texture and smoky flavor.
The mollejas (sweetbreads) were some of the best I’ve ever eaten, and having lived in Argentina where these are quite a delicacy, that’s saying something. The morcilla was also a great success: served in small chunks on cocktail sticks, it converted even the non-offal lovers of the group.
Compared to London, almost anywhere else in the world seems cheap, but if you want to do Madrid in a particularly thrifty fashion, I’ll let you in on a secret: you can have dinner without ordering any food. Ir de tapas is to order small plates at various different bars, however…if you can hold off ordering food upon arrival, with just a drink you might just be fed a delicious plate of tapas at no extra cost.
Not every bar will offer these, and even when they do it can be small olives, or sad bits of hardened bread and dry tortilla. Head to El Riazor though, an unassuming bar next to the Plaza Mayor, and you can sample everything from fried anchovies to their creamy paella, all for the price of a drink (a very reasonable €1.50). Go hungry, leave drunk and full, without having bought a meal. Prop yourself up at the bar and try their vermouth al grifo (on tap) or even revel in your secret desire to openly drink alchopops and go for a tinto de verano – red wine mixed with lemonade.
Rounding off all that savory with a touch of sweet, anyone visiting Madrid for the first time should make a mandatory tea break at Chocolatería San Ginés. Churros and chocolate is a traditional Spanish treat, although here I must confess: I’m not actually a huge fan. I find churros rather unexciting, as fried sweet batter just doesn’t rock my world.
They do, however, make the perfect dipping vessel when accompanied with the thick, dark hot chocolate that comes alongside them. Whether your keen on churros themselves or not, a hot cup of cocoa such as this turns them into something really quite special.
From fried tripe to chocolate-dipped churros, Madrid is a brilliant place to sample some real comida española. Flights can be as cheap as £12 one-way with Ryanair, so if you’ve never been and fancy a trip a away I urge you to munch your way through Madrid.