Madrid offers sunshine, art, a humongous Royal Palace and, among other things, a throbbing flea market, but what it excels at is Tapas. To really understand Madrid, get under its skin and feels it’s passion you must understand its relationship with food. Whilst the food in Madrid is unbelievably tasty the lasting impression I took away from my visit there spoke more about the tapas experience than the dishes themselves.
I can think of no more perfect initiation to the Madrid eating experience than the Mercardo San Miguel. Mercado San Miguel is a thoroughly modern food market. Situated just behind the tourist mecca of Plaza Mayor, San Miguel is like Borough Market in London except it’s classy and Latin! Inside an eye-catching building of wrought iron and glass windows live mouth-watering stands of the best of Spanish cuisine. Individual stalls dedicated to jamon, croquetta, paella, stuffed olives, oysters, churros with hot chocolate and lots and lots of cakes. Make sure you are starving hungry before entering and eat your way around this deliciously stylish hall – I know I did!
Another area that requires an empty belly calling out for treats is Calle de la Cava Baja.
Cava Baja is simply the tastiest street in Madrid. Situated in the heart of the Latin Quarter the street is lined with Tapas Bars ranging from the traditional to the experimental, my advice would be to start at one end and attempt to try them all. One which we couldn’t help returning to was Taberna Txakolina – a bustling place (although which tapas bar isn’t on a Sunday night in Cava Baja?) it offered every imaginable concoction on a bruschetta. From bbq beef to salmon, chunks of camembert cheese or squiggly fish they had it all on offer on the higher than average bar (I ate my food at chin level!) For only 1 euro 40 to 1 euro 80 per piece you can afford to try them all.
Another must try is the Spanish summer tipple equivalent to British Pimms – Tinto de Verano. Literally a red wine spritzer – red wine served with either lemonade or tonic and fresh lemons – I found it was tastier than Rosè and less tacky than Sangria – Sangria is for tourists! Tinto de Verano is sold on tap at Txakolina for 3 euros a glass, so we tried quite a few!
Another place on Cava Baja I would like to highlight is La Camarilla simply because we were so impressed by the service. Getting served in a crowded Spanish tapas bar can be difficult when your Spanish is limited and you are lacking a bit of confidence. The waitor at La Camarilla (not be called Senor he informed us as he ‘wasn’t that old’) noticed my fumbling attempt to get attention at the bar and alerted the waitress behind it immediately. A little attention goes a long way. We enjoyed the food, made a friend and left him a suitably proportionate tip in return.
This encounter was of note because a slightly less successful experience was had upon our first night in Madrid. We had been drawn into Huertas, a lively area of bars and restaurants near our hotel. It was late and desperate to get involved with the Spanish cuisine we endeavoured to get a table at the place we could hear the most Spanish accents coming from. I say ‘endeavoured’ because getting a table was fairly difficult, an early warning of the confusion that was to come. We had entered the restaurant and signalled we wanted a table for two. The waitress guided us back outside again. Unsure of whether we were supposed to wait or not we hung around just to the side of the door, near enough to be called back if they did have a table but not so close the whole restaurant could see us hanging around looking confused. There was another couple waiting outside who had been there before us. The waitress came out and conversed with them in Spanish and went back inside taking neither of us groups with her. She came back and appeared to beckon us in, the other waiting couple didn’t seem to mind, so in we went, cautiously looking over our shoulders at the couple left behind. There were animated groups speaking Spanish at every low wooden table in the restaurant. They all seemed to be sharing giant dishes of meat and cheese and what I suspected was Octopus. I confidently ordered us ‘dos cerveza’ and then abruptly stumbled when the menu arrived. It looked like this
In bright coloured, felt tip pen swirls were an array of undoubtedly delicious Spanish treats which I had no way of deciphering. I picked up on words like Empanada and Jamon ( a translation relic from my time in South America) and clung to their familiarity. The food, when it causally arrived, did not disappoint but I am sure it would have excelled had I remembered a phrase book and ordered more exotically. Things took a turn for the strange when at approximately 11pm the restaurant lights were turned out, even it seems in the kitchen, which I thought was rather daring. A punch bowl was rolled out to the front of the restaurant and set on fire, preventing anyone from entering or leaving, and mesmerising us 2 Brits who were caught in the middle of it all with no idea what was happening. A voice over a loud speaker seemed to be telling an interesting and dramatic tale – we had no ides what it said. After playing with the fire punch for a while the waitress then proceeded to distribute glasses of it to people’s tables – still in flames. After meeting Madrid resident (and wonderful host) Erin (@TortugaViajera) the next day she explained we had been at a popular Galician restaurant. I’m not sure what Galician ritual they were re-enacting but it sure looked like fun.
For a less confusing Tapas experience you can visit one of the achingly hip, modern tapas bars in the Lateral chain. We visited the one in Plaza Santa Ana, the buzzing hub of Huertas. There was a bit of a queue to get seated in the square but we soon passed the time sipping Tinto de Verano at the bar – and the wait was worth it. Beautiful staff swiftly served dishes to our table, it made a pleasant change to eat tapas sitting down and so we ate an awful lot of meat to celebrate. It seemed even the locals were happy to queue for a table at Lateral and (shock/horror) they were drinking Sangria! It seems that when it comes to Lateral, being a tourist is cool.
There is so much fine tapas in Madrid and so many charming places to enjoy it. I barely scratched the surface on all this amazing city has to offer a food lover, but I learnt a lot about Madrid through my dining experiences and in doing so I learnt to love Madrid.
Have you fallen for Madrid through it’s tapas scene? Have you fallen in love with another city for it’s food alone?