Did you know that there are six meal times in Spain? After our delicious weekend in Madrid, I have to think the Spanish are doing something right when it comes to food. We ate a lot of tapas over our two days there and also learned a thing or two about what tapas really means. It’s as much a way of eating as about the small plates themselves. My understanding of tapas prior to visiting Spain was simply that the dishes need to be small and shared. In fact, it is also about stopping at various bars to have a drink and a snack at each one. A lot of the night is spent standing but with good company and food, it doesn’t feel exhausting.
Quirky local tradition number one; throwing your rubbish under the bar. This includes olive pips, toothpicks, tissues and any other bits and bobs from your food dishes. I found it incredibly unnatural but as they say, when in Rome… The reason for this comes back to the mobility of eating tapas. At a place where people sit down for their entire meal, we usually use the crowd to identify if a restaurant is likely to be good or not, but with people moving in and out of bars so quickly this method is not reliable. Bars can be incredibly crowded one moment and suddenly feel empty as groups of people move out and onto other places. If you come along at the wrong time, you might think that a bar isn’t very popular even though it’s totally amazing. So, patrons throw remnants of their food under the bar so new comers can observe the amount of rubbish and assess how many people have already enjoyed the fare. I love finding out these types of things!
Our very first meal in Madrid was at a great little place called Pez Tortilla. I say “little” but really it was the same size as most bars – so it’s comparatively little. Their menu was a small list of assorted tortillas and croquets. Neither of us speak Spanish so we took a gamble and with a combination of gestures and saying “uno”, I managed to order the first two tortillas and first kind of croquets. To be honest I was not 100% sure what I had ordered but I needn’t have worried. One tortilla had iberico ham and the other had mushrooms. Both were simply divine. Our truffle croquets were crunchy and rich. It was a positive start to our culinary experience in the city.
The highlight of our trip was definitely the evening tapas tour we did. At the risk of sounding long-winded, I’m going to share the details of our tour with you!
The first stop was a delightful place called Taberna Real. The building itself is about a block away from the Royal Palace and was originally where the servants lived. It has been around for a long time as a place that served food and now is a busy tapas bar. Our guide advised us that aperitifs are like stretching before an athletic event – you must prepare your appetite for the night ahead! I rather like that analogy because it makes me feel marginally closer to physical activity. At this bar we were served campo real olives. These are locally grown olives which you can only find in Madrid. They are black with a very mild flavour which suits me fine as I am a recent convert to the olive camp. We also got potato chips which might seem a bit odd, but in fact is common in tapas bars. They are not from a packet however, but are cooked on site using potatoes grown locally which is a nice touch.
Arguably the main attraction at Taberna Real is the ham. Once you walk in you can see the legs of ibérico hanging and one barman skilfully slicing it by hand. Here we tasted jamón ibério de bellotta – acorn fed cured pork. This amazing product is cured for around five years and is the more expensive relative of serrano ham. We tried some on its own but also had it with toasted bread topped with fresh tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and almonds. The mouthful with all those components is tough to beat. I’ve never served cured meats with almonds before, but I think I’ll have to from now on because the texture and flavour combination rocked my world.
The tour includes alcohol which Richard took part in. Most of my friends will know that I don’t drink alcohol so I had various juices and soft drinks throughout the night. For Richard, he began with a Spanish sweet red “Miro” vermouth at our first stop. This stuff was on tap which is very cool. It is milder than Italian vermouth which means it can actually be had neat, which is what Richard did. He reported that it tasted sweet and was easy to drink.
Our second stop was Taberna La Concha which is on a street with the highest density of tapas bars in the city. This was one of two stops on the tour where we sat down to eat. First we had goats cheese followed by smoked cured beef from León. The spotlight is usually on pork so it was interesting to try cured beef. While it seems strange to say, it tasted like a bigger animal; there was less fat and the dark richness of the meat seemed more serious than the pork. I enjoyed it but must admit that I preferred the ibérico – if I had to choose.
Following a rather meaty start to the evening, we were served salmorejo. This was a warm tomato puree served with bread. It was sprinkled with egg and jamón, and a generous topping of olive oil. I don’t think the term “drizzle” can be used in Spain when it comes to olive oil. They are unabashedly in love with it and we probably consumed more than we ever have over the course of our trip. It is certainly nothing to complain about however because it tastes absolutely wonderful.
The final dish at our second stop was a roasted piquillo pepper stuffed with gently cooked leeks and tetilla cheese. It came in small clay dishes with the cheese still bubbling and insides searing. Cheese and onion go together pretty well in general so to have it stuffed in a sweet pepper and grilled to perfection is probably one of the best treats. I was very happy to gobble it all in up record speed while only suffering minor burns.
Our third stop was to a place called Mesón del Champinón which was hands down, Richard’s favourite. They served a few dishes but you go to this place for the mushrooms. It was a quirky little place decorated with little mushrooms on the ceiling and an old man playing a combination of iconic classical music and 90’s pop songs on his keyboard. Each day they go through 100kg of mushrooms and up to 150kg on weekends! It’s remarkably simple really, the button mushrooms are peeled and filled with a little piece of chorizo and parsley. They are then grilled and finished with salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil. They come on a plate with two little toothpicks in them and a special method for eating. You use the two toothpicks to lift the mushroom to your mouth so you can blow gently to cool it down because it now contains a pool of hot juices and oil from the chorizo. And then you gently pop whole thing into your mouth to savour its deliciousness. Due to three people in our party not being particularly fond of mushrooms, Richard got to have more than we could count.
The next stop was La Casa del Abuelo. They specialise in various forms of seafood and we went to try their garlic and chilli shrimp. I’m not a lover of shrimp but even I found the dish to be ridiculously delicious and moreish. I ate about three shrimp which is rather impressive for me, leaving the rest for Richard to enjoy. These prawns were cooked in small clay dishes of olive oil. When the oil is bubbling enthusiastically the chef adds a ton of garlic and some dried chilli, after a few seconds he adds a handful of shrimp and it’s all cooked in a matter of minutes. The shrimp are finished with parsley and served with a crusty bread roll. After having a couple of shrimp I indulged in dipping the bread into the garlic and chilli oil and it was divine. Our guide told us that due to the amount of garlic used, this was not a good place to have a first date! Luckily Richard and I are beyond that so we could eat our fill without any worries.
The tour was well planned with the final stop at Casa Toni being a place where we could sit down. The restaurant is known for serving a variety of animal parts that are not usually eaten such as pig ears and gizzards. At our table upstairs we shared in platters of roasted green chilli peppers, fried eggplant, tomato salad, potatoes and chorizo. The atmosphere was convivial and we had a good chat with the other people on our tour. Our guide also said that dessert is not a big thing in Spain and I think if you consider what you know about Spanish cuisine, you’ll find that to be true even if you didn’t realise it before. You might think of churros but they are not a dessert in Spain. Instead they are usually served in the late morning for the official second breakfast (almuerzo). So really they might have some biscuits and a dessert wine but dessert very much an after-thought. Given how delicious our tour had been, I was totally stuffed and happy to have a couple of coconut biscuits made by local nuns to wrap up the evening. The great thing about this tour was learning about how locals eat and also being able to explore the smaller tapas bars which might fall under the radar of regular tourists.
In contrast to the tour, we visited Mercado de San Miguel which is a kind of tourist hot spot food market contained in a beautiful glass building. There are various vendors there selling all manner of tapas bites and drinks. It is significantly more expensive but the atmosphere was buzzing. We sampled some delightful olives and experimented with cheeses. We also indulged in even more ibérico ham before squeezing ourselves out the door.
I left Madrid full of inspiration; prepared to try and recreate some of the food we sampled. I admire the simplicity of the food which calls for the freshest ingredients and a dash of passion in everything. Hopefully I can bring a little Madrid into our kitchen and relive the wonderful time we spent there!