Food and travel go hand in hand for me. One, if not the main reason I love to travel is to discover new foods. It’s not only the way the food tastes or how it is presented, it’s the history, the traditions and the culture that unfolds as you munch your way around a destination.
Food to the Spanish as we know is a huge part of their culture. Fiestas, celebrations and family occasions are built around eating – I would happily bet that although Iceland exists in Spain, very few would put out a King Prawn ring to feed their guests. And so it was with great excitement I accepted an invitation to spend a weekend in Madrid as the guest of my friend Lorena a Madrileño born and bred and a foodie. She who was delighted to take me on a food tour of her beloved city and here are the details…. yes, I did really eat this much in two days!
My perfect breakfast, with a big thank you to the French, is a black coffee and a croissant. I could have it every day, but it’s a treat reserved for weekends and holidays. It’s a breakfast that transcends across the globe in its different variations and although simple in its taste and design, it is possible to get it badly wrong with a weak coffee and a flabby croissant. My personal award for getting it wrong goes to Colombia, who’d of thought they couldn’t make a decent coffee? And for getting it right, Vietnam, but then food wise the Vietnamese get an awful lot right.
Thankfully in Madrid, I only ever had great coffee and buttery, melty croissants so big they come with a knife and fork, and the local tweak? Served ‘a la plancha’ – toasted – with even more butter, well done Madrid.
Mid morning means another coffee – usually, because you didn’t get to bed till 0130 a standard in Madrid – and a Cortado is the preferred pick me up. Cortado means “to cut” so literally it’s an espresso “cut” with an equal amount of hot milk and served almost as a shot. It’s a way of drinking coffee we’re adopting in the UK along with our love of the Aussie flat white.
Cocida is the ultimate lunchtime comfort food of Madrid and it is the dish that everyone’s mother makes. It is a dish you can eat out but very few do, as it’s just not the same as the home cooked version, but there is one restaurant, La Bola, in the Opera district of Madrid, where Madrileño’s go for Cocida. Lorena was very excited to take me there, although she is a big fan of her mum’s version, La Bola’s is as good if not better – high praise indeed.
Cocida is peasant food, and like most peasant food, cheap to make, slow to cook and totally delicious. A basic description of Cocida is chickpea and meat stew, but this is a dish of two parts.
Two bowls were brought to the table, their bottom’s covered with tiny pieces of pasta and then a terracotta pot bulging with its contents was put down but only the cooking liquor, was poured into each bowl. A light but incredibly tasty broth tinged with orange due to the paprika from the chorizo that had been simmering away in it for a good few hours. The broth is bulked out by the pasta and accompanied with jalapeños for some optional ‘picante” and a big hunk of white bread.
When you have slurped up every drop of soup – and resisted licking out the bowl because you are in a restaurant and have remembered your manners – another plate of steamed cabbage with fried garlic appears and is spooned into your bowl, and then you get to unravel the mystery of the terracotta pot. Diving in with your spoon it surfaces with chick peas and chunks of meat – bacon, chorizo and pork – these go on top of the cabbage and it’s finished with a generous dollop of homemade tomato sauce. It’s perfecto! Simple, delicious and accompanied by a compulsory Caña (small glass) of the local beer Mahou.
It’s carb loaded enough so that in days gone by you could have easily taken a siesta before going back out to work in the fields. In 2015 you are given a delicious digestive of lemon sorbet mixed with Cava and a welcome espresso. Siesta optional.
Although landlocked, seafood is everywhere in Madrid and hugely popular is the Galician style of cooking, an area of Spain where the sea is rough but rich, the portions are huge and pulpo (octopus) – once a poor man’s food has been elevated to new heights.
I had been recommended the Galician, Restaurante Riveira do Mińo by a foodie friend in Brighton and it is also a favourite of Lorena and her friends. Through the steamy windows, you can see the chefs at work and crates of prawns and platters of crabs, mouthwatering stuff.
I literally died and went to seafood heaven. If I never eat seafood again, it’ll be OK, this really was unforgettable. We started with a platter of Almejas Marinara – clams in garlic and tomato sauce, and not weeny little clams, these were meaty and substantial.
We then went “proper Galician’ and ordered Pulpo, simply boiled, sliced and served with rock salt. It was so tender and the “life hack” to tenderising your octopus save bashing it against a rock for an hour? Freeze it first, defrost and then boil. Alongside we had a plate of Peppers Padron, a cross between a jalapeno and a green pepper, these little fellas can, if you’re unlucky, blow your head off. It’s almost like playing Russian Roulette with a chargrilled plate of these. One in fifty apparently is mind-blowingly hot, but there is no way of telling before it’s too late. On this occasion, we all escaped unscathed.
And then came the boiled seafood, a platter of prawns (gambas), cranjejo (crab), Langoustines (king prawns), and cigalles (scampi) – a bowl of mayo, lemon quarters and an ice cold bottle of Galician Ribeiro. The wine came in very handy when I was shown how to eat crab the Galician way, mix the brown and white meat together in the shell, add a generous glug of the Ribeiro and mix again before devouring #genius.
There was still room for a slice of Torta de Santiago – a tart made with almonds – it’s not everyone’s taste due to the dry consistency and it is much nicer when served with ice cream, but that is not the Galician way.
But the food in Madrid isn’t all about big portions, in the little calle’s (roads) off the the Plaza Mayor you can’t move for Cerverzeria’s selling the hugely popular Bocadillo de Calamares, deep fried squid rings in a white roll – a Madrileño fish finger sandwich – you only find it in this particular area of Madrid and it comes, of course, with an ice cold caña of Mahou.
Like in most parts of Spain, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to Tapas bars, but there was one particular eatery that made me very, very happy indeed and that was the Mercado San Miguel. Once a municipal market and now a glass fronted “Centre for Culinary Culture” a place for producers and chefs to showcase their wares.
You can walk around Mercado San Miguel and take your pick. Our first stop was to get a cold glass of white Rueda to accompany our nibbling and then we headed to the Burrata – a fresh cheese made from Mozzarella and cream! – and had a generous helping on a slice of sourdough topped with sundried tomatoes and crispy onions, that was followed by a couple of oysters, then olives and parma ham, croquetas bacalao (salt cod) and then we finished with a selection of Manchego and goats cheeses. It was sociable, it was fun and it was just a great way to eat. Why can’t we turn our old municipal markets/warehouses into places like this at home??
Sunday’s in Madrid is El Rastro, Madrid’s largest flea market and a place not just for tourists but a popular place for Madrileño’s to hang out, eat tapas and drink cañas. It was here that I stumbled across a bar that just sold sardines, peppers pardon and beer. It was hot and noisy, no tables and chairs, standing only. The chargrill was barely visible what with the smoke and the rows and rows of sardines lined up on it. In charge of the grill was the barman’s Grandmother, she must have been in her 80’s and wasn’t even breaking a sweat.
She passed plastic plate after plastic plate of sardines and peppers over the bar and as the patrons sucked the fishes dry, the bits they didn’t eat they chucked on the floor along with plates and serviettes. I’m not a massive fan of sardines, but I stood and had a caña and a plate of peppers and was almost tempted to order some sardines just so I had something to chuck on the floor.
My weekend was coming to an end but I made sure I had room for Churros and Chocolate. Traditionally a breakfast dish it can also be had as a late afternoon treat. Thick, thick hot chocolate with crispy, floury sticks of churro – similar to a donut but not sweet. It is totally indulgent, highly calorific and so inevitably totally delicious.
And so I said goodbye to Lorena, her family and Madrid. What a wonderful city, filled with many beautiful things and lots and lots of gorgeous food. A city made for eating and socialising. Hasta La Vista Madrid, I’ll be back……. I want to watch the sunset from StreetXO at the top of El Corte Ingles, Callao. It’s not just the view and the sunset that’s the draw, it’s an Asian fusion tapas bar run by the young Madrlieño and three-star Michelin chef David Muñoz .
NB he’s just opened a StreetXO in London, but I think I’ll wait and try his food in his hometown….. or there is always StreetXO NYC opening 2016….. watch this space