The Real Madrid: Manchego, Membrillo and Mahou

This might seem like any old bear, but he’s different. He’s the symbol of Madrid and located in Sol, the very centre of the city (and the country). He’s found on every coat of arms and plenty of city paraphernalia. He’s a meeting point and a tourist favourite. I can’t say I ate all the berries that he did, but I certainly ate plenty of other stuff. In fact, long before this past weekend, Spain–with its enormous greasy haunches of jamon hanging in every shop window, its summery gazpacho and  thousands of wine options–sounded very indulgent. I dreamt about Spain, ate at Pix and Tapas Brindisa in London, downed bottles of cava, but I knew that it wasn’t the same.

Jamon. I didn't indulge, but it looked delicious

Finally, after a long while of planning and pondering, I visited my friend Jean in Madrid. Jean and I have been dear friends for almost fifteen years, so it wasn’t so much a case of if I would visit her as when. I planned on November because I knew that it would be cold here in London—excuse me, cold and grey—and that while Madrid’s no Miami, a bit of Spanish sun would help warm my culinary spirits. And it’s nice to see a place with such a strong culinary history. London should certainly be proud of its pub scene, but at the pub the food is certainly optional. Spaniards are fiercely proud of their food and drink traditions, and I was happy to indulge, so (needless to say) the tapas-eating began immediately upon arrival. Calle de la Cava Baja by La Latina metro station is full of tapas bars and, on a Thursday night, was packed with both Spaniards and foreigners. Hopping about from place to place we had sliced bread with goat cheese and caramelized onions (Jean’s favourite and now maybe mine too), seafood-topped Basque tapas (pintxos) and then a bucket of the ubiquitous Mahou beers for €2ish.

Friday morning, yours truly suffering a bit from the bodily remnants of beer, began with heavenly fried churros. This place was a block away from Jean’s house near Las Ventas and filled with nary a tourist at 10 in the morning, just locals sharing plates of toast and sipping on cafés con leche, never shy about just throwing their napkins on the floor. As much as it goes against my cleanliness constitution, everyone else tosses their napkins; it’s actually kind of liberating. That goes with the rest of the Spanish vibe: there’s no abundance of por favors or anything; just ask for what you want, throw your napkins on the floor and say hasta luego, breakfast! Besides, the gracias por su visita napkins (seemingly the only available napkins in all of Spain) are made of the thinnest, flimsiest paper in the world, so you’ll definitely need plenty. Might as well dispose of them as easily as possible.

We walked all around the city, displaying an unhealthy interest in the cats of El Retiro and the dress sense of the local working ladies at Gran Via, but then proceeded to happier things when we stopped in the eden of eating—Mercado de San Miguel. Its gleaming exterior and tourist-happy “market” prices belied the simple goodness that was to come: croquettes with blue cheese, croquettes with spinach, croquettes with mushrooms, vegetable paella, skewers with fresh tomatoes and cheese, olives, chocolate mousse, glasses of rioja and rebujitos (an indigenous-to-Spain glass of Sherry topped with 7-up) and a very full stomach to round out the rest of the city trip. After a tour around the city and a bit of a siesta back home (which must be done, given that many shops will close for some hours anyway), we had tapas that night at La Blanca Paloma in Malasaña. We got there early, as apparently any later than 8 and it’s packed. I can see why: with drinks for €2 and four free tapas for every round, you can eat on the super-cheap. After some ridiculous London costs, I’m glad to grab a bargain again. Let me explain something about tapas: from what I know at least, tapas are mostly free or generally cheap. Sometimes you get what they give you, sometimes you choose. And sometimes they’re called raciones (if they’re of a larger size) and sometimes they’re pintxos (if they’re from the Basque region). This article here that Jean read me is a good guide on how to get the scoop on tapas. You can also look to Erin’s great site for more advice.

A dream: sueño de chocolate

On Saturday we moved on to Toledo, a stony medieval city, chockers with tiny little winding lanes and an odd combination of marzipan shops and knife shops. (Toledo was once renowned for its ironwork, though I’m not sure what’s up with the marzipan–other than that it’s awesome.) We had the menú del día at Palacios, which for €8.50 will give you three courses and wine. Or you could opt for water instead, as I did, but then that’s being rather square.

Tiny people--us, minus Jean--ready to enter Toledo

Jean and Cervantes

It proved impossible to buy a train ticket home, since all the computers were broken and there was apparently no other way to sell tickets. Fortunately, that did give us some forty-five minutes to make a new friend. Although he would never tell us his name, he was happy to have his photo taken:


Our interminable delay at the train station meant that we opted instead for the bus, where I got the chance to taste the incredible Toledo bus station tortilla. Don’t let its ridiculous size fool you: this was the best tortilla Española I had in Spain. High on tortilla, we got home and followed that day’s adventure with La Casa del Pez’s tasty gin and tonics and a night out dancing. If you get to La Casa del Pez I highly recommend the Blue Ribbon gin with Mediterranean Fever Tree tonic, and peppercorns mixed in. You’ll never get cheated on a mixed drink in Spain; they just estimate their measurements, so they can be very generous.

Best bus station tortilla

My final day was spent puttering about at the beautiful Reina Sofia museum, then eating at various tapas places (like this place and this place), and finishing it all off with a sushi dinner. Jean mentioned that sushi, while readily available, is not especially popular in Madrid. I found this out for myself on Sunday when we walked in and were one of about three other pairs, all of whom were speaking English (lies: one was speaking French). But then I shouldn’t judge, as I’m sure I could live happily for ages on Spanish food.

And then, the last stop on my trip was Marineros/Моряки, the—wait for it—Russian Sailors’ Gay bar. That has to be the oddest combination I’ve ever heard of, but then if you can get 500 mL of Russia’s national beer—Baltika 7—for €3.50, what’s not to love? As an extra thrill, at least one of the bartenders was 100% Russkii. I tried desperately to take some photos of our drinks to display here, but I thought I’d stop after the third attempt and some crazy looks. It was a little bit of foreign in the patriotic centre of Spain. Foreign bar, foreign girl.

Me in front of the royal palace. Bye bye, Madrid!