Coming from a Maltese gastronomic culture good food for me means good portions. Seldom do you go to a Maltese restaurant and feel like you’re climbing a proverbial Everest. Upon leaving you notice the rest of the diners loosening their belt, huffing like a pregnant woman, and drinking copious amount of digestifs-cum-grenades.
So to most of us a place like Madrid would be a culture shock. I had had this culture shock already when I first went to Spain, in Valencia, and later Madrid, Barcelona and Granada – but back then, I was more interested in art on canvas or on the page than on the plate.
This time, I was more observant. And it doesn’t take a highly perceptive traveller to notice the Biblical abundance of restaurants selling tapas, bocadillos, montaditos, ham, and side orders; all of them would be considered mere appetizers in a Maltese kitchen. It takes a while to get used to. Spain, although a Mediterranean culture, has a culinary tradition all its own, and to truly enjoy it you need to avoid the tourist traps.
There is only so much ham and toast one can eat. But do your research and you can eat fantastically well – and this kind of eating can become addictive.
It is very far removed from Italian cuisine, however, it shares one crucial thing in common: the value placed upon ingredients. In Italy, the cooking is simple, sophisticated by the quality and freshness of the ingredients. In Spain, cooking is minimalistic, but if the ingredients are good, you can easily get carried away. If they aren’t, then it’s a disappointment not easy to shake off.
The best place to sample this eat little and often philosophy is the Mercado San Miguel. This old food market turned fresh dining place is Madrid in a nutshell; and thus, Spain. People don’t come to this Romanesque, early 20th century market to eat meals. They come to snack. To sample. And yes, to mix their drinks.
Seating space is limited, but most people don’t sit down, they hop from stall to stall, eat something small and quick at the counter, then move on. If you do get a seat on a long, busy communal table, get ready to get up every so often, get yourself a new tapa, sit down, get up again… it’s a lot like Mass!
And the ingredients here are of the best quality. The best produce of all Spain finds itself here in this heaven where all Spanish ends up. You have seafood from Galicia, octopus with paprika on toast, ham from the countryside, fruit from the Mediterranean, chorizo in newspaper from, well, everywhere, and you even get very good, very cheap oysters from France. Not to mention an assortment of the best sangrias, vermouth, wine and beer from all over Spain. The Mercado, which was renovated into this current form eight years ago, opens at ten in the morning and closes at midnight or at two in the morning on weekends – and it is never anything but packed!
It is a place you can spend a whole day in. Eating a wide variety of foods, never getting full, maybe getting slightly tipsy, but you leave it feeling what most Spanish people must feel – food is a pleasure.
And that’s a crucial point to understand about Spanish food: it doesn’t feel as snobby as perhaps Italian or French cuisine might feel. People enjoy their eating more than they enjoy their food. They enjoy the experience, which is generally informal, bar-esque, friendly; walk around Madrid and formal restaurants are few in number compared to the amount of tapas bars and tabernas.
The major food franchises are similarly informal and quick; the Cerveceria 100 Montaditos, to be found on every corner, selling a montaditos (tiny baguettes, really) with a 100 different fillings all for 1 euro; the Lizarran a Basque tapas franchise that serves small, diverse pinchos; Café y Tapas, and others.
Even the more formal restaurants aren’t exempt from this trend. Just as a Maltese restaurant cannot get away with small portions, so a Spanish restaurants cannot get away with not having some sort of tapas on its menu, or something para picar, to snack. An excellent restaurant on the Calle Mayor is El Señor Martín. They also have a stall in the Mercado San Miguel that makes you gloriously relieved you’re not vegan.
At the El Señor Martín you can order medium-sized dishes, simply presented, not more than two ingredients, cooked simply but made incredible by the sheer quality of the produce. My personal favourite was the red mullet and green beans. It was tender, juicy, fresh and gave you the kind of happiness people must get when they get to know they’ve been accepted into heaven. But then they do similarly excellent tapas-sized portions of French oysters, mussels, and tuna (“ham of the sea”) served on bread. Eating there makes you feel guilty – everyone in the world should be able to enjoy this stuff.
And speaking of vegans, and they’re milder-mannered cousins vegetarians: Spain is not a good place for these folk. Which is great news for the carnivorously inclined! A lot of tapas and side-orders offer you the chance to eat the most weird and wonderful offal.
Take the callos de Madrid, Madrid’s regional dish; a tripe broth cooked in blood sausage (Morcilla), pig’s feet, chorizo and whatever else you could find – recipes vary. Another Spanish franchise rampant in Madrid must be an utter house of horrors for vegetarians and Muslims: the Museo del Jamon. A restaurant/bar/cafeteria covered from floor to ceiling in ham of all kind, the legs of pork, drying, ready to be sliced and served, counters full of ham presented in every kind of form ham could be presented – and the place, well, smells of ham. A smell that is easy to get used to!
I will be writing a blog about the Latin American influence that pervades Madrid, but for now, on this meat theme, let me just mention the beautiful beef-tongue taco you can have at the Taqueria Mi Ciudad, a genuine Mexican place in Calle de Hileras, and the fried pork rinds, a fatty, divinely greasy Cuban snack served in Cuando Sali de Cuba or La Negra Tomasa.
As for vegetarian options in Madrid, one can try… I’m only joking!
Madrid isn’t a very good city for the teetotal and the recovering alcoholics either. There is a good diversity of alcoholic drinks in Spain which are mostly enjoyed during the light meals. We Maltese like to fill up on bread, but for the Spanish, most of their meals are bread; so they fill up on alcohol. What surprised me, however, coming from a heavily Italian-influenced country, is that they don’t do wine very much in Madrid.
Accompanying their tapas and side-orders you mostly see the Spanish having small glasses of beer or sangria. Their drinking philosophy is perfectly symmetrical to their eating habits: little and often. If you’re a beer lover and used to pints, forget about it here; unless you go to more touristic places or Irish pubs. In Spain they serve jarras or cañas. A caña is a pygmy version of a half pint whilst a jarra is just under a pint. Rarely seen until later in the night.
The Spanish are dedicated beer-drinkers and drink beer the way most people eat side-dishes. But, again, their meals are side-dishes! Sangria and vermouth is also a popular accompaniment. In places called Cervecerias (literally, a beerery, kind of) which are the closest things you can get to a pub (just, instead of football posters, you’ll find mounted bull’s heads) you can get a good variety of beers, from Cruzcampo to Mahou and if you’re lucky the heavier Alhambra. And you of course get a great range of tapas from Morcilla (Burgos blood sausage) to mussels and Spanish omelettes. Some of the best Cervecerias can be found in the nocturnal Plaza Santa Ana such as the Cerveceria Aleman and Cerveceria Santa Ana.
And of course, we can’t talk about snacking in Madrid without mentioning churros. Horse-shoe shaped fried-dough pastry served with a mug of viscous hot chocolate, the kind, you imagine, Aztecs would drink after a heart-rending sacrifice. Served all over Madrid in Chocolaterias, but the best place to try them is in the authentic Mecca of churros, the Chocolateria San Gines just off the Calle Mayor.
Opened in 1894 the place is loaded with pictures of famous celebrities who visited their premises; from Nobel-prize winning Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa to Diego Maradona among many. The place is always heaving with tourists and locals alike. The tables outside, under the picturesque archway of the Pasadizo de San Gines, are rarely empty, and inside, well, it’s just bliss, knowing that so many hordes of people come there for just one thing.
All the marble-top tables are filled with only two things: churros and hot chocolate. It is a marvellously homogenous place worthy of Communism (but you know, not really Communist). The only thing is: it is impossible to decide which is the better end of the deal: the churros themselves or the hot chocolate. Try both of them on their own; it’s like choosing your favourite parent!
Despite the odd form Spanish eating takes you know it’s good when you go home missing it, wishing you could snack and eat snack and eat, instead of being shackled to a dictatorial meal. It is easy to get wrong, going to a few wrong places and you’ll be longing for a burger or a good plate of pasta (a non-existent thing in Madrid). But follow this guide and do your research and you will become an aficionado of picar, snacking.