If I was going to be a good food tourist in Madrid, I got the sense that I would need to seek out chocolate con churros, preferably for breakfast. We went to Chocolatería San Ginés , just off Puerta del Sol, near our apartment. They have been serving hot, thick, rich, melted drinking chocolate along with stacks of crispy, crunchy, fried doughnut-y churros for dipping since 1894, so it seemed a good place to start. Drinking chocolate has been enjoyed in Europe since the 17th century, after the explorer Cortes brought it back from the Americas (and then sweetened it significantly). Churros originated a few centuries before that, almost certainly in Europe, created either by Spanish goatherds or Portuguese travelers who had seen something similar in China, depending on who you ask. When drinking chocolate came around, it seemed as though churros had found their lifelong partners. Chocolatería San Ginés was smallish but airy, with a long marble bar, blue and white tiling, and plenty of small tables indoors and out. We found a seat and then went right to the counter to order. I’m not sure if you could even order something else, but we kept it simple. It was a delicious, if extreeeemely rich breakfast, suitable for the world explorer or Aztec royal in all of us.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m traveling I like to eat delicious, authentic food, and I’m usually on a bit of a budget. I also don’t necessarily want to have a “fancy” dining out experience more than once or twice. The rest of the time, I just want solid, casual food that the local people might enjoy. In Madrid, La Sanabresa, in the Cortes neighborhood, is just that. It ended up being our very favorite restaurant in Madrid, and we ate there no less than three times, but we have no record of ever having visited. We took no photos. This was partly because we were just hungry and the food was so good, and partly because, I’m going to be honest, it didn’t look like much. These are not your carefully plated, elegantly sauced plates. These are everyday, basic, traditional, and affordable foods, very well done.
In Madrid we often ended up having our large meal at lunch, because Guillaume was often very hungry after being in the archives all morning, and a satisfying meal was the perfect way to start an afternoon of sightseeing. Plus, we couldn’t quite adjust to eating dinner at (or after) 9 PM. (I am so, so old.) In the evening we would head back to the apartment, weary and foot-sore, and put together a quick salad, some delicious Spanish cheese and bread. Perfect. This particular restaurant we found doing a little internet search for a good lunch restaurant. And that is exactly what this is, although they are open for dinner as well. We, being hungry Americans, would turn up at 1:30 and there would be maybe one or two tables taken. By 2 it was packed and when we left, satisfied, there was a line of people waiting for a table. The first time we walked in the door and asked for a table for two. The very old-school, slightly harried waiter (who got only more harried as the lunch service went on) spread his arms and nodded his head indicating the lay of the dining room, and went about his business. We chose a nice table near the door, but cozy in a corner. There is one medium-sized dining room, slightly tackily decorated in pastels, with tablecloths and paper covers. The tables are quite close together, but nothing unusual for a big city. The large menu is separated into an à la carte section, and a large section of prix fixe menus, or menú del día, which didn’t really seem to change by the day. These five or so menus, with prices from about 10 euros to just over 20, come with a starter, main course and dessert, as well as bread and water, juice or wine. The choices are plentiful for a prix fixe, with at least 10 or more in each price category, so there was no problem finding choices that hit the spot. It seemed maybe a bit gimmicky, and I didn’t do the math to see if it actually was a savings, but all the locals were ordering menus, and people seemed to keep coming back.
The first time we went I had a simple grilled asparagus which was heavily drizzled with amazing olive oil, sprinkled with crunchy sea salt and so, so good. For my main course I ordered roasted pork ribs with potatoes and fruit salad for dessert, which was good, but I should have gone with the crescents of fresh cantaloupe, watermelon and pineapple that the regulars were getting, as the fruit salad was sitting in a bit too much juice. Guillaume had paella, which was good, but we definitely went in search of better paella elsewhere, and, garnering the instant admiration of the waiter, stewed tripe. He finished with an excellent, lightly sweet cheesecake with blueberry sauce. For our second meal I had the special salad (spoiler alert, not special, and really the only dud of our three meals), a nice, fresh grilled whole white fish and that great cheesecake that I was so jealous about. Guillaume had Russian salad, which is essentially potato salad, the pork ribs that HE was so jealous about, and cheesecake. The third time I got that asparagus again, escalope de jambon (cordon bleu, essentially), and an almond cake that was lovely. Guillaume got paella again, tripe again and you guessed it, cheesecake, again. The man likes what he likes. Simple, filling, authentic, and affordable, made traditionally and with, if not care, then at least love. We left happy, our pockets still full along with our stomachs, ready to explore Madrid.
I’ve always liked the theory behind tapas, in that you get to try several things, the tastebuds just whetted but never quite satiated. Tapas began as a little savory snack, hot or cold, that would accompany a caña, (a small glass of draft beer) or a glass of wine for free, filling the stomach a bit with the pre-meal drink. Usually a slice of ham, a plate of olives, a scoop of potato salad, or a small fried fish. Gradually, these became more complex and some places eventually started to charge for them, allowing you to choose from a selection that may be laid out on or under a glass bar. They are generally eaten while standing up, although there may be a few token tables. Some establishments though, are more like restaurants, with menus that allow you to choose a few small plates, and some larger plates of more traditional meals like stewed oxtail, and the tapas become more like a meal. If you want to really get crazy, you go out for the evening and eat and drink your way from bar to bar, this is called to tapear. Because Spaniards lunch around 2 and then don’t sit down to dinner until 10, 11 or later, a tapa or two can be a welcome filler.
There are several stories about the origin of tapas, both concerning King Alfonso X. In one, he insisted that tavern owners serve a bit of food with drinks so as to dissuade drunkenness. The other is that he ordered a sherry and, it being a windy day, the tavern owner lay a piece of ham on the glass to prevent dust from getting in. The King liked this “tapa”, or cover, so much that he asked for another. Others say that it simply developed as a way to keep fruit flies out of sweet sherry.
Our first tastes of tapas were these four that we found at the Mercado de San Miguel. A really cool concept, this is an old indoor market that fell into disuse that has been completely renovated into something like a Columbus Circle for food. Centrally located, we discovered it on our first day in Madrid, and had some of the best café con leche I have had in a long time at a stand called Café del Arte (a must after a 6 am flight from Paris). You can wander around the single-level market and purchase typical Spanish delicacies to enjoy right there, including coffee, desserts, wine, sherry and cocktails, sangria, and plenty of tapas. There is also a grocer, I guess for verisimilitude. This is an excellent idea in theory, and indeed the place was packed with tourists, and apparently some locals, enjoying local cuisine. I love the idea of grazing from place to place, picking a few things here, a few things there that entice and then grabbing a glass of something, finding a perch, and digging in and finding favorites. Unfortunately, the food was just not there, quality-wise. Hello? This is a pickle sandwich. What is not to love? With a pickle filled with marinated tuna and red pepper, and olives and onions and two toothpicks holding it all together, I expected it to be salty, but delicious salty, flavorful salty. And it was just salty. Very disappointing. And hard to eat.When we sidled up to a stand with croquettes, little fried balls filled with cheese (also meat, fish or other things) I thought “What could go wrong?” We even added some little pig-in-blanket type guys. But then the lady put them, on their little plastic plate, in the microwave. Not long enough for them to even get melty in the middle, just long enough to get sad.These are pintxos, a Basque variation on tapas which usually involves things eaten on bread, like a canapé, with a toothpick (pincho) stuck through it. They looked super interesting; little pieces of brown bread with slices of octopus or cheese, pepper and chorizo. They were oh-so bad. They even look like they’ve been sitting around a bit.
This is just for you to see, I was not brave enough to try them. They are angulas, tiny baby eels, a super popular treat in Spain. Apparently they are endangered. Also apparently, these (and the many other versions we saw) may be fake, made out of the same substance as fake crab, since real angulas can be 50 euros a serving. After that fairly terrible experience, we decided to go somewhere they might put a bit more thought into the food. Well hello, dark, Spanish looking tapas bar with bullfighting parephernalia on the walls! You will do!
The special house tapas, which presumably changes daily, was some kind of mustardy fish paste on bread and smothered with potato sticks. It was very good.
And then we tried one of their less tapa-y and more small plate-y dishes, braised “bull tile”, which came highly recommended by the waiter, and we assumed was bull tail.
This tapa we had at another restaurant where we went to eat octopus. I had been wanting to try baccalao (cod) croquettes, since they are quite traditional, and we had that very bad experience with croquettes. These were great, freshly fried, soft and slightly sweet inside, even with the slightly hipster presentation (a wire “frying” basket lined with faux “New England” newsprint).
On our first day in Madrid, we left our rented apartment, turned a corner and came upon a long line of people snaking out of a building. I’m always curious about lines that form, and what is so worth waiting for, but during the day, in the excitement of a new city, I sort of forgot about it. Until we returned in the early evening and there was still a line, even longer. Every time we passed that corner, no matter what time of day, there was always a significant gaggle of people waiting. After a few days, my curiosity got the better of me and I noted the name of the shop to look up when we got home. It turned out that this shop is Casa Hernanz, a cordeleria and alpargateria, and basically the place to get alpargatas, which you may know as espadrilles, in Madrid. They make them traditionally, by hand, and they are also very affordable, just 8 euros for the simplest pairs. The shoes that are available are all up in the windows so that you can choose the espadrilles you’d like to try before you get inside and maybe take photos to show the sales people. Once you’ve made it past the line, you head straight to the counter and ask for what you’d like, and in what size (it’s a good idea to know your European size in Spanish) and they pull from the back. You can try them on and then choose your pairs. Casa Hernanz makes the more simple gatas, but they also carry trendier designs and fabric patterns made by a few other Spanish brands that also make the shoes traditionally. They are simple shoes (e.g. no cushy insoles, and some don’t even come with a designated left and right foot) but fun, colorful, perfect for summer, and a great souvenir to bring back from Spain! Casa Hernanz, at Calle de Toledo, 18, is open for most the the day, but they do close for a few hours in the afternoon for siesta.
I have heard wonderful things about Spain, so I was not particularly surprised when Madrid turned out to be a beautiful, friendly, fun city. (Although, Barcelona was usually the city being mentioned, so that city must really be something.) I think there’s something about the combination of the wine or beer at every meal, the long siesta in the middle of the day, and I swear there is something to greeting everyone with “hola!” That final vowel just opens up the mouth and face and makes people instantly more relaxed and welcoming than, for example “bonjour”, ending in a closed, reserved mouth position (are my acting roots showing?) Whatever the reason, we had a wonderful time eating so much ham, drinking so much wine, and seeing amazing art and architecture. I’ll speak more about the food, including where and what we ate and enjoyed in later posts (tapas are a brilliant idea, aren’t they? Who ever just wants to eat one thing and just be done with it? I certainly don’t.) These are the sites and wanderings we particularly enjoyed in Madrid.
Prado Museum (Museo Nacional del Prado) One of the largest art collections in Europe, this beautiful museum, of a manageable size, houses a lot of religious art, including not just Spanish artists like El Greco, but lots of Dutch painters as well. Also there, many Goya paintings including The Second of May and the Third of May 1808, and the famous triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthy Delights.
Plaza Mayor We found ourselves walking through this central square nearly every day, as we were staying nearby. Quite touristy and filled with lots of costumed characters (including an amusing fat spiderman) and probably avoidable restaurants and cafes, but with some nice architecture, statues and murals, it’s worth a look.
Rastro Flea Market This market, held on Sundays in a huge area of the Embajadores neighborhood. Large, and with an eclectic mixture of the new (art, t-shirts, leather bags, clothing, espadrilles, fabrics, souvenirs, underwear) and old (antiques of all sorts, mostly along the side streets). A little bit of everything, very enjoyable, even if we didn’t buy anything.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia We visited this modern art museum mostly for Picasso’s Guernica, but really enjoyed all the art, as well as the setting.
Palacio Real de Madrid We didn’t go in the royal palace, but the outside, and the surrounding Plaza de Oriente (with several cafés for a coffee or glass of wine) and Sabatini Gardens were very beautiful.
Almudena Cathedral This large cathedral, beside the palace, is a nice example of a newer cathedral, as it opened in 1993 (but took 100 years to build).