Madrid. So Real… A City Seen Through Its Food

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When I look back at our trip of Madrid what comes to mind is a melange of pleasant discoveries, images of quaint urban beauty, glimpses of history, very warm people and above all food that stunned one into ecstasy with its dialectic mix of simplicity and finesse.

I am not one of those travellers who plan and do a lot of research before they go to a place. Planning for a trip defeats the purpose of a ‘holiday’ in my book. That’s too much work. K did the hotel research and booked us into good places. I depended on my usual strategy of landing at a place and looking around, asking people for suggestions, posting on social media and wait for facebook and twitter to get back…and let the holiday evolve…and that’s what happened this time too and with a canvas as beautiful as Madrid the trip went off like a song.

Our landing in Madrid was ‘bumpy’ with our missing our connecting flight at Dubai as the Emirates flight at Mumbai took off late due to the chaos here. When we reached Madrid six hours after we were supposed to, our travel agent in India informed us that the car that was supposed to pick us up wouldn’t come since we had come on a latter flight even though they had been informed that we had missed the flight. We were told that it was best that we took a cab. Yes, not the best of landings in a country you were visiting for the first time in your life.

So instead of traipsing into the city in the afternoon as planned we tumbled in to Madrid tired and weary late into the evening wondering if this unpleasant experience would set the norm for Spain. Over the next 15 days we were proved to be delightfully wrong in this country of wonderful people.

Thankfully we got a cab easily from the airport and then soared down the empty highway to reach our hotel, Hotel Catalonia Paza Mayor, one of the four great hotel picks that K did in Spain through tripadvisor.

We went up to our rooms in the hotel and drew the curtains open and gaped. They had upgraded us to a room with a view and one looked out into a sepia tinted, naturally instagrammed, picture postcard road with stone buildings bathed in golden streetlights and a bakery waving cheerfully at us from the lane opposite.

Our angst after the choppy trip was left behind as we looked onto this magical scene. The holiday had begun. We were in Europe. We were in Spain. In Madrid. And it looked every bit as lovely as Robin and Simon, AKA Dos Hermanos, or the Majumdar brothers, had promised us it would be.

We freshened up and went down to the lobby and began our voyage of discoveries.

We met Antonio at the hotel desk at Catalonia Plaza Mayor who enthusiastically, and with a big smile, told us of his favourite places to eat in. While this was a lot of info to process, Antonio’s earnest exhortations set us off to what we later realised was Santa Anna. A place where we had some great dinners through our stay. .

There was Miau on night one where we entered on a hunch after a brisk chilly walk. As it was our first night at Madrid we let the waitress decide and she got us a plate of canapés of her choice and with each bite of goat cheese, fresh salmon, tortilla and ham we began to fall in love with Madrid and Spain. Like a tourist I ordered a sangria (no true blooded Spaniard orders it outside of summer I later fond out) and looked in awe at one of the elderly waiters who was slicing out thin slices of meat from a leg of ham kept on a table. I lost my jamon virginity a day later and with each day was increasingly besotted with the sheer aristocracy of the cured ham from these acorn fed pigs.

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Yes, we returned to Santa Ana for many dinners though we never saw Antonio again as he was replaced by some equally cheerful and helpful colleagues of his at the Catalonia Mayor Plaza.

We would walk around the restaurants at Santa Anna and walk into one that would catch our eyes. One day we went into the Cerveria (beer house) Santa Ana where we had a seafood paella jamon and gin and tonic dinner. The figurative Spanish equivalent of a biryani, chicken tikka and Kingfisher dinner. Purists will tell you to have paella only at Valencia and that other restaurants served paellas with colouring and no saffron but then purists don’t lead a very joyous life..

The ice cold crème catalon here though was a blip and the figurative equivalent of lumpy gulab jamuns if you know what I mean.

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Then there was Casa Lateral at Santa Anna which looked posh and hip, was packed to the gills and was remarkably not too pricey. The tapas here were mind blowing. Foie gras, sirloin with truffle oil, salmon with brie, baked potato with ham topped with quail egg. New age wizardry at old school prices. I got tempted by the ‘yogurt foam’ which turned out to be a lassi but the meal was still enticing enough for us to come back.

Even though we returned two days later our waiter from the first day seated us with a smile of welcome and looked after us. He didn’t know a word of English but had had an English menu and a big heart and that worked for us. We returned to Lateral for the sirloin with melted Brie, more foie gras & Iberian ham, ham croquette, bull's tail with potato, meat balls. Going back to Lateral for the last dinner in Madrid made so much sense. The food and atmosphere came together so beautifully.

When I told TGS or Robin Majumdar about Lateral thinking that I would tell him of a new place I found out that he already been there and vetted it.

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Oh and there was an Arola too but the place was shut every time we would head to Santa Ana for dinner unlike the rest of Spain which stayed up late.

So did we only eat? Didn’t we do any sightseeing? Wasn’t there more to Madrid than Tapas?

Read on…

Atocha

Well there was Atocha, the area near our hotel, with lanes surrounded by brick and stone buildings that were a throwback to the past. Like a lot of Madrid these buildings preserved the charm of the past and yet inside were very modern with high end clothes shops, restaurants and cafes and what every traveller looks for …central heating (in cold climes), clean loos and free wifi (pronounced weefee here).

There was the Cathedral where we stepped into one day and sat spellbound by the hypnotic charm of the Padre’s voice as his madrigas enshrouded the cathedral. The cathedral had a a ceiling that reached the heavens and had beautiful cut glass work sheltering it.

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There was the bakery opposite our hotel where we would step in for some pretty cheerful breakfasts. a sign outside the shop said ‘we love the tourists’. The smiling waitresses who spoke no English used sign language and some lovely jamon boccadilos (ham subs), hearty Spanish omelettes or tortillas and orange juice fresh from the Garden of Eden to make  to make us feel very loved. They even had little petite fours to make sure I didn’t miss Candies and home too much.

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This cafe is where we met Ahmed one day. An Egyptian staying at our hotel. A gentleman with a wry sense of humour who gave us a lot of advise (stick to beer don’t have the wine it will give you a headache, go to El Cortes Ingles for a 10 per cent discount for foreigners) and then gave us his metro ticket which had a ride left as he was leaving Spain that day to go back to Egypt for, in his words, his ‘share of teargas’.

And then there was the memory of one dark wintry Sunday evening where we stumbled into some young street musicians who were belting out some really good English pop and rock numbers. A group of us stood there in the dark swaying to the music, oblivious to the cold. The lead singer bore a slight resemblance to Ranbir Kapoor in Rockstar which suddenly made his singing in Italy in the film not seems so fanciful.

Truly an enchanted evening.

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At the end of Atocha is Maestro Churrora, established 1902, where we felt thrilled to have a taste of history with each bite of churros dunked in hot chocolate.

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Puerto Del Sol

The Maestro Churrero high lasted till we headed to Puerto Del Sol. A lively, pretty busy square with loads of shops…charming to walk by though folks say that the places to eat there are rather ‘touristy’. Well, in Puerto Del Sol was San Gines which Shamita Ghosh in Facebook pointed us to.

Well if Maestro C was estd in 1902 then San Gines was established in 1894. You stood in a queue to enter the legendary San Gines, entered it, placed your order and sat down amongst loads of people dipping churros freshly fried, by a guy who looked as if he he was wielding the steering wheel of the Battleship Potemkin, into thick dark alluring chocolate…chocolate the way the Aztec and Mayan Gods meant it to be.

I took loads of pictures at San Gines which are all with the guy who stole our camera in Mumbai so just sit back, close your eyes and let the magic of intense, thick dark chocolate take over you.

 

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The white and green tiles and the marble tables in San Gines a throwback more to Istanbul than Madrid. Once again don’t let the vintage look fool you for downstairs you would find some pretty neat washrooms at San Gines. Yes, I keep stressing on this because I was quite impressed by the queen loos across most of the places we visited here.

In Puerta Del Sol is Ferpal a meat shop which the local elders seem to love. Always a good sign.

You step in to Ferpal and are surrounded by huge legs of ham, a veritable meat feast, a cheese counter and a little bar too where we had the most delicious wobbly salami and ham pate sandwiches surrounded by elderly couples who had gone from counter to counter, picked their meats and pates and cheese and were rewarding themselves with a glass of beer on tap before heading home. The sort of elderly couples whom you look at and feel so reassured about what lies ahead in life.

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Or you could go to any of the Jamon Museums which are sort of meat and beer places for tourists that dot the city. Makes for some great photographs to start with and beats going to the Golden Arches any day.

The Royal Palace

There was the Royal Palace which we went to one day following the ‘things to see in Madrid’ list. The palace was grand and the paintings on the ceilings, the royal crockery, the mirrors, chandeliers, loads of portraits of Royals looking grimly and so on were brought alive to us by the lady from the palace staff who was the English guide. Completely worth spending the extra Euros on for your experience to be complete. She really brought the Palace alive for us and answered our questions including ‘why the Royals look so grim in the portraits’. “Because they won’t look important enough if they smiled. Common people like us can smile though”.

Close to the Royal Palace is the Mercada San Miguel or the Spanish food court which I had written about earlier here. Tiny sausage bocadillos, barbequed squids, tinned fish tapas, croquettes, paella, freshest of fruit juices, coffee and sherry bars, macarons…this place is a veritable smorgasbord of Spanish food delights and a not to be missed experience and unlike in the Royal Palace you don’t need a guide or a translator here. The food talks directly to your heart.

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Plaza Mayor

Then there was the Plaza Mayor itself. A huge square surrounded by ancient buildings that were once the market and today the base for loads of restaurants with waiters in suits calling out to you as if you were in Juhu beach. ‘Touristy’ is how most foodies would dub these places. At the centre of the plaza is the statue of a guy on a horse in a country full of statues of various guys on horses. On the square’s cobbled streets are loads of tourists getting photographed and in the corners there were painters painting and selling their work. I took a lovely picture of a painter painting while his friends admired his canvas and chatted with him. A candid moment, frozen in time, lost in my camera, but lovingly locked in my memory.

Close to Plaza Mayor is Botin. We went there after we bumped into a gentleman called Rick at the Maestro Churrero who offered to take our pictures with our camera. He had come on a holiday from the US and said that after 4 days in Spain he was so happy to have a conversation in English. He is the one who pointed us to Botin.

Botin’s claim to fame is that it was established in 1725 and is listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest running restaurant. It was also the priciest restaurant we went to in Madrid but then as we were seated in the cave-like basement and the waiter asked to take our jackets, it did feel rather ‘Real’ or Royal. 

We had clams in tomato which were nice but you needed to add in the atmosphere to make it feel ‘special’ and the Catalan Flan was a caramel custard which while nice didn’t really beat aapro Military Cafe in Mumbai.

What took the cake though was the roast suckling pig. Though we ordered one they plated it onto dishes and got it for us with some amazing baked potatoes. The flavours clean, the meat moist, the skin crackling…this was Lady Chatterley stuff.

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After lunch we went up to the ground floor to leave which is when I got my real ‘dessert’. An impromptu history lesson on the roast suckling pigs of Botin.

A gentleman at the cash counter asked me if I would like to see how the pork was cooked and led me to a corner. That’s where the oven was. Dedicated just to the roast suckling pigs. The chef was there, young Reuben who was evidently proud of working in Botin and as he put it “the boss is good”.

The oven was apparently the one used from the time the inn was set up which makes it about three hundred years old. While I marvelled at the oven, K’s eyes went up to the tile work much to Reuben’s delight. “A lot of people come to see the oven, but few notice the tiles”. The tiles are comparatively ‘new’. Just a century or so old.

Reuben shared the ‘recipe’ with us. The suckling pigs, he told us, are smeared with salt, pepper, paprika, white wine & bay leaves & roasted with potatoes in a tray with the pig placed on its tummy for one hour  & then on its back for forty minutes. When people place an order then Reuben cuts out a portion, finishes it on on the oven and serves a portion of pork with those delicious potatoes.

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Cava Baja

If Botin and Plaza Mayor is all about history then there is Cava Baja that Simon Majumdar pointed us to. A lane full of nuevo, dressed down, hip eating places.

On our first visit there we walked into Casa Curro Taberno enticed by its red decor. And yes, Madrid is a place where you can walk to most places.

Our hunch about the places was right. The vibes and food here and the service were all cheerful as the red hues promised. Some great Iberico Jamon and our first sitting on tapas stool eating experience surrounded by loads of folks who were sitting, standing, eating, drinking and chatting. And then a ‘grandma’s recipe’ stew of the softest pig cheeks that gave in to a nudge of the fork cooked in a red wine Syzah sauce.

Yes, grandmas are  the best cooks in the world.

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We headed back to Cava Baja another evening to one of the places Simon had recommended.

What followed at Lucas were grilled pork loin & blood sausage served with Parsi sali like cheese straws with a free pepperoni tapas with the beer. The hot tapas at Casa Lucas, Cava Baja, Madrid, was heart-warming stuff. But then Simon Majumdar's recos are always spot on. Amazing how he gets under the skin of a city. His choices in Mumbai which resonated with mine were proof enough for me.

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We also had a codfish gratin there and got to see how they often gratinate (mash) a dish in front of you serve it. Cod and mashed brinjal can put people off and it didn’t work for K. I found the dish ‘interesting but not worth repeating’.

Prado Museum

Yes we did go to the Prado Museum with loads of Renaissance paintings which I found slightly more exciting than our Zara visits. Ok, a lot more interesting! Thankfully K had figured out through Tripadvisor that if we went after 6.30 pm we didn’t have to pay to enter Prado though I was mortified at the thought of queuing up to enter an art museum. The paintings were impressive but it’s just that for me art is best served on a plate.

And for those interested, there is a nice cafe in the road opposite Prado called Faborit with nice coffee and cookies and free weefee and a loo which needs an access code but is again pretty clean 

The Bernabeu Stadium

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We took a Madrid city bus one day from Puerto Del Sol and ‘hopped off’ at the Bernabeu Stadium. Home of the Real Madrid FC. That was an amazing experience. Climbing on to the stands, then going to the lovely interactive museum, seeing all the trophies, going down to the turf and sitting at the player’s box on the field after passing through the locker room, going to the press room and sitting down where coaches and players address the press at the end of the match…it was a surreal experience and I could imagine my football crazy friends back home giving their left leg for this. The museum told us that the King of Spain had given the epitaph of ‘Real’ or royal to the club and its achievements showed why.

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As we left, hungry from the cold and all that walking, I suddenly remembered that food writer Marryam Reshii had told me about the cafe at the stadium where you could have a ‘nice tapas while looking on to the field’.

Well  the steak tartar (our first of the trip), champi y gambi (mushrooms grilled prawns) and the calamari fritter boccadila (sandwich) were all exquisite in the.Puerta 57 Restaurant. You could call the Puerta 57 the  Bernabeu Stadium stadium ‘canteen’ but the food was truly operatic. In fact Marryam had probably sat in the posh banquet restaurant which looked on to the square when she went with the press but the place where we sat was quite nifty too. If you ordered tapas, like us, then here as in most of Spain you sit on bar stools. You get the tables if you order raciones or full portions only.

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A meal well eaten

I don’t think we had a single bad meal in Madrid. Most meals were glorious. Places we found by instinct or through recommendations discovered by chance. Even the jamon boccadila, orange juice and coffee breakfast in the station on the way to Seville was great.

Lots of pretty things to see in the city too but then as Madrid lover TGS or Robin Majumdar says, ‘sightseeing is something you finish quickly before meals.

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