Descent into La Bodega de los Secretos

My father has three rules:

1. Never trust a man who uses the change purse in his wallet;
2. Never trust a man who doesn’t swear;

and, most importantly for our purposes,

3. Never ever eat in a revolving restaurant.

That final rule has held me in good culinary stead (as have the first two when it comes to making friends). You see, restaurants with spectacular views (particularly ones that rotate 360 degrees every hour) tend to get very excited about their view, and rather forget about their food. And my father’s third rule can be applied to any eatery with a spectacular, quirky or original space. Which is why I was skeptical when I read about La Bodega de los Secretos, a new Madrid restaurant ensconced in the vaulted, subterranean tunnels of a seventeenth century wine cellar. Would it all be about the bodega and its secrets, and not at all about the food?

Last week, my wife and I checked it out for lunch. But before we get to the grub, let me describe the descent. It was 2:30pm on a Madrid Friday in July. Hot enough to fry an egg on your forehead. The restaurant is tucked down a Huertas backstreet, and as we descended the stair, the temperature dropped mercifully and dramatically. The interior is a ring of brick and stone tunnels used by monks centuries ago to age and store wine. Now tables fit snuggly into the lamp-lit alcoves that once housed clay vessels.

We began with a pair of bitter-sweet vermouths on ice (one white, one red, one Spanish, one Italian) and our bouches were amused with a cool, slightly sweet melon cream. The menu is happily short and the wine list happily long. We picked a bottle of Remelluri Rioja Reserva 2008, reasonably priced at €26.

Bodega de los Secretos, Madrid restaurant, melon cream

And soon came the food proper. First, luscious, buttery slithers of Carpier smoked salmon and eel paired with two glasses of Rimarts Rosae cava, a pink sparkler shot through with a smokey smack. There’s smoked fish and then there’s smoked fish, and this was the latter (which is the better kind). ‘Twas a fine start.

Bodega de los Secretos, Madrid restaurant, smoked salmon

On its heels came the steak tartare, a dish regularly so disappointing in Madrid that I’ve given up ordering it. But here the meat was rich and flavoursome, yet still light. And it was served in three mounds, one topped with anchovies, one with wasabi, one with truffle. The tang of each topping was perfectly judged, complementing, but not overpowering the excellent beef.

Bodega de los Secretos, Madrid restaurant, steak tartare

Roll on the mains. We ordered secreto ibérico, a juicy grilled cut from just behind the foreleg of the Iberian pig, served with nicely-balanced honey and sweet potato sauces. But it was the bull tail that had me at hello. A little like steak tartare, any food featuring the words rabo de toro is a risky prospect in Madrid (simply because it’s everywhere, and so, according to the law of restaurant averages, is usually bad). Rabo de toro should be densely flavoured and the meat should collapse at the sight of a fork. But too often it’s a tough, flavourless cock-up. Not here, no sir. This bull was as it should be – powerful, meaty but with a mashmellow-like consistency,  and served in a bang-on creamy grenache and truffle mousseline sauce.

The Rioja – elegant and packed with dark fruit – was now starting to kick, and the vaulted ceiling was starting to swim.

Bodega de los Secretos, Madrid restaurant, secreto iberico

Bodega de los Secretos, Madrid restaurant, bull tail stew

I generally heed Giles Coren’s dictum that dessert is for fools, but work is work. So we rounded things off with vanilla ice-cream served in a tart, refreshing strawberry ‘soup’ and a slice of cheesecake that was bloody good (I’ve also given up ordering cheesecake in Madrid, so this was a pleasant surprise).

Bodega de los Secretos, madrid restaurant, dessert Bodega de los Secretos, Madrid restaurant, cheesecake

But what about the secrets? What went on within these walls? As well as a wine cellar, it’s been used variously by Napoleon’s troops when they captured Madrid in the early nineteenth century and as a bolt-hole during the Spanish civil war. Three tunnelled passages run from the bodega to other parts of the city, including one, visible from the dining room, that used to run under Calle Atocha and come up somewhere near the Reina Sofia. During recent excavations a 1920s pistol was discovered in the passageway, an artefact from the civil war when Madrid’s kilometres of underground passageways were chokka with skulduggery and intrigue. The rust-eaten revolver now hangs on the wall.

Bodega de los Secretos, Madrid restaurant, tunnel 3

Bodega de los Secretos, Madrid restaurant, tunnel 4

Bodega de los Secretos, Madrid restaurant, table 2

Long story short? It’s my two thumbs up for La Bodega de los Secretos. And I should add a third thumb up (one of my wife’s I presume) for our two waiters, who were both knowledgable about the food and attentive to our needs. Take your wife, take your lover, go alone with a book (a civil war thriller would pair nicely). Clearly this restaurant is proud of its unique space, but thankfully it’s not simply trading on it.

La Bodega de los Secretos
Calle San Blas, 4, 28014
+34 914 29 03 96

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The hottest patatas bravas in Madrid

They’re utterly ubiquitous and invariably average. Patatas bravas are a Spanish bar staple of supposed spicy red sauce over crunchy cubes of double-fried potatoes. Yet while the name (“brave potatoes”) promises an in-mouth hot-sauce Big Bang, a gob full of stock standard salsa brava usually winds up as little more than an insipid, ketchupy whimper.

Until now. Brava deliverance is here and it’s within retching distance of the Plaza Mayor. The tasca in question is La Villa del Pescadito, an establishment so impossibly narrow, so unceremoniously mashed between two cavernous bars, that it avoids detection by the all but the hungriest human eye. In fact, once I’d discovered it, I feared I may not find it again. Was it a dream?

Anyway, I stumbled into La Villa del Pescadito with a hunger hole that only a plate of fried starch could fill. And content to quickly down a pile of utilitarian bravas and be on my way, I ordered a plate from Paco (I think that’s his name). Paco’s wife does all the cooking, but Paco makes the brava sauce. And he’s a proud father.

Fiery gobs of true-blue brava sauce

Fiery gobs of true-blue brava sauce

The perfectly-fried potatoes wore deep red, chunky, peppery, vinegary wads and even to my self-styled sturdy palate, this sauce was hot, delivering that lingering and long-missed mouth burn and nose run. Don’t expect to tear up – they’re not that hot. But for Madrid’s timid palate, these little taters are seismic.

I complemented Paco on his sauce and we briefly discussed the sorry state of bravas in Madrid. Paco said that a true brava sauce does not contain tomatoes (his doesn’t) and that many bars simply blend commercial ketchup with tabasco. Madre mia.

So if you’ve got a hankering for the hottest patatas bravas in Madrid, hit up Paco and let me know what you think (also, let me know if his name’s not Paco).

James Blick

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La Matanza: A Traditional Spanish Pig Slaughter

In a world of shrink-wrapped sirloin steaks and lips-and-hooves sausages, it’s refreshing to go back to the source of our meat. A matanza, or traditional Spanish pig slaughter, might turn a few stomachs, but it’s less grotesque than how disconnected we’ve become from our meat and choosey we’ve grown about which cuts we’ll eat and which bits we’ll toss in the bin. Here, I meet Joaquin and his mother Pilar as they kill a couple of pigs, take them apart, and – making use of every last morsel of gut, muscle and fat – keep themselves in pork for a year.

James Blick

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A tasty pit-stop in Madrid’s Antón Martín market

Two things I adore in this world: bars and markets. Each is a great leveller; a place where people crowd together, drawn by the most basic human needs – food, booze and the chance to see and be seen. In Madrid, Antón Martín is one of my favourite markets; its aisles are packed with traditional booths manned by lippy vendors hawking jamón, cheese and Galician beef and its modern stalls do everything from fresh sushi to craft beer and LPs. And like all Spanish markets (in fact, like all of Spain), there is a bar or two.

Chef Omaira at Bar Omaira, Antón Martín market, Madrid

Omaira, in her tiny bar side kitchen.

Tiny and family-run, Antón Martín’s Bar Omaira is run by Omaira – chef, hostess and a lovely lady to boot. She whips up a few different dishes each day, fusing Madrid’s culinary traditions, her own Venezuelan background and injecting it all with modern verve. There’s no menu as such, simply ask what’s fresh and eat what she’s prepared. Last time we swung by, Yoly and I sipped excellent albariño by the glass, ate a free tapa of ensaladilla rusa (one of the best I’ve had – with celery and mustard to give it the zing this dish usually lacking), and ordered grilled pork with a perfectly-balanced blue-cheese sauce and a naughty but nice chicken schnitzel sandwich doused in not-too-sweet BBQ sauce.

Albariño wine, ensaladilla rusa at Bar Omaira, Antón Martín market, Madrid

Grilled pork and blue cheese at Bar Omaira, Antón Martín market, Madrid

And if you’ve got a taste for offal, you’ve hit the entail jackpot. Omaira’s hubby Luís runs one of the city’s best casquerías (offal stalls) one aisle over, and Omaira is a whizz with the stuff. She always has a pot of gluggy, delicious callos a la madrileña on the go, and regularly prepares dishes featuring hearts, livers and rooster crests et al. Got a hankering for grilled pigs’ ear or something done with brains? If Omaira’s got the time, she’ll nip over to Luis, bring back the goods and cook it up for you.

Iván at Bar Omaira, Antón Martín market, Madrid

Omaira’s chipper nephew Iván works the bar.

Remember: you’re in a market, so this is not a night spot. Check their Facebook page for  hours. And hit up Bar Omaira mid-shop (many of your fellow patrons will have a shopping cart in one hand, a caña in the other), or roll up on a Saturday morning when the Antón Martín is buzzing with pre-prandial barflies who feel less like drunkards if they’re drinking in a market.

And if you’re keen to make a day of it, one aisle over is DondeSánchez, a wine bar run by Paz (ask to try her excellent cured goats cheese from Madrid).

James Blick

 

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Madrid Uncorked: DO Vinos de Madrid. What did we taste?

White wine at Madrid Uncorked

This and all other pics in this article are courtesy of Madrid blogger Cassandra Gambill.

The El País piece kicked off with a gag. “Wine from Madrid? But where are the vines – in the Retiro?” It wasn’t very funny, but it was telling. Even for dyed-in-the-wool Madrilenians, this region’s vino is a dark horse.

Which is why I wanted the first Madrid Uncorked to focus on DO Vinos de Madrid.

Hold up! What’s Madrid Uncorked?

Madrid Uncorked is a wine-initiative set up by myself, Lauren Aloise and Alejandro Cabrera under the Madrid Food Tour banner. The idea? Deliver monthly and reasonably-priced Madrid wine tastings, in English. We kicked off last Tuesday at gorgeous wine bar De Vinos with a tasting of four Madrid wines, and the next event is scheduled for 25 February (‘Smack-down: Rioja vs. Ribera del Duero’ – to come along, just RSVP to the Meet Up event and pay €15 at the door).

DO Vinos de Madrid (aka Madrid wine)

Vintners have been at it in Madrid for centuries. King Philip IV drank red from Valdemoro and Cervantes praised the vino from the village of San Martín de Valdeiglesias. But the fame has long faded, eclipsed by powerhouse DOs like Rioja and Ribera del Duero and for much of the twentieth century, Madrid’s wine was known for quantity, not quality.

Then in 1990 everything changed: Madrid became a DO (namely DO Vinos de Madrid). Since then local winemakers have been working hard to build the region’s reputation as a font of fine, idiosyncratic wine. And the tide is turning – little by little Madrid wine is carving out a name for itself. Not that you’d notice in most Madrid bars, where the poison du jour remains a frothy caña or a glass of Rioja or Ribera. But steady goes, the future is bright and there’s good wine in them thar desolate plains.

A map of the Madrid wine region

DO Vinos de Madrid is made up of three sub zones, Arganda, Navalcarnero and San Martín. Some have suggested that they’re so different (in terms of climate and soil) that they should be three distinct DOs.

Preparing the tasting…

For two heady weeks I hurtled through a liver-crippling quantity of Madrid wines, trying to make sense of the region. I tasted a lot of cheap plonk that was rough and turpsy (given the hot weather, Madrid wine can suffer from high sugar content in the grapes and thus too-high alcohol). And I salivated at several high-priced bottles that were simply outside my budget, and the budget of many attending a €15 tasting.

Soon my objective became clear: offer four accessibly-priced wines that give insight into the variety and the distinct character of the Madrid wine region.

James Blick giving a Madrid Uncorked wine tasting

Come and get it…

What did we taste?

Wine 1: Brut Nature Blanco This is the only sparkling wine made in Madrid, and winery Jesús Díaz releases just 1,500 bottles a year. Which means they run out fast. Tracking down two bottles for the tasting was a nightmare. The winery had none left, and my usual supplier La Siempre Llena had run dry. Finally I nabbed a few bottles through Javier at Madrid en Tu Copa. Crisp, fruity and slightly bitter, this is a delicious local alternative to cava, especially at Christmas (they release it in November, and by January it’s like hen’s teeth). I included this wine partly to pop the cork on Madrid Uncorked, but also because it’s easy, but not too easy… an effortless sparkler with a bit of bite.

Winery: Jesús Díaz (in Colmenar de Oreja, in the Arganda sub zone)
Grape: Macabeo
Price: Normally €8, Madrid En Tu Copa have just discounted it to €7 (while stocks last)
Where: Madrid En Tu Copa

Wine 2: Blanco de Bernaveleva 2011.  Good whites are a tough prospect in Madrid. I wanted one made from albillo, a grape that’s native to Spain and has long been grown in the Madrid region, particularly the San Martin sub zone. This golden-hued drop, albillo blended with macabeo, caught me – and the tasters – off guard. The nose suggests sweetness and fruit, and the palate is an about-face; dry, creamy, complex and full of minerality. The San Martín sub zone is an area to keep an eye on – the climate is tempered by the mountains to the north and winemakers are turning out elegant and innovative vintages.

Three glasses of Blanco de Bernabeleva – a creamy and complex Madrid white wine

Blanco de Bernabeleva –a creamy and complex Madrid white wine.

Winery: Bernabeleva (in San Martin de Valdeiglesias, in the San Martín sub zone)
Grapes: Albillo & macabeo
Price: €9.50
Where: La Tintorería

Wine 3: Viña Rendero Crianza 2009. I included this gutsy tempranillo for two reasons. One: at €3.70 it’s a steal. Two: it was an opportunity to introduce the tasters to La Siempre Llena, a wine shop-cum-bar in Lavapiés’ San Fernando market. La Siempre Llena only deals in Madrid wine and sells most of it a granel, in other words “in bulk”. But don’t led that dirty little word put you off. In essence, they sell wine how it used to be sold (and still is in many parts of Spain) – you take your empty bottles and they fill them up with  whichever wine from a cask. The upshot is low prices and less waste. And this wine? Big, smokey and chocolately. It’ll pair perfectly it with a steak or a slap in the face. And for awards junkies, it nabbed a silver at last year’s Bacchus wine awards.

The label from La Siempre Llena on Viña Rendero Crianza 2009

Every wine from La Siempre Llena comes with a hand-written label. Your hipster friends will love it.

Winery: Vinícola de Arganda SCM (in Arganda del Rey, in the Arganda sub zone)
Grapes: Tempranillo
Price: €3.70 (plus one of charge of €.40 to buy the wine bottle at La Siempre Llena)
Where: La Siempre Llena

Wine 4: Initio 2007I wanted to finish with a big grenache and Initio had me at hello. Like albillo for the whites, the grenache grape is Spanish and is traditional to the Madrid region. The winery, Las Moradas de San Martin, is young, but the owners have recovered and put to work long-abandonned vines that in some cases are upwards of 100 years old. After tasting a few astringent local grenaches, this one struck me with its balance and elegance. And despite the wine’s age, Initio is full of fruit and every sip reveals something new – black fruit, cocoa, liquorice, rosemary, thyme, pepper. I’ll stop there, but you get the idea. A great wine to be locked in a room with.

A bottle of Initio from Las Moradas de San Martin

Initio 2007 – Big and ballsy, but with bursting with fresh fruit.

Winery: Las Moradas de San Martín (in St Martin de Valdeiglesias, San Martín sub zone)
Grape: Grenache
Price: €12.50
Where: El Corte Inglés

Remember – the next Madrid Uncorked is on 25 February, back at De Vinos. And the theme is ‘Smack-down: Rioja vs. Ribera del Duero’.

A table full of wine glasses at a Madrid Uncorked wine tasting.

See you at the next Madrid Uncorked…

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Marisquería La Paloma – Fresh seafood in La Latina

A selection of seafood at Marisquería La Paloma, La Latina, Madrid

Calle Toledo is one of those streets. Gagging with fumey traffic, lined with a grungy potpourri of odd-bod shops, internet cafes, open-all-hours fruit stores and bars so crusty, so unkempt, that a dose of life-changing botulism is virtually guaranteed.

But there are a few surprises. Enter Marisquería La Paloma. Like all good castizo Madrid bars, these guys do one thing, and they do it well. Here it’s seafood. Behind the aluminium bar, fresh anchovies soak in briny tubs and whole crabs are stacked belly to back. The short menu includes oysters, cockles, gooseneck barnacles and langoustines, each sold by weight and served variously fresh, pickled or grilled in a jiffy.

What did we try? Take a gander at the photo above. The whole anchovies in vinegar (gutted, deboned and sans head) were fabulously fat and sharp (we were given two as a free tapa). The clams were subtle (you’re eating a live clam, without adornments) and weren’t cheap (€7 for a small handful). The langoustines a la plancha were plump, salty and sweet (€3.5 for 5) – remember to suck the brains out… it makes you smarter (relatively speaking).

The prices are fair for fresh seafood in La Latina. Any cheaper and you either live seaside or are risking a 12-hour session driving the porcelain bus (a nearby establishment with a long-standing offer of ultra-cheap razor clams always gives me the heebie-jeebies).

What to drink? In bygone days, Madrid bars were divided into those that served wine and cured meats and cheeses, and those that did seafood and beer. At a bar like this, functional, no frills, standing-room only and unchanged for decades, it’s best to cling to tradition. Stick with cañas (beer on tap) or vermouth.

Nowadays eateries dabble in a bit everything. What will it be, sir? A pickled anchovy, an aged ox-steak or a red-hot poker up the jacksy? The beauty of specialisation is that establishments like Paloma know their supplier, know their product and know how to prepare it. And, what’s more, specialty bars are the lifeblood of a successful tapas crawl. Start with beer and seafood here, the hit Casa Dani for wine, jamón and manchego, before winding up chez Almacén de Vinos for a hot leak and mushroom tosta.

La Latina, as the old sea shanty goes, is your oyster.

Marisquería La Paloma
Calle Toledo, 85
913 65 31 3
Closed Wednesdays

James Blick

 

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This is my Madrid

A view over the rooftops of Madrid

“What are the unique values, history and culture that make up your brand? Because you have one, whether you know it or not. Every city’s got a story to tell.”

Madrid is wringing its hands. It’s wondering why the tourists aren’t coming. It’s concerned about its brand.

Branding a city is an unfortunate necessity. At its heart, it’s a dishonest exercise. A city can’t be encapsulated in a slogan. Jonathan Raban wrote that cities are plastic; that each of us creates our own version of the city we live in. And this is what makes cities such wonderful places – they’re not one story, but many.

But a brand needs a single story.

So what’s Madrid’s story?

When I first arrived three years ago I didn’t get the Spanish capital. I couldn’t make sense of it. There were no iconic touchstones – a Sagrada Família or an Eiffel Tower – to hang onto. But within six months I fell hard for the place. Yet I still find it impossible to say what I love about this city in one gasp.

To show you what I love about Madrid, I’d need to take you out. One night will do, a weekend would be better. We’d need to wander the broken, lamplit streets of the Barrio de los Austrias, while I talk your ear off about inbred kings and cloistered nuns, to squeeze into the Saturday night uproar of my favourite castizo La Latina taverns, to switch it up and go hipster in a Malasaña craft beer startup, to shoot the shit with brawny, mouthy Jesús (the ham man) in the Antón Martín market, to disappear into Conde Duque.

We’d hitchhike up to the Valley of the Fallen, that spectacular metaphor for Spain’s inability to untangle its vicious past and I’d show you Goya’s Drowning Dog in the Prado and tell you why it’s the best painting I’ve ever seen. We’d go off-piste Sunday morning in the Rastro, hitting junk shops and Gypsy stalls, tossing fish bones on the floor at Bar Santurce and choking on pigs’ ears and vermouth at Casa Amadeo. It’d be once around the Retiro’s fallen angel, and we’d stand on the rooftops over Plaza Santa Ana so you can see this ageing-imperial capital looks like a white village from the sky. Then we’d get blinded at my place on a bottle of Spanish wine that’s so good I couldn’t afford it in a bar.

Maybe I’m just a giddy New Zealander allowed to run riot in a big, old capital. Maybe I’ve fallen for the first European city that stretched out its hand.

But Madrid has a dirty, rumbling energy. An electric vein. And while its people might seem a little taciturn and closed-mouthed at first, once you walk at their pace, they’re a blustery, generous and big-hearted lot.

I don’t know what Madrid’s story is. But I know what my Madrid is.

What’s yours?

James Blick

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Review: Is Bahía Taberna worth the hike?

Boiled beetroot dish at Bahía Taberna, Madrid restaurant

Some restaurants are a two-minute walk from home. Easy, comfortable, local. Others are a destination. A pilgrimage. If foreplay begins with the first course, then for a restaurant on the other side of town, the first course begins the moment you leap on the Metro.

And, unless you live out by the airport, Bahía Taberna is a trek. But I’d been told young co-founder and head chef Daniel Vangoni was cooking up creative, interesting and reasonably-priced food. So we humped out on a dark, cold November day.

The restaurant was a beacon in the gloom. Bright, warm and zinging with conversation. The comfortable clatter of cooking drifted from the open kitchen.

Our waitress – lively and knowledgable – suggested the tasting menu (there are also raciones and pinchos) and we submitted, deciding to push the boat out. For each course there were two options, and in each case we ordered one of each.

First up, a cocktail. Of sorts. Two mugs of spicy, rich mulled wine. A brew so heady the fumes made me gag. It bode well.

And then the food. The thick, earthy mushroom broth (a go-to seasonal dish that’s so often cocked up) was bang on. The small beetroot in a spicy sauce wasn’t very spicy, or very interesting. The baby peas with burrata was fresh, clean and sharp. The grilled scallop was, well, a perfectly fine grilled scallop.

Award-wining pizza, Taberna Bahía, Madrid restaurant

Next, the pizza. The waitress mentioned – unfortunately – that the pizza had won an award at Madrid Fusión 2012. Expectations ballooned and it sounded naff hearing that the slice of pizza we were about to eat had won an award. It was a piece of so-so focaccia with sobrasada, grilled zucchini, baby squid and a few other bits and bobs. Sadly, it didn’t add up to much more than the sum of its parts. Nice but not award-winning.

The dishes kept on coming. Each good, but none a knock-out. The slow-baked cod, the raw mackerel on a spring roll, the lamb and the steak tartare were all fine, with elements that were very good. But each dish lacked that extra touch, that inspired twist, that element of surprise that burns a mouthful on the memory. And the meal lacked consistency – the burrata with peas was delicious, the cod neither here nor there, the lamb fabulously flavourful but unfortunately lukewarm.

Steak tartare, Taberna Bahía, Madrid restaurant

Am I being too harsh? Maybe. This is a very good neighbourhood restaurant serving creative, fresh, seasonal dishes. The space is beautiful, the service was casual but razor-sharp and there are clearly talented people in the kitchen. But I left feeling frustrated. The food – close to being great – ultimately came off a little tame. A little underwhelming.

Was it worth it? At €110, including wine pairings, the meal was a fair price.

Would I go back? If Bahía Taberna were in central Madrid, I’d swing by for raciones and a drink. But I’m in no rush to make another pilgrimage.

www.bahiataberna.com
Calle Bahía de Palma, 9
Metro: Alameda de Osuna (line 5)

James Blick

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Is the tap water safe to drink in Madrid?

A monkey drinking bottled water.

Guzzling monkey courtesy of flickr.com/photos/49212661@N06

Visitors sometimes ask me, “Is the tap water safe to drink in Madrid?”, “Can I drink the water in my hotel?”, “Will I die if I drink it?”

The short answer? Yes (well, no to the last one).

The long answer? Yes, Madrid’s water is safe. You can, and should, drink it. In fact, the capital’s tap water is among the best (if not the best) in Spain. Only fools and horses drink bottled water in Madrid.

(Note: The tap water is potable throughout Spain. But it’s true that in some parts of the country it doesn’t taste very nice. In Barcelona, for example, the tap water tastes like it’s been filtered through your grandmother’s underpants.)

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE

Now onto what I really want to talk about. I’ve found a crusade. Finally. I’ve been snuffling around for one for months if not weeks. Shawn in Seville has her bread charges (good luck to her!). But my holy war is thus: the regular reticence and sometimes refusal of Madrid bars and restaurants to give free jugs or glasses of tap water to diners.

Here’s a typical scenario. You’re lunching on goat’s leg in a Madrid restaurant with your husband/wife/priest. You’re halfway through a fine bottle of Ribera del Duero Gran Reserva. But something is missing. Water.

You catch the waiter’s eye. You ask for a jug of tap water. Now, this is what he will say: “I’m sorry caballero/señora, we don’t have jugs. We do have bottled water though.” Ha! He thinks he got you there. But what he doesn’t realise is that you knew perfectly well that he wouldn’t serve a jug of tap water. Because Madrid restaurants NEVER serve jugs of tap water (to their disgrace). Your jug request was merely a deft chin jab to soften the poor chap up. What you really want is a glass of tap water for yourself and your lover/priest.

So you ask for two glasses of tap water. And word choice is critical here. If you ask for just “water”, your waiter will bring a bottle that you will have to pay for. You must ask for “agua de grifo”, tap water.

Sometimes your waiter will simply nod and bring you two glasses of water. If so, you can relax and get on with your meal/life.

Other times, a monumental battle of wits will unfold.

You see, the waiter has been told by his boss to sell sell sell bottled water. Because the markup is astronomical.

So he may come straight out and say that they don’t serve tap water in this establishment.

Or, and I’ve actually heard this one, he may say, “We don’t recommend the tap water in this part of the city for health reasons.” At that point you smile (perhaps even chuckle to yourself) and inform him that Madrid’s tap water is cleaner than a baby’s bottom (hang on…), and that you drink nothing else. In fact, it may pay to mention that Madrid’s tap water is so pristine, you even shower in the stuff.

Or, and this happened to me last week, he may agree to bring you a glass of tap water but then appear with a bottle of water and a lame, muttered statement that they don’t do the tap variety. Before you can react, the plastic top is off, and your glass if half full (well, half empty).

Curiously, the classier the place and the more expensive the food, the more likely you are to be refused tap water (kinda like free wifi, I guess). And the more likely you are to be made to feel like a dirty, penny-pinching tap-water-drinking pleb. And the more likely those around you will be drinking bottled water because they think it’s a mark of a distinction.

But it’s not. If the tap water is good, then drinking bottled water is an act of economic and environmental terrorism.

Remember: you are a gourmand. And gourmands drink tap water.

SO, WHAT DO YOU DO?

So, what do you do if you’re refused your God-given right? Screw up your face, puff out your chest, slam both paws on the table and insist on tap water. Make a scene. Demand to see the manager. Froth at the mouth. Shake violently. Get naked.

OK, maybe don’t get naked. But make your displeasure known.

Or, if you’re not feeling fighting fit (or you’re on a first date and you’re saving the naked-getting until later), then simply mumble “fachas” under your breath, eat your meal in silence, sip your bottled water through pursed, chapped lips and vow never to return to the restaurant again. I’d also suggest calling them out on Twitter.

And feel snug in the knowledge that you are in the right. Because as Jesus said, “No man should drink bottled water alone, or at all if possible.” Don’t look for the quotation in that dusty King James edition on the shelf. The line (commandment?) was expunged from most Bibles in the early 17th century due to fierce lobbying by the (then nascent) bottled water industry. But that, as Conan (the barbarian, not the comedian) said, is another story.

James Blick

And if you need a laugh, read this.

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Best places to eat in the Rastro flea market, Madrid

It’s Sunday morning in Madrid. And you have a choice. You could head to mass and beg forgiveness for whatever godforsaken things got up to the night before. Or you could head for the Rastro – the city’s sprawling flea market – and tie another one on.

Many people think the Rastro is about shopping. Oh no. It’s about eating and drinking. But where are the best places to eat in the Rastro? Watch, learn and drool.

James Blick

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