Paella, sangria, churros… 5 Spanish food myths busted!

Do Spaniards drink sangria? Are churros for dessert? Where can I get a good paella? Great questions!

When tourists hit Spain, they want to eat! And damn right, too! The food in this country is phenomenal. BUT there is so much misunderstanding about how, when and what we REALLY eat here. And over the years as a tour guide I’ve really enjoyed setting guests straight about how do it proper-like. Why? Because although paella might taste great in the evening, if you know that locals only eat it for lunch, you’ll have… what’s the word… a more organic experience. And the waiters might take you a little more seriously.

Anyway, I’ve made the brief video below to help prevent Spain-bound travellers from falling into typical tourist gastro-mistakes.

So, if you’re winging your way to Spain soon (or just want to know more about real Spanish food), hopefully the next 4 minutes will help you have a tastier, and slightly more authentic culinary experience!

If the info was helpful, please give the video a thumbs up in YouTube (it keeps my spirits up) and why not subscribe to my YouTube channel (little red button on the bottom right of the video) for more cinematic pearls about how to experience the real Spain.

 

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Expert tour of the Real Madrid Santiago Bernabéu Stadium

I know, I know. This blog is supposed to be about stuffing our faces with tapas, and drowning in Rioja. But, if you’ll permit me… After living in Madrid for five years, I realised I had a serious gap in my knowledge as a local know-it-all and guide. I’d never been to that big bloody temple of football only ten minutes by Metro from my home – the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. Home of Real Madrid (according to FIFA the greatest team of the 20th century). So, I called up my mate Dermot Corrigan, a friend who writes about soccer for ESPNFC.com and who I’ve heard mutter over a beer, “Everything in this country can be understood through the lens of football.” In other words, a total football expert. And I asked him to take me on the tour.

This video is the result of that private little wander through the hallowed halls of football history. And beware Barça fans. Ronaldo gets a few mentions, and, like true Madrid obsessives, we do discuss his underwear.

And remember – anybody can take the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium tour while in Madrid. Just click here for more info.

¡Hala Madrid!

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What are tapas? And how to eat tapas like a Spaniard!

What are tapas? Ha! It’s a trick question. Because there’s no easy answer.

Here’s the thing. I remember about two years ago when I was giving a tapas tour in Madrid for my company Devour Spain, and in the first bar one of my guests said to me, “Are we in a tapas bar now?” Boom! That’s when I realised that although tapas have gone global, people who are visiting Spain for the first (and second) time often have no clear idea of what it really means to go out for tapas in this country. Or actually what tapas actually are.

And I don’t blame them. It’s flat out confusing. So, I made this video to try and explain what – after four years in Spain – I think tapas are. And to give you my three hard-won tips for going out for tapas like a local.

 

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Devour Barcelona Food Tours, here we go!

Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour, food tours in Barcelona

I hear you, I hear you. A post about Barcelona on a Madrid blog. But bear with me. And I’ll keep this short. Having spent the last two years leading hungry visitors to Madrid through our favourite tapas bars, markets, bakeries, sweet shops with Madrid Food Tour, we felt it was time to take everything we’d learned and strike out into uncharted territory. So my partners Lauren Aloise, Alejandro Cabrera and myself hopped on the AVE to Barcelona. We picked our favourite neighbourhood in the Catalan capital, and we ate and ate and ate until we’d narrowed down what we thought was the best food made by the most passionate people.

The upshot? What we hope is the best food tour in Barcelona. The Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour, by Devour Barcelona Food Tours (now the sister company to Madrid Food Tour).

What’s involved? Over the course of 4 hours, guests taste over 12 different Catalan foods from some of our favorite family-run businesses in the traditional neighbourhood of Gracia. We enjoy everything from a crisp cava and butifarra breakfast to a century-old pastry made only in Gracia, and en route we’ll explore the local market, specialty food shops, an age-old bodega and more. At each stop, guests meet the chefs and families who proudly create the food they’re tasting and between stops, we discover the culture and history of the neighbourhood.

Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour, butifarra sandwich

 

Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour, Pep

And the neighbourhood? Gracia was once a village on the outskirts of Barcelona. But in the 19th and early 20th century, it was swallowed up as the city grew. But it still feels like a separate village: quiet and picturesque with a close-knit community. In recent years a young eclectic crowd has joined the older residents, creating a place that’s a fascinating blend of tradition and modernity; an invigorating environment place where classic multigenerational family-run businesses co-exist with side cutting edge art galleries. And, of course, it also means the food is a fabulous blend of old-style Catalan cooking, alongside new thinking and fresh ideas.

Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour, Devour Barcelona Food Tours

Barcelona is such tourist-soaked city and although it seems anachronistic to say that and yet launch a food tour for tourists there, it’s a shame that many visitors to the city are  blindsided by the overwhelming offer of shonky experiences (whether culinary or not) on offer. Like any other city, separate the wheat from the chaff, and Barcelona is full of fabulously enriching authentic experiences. That’s what we hope our tour provides, along with – of course – lashings of yummy food.

If you want to read more about the tour or book, click this link. Tours start 9 September 2014 but you can book now.

And here are a few more pics from our testing tours…

Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour, Mostafa Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour, best bomb in Barcelona Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour, best pastry shop in Barcelona Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour, olives Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour

 

Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour, cured sausage in Barcelona

Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour, granel

 

Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour, olives

Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour, Olisal, olive oil tasting in Barcelona

Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour

Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour, bodega Gracia Neighbourhood Food Tour

James Blick

 

 

 

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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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