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

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

 

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

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. You could do one of these 5 activities that are perfect on a Sunday in Madrid.

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 (and actually Sunday can . But where are the best places to eat in the Rastro? Watch, learn and drool!

James Blick

The 6 Best Wine Bars in Madrid (…where it’s OK to be a Wine Dick) – Part 1

A wine list at Vides wine bar in Madrid

Six weeks ago I became a Wine Dick.

It all happened rather quickly. Though, looking back, I should have seen it coming. In September Lauren Aloise and I completed the Level 2 Wines and Spirits course (under the WSET banner, and delivered by the astute wine prof Elisa Errea at The Wine Studio). The idea? Offer wine tastings through Devour Tours!

The unfortunate effect? I now linger like a deviant in wine bars, I kill time creeping about wine shops and, worst of all, I’ve opened an account over at CellarTracker. I know, disgusting.

But I’ve also realised something. Central Madrid – with its glut of taverns serving wines of  questionable quality by the glass – can be a cruel place for Wine Nazis. And being an unshaven Wine Loiterer with limited means, I rarely splurge on a whole bottle.

So I wondered: where are the best wine bars in Madrid? And I’m talking about central Mardrid… Sure, you could head to Goya or Salamanca where they hand out magnums of Pingus at the traffic lights. Where young Pakistani men sell bottles of Vega Sicilia atop cardboard boxes in the street at midnight. But I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Lavapiésian, and I want good wine by the glass within walking distance. Is that wrong?

So, assume the position. Because I’ve jury-rigged a list of six very central wine sanctuaries where one can drink good wine by the glass. They offer a home away from home for my fellow Wine Pricks. They’re bars where we can swirl, sniff and slurp without fear of humiliation or public ridicule. Where we can order interesting drops by the glass, safe in the knowledge that the bottle hasn’t been open and oxidising for seven days and nights.

So here it is… Where to drink wine in Madrid. This list is not exhaustive. But it’s a start.

Oh, and before you continue, if you want to discover the 5 wine styles you need to drink in Spain, then check out my short video here!

De Vinos This gloriously unstuffy neighbourhood tasca feels like it opened a century ago (rather than 2012). Even the name smacks of the days when names simply described what a place did, rather than tried to evoke “a concept”. Hostess Yolanda loves wine, and keeps a good cellar. She also organises tastings, excursions and wine/food pairing evenings.
www.facebook.com/vinos.devinos
Calle La Palma, 76

Vides A recent opening by former dating game host Vicente (you’ll recognise his face when you see it… if you’re Spanish). Numerous wines by the glass (and bottle) and a broad selection of Spanish cheeses in a very relaxed, slightly rustic and generally un-wine-bar-y atmosphere (which is a plus). Vicente even serves a bottle of his father’s own white – ask for it.
www.vinotecavides.com
Calle Libertad, 12

Díaz y Larrouy Low key, low bar. Very low. It only comes up to your knees. There’s no wine list, just bottles stacked on the counter. So part of the fun is browsing and seeing what’s what. Or just ask. Nice tostas too (I tried a fabulously arsey boar pâté here, which paired perfectly with a sharp-as-tacks Ribera del Duero… at least I think it was Ribera del Duero… and, come to think of it, I’m not even sure it was boar pâté…).
Calle Cava Baja, 6

Taberneros The owners of Tabernos are infamous for being a little prickly. But balls to that! You’re a trumped-up tough-skinned Wine Tart. And despite the attitude, this is one of the best wine bars in Madrid. So bowl on in, prop up the bar and enjoy their smart selection of vino by copa, in luxuriantly vinous surrounds.
restaurantetaberneros.es
Calle Santiago, 9

Casa Gonzalez. Given this place is odds on to win ‘most picturesque tapas bar facade in Madrid’, it’s a good thing these guys back up all the beauty with a healthy by-the-glass list. What’s more, there’s a glut of cured meats and cheeses (both local and international) available in raciones and half raciones… so you can pair your pants off.
casagonzalez.es
Calle León, 12

Casa Gonzalez, a Madrid tapas and wine bar at night, a Madrid tapas and wine bar at night

Casa Gonzalez looks like something out of Vicky Christina Madrid.

Sanlúcar. When you’re wondering where to drink wine in Madrid, you’d be forgiven for forgetting sherry-temple Sanlúcar. But yes, sherry is wine. And this slice of the south, tucked away in the back pocket of La Latina, has some excellent sherries by the glass. Manzanilla, oloroso and amontillado – it’s all here. They’ve even got a true-blue palo cortado. And a smorgasbord of weeping Virgins behind the bar. (By the way: I know I mentioned Sanlúcar in the last post… I promise to leave it alone for a little while).
Calle de San Isidro Labrador, 14

OK. I know you’re thinking, “Crap! He didn’t include [insert your favourite wine bar here].” And you’re right. I didn’t. But I also left out several places I love in my attempt to trim the list down to six. But add a comment below about a place I might not know about, and I’ll check it out. And then I’ll write Part 2. Because wine, as you know, is a journey… a long and winding tempranillo-lined goat track…  See! I told you I’d become a Wine Dick!

And finally… if you want even more tips, check out these 8 more wine bars to check out in Madrid (well, one bar is on both lists… but the rest are different!)

James Blick

Blood, sweat and Gypsy tears: Five best flamenco bars in Madrid (and the best flamenco show)

Decor in Callejón de Madrid, a Madrid flamenco bar

It’s funny how the mind works. After seeing my first flamenco performance, I had an unexpected image burned on my brain. The genitals of the male dancer. Big and bulbous,  perfectly cosseted in his exceptionally close-fitting trousers. The women around me were panting and sweating. They were Kiwi woman, who, like me, had never seen a flamenco show before. This was five years ago, in New Zealand.

Yoly, my wife, was seated beside me. Despite being Spanish, she’d never seen flamenco either. She doesn’t recall the dancer’s crotch (apparently).

But we did share something that day. We both caught the flamenco bug. We even started taking lessons (again, still in New Zealand). I lasted four classes and stopped for two reasons. First, I can’t dance. Second, during a shamefully expensive business lunch (back when I directed TV commercials) I told an obnoxious Kiwi ad exec that I was taking flamenco lessons. He choked on his unfiltered pinot and, for all intents and purposes, refused to work with me.

Anyway. I’ve long left the foul-breathed world of advertising, but Yoly still takes flamenco lessons (she’s rather good). And we both enjoy hanging out in flamenco bars (that sounds weird, but it’s not).

Here are my five best flamenco bars in Madrid, plus my favourite tablao (flamenco show).

Note: A lot of visitors to Spain plan to see flamenco in the south (Seville, for example). Andalusia may be the cradle of the art-form, but Madrid is where much of the talent is. Tip? Get your flamenco fix in the capital.

1. Sanlúcar. Tucked away in the back blocks of La Latina, Sanlúcar is not a flamenco bar as such. It’s more a slice of the south, with bullfighting memorabilia, virgins and sweaty cured meats (that’s a good thing). But they do play flamenco (often it’s lighter, jauntier aflamenencado styles) and the food is excellent. Eat ortiguillas (sea anenomes) and tortillitas de camarones (shrimp fritters). Drink sherry.

Perfect for: Drinking, lining your stomach before a flamenco bender
Calle de San Isidro Labrador, 14

2. Al Vicente Copas. Now we’re getting serious. One-man-band Vicente runs this underground flamenco temple near Calle Cava Baja. He’s a flamenco nerd of the first order and has hundreds of hours of live performances stored on a hard drive, which he plays at ear-bleeding volumes on a large flat-screen TV. The bar fills with flamenco anoraks and other odd-bods and is jammed with surreal memorabilia (an upside-down Christmas tree, a crucified Christ wrapped in faery lights, a penis-shaped coat hanger… you get the idea… or not).

Perfect for: Drinking, going deaf
Plaza de Puerta Cerrada, 7

3. El Callejón de Madrid. Across town, behind Plaza Santa Ana, this long, careworn bar has been serving dancers, singers and flamenco hangers-on (me, my wife, you) for fifty years. Lola (from the famous Carbonell flamenco clan) and her dancer-husband Mistela pull the pints (well, the rather expensive dobles) and the music is gutsy cante jondo. Lola told me that much-missed flamenco god Enrique Morente propped up the bar a week before he died. That makes El Callejón sacred ground.

Perfect for: Drinking, listening to top-flight ball-busting cante jondo
Calle de Manuel Fernández y González, 5

4. El Burladero. Just around the corner, bullfighters rather than flamenco dancers grace the walls. But that just goes to show that both worlds are utterly interlocked (flamenco dancers and bullfighters are regular bed buddies). Last time I was there I sipped my mojito alongside a Mexican torero on tour. So yes, this place is legit. It’s more of a bar in the early hours and patrons hit the dance floor later in the evening.

Perfect for: Drinking, dancing, picking up bullfighters.
Calle Echegaray, 19

5. Candela. The key to Candela is arriving late. And I don’t mean half-past-midnight late. I’m talking the other side of 4am… when your veins are pulsing with equal parts blood and booze and your gin-soaked brain thinks you can dance flamenco. You can’t, but this is the place to try without making a fool of yourself. And if you’re lucky (or pushy), Candela may give up its secret. Below the bar is a cellar where local gypsies and flamenco performers get together to drink and play. There’s often a bartender guarding the door, but he’s a pushover (well, was for my wife). If you make it down below, keep your mouth shut and just watch… what you’ll see is impromptu round-the-campfire stuff, like true flamenco should be.

Perfect for: Drinking, dancing, unlocking your inner Gypsy
Calle del Olmo, 2

And… drum roll please… what’s the best tablao (flamenco show) in Madrid? I haven’t seen ‘em all, but my pick thus far is Cafetín La Quimera, out near Ventas. Granada-born, dangly crucifix-wearing impresario Antorrin runs the show, and kicks off each performance with a martonete, a blacksmith’s song, striking an anvil with a hammer as he howls. The dancers are first-rate, there are no microphones and the place is small enough that you’re almost guaranteed an eyeful of genitalia. Immersive would be an understatement.

The playlist below is the perfect accompaniment for pre-loading and doing your makeup before a flamenco hooley.

Oh, and want to know what flamenco shows are coming up in Madrid? Check out this very clever and handy site, The Flamenco Guide. The editor of the site, Yolanda Martín, happens to be my very clever and wonderful wife and she also offers exceptional private flamenco tours and experiences in Madrid, for those keen to truly discover the art form with a local expert (too often tourists see flamenco shows and sadly don’t really know what they’re looking at).

Also, I have my own tour company, Devour Madrid Food Tours and we also offer an fun and delicious Evening Tapas and Flamenco Tour!

James Blick

 

 

Review: El Apartamento

Bar in El Apartamento, Madrid restaurant bar

I like a man who’s frank. And Daniel was graphically so. Within minutes of sitting down in El Apartamento, the restaurant near Puerta del Sol that he recently opened with four friends, we were discussing childbirth. Specifically, his wife’s upcoming parturition. But rather than put us off our beef cheek, his easy-going personality paired perfectly with his restaurant: modern, relaxed, light – the kind of place that can swing both ways: sharing plates at the bar with friends, or a sit-down meal with the in-laws.

I glanced at the menu and liked the mix as well as the prices. Daniel suggested we try four dishes: the croquetas and the foie to start, then the carrillera de ternera (stewed beef cheek) and caballa en escabeche (mackerel in brine).

Let’s cut to the chase.

I’ve never been a big champion of the sacred croqueta – like the tortilla de patata it’s a Spanish comfort food that’s regularly overrated and usually disappointing. But these ones were excellent – creamy with strong, sharp flavours (we were served a selection of jamón, mushroom and goat cheese and caramelised onion croquets).

Croquetas de jamón, mushroom, goat cheese and caramelised onion

Yep, they’re croquetas. Good one too.

The foie – caramelised on its wee head and served with side of apple and pear jam – was a touch too sweet.

Caramelised foie with apple and pear jam.

Foie (and my wife Yoly’s polkadot fan).

But the carrillera de ternera rolled back the years, sitting me at my grandmother’s   table. It had a wonderfully meaty flavour, and collapsed under our forks. Delicious.

Beef cheek at El Apartamento, Madrid restaurant bar

Bang-on beef cheek.

The caballa en escabeche was intriguing, but didn’t totally work. The vinegar overpowered. A smaller serving would have been better.

Caballa en escabeche/mackerel in brine at El Apartamento, Madrid restaurant bar

Caballa en escabeche/mackerel in brine – €13.50

Finally, one of the waitresses suggested carrot cake for dessert (€5.00). Baking, and specifically baking carrot cakes, has become desperately trendy in Madrid. And, as it is with any food tainted by trend, most of the cakes are piss poor – too spongy or too dry. Happily though, El Apartamento’s cake was among the best I’ve had in the capital.

So, where does that leave us? The dishes that were good were very good and there’s something beguiling about El Apartamento, something drawing me back. The menu strikes a balance between dishes you know and dishes you’d like to get to know. There are plates for sharing, plates for individuals, and a number of dishes are available as half portions. You can grab a table, or simply sip and pick at the bar. The space is inviting and the location, five minutes by foot from Sol, is ideal.

Dining room in El Apartamento, Madrid restaurant bar

That’s Yoly, my wife. Though she looks bored, she’s actually having the time of her life.

Also, for hot and hungry tourists, the €14 lunch menú del día (three courses, plus wine) makes El Apartamento an excellent entre-museum stop for reasonbly-priced, modern Spanish food.

Verdict: I’ll be back as a paying customer.

Disclosure: My meal was paid for by the restaurant.

Calle Ventura de la Vega, 9
917 554 402
www.el-apartamento.es
Metros: Sol, Sevilla

James Blick

Spanish seafood platters: You say mariscada, I say parillada de marisco

mariscada or seafood plater at Ribeira do Miño, Madrid seafood restaurant

Yes sir, that can all be yours for only €31.

Seafood does funny things to people. When the Bluff oyster season opens in Bluff, in New Zealand’s South Island, ritzy Auckland restaurateurs fly the prized bivalves the length of the country so poncey, paunchy connoisseurs can slide the creatures down their throats that very night. For a hefty premium of course. Can’t they wait two days? And many of us (me included) have a thing for hunting down the best [insert underwater delicacy here] in [insert city here]. The best pulpo in Madrid? The best anchovies in Albuquerque? No one’s ever too worried where the best chicken dish is hiding.

Seafood is the promised land of food. And, like many before me, I went to Ribeira do Miño looking for a religious experience. A Galician restaurant down a drab Malasaña street, its mariscada, or seafood platter, is mythical.

The waiter led Yoly and I through a succession of packed dining rooms, reverberating with booming conversation and the music of cracking shells. Tables were laden with groaning platters and the air carried a whiff of ocean.

My saliva glands opened. Seafood was doing funny things to me.

Seated down the back, under littoral decor and a sign that read “Singing is prohibited”, we ordered the mariscada for two, pimientos de Padrón and a bottle of Albariño. And we didn’t wait long. 327 seconds later, the meal arrived.

A seafood platter and pimientos de Padrón on a table at Ribeira do Miño, Madrid seafood restaurant

Game on.

A glistening hillock of dismembered sea creatures. Claws, shells, beady eyes, antennae, all humped on a silver platter, with a row of shiny king prawns draped over the summit. My heart lurched. You feel like a king in front of a dish like this. And eating seafood tickles some evolutionary nerve. Since its so hard for us to get our hands on the stuff (because we can’t breath underwater), being served an obscene amount of it for only €16 per person releases a flood of serotonin (Nb: I made that up).

Unfortunately, the moment you’re served a mariscada is the best moment of the mariscada. Despite the freshness of the bounty (the restaurant’s seafood is shipped direct from northern fish markets daily), the flavour of this hoard is subtle. Strike that. It’s disappointing. The thing is, there’s just not that much flavour in that big heap. Boiled prawns, king prawns, langoustines and crabs are, like most things boiled, rather bland. Lemon slices give the meat some zing. But the traditional bowl of mayo is misguided. Sticking a boiled prawn into mayonnaise hits the delicately-flavoured prawn flesh over the head with a blunt instrument. The prawn simply becomes a delivery device for a large, waddy dollop.

Now, I’m sure all mariscadas are not created equal. Perhaps this wasn’t a great one. But all mariscadas are boiled and (I believe) served cold. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Seafood leftovers from a seafood platter at Ribeira do Miño, Madrid seafood restaurant

The wreckage.

Instead of a mariscada, I’d plumb for its much warmer, much tastier (and only slightly more expensive) cousin, the parillada de marisco. The latter is a platter of grilled seafood, and they do a fine one at little-known Dueñas. For about €50 (bottle of vino included) you get less seafood, but more flavour. Or head to Iker’s stall, on the ground floor of Mercado de Antón Martín, where he’ll do you a grilled king prawn for a few euros. If crustaceans were currency, I’d trade five boiled prawns for one of Iker’s gambones a la plancha any day.

a seafood platter at a Madrid restaurant

Sorry for the shocking photo, but this is the parrillada de marisco at Dueñas

There were tasty morsels in the mariscada pile. At the bottom were two crabs, on their backs, their underbellies ripped open and their entrails, like whipped pate, ready to be scooped out. Delicious. The percebes (gooseneck barnacles) were pretty good too. Though Yoly doesn’t get all the fuss over percebes, I do quite like the spurt of seawater on the tongue when you suck them out.

Eating the intestines of a crab.

Sorry old chap.

And, to their credit, mariscadas are joyously physical… a very stand-back, sleeves-rolled-up, I’m-going-in experience. Shells fly, juice squirts and nice shirts are ruined. As you rip and tear through dinner, your plate becomes a seafood midden, piled high with nippers, tails and skins. And every fifteen minutes, when the midden looks likely to topple, a happy waiter appears and swaps your plate for a clean one. And it makes you feel like a child. You’re caught with your proverbial pants down… your hands are greasy and smelly and you’ve got prawn flesh all around the mouth. As he changes your plate, you hold your arms aloft, afraid to touch anything except your wine glass or more seafood. And you realise you’ve gone from feeling rather regal, to looking like Mr Creosote.

shell crackers on the table at Ribeira do Miño, Madrid seafood restaurant

Update 17 July 2013: I was drinking cocktails with a rather right-wing retired military doctor last night… who was from Galicia. I asked him whether he was a mariscada or a parillada man. He said he was neither. He said he abhors these massive servings of seafood – they’re a “barbaridad”. Instead of being dished up a mountain of food, he prefers to order the specific things he feels like eating the day…. perhaps a plate of cockles, a few gooseneck barnacles and a pair of velvet crabs. While I found serious fault with his crypto-Fascist politics, I thought this little piece of gastronomic insight was without reproach.

James Blick

The Curious Case of Spanish Coffee (aka “What’s torrefacto?”)

Santi high on caffeine and gesticulating wildly in Toma Café.

Toma Café is one of the few torrefacto-free zones in the city. This is co-owner Santi high on caffeine.

I love the sound of Spanish coffee. The smack and clack of cups and saucers on marble bar tops, the scream of the milk steamer. Prop up a Spanish bar mid-morning and you’re surrounded by a cosy, comforting racket.

But when the black stuff hits my lips, the romance is over. Sipping a café solo in Spain is often like swilling hot, black acid. Bitter, harsh and acrid, with hints of paint thinner.

Blame it on torrefacto.

I first spied the word on the side of supermarket coffee packs when I moved to the Spain a couple of years back. “Mezcla. 50% natural. 50% torrefacto.” I had no idea what “torrefacto” was and, when someone mentioned it had something to do with roasted sugar, I shrugged and took another sip.

Then, six months ago, I got talking to a guy at Cafés Pozo. And he mentioned “torrefacto” and “post-civil war Spain” in the same gasp.

I was intrigued.

Plus, I’d started to suspect a link between torrefacto and the fact that the local coffee was stripping my oesophagus.

So I went to Toma Café to find out more. It’s a new(ish) café in Malasaña that’s been getting good press for the quality of its coffee.

“I’ve come to talk torrefacto,” I said to the barrista.

“But we don’t serve torrefacto.”

“Exactly.”

Santi and Patricia opened the rustic, pocket-sized (soon to be enlarged) coffee house last year. Surrounded by young, ristretto-toting coffee refugees, who’ve come in search of a decent cup, we perched on coffee sacks and talked about torrefacto.

What the hell is torrefacto?

Mezcla coffee beans – a mix of torrefacto beans (the jet black ones) and natural beans (the brown ones).

Mezcla coffee beans – a mix of torrefacto beans (the jet black ones) and natural beans (the brown ones).

“Torrefacto is the practice of adding sugar to coffee beans during the roasting process,” explained Patricia. The sugar burns and the beans wind up coated in a shiny black film.

This glossy coating protects the beans from oxidisation and torrefacto was originally a preservation method.

But there are side-effects. The process makes the resulting drink much darker and more bitter. It also masks the true, rich flavour and aroma of good coffee.

According to the guys at Toma, stock-standard Madrid bars usually serve a 70/30 or 80/20 mix (where the smaller percentage is torrefacto beans and the rest natural beans). The run-of-the-mill stuff at your supermarket is generally a nipple-hardening 50/50.

But why?

Where does Spain’s torrefacto traditional come from? And what’s it got to do with the Spanish civil war?

Spain’s first torrefactor was José Gómez Tejedor, founder of still-running coffee conglomerate Cafés La Estrella. On a coffee-sourcing trip to Mexico in the early 20th century, José noticed local miners roasting their coffee beans with sugar. The technique stopped the miners’ beans going off during the long stretches spent underground.

José realised the Mexican miners’ trick was a boon for business back home, allowing him to distribute his coffee more widely throughout Spain without it going bad.

An advertisement for La Estrella torrefacto coffee in the Madrid metro.

An advertisement for La Estrella torrefacto coffee in the Madrid metro.

But torrefacto really took off after the 1936 – 1939 Spanish civil war. The post-war years were marked by scarcity, and coffee was often substituted for chicory and other dodgy, ersatz infusions. Torrefacto became an excellent way of dealing with the coffee shortage. Adding sugar to the roast extended the coffee (because a portion of the coffee that companies were selling was actually sugar), masked the quality of the coffee (allowing companies to use cheaper coffee beans, or other ingredients entirely) and gave the impression of a strong, black cup (allowing companies to use less coffee without the consumer noticing).

In other words, torrefacto helped hard-pressed post-war Spanish coffee companies get by with less and lower-quality beans.

Which all makes sense in the context of 1940s Spain. But why are we still drinking torrefacto in 2013?

According to Magdalena at Infusionistas.com, what was once a post-war necessity, simply became a habit. In other words, Spanish consumers got used to the torrefacto taste.

And Santi and Patricia suggest it’s not in the interests of big Spanish coffee companies to change to 100% good-quality, natural beans. Torrefacto remains an excellent way of bulking up coffee, thereby lowering coffee companies’ costs. (Santiago: “It’s a scam. You’re buying sugar at the price of coffee.”).

But wait, there’s more. A parallel issue affecting the quality of Spanish coffee is that much of it (especially the stuff on sale in the supermarket) contains cheaper, lower-quality and more astringent robusta beans, rather than pricier and richer-tasting arabica beans.  So, yes you can buy non-torrefacto in your local supermarket (look for ‘100% natural’), but chances are it’s probably cut-rate robusta (or a fair portion thereof).

I emailed Marcilla, which supplies about 25% of the Spanish market, and asked whether their coffee was robusta or arabica (or what was the mix). They replied that under current Spanish coffee labelling laws, they’re not required to tell me.

Coffee shop La Bicicleta is one of Madrid's torrefacto-free zones.

La Bicicleta is another Madrid café where torrefacto is shot on sight.

Let them drink torrefacto!

But locals aren’t the only ones with a taste for the gut-busting torrefacto blend. A number of non-Spaniards haven gone online to wax lyrical about torrefacto. This Australian man is “drooling over the idea of torrefacto coffee” and is planning to start roasting his own downunder. And this Englishman calls torrefacto “the essence of heaven”.

To feed this market, online Spanish food shops sell blended torrefacto coffee as a gourmet product. Tienda.com hails the “dusting of a fine sugar mist” added to the beans, as if it were the fruit of gastronomic insight, rather than a technique used by early 20th century miners to stop their coffee going rancid.

So what if I like torrefacto? It’s not like it’s killing me!

Taste is subjective and each to their own. How about health, then? This is where things get murky. Is torrefacto good for you, or is it a little bit lethal?

A 2008 study by Dr. Isabel López Galilea, a scientist at the University of Navarra, claims that torrefacto-roasted coffee has up to twenty-times more antioxidants than normal roasted coffee. Yet, at the same time, a few local coffee gurus told me torrefacto causes chaos in the gut and can even accelerate the big C.

I dug around but didn’t find any evidence of torrefacto being directly linked to cancer.

However, I did talk to a pair of nutritionists (Pilar Munné and Júlia Farré). And the upshot was that (as we know) burnt food can upset the stomach and is considered a carcinogen. And given torrefacto is burnt sugar, well… you get the idea. Nothing Earth shattering, but something to keep in mind.

Life’s too long to drink crap coffee

La Bicicleta... again.

La Bicicleta… again.

So, where does that leave things? Depending on who you are and what you believe, torrefacto is either wonderful or revolting and it’s either the fountain of youth or is killing you softly.

But if you do decide to do your taste buds a favour and ditch the burnt-sugar brew, then pull up a hessian cushion at Toma. Santi and Patricia tell me there’s a coffee renaissance underway in the Spanish capital.

Toma Café
Calle Palma, 49, 28004
tomacafe.es
91 702 56 20

Toma also sells ground coffee and whole beans to go. And below are another couple of Madrid cafés serving 100% natural arabica coffee.

La Bicicleta
Plaza de San Ildefonso, 8, 28004
www.labicicletacafe.com
91 532 97 42

MÜR Cafe
Plaza de Cristino Marcos, 2, 28015
murcafe.es
91 139 98 09

A few shops in Madrid where you can buy decent arabica to drink at home are:

Cafés Pozo
www.cafespozo.es/tiendas.html

Cafés La Mexicana
www.lamexicana.es/tiendas

(And my local store in Lavapiés) Tierra Solidaria
Calle de Jesús y Maria, 30
http://aculcotierrasolidaria.blogspot.com.es

And if you want some tips on how to order coffee in Spain, check out the video below!

James Blick

The Madrid craft beer revolution (and the best craft beer bars)

The battle lines have been drawn. Madrid – too long awash with sub-par beer – is in the midst of a craft brew revolution. For years Madrilenians have been weaned on Mahou, the ubiquitous local industrial drop, and as such the capital lacks a robust beer culture. But over the last two years a number of bright young beer things have been launching craft beer bars, breweries and shops citywide. And bit by bit they’re changing the way the capital drinks.

Here are my five favourite craft beer bars in Madrid.

FÁBRICA MARAVILLAS

A glass of beer in Madrid's (and perhaps Spain's) best brewpub

Madrid’s (and perhaps Spain’s) best brewpub

Ah, Fábrica Maravillas. An oasis of fresh beer just five minutes from Puerta del Sol. Run by a passionate posse of seven Malasaña residents, this place opened in late 2012 and was recently voted best brewpub in Spain by ratebeer.com. By day brewmaster Dave (part American, part Spanish) cooks out back and after dark the timbered, luminous space teems with beer geeks and beautiful people. They do several beers, from a fruity saison to a quadruple called “Bastard”. Check out the curious moss feature by a local French artist – it’s about the closest you’ll get to a biergarten in Madrid.

IRREALE

Bartender Javi at Irreale bar, Madrid

A one-man-band behind Irreale’s bar, beer blogger-cum bartender Javi has learned to haul arse.

A brief stumble from Fábrica Maravillas, Irreale was the first craft beer-only bar in the city. The space is long and deliciously dark and the burnished bar shines up the back like a beacon. Head for it. English-speaking beer blogger and home-brewer Raúl works the six taps and curates the regularly rotating list. A passionate localist, he makes sure there’s at least a pair of Spanish brews spilling out at any one time. If you need to soak up the hops, a brief menu offers small plates of hot food to share (I haven’t tried the nosh so can’t comment on quality, but the eclectic range runs from jamon ibérico to German sausages, by the way of mini hamburgers and Mexican tacos).

ANIMAL

Food, wine and beer menu at ANIMAL beer bar in Madrid

Craft beer & picar (“nibble”) at ANIMAL, plus wine for the faint-hearted.

UPDATE 11/09/2014: Friends and countrymen, apparently Animal has closed. What a shame. I’ll leave the text below so at least you can see what it was like… 😉

Chef, beer guru, sommelier – is there anything Tibor Domenech doesn’t do? Talk, apparently. The first time I met the multitalented Catalonian behind ANIMAL (yes, it’s written in caps) he’d completely lost his voice. Something to do with the cold weather, I think he said. But it didn’t matter – his food and beer selection spoke for itself. More gastropub than simple beer bar, Tibor combines the best Spanish and international crafts (nine rotating taps, a big bottle list) with a seasonal tapas menu. He’s usually on site juggling bar and kitchen, so ask for pairing recommendations and don’t be shy to check whether he has a tasty off-menu morsel on the cooker that day.

EL PEDAL

A bottle of Thor on a table outside of Madrid craft beer bar El Pedal

God I wish it was summer already. (Thor is by Madrid brewery Lest, and this is El Pedal’s afternoon sun-drenched terrace).

El Pedal is a double entendre, meaning both the bit on the bike where you plant your foot (Javi, the owner, is a bike nut) as well as local argot for getting well soused. Cosy, low-key and very barrio Lavapiés (hand-painted wall murals, furniture made from recycled wood and a collection jar for the local people’s assembly) this place is a band apart from the more consciously trendy craft bars in the capital. And that’s what I love about it. Plus, when summer rolls around, you can drink under a canopy of Japanese acacia trees – these guys have the only craft-beer terrace in the capital. And if after a couple you’re feeling inspired, the Reina Sofía is just five minutes up the street.

LA TAPE

La Tape, craft beer bar in Madrid.

The new kid on the block (at the time of writing…)

La Tape is the new kid on the beer block. A wad of cash has clearly been spent on the fit-out, and the two-storey bar-slash-restaurant is a big, beguiling and colourful place to drink. There’s a sit-down restaurant upstairs, a bar downstairs and a rather excellent piece of tangled light-bulb art dangling between both floors. During the day a takeaway window operates from the downstairs deli, serving lunches and crafts to go. Sadly, for all the effort, the food may be a little remiss. I’ve only eaten in La Tape once and the upshot was a tough, burnt piece of octopus and a lacklustre apricot pastry. But the 7-tap beer selection is excellent and the English-speaking beer mistress is knowledgable and happy to advise newbies. Also, this is the only Madrid craft beer bar with a hand pump (what the heck is a hand pump?).

Well, there she is. Happy drinking. And keep in mind most of these bars sell their beer to go in growlers (what on earth is a growler?).

If you’re keen to read more about these five joints, plus discover a couple of Madrid craft beer shops, I’ve written and photographed a mini-guide called “Madrid Thru Craft Beer Goggles”. It’s available for €0.89 through the Minube smartphone app. I swear none of the proceeds will go towards industrial beer.

James Blick