One of the true joys of living in Spain is the chance to drink Spanish wine! There’s so much variety, amazing quality and it’s so reasonably priced. This country is a wine-drinker’s dream! It’s famous for its reds, but there’s so much more to Spain that just red wines!
In my latest video I really wanted to highlight those different styles (including red wine), as well as five great wine-toting Madrid tapas bars in Madrid where you can drink them. What are the styles I highlight in the video?
1. Vermouth. Everyone knows Martini, but here in Spain we drink Spanish vermouth and often it’s served on tap! The perfect pre-lunch tipple.
2. White wine. When my parents visited Spain from New Zealand, my father fell head over heels for Spanish whites. Look to the north-west of the country for fresh, fascinating white wines that are really making their mark internationally.
3. Cava. Made the same way as champagne, but so much cheaper! Spanish sparkling wine – aka cava – is totally undervalued. Too often consumers outside Spain opt for prosecco (which is fine, but it’s not made using the traditional champagne method). It’s time to pop open the cava people!
4. Sherry. Only a very small slice of sherry is sweet! Most of the stuff we drink is dry, complex and… very cheap (Do you see a trend here? Spanish wine is a steal!).
5. Red wine. The two most famous regions for reds are Rioja and Ribera del Duero. And don’t get me wrong – both regions make amazing wines. But I always try and remind people that there are 69 wine regions in Spain…. so head to a great wine bar and try reds from Catalonia, from Andalusia, from Galicia, from…. Get exploring!
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the video. And if you do, please give it a thumbs up. And subscribe to my YouTube channel for similar videos about how to explore and experience Spain like a local! Got any questions – ask them below or below the video in YouTube itself. Salud!
Spanish ham is like wine. It’s one of life’s great pleasures… mysterious, rich, delicious and… very frustrating. Like wine, the more you learn about jamón, the more confused you get. Head down to your local (Spanish) market or deli and there they are, hanging all in a row. And you wonder – what’s the difference? Why should I get that one, and not that one one? Black hoof or white hoof? Acorn-fed? Or was it walnut-fed?
I feel your pain. You’re in Spain, you’ve heard about Spanish ham, and you want to get the good stuff. Because, what is Spanish ham? What is jamón? And how can you tell the great stuff from the just good stuff. Well, that’s why I made this video. To break down some of the confusion and give you a few key tips to keep in mind when that Spanish waiter is breathing down your neck in that sweaty tapas bar, or the market ham vendor is overrun by old lady shoppers and you’ve got get your order in fast.
Ham doesn’t have to be hard. Watch my video, ask any questions, and enjoy one of the greatest food products humanity has ever created. And I’m not one for hyperbole.
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 for more cinematic pearls about how to experience the real Spain.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 2007. I 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.
Initio 2007 – Big and ballsy, but with bursting with fresh fruit.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).