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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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!
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).