A quick peek into Madrid’s summer fiestas. Lavapiés and La Latina and two of the capital’s oldest neighbourhoods, and every August they let their hair down and go a little crazy. This is how it happened. Many thanks to the dedicated team behind the camera (i.e. my wife Yoly). And yes, gallinejas taste like lamb chops.
Everyone has a food they don’t get.For instance, my wife Yoly doesn’t get hamburgers. You could serve her the juiciest flame-grilled, breast milk-fed, Nuru-massaged Wagyu beef burger, and she’d still shrug. Strike that. She’d eat it, she might even kind of enjoy it. But she’d never get it. She’d never crave it. By contrast, I desire a good, beefy burger about once every two months. And until I’ve gotten my fix, I dream of greasy rivulets trickling down my jowls and running up my wrists.
Which brings me to the Spanish food I don’t get. The tortilla de patata. What’s the big deal? Potatoes, egg, salt and – if you’re lucky – onion. It can be sort of yummy, but I’m never going to kill to get my hands on one. I might not even cross the road.
Let me say it. Spanish omelettes bore me.
So, it was interesting to try the tortillas de patata at La Tortillita. It’s a recently-opened tortilla temple (in fact, the first Madrid iteration of a Galician franchise) on Calle Preciados. They do thirty variations on the classic (they also do the classic), including tortilla with Cabrales cheese, tortilla with prawns, tortillita with gulas, tortilla with garlic confit and onions, tortilla with bacalao and Piquillo peppers… you get the idea. Prices are reasonable, omelettes are cooked to order and you can build your own, mixing in a variety of ingredients.
The menu includes other Ibero-comfort foods like ten variations on huevos rotos (fried potatoes draped with two fried eggs and your choice of toppings), croquetas, patatas bravas and the like. But here the tortilla is king.
So, are their tortillas any good? I tried one called La Gallega (grelos, tetilla cheese and chorizo), one with caramelised onion and Cabrales and one with roasted vegetables. And dare I say, they were pretty good. La Gallega was my fav, stuffed with more ingredients than most tortillas see in a lifetime. The egg was nice and runny and I could imagine myself dashing in for a quick meal or a snack (they do takeaway). The tortillas (in fact called tortillitas) come in two sizes (€4.50 and €5.30) and are apt for a one-person meal or a few shared between enemies.
La Gallega, rammed with grelos, tetilla cheese and chorizo
La Tortillita is part fast food, part restaurant. It feels like a franchise, which makes it fine for a bite or takeaway, but a terrible place to propose to your future wife. Having said that, if you think it’s acceptable to pop the question over a tortilla de patata, then you don’t deserve her anyway you cheap bastard.
Verdict: I still don’t get tortillas, but the variety of ingredients (including the ability to build your own) means I can imagine swinging by La Tortillita to fill the hunger gap. If you’re a tortilla freak (shame on you), then you should give La Tortillita a whirl.
Disclaimer: My meal was paid for by the restaurant.
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’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).
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.
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.
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 – €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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
“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.
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.
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.”).
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.
La Bicicleta is another Madrid café where torrefacto is shot on sight.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Hey there. This site is a slowly-growing searchable list of my favourite bars and restaurants in Madrid. It’s aimed at travellers and hungry locals alike. There are some reviews already up – check out ‘eat & drink by barrio’ and start exploring. I’ll be adding more bit by bit.
I’ll also be blogging about Spanish food and wine.
In the meantime, if you’re about to land in Madrid, here are three tips that astute eaters should always respect in the Spanish capital.
1. Nobody ever had a good meal in Plaza Mayor. An expensive one, yes. Get a drink, enjoy the beautiful square, and eat elsewhere.
2. If it says ‘typical Spanish’, it’s not.
3. Never eat churros after 10:30am, and never ever order a chocolate milkshake to accompany (yep, I’ve seen it).
Below is a little Spotify playlist I’ve cooked up – music to plan your trip to Spain to.
Enjoy Madrid. And don’t forget to let me know how you got on.