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