Madrid’s wordly tastes

The Spanish capital, Madrid, is famous for its sleepless nights and tapas. Behind the open plazas, Fotis Kapetopoulos explores the city's local tapas bars where food and drink abound

Every city has a distinct colour. Just as my Athens is azure, my Madrid is burnt orange. This is manifested when the setting sun washes over this grand metropolis making it glow.

The best way to know if a tapas bar is a good one is by the mess on the ground. The floors of tabernas (tavern) should be covered by disposable napkins and toothpicks.

Grand is what this capital of a nation of 40 million is. Barcelona is cool and Seville beautiful at night, but Madrid is everything.

Spain, one of Europe’s larger economies, consists of a diverse range of peoples from the Francophile alpines, Austrian urban elements, and southerly Arabesque life.

Madrid the hub of a once enormous empire reflects Spain’s complex history in its architecture and its food. The architecture ranges from gothic, renaissance, romantic, modern to ultra contemporary. Its food can seem Germanic, Mediterranean, Arabic, French, Latin American, but is always Spanish.

Madrid is a sleepless city, you can eat and drink anytime, be it a coffee with jamon and queso (ham and cheese) baguette at 8am, or a cerveza (beer) and tapa of home made boquerones en vinagre (oil and vinegar cured sardines) at 3am.

Madrilenos do not have dinner at 7pm, only some tourists do. Madrilenos will eat a late lunch between 2 pm and 4 pm possibly a tapa and cervezita (small beer) at 7pm to tie them over after work, and then, enjoy a late tapas run, or supper anytime between 9:30pm and midnight.

Tapas is only one aspect of the city’s food culture and the tapas change from bar to bar. Forget the fried chorizo and dry tortilla followed by sickly sweet sangria.

We’re at La Latina, an inner city Madrid barrio, famous for its artists, students, anarchists, revolutionaries and 18th Century hero robbers.
Orson Wells and Ernest Hemingway lived, drank and ate in La Latina. I may develop the girth of these fine men while here, but possibly not the talent.

This barrio is famous for its restaurants and bars and boasts the world’s oldest restaurant, Restaurante Botin, established in 1725.
La Latina’s alleys and streets all lead to the great square, Plaza Mayor, a monumental plaza surrounded by buildings exulting the ghosts of the great and global empire that Spain was between the 15th and 19th Centuries. Plaza Mayor is great to visit, but only tourists eat there and I took a vow in my twenties, ‘never be a tourist’.

A Spanish Australian wife and a father-in-law who lives six months of the year in Madrid gives me a reasonable ‘in’, I also have learned enough Spanish to order comfortably. My father-in-law said, “The best way to know if a tapas bar is a good one is by the mess on the ground.”

The floors of tabernas (tavern) should be covered by disposable napkins and toothpicks.

“Another way is if the customers are in the main Madrilenos.”

Most taverns, cervecerias and sidrarias, also have a restaurant, “people do not eat only tapas in Madrid,” my father-in-law always said with an air of indignation.

Tapas are about drinking. The Spaniards drink much over a day, but never binge. Their bars have on-tap beer, on-tap Vermut (Vermouth) and there are those specialising in licors, (liquors) or cider, the sidrarias. They all share one thing an abundance of great food and daily specials.

The definition of a tapa by the Real Academia Espanola de la Lengua is “any portion of solid food able to accompany a drink.”
The tapa is a morsel of food to accompany the beverage. If you are hungry, you can order more tapas, or you can have a racion, a larger serve.

The beer, usually a cervezita, a small beer, or vino a shot of wine, is presented with a tapa.

My tapeando, or tapas run began at 2pm with my father-in-law leading the way. At 78 years old he is very fit and comes every six months to Spain for his camino, an annual pilgrimage of hundreds of kilometres of walking in the North West of Spain, albeit; our food and drink pilgrimage only took in 3 km.

We started at Casa Paco, nestled in La Latina and invisible to the millions of tourists walking around feverishly with maps in hand. Most will end up eating average food at high prices at Plaza Mayor.

Casa Paco’s menu boasts Cebon de Buey an outstanding aged grilled ox steak, Callos a la Madrilena, Madrid style paprika tripe and Sopa de Ajo, garlic soup.

But we were there for tapas and Casa Paco has a worthy jamon, (cured ham) and outstanding rocquefort cheese, as well as the Spanish queso manchego.

Emilio the large and ebullient manager assures me that, “Valentin [my father-in-law], is a great friend of Casa Paco, his family has been with us since we opened.”

My father-in-law is in his element. He is keen to show me his real influence where it counts, in Madrid.

Casa Paco opened in 1933 and the bar panelled by dark rosewood has hosted some of the biggest bullfighting names since. We are served a glass of on-tap ice-cold beer and tapas of jamon and rocquefort cheese. On the second cervecita, we are served up homemade pork crackling and chunks of cured tuna.

The second stop is Casa Revuelta opposite to Casa Paco on the way to Paza Mayor. This is a more casual hole-in-the-wall bar. Yet, all Madrilenos know its specialty is battered crispy fried bacalao. Young and old, poor and rich, yuppie and uni student, men and women, try to squeeze into Casa Revuelta for the bacalao, which is about the size of four fingers wide and eaten by the hand and washed away by a cold beer.

By 4pm we cut through Plaza Mayor with the sun bearing down on us and make it to El Neru Restaurante Sidreria one of Madrid’s famous cider bars. There I learnt that the bubbly cold cider most people drink is not the “real thing” as my father-in-law says. The “real cider” is poured from a height into a large pint glass, which is quarter filled and drunk quickly so as not to lose the mix. This sidreria offers northern Spanish Asturian cuisine such as the famous Torta al Casar – a soft sheep’s milk cheese from the province of Extremadura.
Our tapeando kept going, more cervecitas, vino and sidra, all accompanied by a miscellany of tapas such as, Basque white cheese and ham, crab and home made mayonnaise, beef and paprika patties, padre pardon green fried peppers, chorizo and Russian salad.
We met cousins later to cap off the tapeando with a few copas, spirit drinks.

At 1 am we decided to have churros at San Gines where the bitter dark hot chocolate is thick enough for the churro to stand in.

I think I may know what happened to Orson Wells in Madrid, and if I were to fully describe that true king of human pleasures and largesse, he may not metaphorically fit this humble page.