Madrid, Part I: Food

Tapas in Madrid

Well, folks, I’m back to the grind and missing Spain.

We spent a week in Madrid and Toledo, and I wish we could’ve stayed longer. I loved walking around all day, breaking for tapas at lunch, wandering some more, taking a rest, then going out for a tapas dinner over several hours.

The stereotype is true about eating in Spain. Breakfast is minimal, lunch is late (1-4 p.m.) and dinner is late. A lot of eateries aren’t even open before 9 p.m. Life is clearly not all about work there.

Eating out in Spain is an experience to savor. Part of the fun is spreading a meal out over an average of three places. The prices are generally low compared to the U.S. You can get a good wine or other alcoholic drink for 2.50 euros, and you get a free tapa with each drink. The tapas off the menu also tend to be cheap; often around 5 euros or less each. You can order foie for 4.50 euros. (Where else in the world can you get this luxury food item for such an unbelievably low price?!) We marveled at how low the bill was at each bar. The bills add up, of course, depending on how many places you go and how many people in your party, but, hey, if you’re on vacation, splurge a little.

We didn’t have a bad meal anywhere. We stayed in a neighborhood a little above downtown, and the small local bars served classy tapas with a lot of creativity.

Croquetas are popular menu items, and the next would be anchoas (anchovies). You can’t go wrong with these two. Croquetas are full of mashed potato and cheese goodness wrapped in a crispy breaded crust. They can also contain jamon or cod. Anchoas are typically smoked and preserved in oil. We had them served on toast, with bell peppers.

There are two things to focus on in tapas menus: tostas and raciones. Tostas are ingredients served on toast. Raciones are a bit bigger serving; for example, a plate of jamon with variations (ex: Iberico, lomo, chorizo).

I was blown away by our first lunch in Spain. I devoured the foie tostas served on (what I think was) raspberry jam. I would never have thought to pair foie with jam, but the richness of the foie combines well with the subtle sweetness of the jam. I also wolfed down the anchoas tostas on a bed of peppers, as well as delectable tostas of brie melted on asparagus.

Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid

Mercados are plentiful in Madrid, and we visited two. The first, Mercado de San Miguel, was a gourmet market with plenty of locals mingling with tourists. We arrived at the tail end of the lunch rush (a little before 4 p.m.) and had half a dozen oysters at a raw bar stand; scallops with coral, then octopus sprinkled with lemon, paprika and olive oil at another seafood stand; a rich spinach croqueta and cod croqueta from a croqueta vendor; and foie and gazpacho at a general tapas vendor. We also tried baby eels on toast, but our friend in Madrid told us later that it was highly unlikely they were actual eels; the real deal costs way more than we were charged.

Scallops at Mercado Anton Martin in Madrid

The other market, which we hit up after the Prado, was Mercado Anton Martin, much more low key than San Miguel. This seemed more neighborhood-y and less upscale, but there was plenty of classy food inside. Right when we walked in, there was a raw bar stand, where we ate scallops with coral dressed with a glaze of acid and topped with caviar. We always order our scallops with coral; we discovered coral when we bought scallops from a market in Vancouver and opened them ourselves at home. We also ordered a few oysters. I love oysters and miss being able to pick up huge beach oysters on the shore in Vancouver Island. We then walked upstairs and sat down at a ceviche stand, where the man behind the counter lovingly prepared a mixed ceviche of shrimp, octopus and a white fish, plus a quinoa dish dressed with the perfect amount of acid and what I’m guessing was chopped parsley.

Oysters at Mercado Anton Martin in Madrid

For our last night in Madrid, our friend took us to a paella restaurant. He advised us that paella at a tapas bar is likely not prepared in house. For real paella, you should go to a paella restaurant. We over ordered, but it was worth it. We indulged in croquetas, a fried seafood platter with baby squid and shark, and anchoas before the main event: Mar y Tierra, which comes with two paellas, one of the sea (mar) and one of the earth (tierra). The paellas were both rich, and the seafood one was soupier than the tierra (deliberately). The seafood paella was my favorite. The slices of squid and the shrimp were wonderfully tender, and the slight soupiness gave it a porridge consistency. The tierra, with chunks of pork, was good, but I wanted more of the squid in the seafood paella.

Paella in Madrid

A note on drinks: I now have a new obsession–vermouth rojo. I knew of vermouth before Madrid, but I wasn’t really familiar with it. Our friend ordered it during our first lunch in the city, and I liked it so much I kept ordering it at subsequent bars. Vermut en grifo (vermouth on tap) is the best if you can get it. It’s got more body than the bottled stuff. It’s a sweet drink that has a surprisingly high amount of alcohol (16-18% on average), but it goes down so smoothly with all the sugar in it that you will never be the wiser unless you happen to inquire about the ABV (alcohol by volume). It’s usually served with a slice of orange, which I like to eat after I drain the glass.

Oh, Spain, I’m jonesing for your culinary lifestyle. What a foodie paradise.