The political and cultural heart of Spain is also a casserole of gastronomic trends and global cuisine. Michael Raffael discovers a vibrant city shaped by influence and innovation – one that is leading the way in the world of food fusion.
Spaniards refer to Madrid’s weather as a climate of extremes, as summed up by the phrase nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno (nine months the hottest month, with average highs hovering above 30°C. The coldest period is January to the beginning of February, when daily average highs are less than 10°C. Spring and autumn are lovely times to be in Madrid. The currency is the euro; Madrid is one hour ahead of GMT.
Easyjet (easyjet.com) operates direct flights from Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London Luton and London Gatwick to Madrid.
Iberia (Iberia.com) offers direct flights from London Heathrow to Madrid.
Spanish Tourist Office (spain.info) operates an information portal for each city in Spain, including helpful tips for discovering the city, local food and upcoming events.
Madrid Visitors & Convention Bureau (esmadrid.com) offers a breadth of advice on anything you need to organise a trip to Madrid including information on museums, monuments, accommodation and gastronomy.
MoVida Rustica by Frank Camorra and Richard Cornish (Murdoch Books, £16.25) Camorra offers traditional and innovative recipes inspired by his travels but perfected for the home cook. Their origins lie in the authentic cuisine of Spain, including the city of Madrid and others.
A Load Of Bull: An Englishman’s Adventures in Madrid by Tim Parfitt (Pan Macmillan, £14.95) tells the true story of an Englishman finding his way in what is one of the most energetic, exuberant and perplexing cities on earth.
Madrid Tales by Helen Constantine and Margaret Jull Costa (OUP, £9.99) is an anthology of short stories, depicting the many different people, places and streets that shape the capital city of Spain.
Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom (Pan Macmillan, £7.99) This spy novel is set in post-Civil War Madrid, and is based partly on historic facts; a fictional thriller, it treats the city as its own fascinating character.
From the tenth floor of Madrid’s El Corte Inglés department store you can gaze across a vast tablecloth of flat roofs spread above a clustered baroque city, and onto the Gran Via. Built less than a century ago it splits the capital like a misplaced rampart, guarding the old barrios. Only the cathedral and the Palacio Real stand out.
Never razed by blitz, fire or quake, this inner core divides into a number of invisible neighbourhoods. At street level, you know you’re in Chueca rather than Malsaño more by the feel than any shift in the architecture. The grid-pattern streets of Madrid’s six million-inhabitant girth spread from this heart, expanding from ‘kilometro cero’, a pavement plaque in Madrid’s central Plaza Puerta del Sol that is claimed as the centre point of Spain.
It is this geographic position that has defined Madrid. This is the city where all of Spain converges, the physical centre of the nation and its political and cultural heart. Madrid has been shaped by influences from across the country, yet it also has a bold identity in its own right. This has long been evident in its architecture and in its cosmopolitan soul, but its cuisine has often been regarded as something of a composite. Here you’ll find roasts to rival any in Castile, pintxos as inventive as those cooked up in the Basque country’s pioneering tavernas, and cider-infused pork every bit as authentic as its Asturian inspiration. Now, however, a distinctive Madrileño cuisine has emerged, and its most confident expression is found in the city’s tapas bars.
Estado Puro, in the Plaza San Angel, for example, creates a Spanish omelette that is a combination of onion confit, sabayon and potato foam. It’s served in a glass. ‘Love it or hate it,’ the manager says, ‘you have to try it.’ In the hands of modernists the fried spuds of patatas bravas mutate from the traditional chunks into boxes or cylinders topped with squiggles of alioli.
Gastrocroqueteria de Chema takes a similarly creative approach to croquetas which, historically, were a smart way of rehashing leftovers in the home. It’s a safe bet that there are few leftovers to rehash in this basement bar, run by chef Chema Soler and partner María. Chema’s award-winning versions are filled with surprising combinations such as octopus and red pepper, lamb and gorgonzola, walnuts and goat’s cheese, and even chocolate and sobrasada sausage.
His fillings include cocido madrileño, Madrid’s traditional chickpea stew. He laces his with spiced hummus, an innovation that to an old-school cook would be heresy – equivalent to currying Lancashire hotpot. But Chema’s concoction makes sense in a city whose cuisine is gaining notoriety for freewheeling experimentalism. Nowhere is this more evident than at Madrid Fusion, an international chefs’ congress that takes place each January and in 2013 marks its 11th year. Ferran Adrià was and remains its godfather. Heston Blumenthal was here (making 600 delegates blow up balloons) when he learned of his third Michelin star. In 2009 Eneko Atxa of Biscay restaurant Azurmendi used ultrasound to transplant scent of a rose onto a strawberry.
Any name-droppable star, from Noma’s René Redzepi to Thomas Keller, has lined up to perform on the Madrid Fusion stage and showcase their innovative culinary techniques, while each year the convention also delves into the intricacies of international cuisines – fitting for a city whose diversity is considered one of its defining aspects. Roberta Bruno is one of three food-writing partners who run A Punto, a bookshop and cookery school loosely based on London’s Books for Cooks. ‘Madrid,’ she says, ‘is a melting pot, a fusion of Arab, Jewish and Catholic influences.’ She could have added that it boasts a mixture of overlapping, global trends. Her courses range from muffins to Peruvian cuisine.
Some of those influences have made it to the Madrid restaurant of Barcelona’s Hotel Arts and has lent his name to restaurants in Paris, São Paolo and Mumbai. In the capital he operates a pizza/burger winebar, Vi Cool, and the two-Michelin starred Sergi Arola Gastro. The restaurant’s black grouper with coconut soup and vindaloo curry, or the baby lamb kebab, spicy tomato ice cream and raita, hint that he’s currently going through his Indian phase.
He’s into cocktail bars too. In the lounge below the dining room, the bartender stirs Negronis, or a Scorpion (rum, cognac, orange juice and almond). And that’s just one of the city’s cutting-edge drinks locations. La Cocina, the topfloor restaurant at food market Mercado San Antón, serves cocktails from its rooftop terrace, Maria Pandora in Plaza Gabriel Miró is a bookshop in a bar and Casa de América in the Palacio Linares mixes drinks while showcasing Latin American art.
Diego Cabrera, owner of Chueca-based coctelería Le Cabrera, borrows toys from avant garde kitchens – the smoke machine, nitrogen canister and foam siphon – to invent drinks. Behind the solid onyx counter is where the serious business takes place. As well as mixologising, he compounds his own bitters – rhubarb, for instance. The chipotle chilli syrup he makes is ideal, he says, in a cocktail with absinthe, Campari and rum.
He also dishes up ‘interactive’ tapas that are as delicious as any of his wacky booze inventions. The base is a sliver of toast that you rub with garlic. On it you spread a tomato salsa. Next you lay fillets of baby sardines, prepared as ceviche with a hint of passion fruit. To finish, you sprinkle a little crunchy salt on top.
Almost as much fun is the wine list at La Gabinoteca in Chamberi. Choosing what to drink is a game that works on the family tree principle. There’s a starting point, ‘old’ or ‘new’, then a trail to follow of either/or questions (for example, who do you prefer, Woody Allen or Alfred Hitchcock?) that ends up with a bottle costing around £18. It’s concept dining to queue for, as exciting in its own way as the Hard Rock Café was 40 years ago. Eats arrive in jars, brown paper bags… any which way you can imagine. Chef and writer Anthony Bourdain ate here after Spain won the World Cup in 2010 and he sampled the lavender-smoked Stilton, paired with whisky.
He should have gone to Poncelet Cheese Bar for a Stilton cheesecake dessert. This cool, modern venue is a haven for ladies that lunch and a cheese addict’s nirvana. It composes bespoke platters from the 142 varieties it carries. A slip that’s part of the bill describes the style, country of origin, region, type of milk (sheep, goat, cow) and intensity of flavour of the cheeses.
In the high-end district of Salamanca, store and bar Lavinia takes a similar approach to wine. Madrid has its own ‘Denominación de Origen’, but its wines are little known outside the region. The better ones are here, alongside an epic selection from all over the country. Lavinia’s bar has dozens available for tasting by the glass, but any bottle ordered with a meal is at store price.
This blurring of the boundaries between shopping and dining has spread to the city’s markets too. The newly renovated San Miguel, housed in a wrought iron building that initially opened in 1916, describes itself as a gastronomico and its trick is setting raw and ready-to-eat side by side. The fruit seller bolts on to a juice bar. The fishmonger can make you a bocadillo de calamares, a fried squid roll with mayonnaise or lemon juice. An encurtido (pickle) stall is next to a vermouth bar; sherry helps the pickled peppers go down and vice versa.
Mercado San Antón in Chueca has adopted an alternative approach. It’s spread across three storeys and the ground floor focuses on produce. Above it is a gallery with a food court, and above that a restaurant and bar. You can shop the usual way: buy, let’s say, meat and leave. Or you tell the butcher behind the counter you’re heading upstairs; you pay and take your steak up top. There you hand it to the waiter who wafts it to the kitchen for a quick grilling. The £4 charge includes accompanying sauce, bread and a drink.
In contrast, the Plaza Mayor, which used to be the main marketplace, is now where visitors and Madrileños hang out into the early hours. Porters used to drag carcasses slaughtered outside it into the square for the butchers to joint. The only vestiges of this past are the callos (stewed tripe), torrezno (roasted and fried pork belly scratchings) or lechon (suckling pig) on menus of venerable eateries like Los Galayos, a grand venue that’s as popular now as it was when it opened in 1894. The ingenuity that crackles through Madrid’s dining scene makes it tempting to pass over older jewels, such as Los Galyos, but these remain a vital part of the city’s culinary identity.
For instance, at El Anciano Rey de los Vinos, opposite the cathedral, a Spanish omelette is – satisfyingly – just what you expect. The Russian salad, still a favourite, is a mixture of chopped root vegetables and mahonesa. Croquetas have a classic cheese and ham filling; the patatas bravas are blanched and fried potato chunks, not the twisted forms of the modernist tapas bars. Meanwhile, La Taberna Bola, run by the same family for four generations, remains the acknowledged pinnacle of cocido madrileño. This is a dish designed for cold winter days and hungry mouths. It lulls the stomach with a broth blending elements of beef tea and chicken noodle soup, then punches hard with sausages, chicken, black pudding, chunks of pork, chickpeas and cabbage spooned from earthenware crocks. Head waiter Luis Guerrero defies anyone to finish what’s on the plate.
San Ginés, the archetypal churreria, is more than just a spot to dip churros in a cup of hot chocolate. It’s worth going there to watch waiters shimmy between tables with trays above their heads. Likewise, La Carboneras is more than just a nunnery selling cakes through a lazy Susan. Its almendras are moreish as fresh marzipan. The recipe probably hasn’t changed much since the convent’s foundation in 1607. Botín, which opened in 1725 and is the oldest restaurant in the world, still roasts baby lamb over a wood fire, while crystallised violets on the brownie at Vadebaco, a chic enoteca, come from La Violeta, a shop in the Puerta del Sol that has candied comfits since 1915.
Ceaseless innovation isn’t everything, and some restaurateurs need to take a break from the pressures of keeping pace in a city that sleeps so little. Aspiring molecular maestros have queued up to open restaurants in Madrid but in this bleak economy many of them are feeling the pinch, according to some Madrileños, who believe these difficult times have already begun to weed out the bad venues, while the good ones will continue to thrive.
Such competition can only be good for food lovers, and has made Madrid a city of chefs who are eager to please and astound. Whether you like your food cooked in an oven or with ultrasound, whether you want your cocido served as a hearty stew or as curry-spiked croquetas, you’ll find it in Madrid. The city whose cuisine was once defined by its influences has become a defining influence in its own right.
Where to Stay
NH Palacio de Tepa A restored townhouse, part of the reliable NH chain, but feels like a designer boutique hotel. Its exciting tapas bar faces the Plaza de Angel and room details, down to the Bulgari toiletries, are faultless. From £85. 2 San Sebastian, 00 34 913 896 490, nh-hoteles.es
Mercure San Domingo Its check-in foyer gives the impression of a modern business hotel, which it is, but it also has the largest vertical garden in the world, a rooftop pool and a good cellar cocktail bar. From £75. 1 Calle San Bernardo, 00 34 915 479 800, mercure.com
Room Mate Alicia Overlooking the Plaza Santa Ana in the charming Letras Barrio, it’s a modern three-star, stylish, functional with flair that outshines other more luxurious hostelries. From £60. 2 Calle Prado, 00 34 900 818 320, alicia.room-matehotels.com
Urban Five-star boutique hotel with an Egyptian museum in the basement, it has clever details like special lighting in sound-proofed rooms. Gym, pool and cocktail bars. Part of the Spanish Derby chain. From £125. 34 Carrera de San Jerónimo, 00 34 917 877 770, derbyhotels.com
Westin Palace Westin took a faded luxury hotel with a glamorous history and put it back where it belonged. The public area, under a glass dome, is imposing and the rooms are smart in a suitably retro way. From £190. 7 Plaza de las Cortes, 00 34 913 608 000, westinpalacemadrid.com
Where to Eat
A drink and a tapa will often cost less than £5. How many you eat affects what you pay, but croquetas can be as little as £2.50 for a serving. Prices per person not including wine, unless otherwise stated.
Botín It’s been going since 1725 and is, according to Guinness World Records, the oldest restaurant in the world. Order either the roast lamb or the suckling pig. It proves the point that a ‘touristy’ restaurant can be good. From £30 per head with wine. 00 34 913 664 217, botin.es
Cheese Bar Exquisite place to familiarise yourself with Spanish cheese. Be guided by the waiters who are young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. From about £8 upwards. 00 34 913 992 550, ponceletcheesebar.es
Chocolateria San Gines Two things to remember here: churros are long and thin; porras are long and fat. Both will fit inside a cup of hot chocolate. Don’t book. Pasadizo de San Ginés, (near the Plaza Mayor). 00 34 913 656 546, chocolateriasangines.com
El Anciano Rey de los Vinos Over 100 years old and still going strong. In the daytime come here to sample its pestiñas (sweet fritters) and torrijas (bread pudding) washed down with the house vermouth straight from the barrel. 00 34 915 595 332, elancianoreydelosvinos.es
El Club Allard This will probably be Madrid’s first three-star restaurant. Chef Diego Gurrero has all the credentials, plus the fantasy chocolate croquetas and mini Baby Bell that’s actually truffled Camembert. From £85 per head with wine. 00 34 915 590 939, elcluballard.com
En Estado Puro Paco Roncero, a two-star chef at the Casino de Madrid, created this epitome of modern tapa culture. Order half a barbecued free range chicken, to eat at a table in the Plaza Angel for under £7 – probably the best value in the city. (There’s another branch in the Plaza de Canovas Castille). 00 34 913 302 400, tapasenestadopuro.com
Los Galayos This is a grand old restaurant in a corner of the Plaza Mayor, but you can sit outside and enjoy the street theatre with a bocadillo sandwich and a caña (beer) for £3.65, and the tortilla isn’t too shabby. 00 34 913 663 028, losgalayos.net
Gastrocroqueteria de Chema Arguably the sexiest croquetas in town and not expensive: four pieces from £2.50. Very busy. Doesn’t open until around 9pm. Good German beer on tap. 00 34 913 642 263, gastrocroqueteria.com
La Bola Go to say you’ve been (so long as it’s winter). Its famous cocido head with wine. Note: no credit cards. 00 34 915 476 930, labola.es
La Gabinoteca Loads of fun at this concept eatery in a quiet residential street away from the centre. Attracts all kinds. Families with young children arrive at 10pm, but this is Spain. Food in raciones (portion) helpings is good and relatively cheap. From £17 per head including drinks. 00 34 913 991 500, lagabinoteca.es
Le Cabrera Groundfloor tapas bar and basement cocktail bar: both outstanding. Diego Cabrera epitomises the charismatic barman. Drinks about £10 but worth it. 00 34 913 199 457, lecabrera.com
Sergi Arola Gastro Like, say, Gordon Ramsay, he’s reached the stage where he’s an expanding international brand, so don’t expect him to be cooking, but the food is soigné and the service extremely polished. From £90 per head with wine, but there’s a budget £40 lunch deal weekdays. 00 34 913 102 169, sergiarola.es
Vadebaco Fashionable wine bar with around 450 wines to choose from, some under £10 a bottle. Tapas straightforward and not too challenging from £2.50. 00 34 680 132 538, vadebaco.com
- Afoga el Pitu: A type of Cheese
- Bocata de calamares: Fried calamari sandwich on French bread
- Bocadillo: A filled sandwich made in a baguette
- Bunuelo: Fritter
- Butifarra: Catalan Sausage
- Callos: Stewed tripe
- Chorizo: Spicy Spanish pork sausage
- Churros: Deep fried dough tubes eaten with thick hot chocolate or coffee
- Cocido Madrileño: Wholesome stew, predominantly consisting of chickpeas, cabbage, chorizo, blood sausage or pudding and vegetables, stewed in broth
- Huevos rotos : Fried eggs
- Jamon : Spanish cured ham
- Lechon : Suckling pig
- Oreja: Pig’s ears
- Patata: Potato
- Patatas bravas: Fried potatoes covered in a spicy tomato sauce
- Rabo de toro: Stuffed cow or bull tail
- Sopa castellana: Garlic soup
- Torrenzo: Roasted and fried pork belly scratchings
- Tortilla de patatas: Thick omelette of eggs, onion and potatoes
This article was published on 1st February 2013 so certain details may not be up to date.