The following is a guest article by Sally Elbassir, the owner and food taster of Passport and Plates, originally titled "The Tapas, Taverns and History of Madrid: A Food Tour". Be sure to drop by her blog for culinary treats from around the world!
I've always been a foodie. Long before the term "foodie" ever existed, I was that kid who was always eager to try something new.
Things haven't changed much in the last couple of decades. My palate has expanded, and I discovered that my dream job does exist; it just happens to be occupied by Anthony Bourdain. Now I satisfy my foodie obsession by writing on Yelp, and on my blog... there's plenty more where that came from.
I'd always wanted to go on a food tour, but being the budget traveler that I am, could never justify paying for it. Luckily, I left for my first solo trip not long after my birthday, and my parents decided to treat me to a belated birthday present. Thanks, Mom and Dad!
So that's how I found myself standing in Plaza Isabel II at 6:30 pm in the middle of August, ready to embark on a Madrid Food Tour titled "Tapas, Taverns, and History." We were a fun yet eclectic bunch: a Canadian family of four, an American girl living in Germany, an older French woman, and of course, our lovely tour guide Luke!
Since I don't eat pork or drink alcohol, I was intrigued to see how my dietary restrictions would be accommodated, especially in the land of vino and jamón. They did an excellent job of offering me equally delicious modifications.
What I loved most about the tour was its informality. I felt like I was spending the evening following a knowledgeable Madrileño friend around the city, albeit one who is as passionate about eating as I am. That evening, I was a Madrileña.
And now without further ado: tapas, taverns, and history.
Our meeting spot was in the middle of a touristy plaza, so imagine my surprise when our first stop was a mere 300 feet away at Taberna Real. Here I munched on marinated olives, homemade potato chips, pa amb tomàquet (Catalan tomato toast) and tosta de atún con pimientos rojos (tuna toast with red peppers). We were off to a good start.
Fun fact: tapas in Spain refer to the small food bites that you get for free when you order alcoholic drinks. The more drinks you order, the "nicer" the tapas become. The idea originated long ago in Andalusia, when a waiter covered the king's wine glass with a piece of ham to keep bugs away. He liked the idea so much that he implemented the idea of serving a free "tapa" (or "top" in English) with all alcoholic drinks in Spain. And thus, the tapa was born! Tapas are not always free (it depends on the city), and portion sizes can vary significantly.
Another fun fact: in Madrid, once you finish with an olive (or with your smaller trash in general), you toss the pit on the floor in front of the bar. The dirtier the bar, the more popular it is. Back in the day, competing bars used to send employees to steal trash from Taberna Real to make their bars seem more popular. Sneaky, sneaky.
On our way to the next stop, we walked by the Palacio Real and Plaza de la Villa, where we learned about the tumultuous and incestuous history of the Spanish royal family. Talk about drama! Luke was filled with knowledge and fun tidbits about the city and its history, and he did a great job of covering both food and culture.
Our second stop was Bodegas Ricla, a small mom-and-pop shop I would have never thought to visit. We started with boquerones en vinagre (white anchovies in vinegar), which were deliciously citrusy and significantly less fishy than their standard brown counterparts – almost like a ceviche, in fact. All the ingredients were purchased from the market that day, and this was clearly evidenced by the fresh taste. Accompanying the fish was mosto (grape juice) for me, tostas de cabrales (toast with cooked Asturian blue cheese), and albondigas (beef meatballs). Apparently the meatballs are a secret menu item. The shop owner buys a limited amount of beef at the market so you have to know and ask for them. Definitely felt like a bit of an insider.
At this point, my stomach was doing a happy dance as we followed Luke to our next stop called Meson del Champiñon aka the house of mushrooms. On the way, we passed both Mercado San Miguel (a slightly overpriced foodie market) and the world's oldest restaurant, Sobrino de Botin (insider tip: apparently it's expensive with mediocre food). The mushrooms we ate were heavenly. I'm quite ambivalent towards mushrooms and don't generally understand the fuss, but these were bursting with flavors of spices, herbs, and butter. Perfection. Luke was in the middle of telling us that this restaurant was featured on a famous Asian food show when a group of Korean tourists flooded the bar – the timing couldn't have been better.
Next we passed through the famous Plaza Mayor for a short history lesson and a warning – never eat at a restaurant here! Not only is the food terrible, but it's also ridiculously overpriced. Instead, we continued to El Abuelo, a small bar specializing in gambónes al ajillo (shrimp with garlic). This, my friends, is sizzling shrimp with caramelized garlic drowned in an herby olive oil. It tastes just as amazing as it sounds.
For our last stop, we walked through a beautifully lit Plaza de Santa Ana over to the restaurant where we were having a sit-down dinner. Yes, we had dinner after all that eating. Totally got our money's worth!
The restaurant, Casa Toni, had a table ready for us upstairs. Suddenly, just as we were starting to get food, one of the men on the tour spilled his entire glass of red wine on me. D'oh! Luckily I managed to get the wine out of my clothes, but I unfortunately missed my opportunity to take good food pictures. I did link recipes and wiki articles for visuals, though.
We ate a huge variety of food including patatas bravas (fried potatoes), spiced tomatoes, a shrimp and pepper omelet and lamb sweetbreads. Can I just say that I've never had sweetbreads before and was extremely impressed by how good they were? To end the meal, we were presented with secret cookies baked by cloistered nuns. It was the perfect conclusion to an amazing tour. Food inevitably creates bonds, and our group parted ways just a little more in love with Madrid and its food and culture. Special thanks to Luke, who was a knowledgeable and passionate tour guide.
For those of you who write off Madrid as "just another city," or who think tapas are simply small plates, think again. While Madrid may not be where the tapas sensation started, the culture of shared plates amongst friends is alive and kicking. Go out and explore, and you may just find that an unassuming tavern is actually home to some of the best food in town.
For a self-guided version, check out this list by the owner of Madrid Food Tours and this list of typical Spanish tapas.