I recently went on my first trip to Madrid, Spain and I would like to share with you some of my food discoveries.
Let me open by saying I am a foodie. I love food and I love trying out new food. I love cooking and have been looking forward to my Spanish travels, especially in the hopes of eating new and different food. Right before I left, I decided to eat a typical breakfast as my last dinner before leaving because I didn’t think I’d be seeing too much of American-style breakfasts in Spain, especially eggs. I was wrong. Suffice to say I was “egg-ed” out before the week was up.
I learned that in Spain, eggs can be eaten at any meal but they are usually fried or sunny side up. Also, I learned that my Texas spanish wasn’t the same as Spain spanish. In Texas, when we say “tortilla” we mean tortillas…flat breads that come in either corn or flour versions that are rolled or hand patted into circular shapes and toasted on a griddle or “comal” on the stovetop. When you say “tortilla” in Spain, you get an omelette dish made with onions and potatoes. And the word “jamon” means ham, both here and there, but be ready for Spanish ham which varies by region. The tortilla or omelette dish made of eggs, potatoes and onions, is eaten both at breakfast and lunch. I did try the tortilla and it was good; however, I didn’t have eggs for breakfast every day. Most of the time, for breakfast, I ate toasted bread and coffe. If you want straight up espresso, order Cafe but if you want it with milk, make sure you order Cafe con Leche which is a wonderful even mix of coffee and milk. If you don’t want straight espresso but don’t want as much milk, order Cafe Cortado which is defined as a coffee cut with milk. Cafe con Leche is typically a morning drink and Cafe Cortado is usually ordered the rest of the day. In the evening, a great coffee option is Carajillo or an espresso spiked with brandy or whiskey.
Also, you should know that butter with your bread is not the norm, you have to order it specifically and pay extra for it. Also, the bread isn’t usually included with your meal. If it’s brought to your table and you don’t refuse it, you will be charged for it!
Do you like ham? If you like ham, Spain is the place for you! “Jamon” is a staple almost everywhere you go in Spain. Each region has different ways of curing or smoking it, but it is ham none the less. Many restaurants and bars have a leg of ham or several smoked hams and the meat is sliced thinly and served as an appetizer or as a “tapas”. If you don’t like the “jamon” or prefer the American version in your sandwiches, you will need to ask for “jamon york” which is American ham.
And speaking of “jamon”, one of the restaurants I was fortunate enough to visit was the Botin Restaurant in Madrid. El Botin is registered in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest restaurant in the world. There is a certificate in the front window of the restaurant denoting it as such. The restaurant is known for its excellent food, specifically the cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) and cordero asado (roast lamb). While walking into the restaurant, make sure you stop at the kitchen and peek in. You will see the original wood-burning oven that has been there since the restaurant open. You will also see rows and rows of suckling pigs ready for the oven! Definitely not for the squeamish! We went there for lunch and being the adventurer that I am, I ordered the roast suckling pig or cochinillo asado for lunch. Let’s just say that lunch was very interesting. It started with a course of soup. Not just any kind of soup my friend, a “garlic and egg” soup. (Eggs again!). It was ok. It was brought to the table straight out of the oven in a clay-type bowl and it was bubbling and boiling, it was so hot. It had an egg in the middle of it and I think it also had bread in it because it was very thick and a bit gummy. It was an interesting flavor but the texture wasn’t really to my liking. The next course was the pig. It wasn’t a whole pig but the pieces were straight from a whole pig. Again, interesting flavors! The skin was crispy and pretty tasty…sort of like pork rinds but with a different sort of smoky, gamey flavor. The meat was tender, ready to fall off the bone and also gamey tasting. The pig came with some oven roasted potatoes and I also got ice cream for dessert and a half-botttle of the house wine. I’m not sure if I would order it again, but it was definitely an experience!!
After lunch, we found our way to a convent where the nuns have no contact with the outside world but they sell “dulces” or candy, cookies and confections to the public. It’s pretty cool and sort of subversive-feeling to buy cookies here. You have to find the place and it’s not really easy to locate. It’s in a convent near the Plaza Mayor with no outward signs or notices. To the right of the door, find and press the buzzer and speak into the speaker using the code word dulces which means candy. The nuns buzz you in and you make your way into the convent where you find a turin or a huge “lazy-susan” kind of thing and a sign on the side with the items they sell. As soon as you get into the room, the nun is somewhere behind the turin and asks you what you’d like. You tell her what you want and she puts it into the turin and turns it out for you to collect. You put the money into the turin and she turns it back with your change. Very top secret feeling! Also, don’t forget to tip the nuns! We bought lemon cookies and they were light, crispy and delicious. We got there too late to order some of the other items for sale so if you want a bigger variety of candies and cookies, you should probably get there before the early afternoon.
Another “must do” for any foodie is a tapas crawl. Tapas are bite-sized appetizer portions of food that are served at the bars throughout Spain. A tapas crawl involves visiting a variety of bars, indulging in a bit of house wine or beer and whatever tapas are specialties for that bar. Each bar specializes in different tapas. Tapas also vary by region so if you are outside of Madrid, the tapas would vary according to whatever is regionally available. You should also know that the jamon varies from region to region as well so if you liked the jamon in Madrid, you might not like it in Seville or Barcelona. Some other terms you might hear during your tapas crawl. Pinchos are bite-sized portions of food, often served on bread, and named for the toothpick or “pincho” (which means “spike” or “thorn” in Spanish) which holds the food together. Pinchito are tiny pinchos, a racion is a larger portion or full-serving, and if you want a larger portion but not the entire serving, you would order a media-racion or a half of a portion. Some of the favorite tapas are patatas bravas which are bite-sized potatoes with a spicy dipping sauce, orejas fritas or fried pig ears which I have to say are pretty doggone good, calamares which we all know as fried squid rings, and tortilla, which I mentioned above is a omlette of sorts made with egg, potato, and onion.
So…where do you go for a tapas crawl? Pretty much anywhere! Start late in the evening, no earlier than 8pm and even that is kind of early, and hit any bar that looks lively and inviting but if you want to go to some interesting bars while munching, find the cave bars, also referred to as mesones and cuevas. Many of them can be found in the barrios bajos, or the lower end, south of Plaza Mayor. From the Plaza Mayor, walk down the Arco de Cuchilleros until you find the cave bars. Start your crawl at one of the oldest cave bars in Madrid, Meson del Champiñones and go from there! Rick Steves’ website has some great tapas tips on his website and in his books so check them out!
I know that by now you have all noticed that I haven’t mentioned one of Spain’s most recognizable dishes and no respectable foodie would go to Spain and not eat paella. Paella is a rice dish with some common ingredients that are pretty much universal throughout Spain; however, each region also adds ingredients that make paella a regional dish as well as a Spanish one. The most common ingredients are saffron, peas, wine, broth, and of course rice. Paella’s are typically made in round, flat-bottomed pans with two handles called “paelleras”. “Paelleras” come in a variety of sizes that will feed anywhere from 4 people all the way to a dozen people! Traditional paella is made over an open fire and is served in the “paellera” it was cooked in. The most common ingredient served in a paella is seafood but the inner regions of Spain also make paella with rabbit and/or chicken also. While there, a local Spaniard warned me that if I ordered paella in a restaurant that offered it in small portions, that it might not have been prepared in a true paella fashion. It is better to order paella in a setting that only sells it for 4 or more people. I was lucky enough to find an awesome paella in a small restaurant in Toledo. My paella was made with shrimp, mussels, chicken, and sausage. It was delicious and the best part of a good paella is the brown, crusty part of the rice that forms in the bottom of the pan while it’s cooking…YUM.
I mentioned the town of Toledo in the above paragraph. I went on a day trip to Toledo, Spain. A specialty of Toledo, besides steel, is marzipan. Marzipan is an almond meal, honey, and sugar confection. Marzipan is often shaped into pieces of fruit or as a filling in breads and pastries. Directly across the street from the Plaza Zocodover, I was drawn to a picture window with a huge church made of Marzipan. I ventured inside the Confitería Santo Tomé. This confectionary has been run by the same family since 1856 and they continue to use the same recipe to make their marzipan that dates back to Roman times. I not only ordered some confections to take back to Madrid with me, I purchased a larger box to ship home. These marzipan confections tasted very different from the marzipan I’ve eaten in the U.S. I’m not really fond of the stuff I’ve tasted in the States. It just tasted like a sugary paste with little to no flavor but the marzipan I purchased in Toledo was amazing! I could taste the almonds and the honey. The little dumplings I purchased were also stuffed with a sort of apricot jam of sorts that completely complimented the marzipan itself. Delicious!!
Back in Madrid, no foodie experience would be complete without a cup of hot chocolate and churros. A lot of people choose to have their chocolate and churros for breakfast, but for me, it was the ending to a perfect day. Be warned, this is not your typical hot chocolate! The chocolate is dark, thick as pudding, and slightly bitter. It is typically served with churros. Churros are Spain’s version of doughnuts. They are fried light and crispy. They are not like the churros we get in Texas (dusted with cinnamon and sugar), they are plain and hollow like straws. What you should do is take your churros, dunk them in the chocolate and consume with GUSTO. The best place to get this decadent snack is the Chocolateria San Gines. This chocolateria is just west of the Plaza del Sol near a night club named “Joy”. It is open 7 days a week every afternoon and evening and there are often lines of people waiting to get in. It’s a small place with small tables packed onto two floors. There is also a small bar/counter you could stand and eat at as well. You must place your order and pay before you sit down. After you pay, you’re given a ticket and when the waiter approaches your table, you show him your receipt and he brings you your order. An order of chocolate con churros will run you about 3.50 euros per person. The few times I ate there, I only saw one person actually drinking their chocolate. Everyone else dunked and ate. Be aware that nothing else is served here so if you want something else to drink or another type of pastry, you’re better off going to another place for your late night snack.
Don’t stop here!!! There are more restaurants and places to visit with different foods to try and I hope this article helps you get a good start so you can make your own foodie memories when you visit Spain.