Head into the heart of Spain to find a land steeped in heritage and culture, with plenty of jámon and windmills to keep you company
WORDS: OLIVER SMITH
PHOTOGRAPHS: MATT MUNRO
Get to grips with the diverse Spanish palate on a tapas tour of the capital – or simply lose yourself in the city’s streets to happen upon your perfect bar
Like Ronaldo versus Messi, Catalan independence and the specifics of King Juan Carlos’s love life, the question of where in Spain you’ll find the best food is a discussion that should be initiated with caution (possibly ending in waving fists and looking up rude words in your Spanish dictionary). The logical answer is Madrid, for it is here that you can taste the A to Z of all Spanish cuisine, from Andalucían gazpacho to lamb cooked Zaragoza style. And, thanks to the tapas philosophy, it is quite feasible to eat your way across the entire country in one evening.
“When you go for a night out, you don’t drink beer and wine because you’re thirsty,” says José Angel Mozos García, welcoming customers into his seafood restaurant La Mar, beside the city’s Opera House. “And it is the same with tapas in Madrid – people don’t eat because they are hungry, they eat just because it’s fun. You start at your local and you keep going through the night.” Outside José’s restaurant, the evening tapas crawl is slowly gathering momentum, while, inside, the kitchen shuttles off steaming plates of things that only this morning were swimming off Spain’s Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts: rich and creamy Valencian seafood paella, and prawns from Cadiz now drowned in garlic to make the classic dish gambas al ajillo, beloved of Madrileños. “Food in Spain isn’t about formal dining, white linen and good manners,” continues José, scooping up prawns with a chunk of bread in his handsome, Moorish-tiled dining room. “It is food you eat with your hands; food designed for socialising.”
Madrid is a capital that is decidedly short on formalities. Unlike London, Paris, Berlin and Rome, it has few iconic landmarks – no famous triumphal arch, no truly colossal cathedral. It is a city whose spirit comes more from its atmosphere than its bricks. And at no time is Madrid more spirited than in the depths of night, when tapas expeditions are in full swing – at an hour when London and Paris are tucked up in bed, when even Rome has paid its bill and is ready to go home.
Navigating between eateries, you might cross lamp-lit squares where crowds spill out from the tabernas and lean on the pedestals of statues; or stroll beside the locked gates of parks like Buen Retiro, the scent of pine wafting over the railings through the air; or potter beside the façades of vast galleries where, inside, the gaunt faces of El Greco portraits watch over empty rooms that hours ago were busy with crowds. Some tapas places are pit stops, like Casa Labra – the founding spot of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), in whose boisterous wood-panelled interiors cod croquetas sell for the democratic price of 1 Euro 25 cents to standing customers. Other restaurants invite you to linger longer; one such is La Bola, home of Cocido Madrileño – a ‘Madrid stew’ of sausage, ham hock, beef, chicken and potatoes, cooked in ceramic pots following an Asturian recipe unchanged since the 1870s (and served in interiors that have likewise barely altered since).
And, then, there’s the joy of making your own miraculous Madrid tapas discovery – finding a bar squirrelled away on a backstreet off a backstreet, a place that serves the greatest tortilla española tasted by mortals and which, no matter how much Google Maps detective work is done, cannot be found the following evening. Or, indeed, ever again.
Four more stops across Central Spain, with great food, people and stays listed. Find them in the September 2016 issue of Lonely Planet Magazine India. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.