November 26, 2014 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

If you’ve followed my blog at all, then you probably know that experiencing travel via food is kind of my religion. Sure there are museums and monuments and castles and bla, bla, bla. But then there’s food and wine!

 

Lauren, a fellow blogger at Spanish Sabores, feels the same. A couple of years back, she founded Madrid Food Tour. A brilliant idea, really, because there is truly no better way to get to know this country – or probably most any country — than via its flavors.

 

Around that time, Lauren mentioned I should come along on one of their tours sometime. I said, yeah, maybe, let’s see. But the thing is, I figured I was an expert on Spanish food and plus I was busy having a kid and all, so ya know, the timing wasn’t right no matter how hungry I was and always am for Spanish food.

 

But a couple of weeks back I finally joined one of her (growing) company’s tours. With a nice chap named Luke (chap because he’s English) as our leader, we spent four generous hours exploring Madrid’s historic center, largely with our taste buds as our guides. Hope you’re not hungry, because here’s a little look at some (yes, just some!) of the foods we sampled.


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Our first stop was El Riojano, an over-century-year-old café, where I tried their speciality, the soletilla, a ladyfinger-like pastry that is meant to be dunked in hot chocolate. Though I knew the place, I did not know the soletilla, a treat I wisely plan to get to know better during many future visits.


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At Mercado de San Miguel, I savored an early-morning glass of fresh-from-the-tap vermouth as I snacked on my olives, called Campo Real. Somehow I failed to realize until this tour that these olives only come from Madrid — all the more reason to love them!

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This rabo de toro, or oxtail, came wrapped in crispy dough and topped by pimiento del piquillo, and served with a glass of wine. It was magical.

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Fresh-from-the-oven empanadillas filled with egg and tuna are never a bad idea.

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At Bar Cerveriz, I tried a new tortilla (!!), acclaimed as one of the city’s best. My top tortillas in Madrid still stand, but this particular one was pretty darn good too!


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No Spanish food tour would be complete without trying jamón. In this case, we contemplated the curious differences between jamón serrano, jamón ibérico de recebo, and jamón ibérico de bellota - a side-by-side comparison that I’ve never done before (and really think I should repeat more often, because jamón).
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Our last nibbles of the tour included a fat sandwich of fried calamari, a very typical Madrid treat, followed by a Spanish holiday favorite — and a personal year-round favorite — turrón (an almond-y, nougat-like sweet whose soft version can most closely be compared to peanut butter, and is therefore amazing). I savored every last bite.

 

So what was my tour take-away apart from a very full and satisfied stomach? Well, truth be told, I was wrong: there was so much more for me to taste in Madrid. Indeed, not only did I taste the city in a way that I didn’t know possible, but I learned new things about it — beyond just the food — and experienced it with new eyes. What I especially appreciated about the excursion was that it really focused on the Madrid specialities that tell the city and country’s culinary story. And my tummy was very happy to listen.

 

 

*Full disclosure: Madrid Food Tour generously invited me along as a guest. I was quite skeptical, so trust me when I say that I was completely won over by the experience and that my rave reviews are legit. 

 

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April 12, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Books, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

Yes, Plaza Mayor is lovely, and checking out the world’s oldest restaurant, El Botín, at least once is pretty cool too, but, like any good traveler must know, these types of places rarely are local favorites. With that in mind, here are a few of the spots that I frequent the most, and that typically don’t make it on to the tourist radar.


Coffee and work
On any given day, you’ll find me hanging out at (loitering?) the cafés of Madrid’s Malasaña neighborhood, bumming off free WiFi and sipping on a comforting cup of joe. My favorite, favorite spot is Pepe Botella, where the old-school café serves up their caps with a tasty cookie (which is really all that it takes to win me over). Other favorites include Tipos Infames, where I can surround myself with literary inspiration in the bookstore/wine bar/café/art gallery, and La Bicicleta for its wide open space and occasional early-morning hip-hop music (right up there with cookie-awesomeness). Finally, if you’re just looking for coffee (even coffee grounds) and don’t give a rip about WiFi, head to Toma Cafe; what I consider to be the epicenter of emerging coffee culture in Madrid.



Shop
I’m not going to lie: I don’t shop a lot in Spain. I find most clothing (save for shoes!) to be overpriced and/or under quality, at least in comparison to what I can find back home. That said, I never pass up an opportunity to visit Maxi at Antigua Casa Crespo. In his 150-year-old family shop, he and his wife sell the ultimate Spanish summer shoe: the alpargata (AKA the espadrille). Available in loads of styles and colors, the 100% made-in-Spain shoes cost — if you can believe it — under 10 euros for the basic style. Between the shoes and the friendly service, I never tire of going back for more. (Read more about Antigua Casa Crespo in the article I wrote here.)


Eat
My mouth-watering go-to is always La Ardosa – I just can’t ever get enough of their juicy tortilla, which I’m convinced must taste better given the Spanish-tiled walls and dusty-bottle-covered shelves. Then, when it comes to market experiences, I’m afraid I can’t hang with El Mercado de San Miguel (sorry!) – it’s nice, really, but jam-packed with people (eh hem, tourists), which I find not so fun. Instead I go to El Mercado de San Antón (especially for a nice selection of croquetas) or to Mercado de la Paz, where I can marvel at fresh produce and have my pick of pastries. Finally, for a proper sit-down meal, I go for the funky and inventive plates at La Gabinoteca.



See
My favorite somewhat-hidden spot to see is the Museo Sorolla, an inner-city mansion-meets-museum that houses the work of Valencia-born artist Joaquín Sorolla. Once his home, the museum is still furnished with his belongings, making it a lot more inviting than its other art-filled counterparts. And what I especially love are the gardens — free to enter, and filled with flowers and fountains, they remind me of a mini Andalucian paradise.



So now you tell me: What are you favorite spots in Madrid or in your city?

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February 13, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

Wafts of tasty fumes seeped from my friend Nacho’s outdoor brick oven. It was 2pm and if my stomach could talk it would have said, “oh yes, come to mama.”


But there was a slight problem: Cooking inside that oven were two of my biggest food foes.



You might remember that years ago, after pretending to be a shepherd for a day, I fell in love with sheep. I snuggled with lambies and made buddies with a sheep named Numantina. Since then, I decided that – as illogical as it may seem – I would not, could not, eat lamb (except for that trip to Turkey, during which exceptions had to be made, obviously). And I’ve stuck to it pretty steadfastly, even putting in special effort to avoid forming relationships with other lovable-but-tasty animals, like full-grown Wilbur-style pigs (lest that leave me feeling compelled to give up my beloved jamón).


Last weekend I was faced with two baby farm friends, though, that would challenge my resolve: a suckling pig, called cochinillo, and lechazo, a lamb that had only drunk its mother’s milk. Inside that oven, the cuddly little critters roasted. Yes, I would eat bread and salad, and nothing more, I affirmed to myself.



Oh but then came lunch, in a setting that infused me with me Spanish-ness. Warmed by a glowing fire, my mind danced with images of a castañuela-clicking flamenco dancer, and a bullfighter waving the electric-pink cape that hung on the wall beside me. It was as though the room were filled with propaganda solely for the purpose of converting me into a lamb-loving, baby-pig-craving, meat-eating Spaniard. Grrr, Spain!



The others at our table of eight relished each bite of the clay-pot-cooked creations. Meanwhile, I cowardly dipped and dunked my bread in the lamb broth, savoring the rich flavor without fully committing. Jacobo wouldn’t let it be so, though, oh no. He taunted me with me a fork-full of lechazo, insisting, deviously, that I try it.


And then it happened: I indulged in a few beautiful, perfectly cooked, decadent bites of lamb. It was brief and magical, and, like (the country of) Turkey, a worthy exception to the rule.



Now, being the completely contradictory eater that I am, I think I’m going to treat myself to a fat plate of jamón ibérico. All this talk of pig and Spanish food has really made me hungry.

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January 31, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

I found a hidden wonderland here in Madrid, but I’m a little hesitant to tell anyone about it. I know I’m not the only one who’s discovered it, but I’m certain most tourists never make it there. So promise me you’ll keep it our little secret and not tell a soul?


I’d heard whispers about this mystical place before, but, until recently, I never knew where it was. And that’s because it basically hides inside a city block, like a parallel universe revealed behind a magic closet door. In fact, having recently moved to this secret spot’s neighborhood, I’d actually walked by it for months, not even realizing it was there. It’s that secret.



But then one day last autumn, I peered down an alleyway from which I regularly saw Spanish grandmas depart with grocery trolleys brimming with fresh vegetables. There was a certain hustle-and-bustle that indicated the alley was more than just a breezeway, but rather a tunnel to awesome, unexpected things.



So I wandered down it like Alice in a fantastical Wonderland adventure (and if you know me, then you know that the discovery of fresh and exotic foodstuffs is nothing short of Wonderland). And there it was: the most beautiful market in Madrid, Mercado de la Paz!!! I almost shed a full, proper, drip-able tear (not even close to exaggerating). One kiosk after another glowed with expertly arranged fruits and vegetables, fish that gawked at me with blank-but-tasty stares, and mountains of round, square and triangle blocks of cheese that tempted to timber into my mouth (these things are possible in Wonderland, you know).



The Art Nouveau-style market was constructed in 1879 in the residential/shopping neighborhood of Salamanca, and has around 60 kiosks. And while I’ve noticed a couple of the them are closed (a sad and probable outcome of la crisis), you’ll still come across almost every goody your market-loving heart could desire: vegetable sellers, butchers, fish stands, an herbal shop, a cobbler, dry cleaner, hair salon, bakeries, a couple cheese Meccas, gourmet products, and even a few tapas bars for good measure. Basically it’s heaven crammed into a small Spanish city block.



You’ll discover my hidden market paradise concealed between the streets Claudio Coello, Hermosilla, Ayala and Lagasca, with entrances on Lagasca, Ayala and Claudio Coello (the last being the most discreet of the three, despite its fat “MERCADO DE LA PAZ” sign, which I somehow managed to initially miss).


Now go find your market bliss amongst the La Paz kiosks, but just don’t go telling anyone about it. It’s our little secret, remember?

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January 31, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Madrid, Spain, Travels in Spain

When I go home to the States and order myself a drink, I half expect a free tapa to magically appear in front of me. Even a measly plate of sad olives. Instead I get a glass of semi-drinkable, expensive wine with a side of nothing. Sigh.


But then I return to Spain.



To cure this season’s round of tapas blues, I went to Alcalá de Henares – Central Spain’s city full of generously portioned free tapas.


If you’ve ever been to Andalucia’s Granada, then you’re familiar with absurdly large complimentary tapas – tapas so big you should forget any notion of actually going out for a proper meal. Then there’s the Community of Madrid’s Alcalá de Henares (about a half hour outside the city), coming to the rescue for capital-dwellers looking for the same bang for their buck (err, euro).


After having visited the city a couple of times now, I’ve discovered two restaurants that live up to my free, gigantic-grub standard (I have one of those), and have pretty sweet ambiance to match. First up is Los Balcones de Alcalá, which will please you with its Andalucia-style patio area bordered by balconies and hanging plants. If the setting doesn’t do it for you, just lose yourself in a massive tapa. The last time I visited, they served me a mini-plate of fideuà (similar to paella, but with macroni-like noodles instead of rice – ain’t nothing wrong with that!), followed by more free tapas with each beverage.


Another recent discovery is Las Cuadras de Rocinante, with its small unsuspecting entrance nestled in an almost unnoticeable corner of Calle de Carmen Calzado. Until you walk down the restaurant’s long hallway, you won’t realize that it houses a cozy room filled with tables and a bar. My recent visit there came with a nice glass of wine and a fatty cazuela of garbanzo beans that made paying for food seem like a ludicrous idea.


Finally, when stuffing yourself silly with free tapas, the only logical way to conclude your day is with a box of rosquillas de Alcalá – the town’s namesake donut-style pastry slathered in an icing so tasty that I reckon it’s more than finger-licking good, it’s pretty much box-licking good (check out the bakery Salinas in Plaza Mayor).


What can I say – I like big tapas and I cannot lie. I also want to apologize for getting Sir Mix A lot’s classic tune stuck in your head for the duration of the day.


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