The Spanish certainly know how to dine. The cafes are always crowded, and food and drink are always being served. Unlike the Italians who linger over food for hours, the Spanish will stop and have a bite here, and a bite there, and go on their way. It’s casual and born out of necessity. If you’re hungry, you eat. If you’re thirsty, you drink. If you’re tired, you take a siesta. Imagine?
I was surprised at how different I found the whole thing. It took us a full 9 days to figure out the timing of meals, but once you fall into their rhythm, once you throw any sort of eating routine (even if you don’t think you have one! I bet you do!) out the window, the world of Spanish food, dining, and culture will open itself to you.
We rarely ate a full meal, and yet I felt like I was constantly eating. I was always hungry, and yet I was never an hour or two away from a small sandwich or tosta. I left with a deep impression of Spanish food and culture, without a single solitary item on which to place that impression.
Wait, that’s not true. There was the ham. Yes, I can place everything I know about Spanish food after spending 10 days there on jamon. Jamon and timing.
I had every intention of keeping track of where we ate and what we ordered so that should you decide to visit Madrid, you could follow in my footsteps. That’s not what happened. Rarely did I know the name of where we were, and rarely did I know exactly what I was eating. I just ate. I threw caution and control to the wind and embraced the new flavors, textures, and tastes. My only rule was that I’d try everything in front of me once. It was eye opening and exhilarating and sometimes frustrating, all of which could be used as a definition of travel itself, I think.
The food we ate was beautiful. Croquettas de la casa fried crisp and filled with potatoes or creme or ham or chicken; tosta con jamon iberico which offered salty slices of jamon iberico over toasted bread and sometimes a little drizzle of olive oil; beautiful olives; a cheese called queso de cabra drizzled with thick aged balsamic, which was so good, so creamy, so tangy, and which Google assures is me is just called: goat cheese. (It wasn’t. It had to be so much more!)
Our days usually started early in the afternoon with a strong coffee and a small sandwich. Then, after walking 7 miles and seeing every single painting in every single museum, we would be hungry again and so would stop for a snack and a glass of wine. Then, around 9:00pm or 10:00pm we’d be hungry again and would set out to find something else, usually tapas and more things on toast.
We got to sample so many flavors and textures and so many different dishes this way. The small bites meant that 1) they kept coming, and 2) variety was a foregone conclusion.
Of course there were some highlights. Don’t leave Madrid without spending at least one night at the Mercado de San Miguel. It’s an open-air market with food stalls selling just about anything you can imagine. It’s also, decidedly and without question, my happy place. The seafood alone!
We drank wine there and sampled as much as we could muster and left happy yet reluctantly.
We had a lovely dinner at Emma y Julia in a neighborhood called La Latina, and had one of our last meals at Finca de Susana, a restaurant just down the street from where we were staying. We had a pastry called torrijas at a specialty food store called Mallorca which may have been the best thing I ate during the whole trip, and which I’ll be recreating for you as soon as I possibly can.
We were also lucky enough to have Maggie’s host mother cook us dinner one night. I’m always humbled when someone offers to share their home and their food with me, and this was no exception. I don’t speak a lick of Spanish but was able to grasp most of the conversation from the Italian I know, the context clues, and a little help from Maggie and Cecelia. I was really just content to be a fly on the wall watching cultures meld and relationships form over the table. That’s really the universal language, no?
You can’t go wrong with churros con chocolate or sangria or anything made from potatoes at any place at which you stop. That I can attest. A good old ham and cheese sandwich eaten in the sun will solve aching feet and tired muscles and maybe even a headache or two. Again, speaking from experience.
We tried the heavy hitters like paella, but honestly I was happier eating the small plates and bites if only for the variety.
I can comfortably say that we ate our way across the city. We had more than our fair share of sandwiches and ham and after 10 days I feel like while I can’t tell you exactly where to go or what to order (except for Mallorca and those torrijas. Please do this) I can offer some wisdom for the future Spain traveler. Here it goes:
- Always bear in mind what time it is. The meal times repeatedly thwarted us. As I said, it took us a full 9 days to figure it out. Let me save you some time: Eat a larger lunch/breakfast than you think you want or need, at around 1:00 or 2:00 pm, especially if you’re planning on walking as much as we did. You’ll be starving. Around 5:00pm or 6:00pm (but not later!) find a place to sit down for a refreshment and a snack, usually in the form of a pastry or a small sandwich or two. This will help you recover from all the walking and get you through to dinner. Dinner doesn’t start before 8:00pm, but honestly doesn’t last much longer than 10:30pm or 11:00pm. That means that if you want to sit down at a restaurant, your window to do so is between 8:00pm and 10:30pm. Kitchens close. The same goes for a tapas crawl or a night at San Miguel. Show up around 8:00pm and stay or crawl until they stop giving you food.
- If you order a drink, they’ll give you a snack. Bless them. The Spanish truly understand the pleasure and connection between food and drink, and I think we could all learn something from them. It may be a plate of olives, or some house-made cheese crackers, or sometimes a full plate of seafood and potatoes. Seriously, like entree-sized. It’s wonderful.
- Tapas and Raciones are very different. Tapas are small plates, usually a bite or two. Raciones are made up of the same thing as a tapa, but are entree-sized. Cecelia and I accidentally ordered two raciones when we thought we were getting tapas, and ended up with two overflowing plates of potatoes. It was enough to feed your family reunion cook out.
- The wine is incredible and there’s no need to get snooty about it. Just order red wine. Or white wine! It doesn’t matter what kind, what grape, what year, or where it’s from. Most likely it’s from less than 100 miles away, and most likely it’s better than anything you’ve ever had. One phrase I committed to heart: Quiero una copa de vino tinto.
- Keep an open mind (but know your limits). I have a voracious appetite for new things and I’m always searching for something new to try or taste. This is imperative when traveling to a place whose food culture is vastly different from ours; it’s an automatic connection to where you are. Really. Don’t say no to much. That said, keep in mind your limits, be them dietary or otherwise, and don’t be afraid to pass or say no thank you. We ate what we were told was simply a “panini” in Toledo and while we were both respectful and ate most of what was put in front of us, the thought of it now sort of gives me the willies. While eating it, I thought to myself, I should really be more discerning. Ah well. That’s experience, right?
Aside from the timing, which you can absolutely mess up, there really is no way to go wrong with the food in Madrid. It’s beautiful, it’s simple (as most great cuisines are) and they’re proud of it.
This week I’ll be sharing more about my trip to Spain, including the day trips we took and what I packed in my suitcase. And don’t miss yesterday’s post all about what we did! Stay tuned!