Our Spanish adventure ended where it began. In culinary terms, our trip had come full circle. We had spanned time and geography, eating classic dishes like tortilla and jamon that are found in nearly every city in Spain. We had also looked to the future with modern interpretations of these classics and dishes that drew inspiration from around the globe.
Madrid is a microcosm of all this. It has classic restaurants and those that harness the genius of today’s forward-thinking Spanish gastronomists.
The Mercado de San Miguel is as good a place as any to catch a glimpse of the ingredients that go into crafting classic Spanish dishes.
Nestled among the tall buildings is this glass pantheon to Spanish cuisine: hams swinging, the smell of frying croquetas and pimientos de Padron, groups of men and women drinking skinny glasses of beer well before most Americans would think it appropriate.
Most stalls are selling items to take home: bulk dried beans the size of your thumb, thick slices of jamon Serrano, cheeses and vegetables and seafood and olives and pickled peppers.
And many of these stalls are cooking their ingredients for you to sit down and eat at their counters. We settled into a cozy spot next to some Italian tourists, ordered a beer (when in Rome) and ordered an early lunch. First up: deep-fried pimientos de Padron topped with big chunks of sea salt. Most of these bright green peppers are sweet and mild but every once in awhile you’ll get lucky and find the one spicy pepper in the bunch – some people call this Spanish Roulette!
We also had a few montaditos (open-faced sandwiches) with fresh cheese, tomato, smoked salmon and pepper relish.
And tortilla de patatas – my ultimate favorite comfort food. Essentially tortilla is a thick potato omelette made with onions and plenty of olive oil. I could eat it every day.
After resting our eyes for a few hours we headed to La Latina. This neighborhood is known as Madrid’s tapas zone and indeed, every other door in the area was open to hanging jamon and bars serving little scrumptious plates of classic Spanish dishes and those influenced by cuisines from about the world.
We chose a very classic-looking place and sat outside so we could watch the beautiful people stroll by. Our beers came with potato chips which lifted up and floated away in the windy afternoon. The place served dishes you’d find at any straight-up tapas joint: croquetas de jamon (ham croquettes). Montado con jamon y queso (ham and cheese sandwich). Provoleta con tomate (grilled provolone cheese with slices of warm tomato). Chorizo on bread. Lomo (pork sandwich with jamon Serrano and roasted green pepper).
We continued the theme of traditional Spanish fare that night at the Chocolateria de San Gines, happily only a few stumbling blocks from our hotel.
San Gines is a local institution and is the best known place in the city to order chocolate con churros. Our midnight arrival announced we were tourists as real Madrileños stop by on their way home from the clubs around 6:00am.
Chocolate con churros isn’t a sugar bomb in Spain. The chocolate was too thick to be drinkable and only very slightly sweet. We dipped the piping hot churros into it and scooped the rest up with a spoon.
That’s how we left Madrid before exploring the northern reaches of Spain: classic tapas and churros con chocolate. When we came back to spend one more day in Madrid at the end of our trip we capped off two weeks of memorable cuisine in a very fitting way – at Estado Puro in the Prado. Spanish cuisine comes full circle here – extremely modern, creative interpretations of all the classic dishes cooked up by an acolyte of Ferran Adria.
The tortilla siglo XXI is perhaps the best example of the creativity of Estado Puro’s chef. It was an uber-modern take on the classic tortilla, served by the glass instead of by the slab. We were instructed to eat from the bottom up so as to enjoy a bit of caramelized onions and egg and potato foam in each bite.
Boquerones al limon were a light take on fried anchovies with lemon.
Bombas de carne, literally “meat bombs,” were croquettes stuffed with pulled beef in a sweet and smoky BBQ sauce.
For the mollete de tortilla our tortilla was served inside a little roll instead of perched on top of bread as is traditional.
The berenjanas con miel, or fried eggplant with honey, were shaped like French fries in served in a ceramic fry bag – a novel presentation of a very classic dish.
The oxtail meat in our caldero de rabo de toro was plucked from the bone for an elegant presentation and served with toothsome, short-grained rice in personal Staub pots. It all spoke to the big, boney hunks of bull’s tail you might find in Pamplona during San Fermín but it was updated with clean flavors and a modern presentation.
Instead of a sloppy mess of fried potatoes, mayonnaise and sauce, here the patatas bravas were composed packets of elegance with all the traditional flavors. Tiny new potatoes were roasted to a salty crust, hollowed and stuffed with little dollops of mayo and a spicy sauce.
So ended our trip. But my adventures in Spanish cuisine don’t end there…