There were ten of them on the street. They had been led patiently, and with more than a glimmer of suspicious excitement, through the streets of Madrid’s old La Latina quarter to the location of their company Christmas meal. As they stood outside on what appeared to be a normal street of attractive old apartments it soon became quite apparent that they were not headed for a restaurant.
‘It’s going to be a clandestine meal, cooked by a guy called Micue who we’ve only spoken to on the phone. It’s his house.’
My interest was piqued. The three cañas and glass of ruby red Montsant prior to this moment had softened any wisps of worry, but I did detect one or two flashes of nervous smile from others.
A glowing rectangle opened and light spilled out into the darkness as we filed one at a time into the flat. Before me was a procession of holas as we were welcomed in by our host Micue: a man with dark, messy, tousled curls and a louche face that spoke of someone both laid back and probably very comfortable in their own skin. He was in his thirties, sported a simple teal shirt and had some well-developed facial hair. I still didn’t quite understand what was happening. A long table with seats, cutlery and bottles of water took up the entire first floor and culminated in a smart open kitchen.
We took our places and Micue proceeded to tell us a little about where we were and what we were going to be eating. And, indeed, what he would be cooking for us. I had flashforwards of bowls of pasta and mixed salads.
‘You are in one of the older buildings of Madrid.’ He began, perched on the end corner of the table addressing everybody while Christmas songs played in the background. ‘This house, my home, is a casa a la malicia.’
He told us that when king Felipe II made Madrid the capital in 1561 a whole menagerie of new characters arrived in the city: nobles, officials, royals. As there weren’t enough houses to cater for the influx of people it was decreed that the second floor of houses would be allocated to accommodate them. Every citizen was now subject to this regalía de aposento. Unsurprisingly this wasn’t the most popular of laws. He spoke about how some people weren’t keen on this invasion of privacy and so came up with ingenious ways of avoiding it. They would alter the buildings' insides, devoting them to blocks so that from the outside their facades appeared to be a single floor. The highest rooms would be hidden from outside view therefore seemingly they wouldn’t comply with the regalía de aposento remit. So it was in this house of suspicion that we were to eat.
‘The beams are original and the tiles are too.’ We all gazed round dumbly and proffered the requisite hums of appreciation. ‘The tiles are from a convent. Apparently the hand print in that one over there,’ we all leaned over, ‘is from one of the sisters. They say her ghost still appears here sometimes and knocks over glasses.’
He then told us our menu and brought over a bottle of wine. A wine from La Mancha - a nothing special but perfectly functional bottle of big fruit.
First course came in two parts. First of all Micue brought out some white presentation plates with lithe looking tostas on. A rustic slice of Galician bread with a light spread layer of cabrales cheese - a hefty blue from the northern green-clad mountains of Asturias - and a salted anchovy. These were dainty, almost amuse-bouche, sized goodies. The bread had a good crunch, though I being part pig would have preferred a larger slice, the anchovy wasn’t too salty, which I was glad of, and the cheese was tangy but, being very much my father’s son, I could have done with a fatter layer of it. The presentation was nice but it was the second part of the starter that had really caught my eye. Micue, playing the part of casual patron very well, deftly placed a little colourful, individual Le Creuset pot in front of each of us. Inside it were alubias de Tolosa: a grand name for small kidney beans. Now I like beans, in all their windy wonder, so I was ready to attack this. Melted into it were some shreds of morcilla and some foie gras. The beans had a decadent side. Ignoring the plight of the goose for a moment I tucked gladly into my alubias. They could have been a little more seasoned - though I found out after that it was perfectly acceptable to just ask Micue for salt - but they were pleasant enough. And there was bread for dipping, very Spanish but very welcome.
I like to cook at home. I think, when I really spend the time and money, I can produce some truly beautiful food too. Having said that, I am always wary of commenting on the food of others, especially those who’ve trained properly. Micue, for example, had worked in restaurants, learned how to produce cured meats at Saint Celloni and had even trained in San Sebastian under Arzak’s Juan Mari. But this was a humble meal and so far it was good. My socks remained on my feet but I was enjoying the ambiance. It had been unlike any food experience I had yet had. Fitting, as that was the conversation we were having around the table as a notably more focussed Micue plated up our very attractive second course.
A ragout of horn of plenty (Spanish name: trompetas de la muerte, trumpets of death) and yellow foot (Spanish name: angulas del monte - elvers of the mount) mushrooms, sitting underneath a fried egg that had been infused with truffle and coated with shavings of black truffle. Rich, unflinching and not for the thin of wallet, Micue had nailed it. This was the comfort food of millionaires. The ragout was heady and aromatic, deeply woody and gooey. The egg was cooked perfectly and sat on top, lounging like some Roman senator under a generous helping of thin truffle shavings. We pestered our host for more wine; this was not a sober gathering. I was fully on board now. Eggs and mushrooms: two of my favourite gut-botherers.
Micue told us how he only worked when he wanted to and by that he meant two or three meals a week. He occasionally hosted music, flamenco, and he also played. In the corner there were two guitars and a double bass. On the other side of the room was a battered old acoustic with strings like long whiskers and a diminutive ukulele. I couldn’t do what he did. Sharing my space, my home, with large groups of random people - who knows what they’ll be like - multiple times a week. Cooking for them, buying for them, cleaning up after them, placating them, and, heaven forbid, talking to them. I was quietly impressed by his patience and ease. Though I thought it ironic that he almost seemed to be taking on a lifestyle that the very house he lived in was designed to avoid.
The main course was up. Cochinillo (suckling pig) cooked for 10 hours at a low heat, served with a herbal potato purée and some apple compote. Very tasty, but scant on meat. I am a carnivore at heart and believe that the main course should be the show stopper. The main central piece of grandiosity that makes you go ‘Yes!’. The presentation was smart and sleek, served on a slate. The flavours were harmonious and pleasing and gratifyingly delicate. Yet I only had one chunky rib. I was sure the little pig had more on his body. I filled my wine glass.
Everyone knows that the way to a man’s heart is through his belly - ergo food. Everyone should know that the way to most British people’s heart is through desserts. The dessert is that special course; that naughty ‘Oh, go on then!’ part of the meal where you abandon all decency and shovel into your mouth something seemingly designed purely to achieve the joint reality of inducing a mild form of orgasm while at the same time clogging your arteries and prompting guilt. We love desserts: apple crumble, sticky toffee pudding, spotted dick, treacle tart, cake, strawberries and cream. Spain, in all its gastronomic prowess, is endearingly and bemusingly useless when it comes to puddings and desserts. They excel at sweet things but falter at the sweet course. I heard Micue’s idea for the final course though, and I was keen. Despite a couple of clattering pans and an even more concentrated face, he served up promptly.
A dark chocolate mousse on bizcocho borracho (sponge soaked in rum) and flambéed strawberries. As a flavour combination I wasn’t sure. As two separate entities however, the mousse and then the sponge and fruit gloop, it worked like, fittingly, a treat. I was as happy as a fat kid let loose in a sweet shop. The mousse was light, not too sweet, and didn’t make me feel at all guilty. I could have eaten a bucket of it. A big bucket. The boozy warm strawberries did a good job of wrapping themselves round the equally boozy warm sponge cake. It felt a little French and a touch English. Well done Micue.
The food ended and the red wine gone, some of our group headed home. Something to do with working… The rest of us stayed on until three o’clock in the morning drinking gin and tonics, listening to Micue and one of our contingent playing duet guitars, singing badly to Oasis and generally not allowing our cook to go to sleep. Finally we thought it best to grant our impressive and welcoming host at least a few hours of sleep and we left.
It was an odd evening but a unique one. It felt special. The food was good to very good. The atmosphere and company was second to none. Our clandestine dinner. I could tell you where the house is, the street it’s on, but Micue asked us to preserve its anonymity. So I will.
If you are interested you can contact Micue here at his webpage: http://gastrohomemicue.es
Or perhaps cook your own clandestine dinner and invite people in off the street. Or perhaps not. Leave it to the professionals in their casas a la malicia.