A month and a week filming in Italy is a month and week of discovery and journeying accompanied with various bouts of restrained gluttony. Every day a new place was visited, were it a hilltop village surrounded by mountains, a family-fun producer of balsamic vinegar, or a charming town home to Ferraris and opera singers. Much like Spain, Italy is big on food, big on tradition and big on regionality. I was impressed with Italy’s food, though admittedly rarely blown away. The over-reliance on pasta took its toll and I soon started to miss the food back home. By home I mean Madrid. I started to muse on the dishes and bars that crept into my thoughts and my stomach in the moments when nostalgia hit.
First and most certainly foremost is the tortilla de patata. This most basic and honest of dishes is also the one that has most entwined itself to my heartstrings. A good potato omelette is something seemingly sent down from the elysian heights to fill the bellies of those below. I yearned for two tortillas at separate bars. Bar Ceveriz has the top voted tortilla in the city and is my personal food crack. A tiny rectangle of a bar, it hides in its hole in the wall opposite the entrance to the much-touristed San Miguel Market. Inside are walls bedecked with picture frames filled with knots and nautical items, an incongruous giant lobster claw, and a poster of Rioja wine labels. The bar is run by the ever-friendly Maria Carmen and her husband Carlos who welcome me back with a kiss and a hand shake and knowingly prepare me a slice of their best. Salty, gooey, room-temperature and golden-coloured, this is a tortilla I need.
Similar in quality but more of a nighttime caprice is the tortilla at Bodega La Ardosa just north of Gran Vía. This tortilla, less salty but more generous as a portion and equally eggy, is heightened by its home. A dark bar that is over one hundred years old, has wooden everything, a wall seemingly composed of wine and beer bottles and a bar counter under which you must stoop and crawl should you need the toilet. A fun tortilla served with a Pilsner.
As a good madrileño, adopted though I may be, I have a craving from time to time for offal. Casquería is not only good for me, it is cheap and tasty. I miss going to my old haunt Casa Toni, a place serving me some of the best rustic raciones since I arrived in 2009. A basic affair of wonky wooden tables and stools, walls peppered with photos of bullfighters and a bar where the freshest tapas waits to be loaded onto the grill or plunged into the bubbling depths of the fryer. Silver-haired Carmelo always greets me warmly as do brothers David and Juan. The family is multicultural too. Phllippinian Josefina always has a smile and a story and Allen, the crack chef, is eternally ready with a fist-pump. More than the feeling of reuniting with old friends I long for their food. The same order as always: zarajo - a delightfully meaty and salty fried ball of intestines, pincho moruno - skewered and barbecued pork marinated in Ras el Hanout spices, and patatas bravioli (potatoes with homemade bravas and alioli sauces).
Then I miss cheese and wine. Though, for example, Italy’s cheeses are outstanding and their wines are good, one misses what one loves. For me a good blue cheese sidling up against some well-chosen wine is something close to perfection. Fortunately I can indulge both of these addictions in Madrid. I miss the cabrales a la sidra at the endearing family-run ‘hole in the wall’ of Bodegas Ricla just off Plaza Mayor. Ana mixes the pungent cave-aged blue with some Asturian cider and spreads it on bread. That, served with a crisp white wine in the presence of the old tinajas (wine vats) is something lovely.
Further afield, as we delve into the literary quarter, is the wine/cheese/meats shop/cafe/bar of Casa Gonzalez on Calle Leon. During the daytime this 1931 gem is primarily concerned with selling, though in the evening it evolves into a place to come and sample their extensive wine and cheese lists. I actively pine for the Picón de Asturias: a blue from the same region as cabrales but smoother and softer.
If I tire of cheese and simply desire to put away a bottle or three of wine I head to Vino Premier on Calle Valverde. There the walls are loaded up with shelves and shelves of bottles to be bought and taken home, from €3 plonk to €170 pretentious nonsense. The beauty of this little vinoteca is that one can select any bottle from the outlandish range, add on €6 to the price tag - whatever the bottle - and drink it in the bar. If God were a drunk, heaven might well have something along these lines.
Sometimes I don’t want to speak to people. Sometimes I like to huddle up into a corner and do some work. Maybe I need to write an article, refresh my webpage with a blog or continue working on a book. Staying at home the temptation to use the internet to find cat pictures or watch some illegally downloaded TV program is too strong. I need to escape. Feeling upper-crust I might go to the cosy Cafe Delic - long a favourite of La Latina - where their cafés con leche are good and their muffins’ quality does match their price tag. The walls are covered in travel-themed paraphernalia and rock n’ roll or classical music wafts out of the speakers. Seeking more privacy and quiet I prefer usually to slip off into Calle Ruda to Molar, a little bookshop/cafe with no internet, walls decorated with purchasable novels, comics and LPs and which serves delicious oatmeal biscuits. I always yearn for my little cafes and bubbles of solitude.
I also miss getting spiffy on sherry. Another old drinking hole of mine is the unique La Venencia, a traditional old-man bar that is slightly at risk of tourist interest but thankfully due to their no photo policy and having sherry as the sole drink has maintained its integrity. Since 2009 I have been enjoying the bar’s oloroso and amontillado sherries and gazing romantically at the tobacco-stained walls, sherry posters and barrels and wooden bar. Nothing has changed since the 1920s and they still write the order on the counter in chalk. If Gabriel or his father are working they’ll joke and wonder if tonight I’m bringing a girl or not. If a special occasion is required all five of their sherries can be drunk for less than €10 euros.
Should we be in need of further alcohol I oft round the night off with an old-fashioned style sangria at the underground Cuevas de Sesamo bar where waiters in shirts and ties serve potent and sweet sangria with little tumblers and locals play on the upright piano.
I do not miss the majestic hangovers that result from a sherry/sangria evening.
The last place that comes to mind, there are manifold spots if I am pushed to think but I believe that the more you rely on impulse the more you know really what is the truth, is a place sewn into the legends of Lavapies. On Calle Ave Maria down in the heart of this old neighbourhood, now somewhat offensively called the ‘immigrant quarter’ but equally populated with bohemians and families, is an institution called Melo’s. This is what I crave when I need something messy and a little unhealthy. If America has their sloppy joes and their hamburgers one could argue that Spain, namely Galicia, namely this little stainless steel and impressively unglamorous bar, has their zapatilla. At Melo’s two foot-long slices of Galician bread are put on the grill. Next to them are multiple slices of lacón, a Spanish gammon ham, also grilling. When it’s almost time to build the sandwich a few thick slices of tetilla cheese - mild and milky - are placed on the slices of lacón. As they start melt the cheese and meat pairings are stacked and grilled further. Finally the whole gooey, cheesy, meaty mess is loaded into the bread and served with a knife and a perfectly poured local Mahou caña. When you’ve finished collecting the strings of cheese from your face and licked the ham juices from your fingers you’ll be happy you gave in to your addiction.
Not that I can find the reference but I read recently that Madrid has 37,128 bars and restaurants and it is a known fact that the city has the largest density of bars and restaurants per square metre in Europe. Therefore the moment I publish this article ten more, twenty more, places will come to mind. Places I love. Places I visit and eat at all the time. Right this second the roast chicken and cider of Casa Mingo, the American style burgers of Mad Café, the cachopo at El Cogollo, and the incredibly generous menu del día at La Alhambra have just popped into my head. Madrid is like that. More than missing places and maybe even more than missing the food itself I miss the city. The city is food. A village exploded in size but not outlook. Madrid is one big broiling seething mass of eateries, bars and taverns and I wouldn’t have it any other way.