April is when that great southern city Sevilla is in full swing party mode. The wailing processions of Semana Santa over, the capital of Andalusia lets loose in a binge of tapas, sherry wine, bulls and flamenco dresses during the famed Feria de Abril. The sun, almost without fail, takes its tentative first steps at scorching the world and everything glows in a light that bounces off the old town’s colourful walls. In April Madrid is beginning its odd journey towards the heat of summer but often falters and throws down tropical thunderstorms and rain showers that garner energy in the northern mountains and spill over onto the meseta. En Abril aguas mil, say the locals. In April a thousand waters.
Madrileños must wait until May for their city parties. The 2nd of May start things off, commemorating the moment Napoleon stormed the city and crushed an uprising. Then the capital’s main celebrations, the San Isidro fiestas on the 15th, where locals fill the San Isidro and Vistillas parks, enjoy live music, drink on the streets, and purchase chorizo and offal sandwiches from steaming street grills. April is very much Sevilla’s month. But Madrid can’t help but get in on the action.
In the less-visited streets on the south side of the La Latina neighbourhood nine bars came together to cash in on this Feria excitement. The ‘Feria de Abril en La Latina’ was a local tapas event with zero advertising. One had to chance upon the poster in the window of the very bars that were providing the tapas in order to see it was even happening. This was something a little different for the locals. A drink and a tapa - for in Sevilla one doesn’t generally receive free food, tapas is a small portion of something that is paid for - for €2.50. On a day so opposite to Sevilla - a heavy sky doing its very best to drown the old town’s streets - I headed to investigate some of these diminutive and overlooked bars and see what their offerings were.
Casa Gerardo (Almacén de Vinos) - Calle Calatrava, 21
Tapa: La Giralda
This is a favourite bar of mine, just round the corner from my flat. Back in the 1920s it served the area as an almacén de vinos - wine store. In 1957 Francisco Gerardo García acquired it and turned it into the bubbly little tavern it still is today. The long wooden bar sweeps inwards from the flimsy windowed-doors. Curtains are pulled across to signal when the bar is not open. No iron grills here. Behind the bar a wall covered in myriad bottles and then at the end the giant old empty wine vats, tinajas, that now merely stand as sentinels to the history of these taverns. In the summer months some old brown ceiling fans dispel hints of coolness. Gerardo, the owner, now a slightly doddery old man, stood blankly at the door, seemingly wrapped up in his own world. Yet when we left he opened the door and nodded graciously.
With a glass of tempranillo the tapa arrived: “La Giralda”, named for the beautiful Moorish tower that stands alongside the cathedral of Sevilla. A small slice of toast topped with pimientos de piquillo and some fine bacalao. This bar is somewhat famous for their tostas: from the simple ones that present the clients with weird and wonderful cheese from around the country, to more, and quite surprisingly, modern variants such as smoked salmon with wasabi ice cream. Their tapa was a miniature and distilled concept of the bar in edible form. A fine start.
La Encantada - Calle Calatrava, 27
Tapa: Purita de Triana
From the old-fashioned wine store it was time to head a few doors down to a more modern location. La Encantada opened its doors only a few weeks ago. A gasto-cafe-cum-shop, it seems to specialise in a low-key and informal bar area with one or two wooden and rustic tables in the back and an area of ‘typical products’ on sale in the front - cheeses, high-quality preserves and the like.
The lady behind the bar was dark-skinned, wrinkled in her sixties, and wore a tie-die bandana round her head. She was lively and warm and drank a small beer as she prepared the tapa.
“Purita de Triana" it was called, named after the old working class gypsy quarter of Sevilla, and somewhat made logical by the countenance of our gitana-esque server. Again on a piece of toast was shredded tomato, goat’s cheese, morcilla and a blob of onion marmalade. It was a smooth and gratifying combination of flavours that didn’t necessarily call to mind the flavours of the south but did invigorate the palate.
Casa Mateos - Calle Angel, 7
The heavens were continuing to play havoc on the streets, which were barren but for me, my eating partner and our umbrellas. What was earlier sun-baked tarmac had turned to pools and puddles. Since 1946 Casa Mateos has been hidden away, serving the locals in a kindly and unassuming manner, though I had never graced its presence nor did I even know of its existence. Such is Madrid and such is La Latina. It is often the way of things in a city with the highest density of bars and restaurants per capita in Europe and possibly the world.
There was nobody else in the bar and the whole place had a listless lost in time feel to it. Like some Havana bubble. A black marble top bar, some cherry-red leather stools, a stainless steel hot water dispenser attached to the wall and a ramshackle kitchen area.
The waitress was friendly and brought us over two creamy cañas - those small servings of Spanish beer - each with a small dish of bienmesabe - chunks of school shark marinated in vinegar and spices. The juiciest little nuggets of fish; each bite an exploding display of the andaluz flavour. Were it not for the continuing deluge belting down outside I could have been back in Malaga.
Taberna Almería - Calle Aguas, 9
Tapa: Setas a la Andaluza
More people had chosen to escape the weather in Taberna Almería; a bar I had never entered but was legendary for its business. A pleasingly simple set up. Classic Spanish white marble bar with painted tile sides. Then warm yellow walls covered with bottles of expectant wine and ham legs and the Indalo - that prehistoric magical totem icon that is the symbol of Almería. Some say it is a lucky charm. Almost more prescient is the ironic story that tells of a man who escaped into a cave to get out of a rainstorm. When the rain stopped a rainbow appeared. Then, on leaving the cave, the image of the Indalo was left on the wall.
The tapa arrived in the form of setas a la andaluza. The preliminary effects of the alcohol caused me to drop half of it down my chin. Squidgy button mushrooms quartered and stewed with what I detected to be sherry, garlic and - according to the waiter - a bit of cayenne chilli, served on little toasts and topped with a sprinkling of grated cheese. It wasn’t elegant but it burst with flavour. Again, the Andalusian link was dubious, but by this point the context of the impromptu local tapas crawl had long since started to lose its feria focus.
Just as was the case with the man and the Indalo, the rain stopped and some sunbeams found their chance to dry the streets.
La Olla Chica - Calle Mediodía Chica, 14
Another new kid on the block. La Olla Chica - the little pot - popped up on a rather dead and charmless street just ten days before Christmas in 2014. Mediodía Chica is a street of transit and rubbish bags that usually serves as an artery to ferry people from Calatrava towards…well…any other street. It’s changing now, and this spangly new bar with its low lighting, glowing white web disco-ball lamps, red bar and reliance on stainless steel finishings, has breathed a hopeful sense of purpose into a previously pointless street.
The tapa was an unexpected touch of luxury that had fallen from the pages of Moorish/Andalusian history books. Mojama - salt-cured tuna - is one of Spain’s oldest foods. Despite the name, this leather-coloured cured fish dates back to the Phoenicians and is considered quite the delicacy. Almadraba was the old Moorish way of netting the tunas. A maze of nets led to a central pool called the ‘copo’ and it was there that the fishermen could kill more quickly and easily the corralled bluefin.
Three surprisingly succulent slices, for mojama is often disappointing and dry, were laid out, glimmering like rare steak, on blended tomatoes and topped with Marcona almonds. The whole thing, washed down with a manzanilla, was a gratifyingly harmonious taste that also acted as ode to the south’s Arabic past.
So what to make of this shrunken food fair. Nothing really. It won’t be remembered in the years to come. It barely managed to make itself known in the very streets around it. But it shows the originality and the desire to create in the Madrid tapas scene. These were nine bars only, in a city of thousands and in a neighbourhood famous for being wall-to-wall with them. I visited only five. Some old, some new, but all doing the same thing: celebrating food. Madrid will never have a Feria de Abril. It doesn’t want one. But this mini feria showed that Madrid will take any excuse, and cue, from the country it reigns over to put a spin on their cuisine and get people into the bars and eating.
Not that the good madrileños need an excuse in the first place.