Restaurant. A place of restoratives. We can thank the French for that word, for that establishment, that most common way of eating. Go, find a place, be seated and take the menu, flick through with the respective groans of thought, alight on whichever starters and mains you’d like, as well as a peep at the wine list, and order. Then the next stage: the kitchen waits until the entire order for a table is cooked and complete because heaven forbid it doesn’t all arrive together. The eating is often swift, peppered with conversation, and full of questions and reviews. When the fuel is burned and the plates cleaned, the cutlery is lined up in the usual manner and the waiters whisk it away before returning with a naughty list of desserts or the bill.
Every country has restaurants. From Guatemala to South Korea the world has become a sprinkled mat of eateries and hotels. Spain has restaurants of course, but really the country lives in the tapas bars. And it is more common than not to patronise at least a couple when one goes out for food. The moving feast, the processional social eating experiment, Iberia’s great disjointed food fiesta, the tapeo.
Casa Gerardo (Calle de Calatrava, 21) - gazta zaharra cheese
The fizz of excitement in the face of the oncoming gastronomic onslaught. A pact, a mission. To break a prior record by reaching the golden number of ten stops. We started strongly with flavours to bash the palate about a bit; an intense Basque cheese that made the mouth pucker and the eyes wince a little. ‘You boys like to suffer!’ quipped Gerardo from behind the bar as we loaded up segments of bread with mounds of the crumbly curd. Softness was added with a sweet spiced Spanish vermouth straight from the tap. ‘Sifón?’ (soda water) ‘Never.’
Taberna la Concha (Cava Baja, 7) - tosta de gambas
A little over a quarter of an hour later we had to move on; one doesn’t linger long on the tapeo. Piling into the modern Taberna la Concha we were reminded of the social aspect of eating out in Spain. A group of my friends were already there and greeted us with bellows and cries as we entered. Bea poured out liberal glasses of cava as we munched on creamy open sandwiches of prawns mixed with parsley and mayonnaise.
Posada del Dragón (Cava Baja, 14) - croquetas of jamón and tigres
Madrid may not match the tangled historic ages of Rome or Istanbul, but neither is it a young pup. Like some vibrant European in its twenties, Madrid is attractive, bold and stylish. A classy hub where new and old twirl about each other. The next quick stop was a modern tapas bar built into the fabric of one of the oldest coaching inns in the city. We ate gooey croquetas that cracked under fork and spilled out their béchamel insides loaded with chunks of ham or mussels mixed with spices and lime juice. Polishing off a fine chilled verdejo one started to wonder if ten stops would be possible on a quiet Monday night.
Bodegas Ricla (Calle Cuchilleros, 6) - off the menu albóndigas
From new to old in the space of 150m. Ricla is a time warp from 1867 run by Ana and her two sons Emilio and Jose Antonio. A stone’s throw away from the Plaza Mayor, this old bodega is one of many family-run establishments right in the heart of Europe’s third largest city. A fact somewhat unimaginable nowadays in much of the ‘West’ and something worth protecting. In this case drinking and eating inordinate amounts of tapas within them. A smooth Campo de Borja red paired with Ana’s secret beef meatballs. Obsessed with quality, she only buys the best beef her budget allows. Good tapas bars should be all about produce and not about making a quick peseta.
Mesón del Champiñon (Calle Cava de San Miguel, 17) - grilled mushrooms
The halfway mark of an already absurd mission - a charge of gluttony that would make Catholics cry ‘cardinal sinners!’ - was our first specialised bar. From the depths of Logroño’s old town, to the steaming streets of Seville, Spain loves a speciality. Bars, either by minutely focussing on just one thing, or product, or presenting a range of tapas but with a definite highlight, can attract in those wandering and meandering tapeistas by deftly plugging their star item. Since the sixties bar number five has been grilling closed cup mushrooms filled with chorizo, finely chopped garlic and parsley and then sprinkled with some drops of lemon juice and salt. Gleefully meaty and tangy, the plate is cleared, the serving toothpicks thrown on the floor - the old sign of popularity - and the juices mopped up with bread. Always bread in Spain.
Cerveriz Bar (Plaza de San Miguel, 2) - gooey slices of tortilla española
There’s always that one thing, or in my case far more than one, but for the sake of brevity that one thing, that makes your mouth start to salivate uncontrollably and your stomach start to gurgle and pop even when you aren’t the slightest bit hungry. That craving. Mine just happens to be moist, well-salted and oniony slices of tortilla: Spain’s famous egg and potato omelette. Cerveriz does the best, and was voted so by the locals one year. The fact that the Asturian and Galician owners - Maria Angeles and Carlos respectively - can also pair it with a chilled poured-from-a-height (escanciar - yes, there’s a verb for that) bottle of Trabanco cider makes this bar the sort of place where I hope people don’t see my face or the sounds I’m making.
Casa del Abuelo (Calle Victoria, 12) - gambas al ajillo and sweet red wine
‘Do you think we’ll make all ten?’ I was starting to worry. 11:30 at night and for some unknown reason the cobbles were somewhat sleepy in Madrid. I feared that we wouldn’t break the record. Then I remembered that we were in the city with the highest number of bars per capita in Europe, possibly the world - though Buenos Aires apparently gives it a run for its money - and a country with a bar for every 130 people. Feeling more at ease we arrived at a legendary institution that, due to the inconveniences of the Civil War in the 30s, had to swap sandwiches for shrimp. The resulting dish is as close to sizzling perfection as food gets. Garlic, parsley, dry chillies, salt and shrimp fried in extra virgin olive oil. The simplicity of tapas is its greatest gambit.
Casa Toni (Calle de la Cruz, 14) - boquerones en vinagre
Wobbling around a particularly tricky corner, I tapped on the windows of Casa Toni and mouthed some pleading words to Carmelo to let us in even though the stool was in the doorway and the kitchen tidied up.
‘Give us vermouth and whatever you’ve got that doesn’t need cooking.’
Some of the best in the business. Tart vinegar-cured anchovies soaked in the ubiquitous parsley and garlic combination. Surrounded by bullfighting posters and old faded photos from the eighties, we thought about our final steps. The clocks had tiptoed over midnight into the following day. Many kitchens would be shut now. Quandaries and problems of the first world set in. But a sort of drunken defiance had taken over us. It seemed like something of the utmost importance and vitalness that we should finish.
Matador (Calle de la Cruz, 39) - tosta de cabrales a la sidra
A trusty old local full of uncomfortable stools and wobbly wooden tables, one could always count on the ‘bullfighter’ for sustenance. It was at this point that I ruined my eating acquaintance; pushing his stomach’s ability to take on and digest so many drinks and competing foodstuffs. In hindsight perhaps it wasn’t the savviest idea to end our savoury marathon with an open toast of cider mixed with very strong cave-aged blue cheese and a jug of beer.
I could see the pain in my friend’s eyes and the short breathy exhalations of the spicy cheese crème. The digestive maelstrom happening inside us was outwardly clear: his weary eyes and my red-face and bulging shirt buttons. But we couldn’t stop now. There was only one logical place to end.
San Ginés (Pasadizo San Ginés, 5) - churros con chocolate
Old Faithful. Madrid’s stalwart 24-hour fried doughnut joint, in action since 1894, was Spain’s traditional answer to the kebabs and chippies of Britain. A way of mellowing out all the larger than life flavours and tastes that were vying for space amongst the enzymes. Dark, gloopy chocolate and light, crunchy churros. The efficacy of this stop was clearly geared towards the absorption of alcohol, but in our misty minds was serving a role of settling the stomach.
The tapeo was complete. The record, as stupid as it was, had been broken and a new bar set. The important thing to note is that the idea of the tapeo is not to do what we did and drink and eat to excess. Not necessarily anyway. The goals are:
- Move around bars, having the speciality where possible.
- Meeting or simply being with friends.
- Not really sitting down or lingering.
- Always eating with the drink.
- Finishing when one is comfortably replete.
The question now is: how long will that record stand?