Trans-Iberian

Trans-Iberian

Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

Tapeando in Madrid

Por: | 07 de noviembre de 2014

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 It´s Saturday and I am preparing to go bar and restaurant hopping. In normal circumstances this would be just another weekend in Madrid for me. These, however, aren´t normal circumstances. I have decided to put myself in the hands of the professionals: I have signed up for an evening with the Madrid Food Tour. I have chosen their Tapas, Taverns & History Tour, currently boasting a whopping 296 five star ratings on tripadvisor.es. The company has carved out a reputation as the people to see if you want an introduction to Madrid and its fantastic food. As well as the evening tapas tour they have two daytime tours, visiting bakeries, traditional markets, specialty shops and other treats in Madrid. Having always been something of a night owl, I have elected the tapas tour.  

Before the tour starts I grab a quick caña with James Blick, a partner and guide for Madrid Food Tour. He is affable, engaging and full of interesting anecdotes. In the course of our thirty minute conversation a wealth of topics are covered from the civil war´s unexpected coffee-changing legacy to why Spanish nuns use almond floor when they are baking. His passion for Madrid shines through, never more than when lamenting the loss of one of his favourite seafood places to the chain Lizarran: “Local bars are the culture of Madrid. Lizarran isn´t.”

 The beer comes with a small sausage as a tapa.  It winks up at me from the table whist we talk. I´m starving but I resist the temptation. I am saving myself for the tour.

 At 7:20 I make my way the Plaza Isabel II to meet up with Debbie, our guide for the evening. Resplendent in a natty red bag, with matching red scarf and lipstick she makes an immediate good impression. We meet the rest of the tour-ists. A couple from England over to celebrate a 30th birthday, a couple from Amsterdam a couple of friends from Canada, and the lovely antipodean Leisha, who is on paparazzi duties tonight.

After brief introductions we repair to the Taberna Real. Good news for me as my stomach is rumbling mutinously. It´s a grand old place; a mighty chandelier hangs from the ceiling and a royal harp and other artifacts from the Spanish court help to set the scene. We begin with a glass of vermouth, followed by some delicious Campo Real olives grown just outside of Madrid.  Then the waiter brings over two plates of jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn-fed Iberian ham) and the tour has begun. The ham melts in the mouth whilst Debbie explains, amongst other things, the eating habits of your average Madrileño, how to spot Iberian ham, and why the word "tapa" might have it´s origins in the actions of a quick-thinking Spanish waiter.

We finish up and go for a walk through the streets of Madrid. We make our way to the Royal Palace, a nearby busker strums Neil Young´s Heart of Gold in a decent stab at an Canadian accent. Darkness is descending and the palace is beautifully lit. It makes for a formidable backdrop as we have a brief philosophical discussion on when a room is a room and when it isn´t. (Debbie explains that the palace is described as having anything from 2500 – 3200 rooms, with no-one apparently able to agree on a fixed number.)

Calle_del_Codo_(Madrid)_01We continue to wind our way through the streets passing the possible burial place of Velasquez and Madrid´s beautiful old council house and jail in Plaza de La Villa. A small detour down the fantastically named Calle del Codo (Elbow Street) takes us past a nunnery whose occupants, Debbie explains, have received special papal dispensation to make and sell biscuits.  

Our next port of call is a restaurant that specialises in mushroom tapas. As we walk in a waiter with a smart white suit and an air of gentle melancholy catches the eye. This may or not be because a portrait of a younger (if not chirpier) version of himself hangs from one of the walls. In the backroom a doleful fifty-something plays eighties hits on an old electric organ. His version of A-ha´s Take on Me is a personal highlight. It is, needless to say, a brilliant place.

The mushrooms, cooked with olive oil, parsley, garlic, lemon, salt and chorizo are dynamite and washed down beautifully with Tinto de Verano. (Red wine and gently flavoured soda water.) Before we leave Leisha grabs the opportunity to take some photos of the barstaff. In contrast to the waiter and organist they are all smiles and pose happily as Leisha snaps away.


After the mushrooms we cross the road to a family run bar that has been serving Madrileños since 1867. Two brothers, who could scarcely look less alike, serve us boquerones (unsalted anchovies) filleted and marinated by their mother. We drink a delicious dry white albarín and then follow up with some off-menu homemade meatballs.

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Soon enough it is time to move on to our next port of call. We pass through more of Madrid, including the restaurant where Goya once worked as a dishwasher. Debbie has been living in Madrid for four years and works as a food blogger. Experience she uses to deftly keep us entertained with a mixture of Madrid´s history and personal insights.

The penultimate stop is Casa del Abuelo. Their speciality is prawns fried with their own olive oil, garlic, guindilla peppers, parsley and salt. Like a lot of Spanish food it is simple, but delicious. It stands on the raw quality of the ingredients as much as the skill of the chefs. We drink a sweet slightly fortified red wine made with grapes from a vineyard owned and run by the propietators.  It initially seems an odd combination but turns out to be just what the doctor ordered.

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Finally we end in Casa Toni, a cosy bar in the heart of Sol. We take a well-earned seat. Debbie orders us some drinks and the food keeps on coming. Pimientos de Padrón, marinated pork, patatas bravas, sweetbreads and to finish some biscuits cooked my barefooted nuns in Jaen. It seems that Spanish nuns like to cook biscuits. We have a good-natured chat around the table and before we know it, it´s time to leave.

Astonishingly four and a half hours have passed. The time has flown by and I leave stuffed, satisfied and with a great new set of places, facts and stories for when friends and family come to visit. 

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

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