Hello again, welcome back and now you know where the latest little expedition on the blog is, the wonderful city of Madrid. I really cannot believe that with my wanderlust I had never visited before but Spain seems to be a country I have sadly neglected over the years despite it’s relative proximity.
If you have read the previous entry you will know that I had just arrived, met my friend at the hotel and within an hour she was hustling me out the door again to go into the centre and sample the culinary delights of that area which she was enthusing about having been recommended several good places by her Spanish colleagues. If you want to join us, click the “read more” and let’s go.
I said I have neglected Spain and that is regrettably true although I had been a few times and had become very fond of the concept of tapas which, if you don’t know, are small plates which you mix and match as opposed to eating a large meal at any one sitting. It has always struck me as a most sensible way of dining which you can spread out over hours to aid digestion. I believe the Spanish habit is actually to wander from tapas bar to tapas bar sampling the speciality of each one. Sounds excellent to me.
First stop on our tour was the Vina P Taberna and here is what I wrote about it at the time.
“I should say that I had an idea of tapas and there was a time in London in the 1990’s when every third restaurant was a tapas bar, usually an excuse for serving tiny portions of average food at hugely inflated prices purely because it was the trendy thing and very much “this years fashion”. Having now had the genuine article in proper Spanish bars in the capital city, I am totally sold on the idea, it suits me down to the ground.
My friend insisted that I must try the pimientos, basically small green peppers served hot and they were completely delicious. I had been warned that this was somewhat gastronomic Russian roulette as, whilst the majority of the peppers are pretty mild, there is the occasional rogue one that will blow your head off with the heat. Although that would not have been a problem for me as I like hot food, I didn’t actually encounter one.
Not content with that my friend also insisted on a tapa of squid which came with a sizeable potato on the top and the whole issue smothered in paprika. Again, this was delectable. The food was prepared in a semi-open kitchen which is always a good sign in my book.
There is a seating area in the bar but we opted to stand at the bar eating and drinking in the traditional manner. The seating area was quite secluded, being separated from the hoi polloi like us by large screens.
Just a small point here if you are watching the pennies, you will generally be charged more for sitting at a table and being served than you will for standing at the bar and eating / drinking. Makes sense I suppose.
The staff here were efficient and friendly with English spoken and credit cards are accepted. Although early week (Monday) in late November it was busy enough and is obviously popular with locals as we appeared to be the only foreigners in there. Certainly, you can eat food of similar quality cheaper elsewhere but this is right in the heart of town and is certainly worth the extra few cents for the ambience and service.
Apart from anything else it was worth going just to take a picture of the huge bag of garlic they had hanging up over the bar and the incredible array of hams. The Vina P was famous as a haunt of bullfighters and therefore unsurprisingly counted Hemingway amongst it’s patrons not to mention Ava Gardner. Sadly, it won’t be happening again as the bar finally closed in March 2019, what a loss. I am so glad I had a a chance to visit it when it was still the wonderful place it was.
A great start but it was only that, a start. A short stroll to walk off the first course we arrived at the Mercado de San Miguel (St. Michael’s Market) which really is a most incredible place for many reasons as I hope to explain.
Let’s start with the building itself which was opened in 1916 and is of cast-iron construction which has been refurbished to make it a delightful space now as I hope you can see. It was built to the design of Alfonso Dubé y Díez on the site of an existing open market which had stood on the site since 1835.
At this point I should apologise yet again for the quality of the images. I was still using a defective camera which has now been replaced and I do not like firing off flash at people, especially when they are eating orsocialising so the image quality is not all I would like it to be but I hope it gives you an idea.
By definition San Miguel (as the locals refer to it) is still a mercado (market) which is given over entirely to food and drink. You are certainly not going to get a new screwdriver or pair of shoes here.
The food and drink are, however, of absolutely the highest quality and if you like you can browse and purchase whatever takes your fancy to take home and enjoy. The great joy of the place, though, is that there are numerous tables, chairs and stools all over the place where you can sit and enjoy the fare on offer. This is what most of the locals seem to do.
Unlike other similar venues I have been, the tables are not specific to the premises they are adjacent to. You just find a table anywhere and eat and drink purchases from anywhere in the market. The friend who had brought me here would keep disappearing at intervals and return with another plate or bowl of something that was delicious.
I did wonder how each establishment managed to get it’s own crockery back but not for long, I was far too busy enjoying myself.
We visited on a Monday evening on a fairly raw late November evening and the place was not deserted by any means but not overly full although I am reliably informed that at weekends it becomes completely jam-packed. A small note of caution here.
Apparently, in the way of these things, pickpockets do love tightly packed crowds and do tend to frequent this place so take care of your valuables.
As you might expect, the predminant cuisine repesented is Spanish and there are indeed some fine examples to be had but there are a few other little things to try as well. I noticed several Asian stalls including a sushi bar. I understand that the Spanish would like to go to a sushi place in the same way as we do in the UK but as a visitor to Spain it had to be Spanish all the way for me. I only had a few days and wanted to sample as much of it as I could.
Should you wish to visit, and I recommend you do, here are the logistics. The Market is open 1000 – 2359 Monday to Thursday and 1000 – 0200 Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It is open 365 days a year. I wonder what it is like there on Christmas day. There are regular entertainments for which you should check the attached website.
San Miguel really is tapas eating at a gourmet level in a very relaxed atmosphere which makes for a wonderful experience. and we still weren’t done although with all the beer I was getting a little full I must admit.
Onward ever onward, again not too far and yet another charming little bar.
I am always a little uneasy about frequenting places that are mentioned in guidebooks for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it has been my experience that some places, having secured their position in one or more of them (there is one very well-known name in the travel guide industry which I will not name but everyone knows to which this applies particularly) who then simply stop trying. They reckon they have made it and don’t need to bother too much, bump the prices up and just live off their “rep”.
The second problem is that everyone is reading the same guidebooks so you go to a supposedly authentic local restaurant to find it is full of travellers with those very guidebooks sitting on the table beside them and not a local to be seen.
By now I had dubbed this “The Night of a Thousand Tapas”, it really was getting that serious, delightful as it was. When I was taken to the Casa del Abuelo for even more food I was wondering where I was actually going to put it!
However, off we went and found the delightful little place a very short walk from the Plaza del Sol.
Firstly, a technical point. La Casa del Abuelo is not actually one bar but two, situated on opposite sides of a pedestrianised street. It is probably just as well that it is pedestrianised as the toilets are in the slightly larger bar on the right as you walk up from Plaza del Sol so you may have to walk across the street to use them which could be tricky if you have been enjoying some of the excellent local wine or beer.
We chose the smaller bar on the left which was not so much small as tiny as I hope the image indicates. Yes, it was a Monday evening on a very chilly November evening but the two of us constituted the entire clientele with an elderly (I am not being unkind here) barman, who proved to be an absolute delight. In fairness, the marginally larger sister bar across the road wasn’t much busier.
If you do decide to visit here, you will be stepping in famous footsteps as apparently Andy Warhol was a regular. I could paraphrase or plagiarise the excellent website attached at this point but I do not intend to regarding the whole long and interesting history of this establishment. I do recommend the site (in English) which explains why prawns are served here despite Abuelo having started as a montaditos (sandwich) restaurant. I’ll give you a clue, it is to do with the Spanish Civil War.
I may be totally mistaken in this as I frequently am, but in my short time in Madrid I formed the impression that whilst most tapas bars do most things, some are known for one particular type of tapa. The tapa of choice here, as mentioned even on the tissues provided and above, is prawn.
Prawn is served in exactly the same way it has been since the 1940’s although the Casa was originally opened in 1906, another fact proudly proclaimed on the tissue. Casa del Abuelo is predominantly a standing only place, although 20 people standing in here wouldconstitute a crush, as you can see.
There were, however a couple, and I mean two, high stools which we took and sat at one of the small high marble topped tables which are obviously designed for glasses rather than plates. This was no problem for the charming barman, however, who did no more than find a low stool and used it as a table. Top man. The results of his labours you can see in one of the images. My friend had ordered both the Gambas al Ajillo (prawns in garlic) and a plate of the freshly cut ham. The warm food is actually brought across the road from the other place as there is not enough room for a kitchen here but was still sizzling hot as you can see in this video.
The ham was very skillfully hand cut in this bar as you can see here. It was a delight to watch this man at work, demonstrating a skill that he has obviously perfected over years and which generations of his forebears have doubtless practiced for centuries. I really did feel like I was experiencing a bit of old Spanish culture. Never mind the theatre, the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating and the eating was extremely tasty.
Although I was drinking beer I did try a little of my friend’s house red wine which was excellent. Well, there I was, completely full of of wonderful food but it wasn’t over yet, the finale was still to come.
My friend insisted we had Banderillas de Langostinas which are effectively battered and deep-fried langoustine pieces on skewers and served with a delicious salsa (sauce). I hope the image does it credit. Well, full as I understandably was, I just had to finish my portion of this final delicacy and I have to say they were magnificent. Beautifully succulent and with a totally crisp and dry batter, it was a delight to dip them into the slightly spicy, but not hot, salsa. A wonderful ending to a great evening.
Despite the fact that this is a bit of a guidebook favourite, it still manages to maintain standards and serve wonderful food and drink. I have no hesitation in recommending it. After a quick nightcap it back off to the hotel as we were both full to bursting and my friend had an early start next day.
In the next edition I go on an absolutely monumental day of sightseeing which is going to take me about a week to write up so stay tuned and spread the word.