The Spanish tortilla is absolutely ubiquitous in Madrid; in fact, I had it four times within a week alone.
The first one I sank my teeth into came suffocating in clingfilm. At the conference centre cafetería, I must have taken pity on it as I rescued it amidst its fellow inmates in the display fridge. By the time I deconstricted it from its straitjacket, I could only declare it lifeless: the cold and neglect had it desiccated and shrivelled; the flavours of its two sole components, eggs and potatoes, simply left – like ghosts ejected from the recently deceased.
It was, by all accounts, edible – if only you forget that the Tortilla Española is one of defining elements of the Spanish cuisine, and if you don’t have a praising opinion of Spain’s gastronomy. That or, as in my case, if you’re hungry enough to blindfold your taste buds.
I shared my lament with Erin; she would sympathise with the sentiment – after all, she’s written a piece about her personal favourite tortillas in Madrid and where to find them. Her advice was prompt:
“Go to Bodega La Ardosa.”
Who was I to turn down this authoritative suggestion, coming from the food-loving expat firmly settled in the capital city with her Spanish husband and newborn son?
Days after the ‘first encounter’, I tracked down Erin’s favourite tortilla joint in the neighbourhood of Malasaña – even though the setting for this promised phenomenon was hardly what I anticipated:
A craft beer pilgrim would have a more suitable sense of belonging in La Ardosa than me there on an omelette quest: barely lit with hanging lamps, the tiny area was a square encasement of old bottles adjourning shelves rising seemingly beyond the ceiling; the beer taps, fitted admirably with cask ale draughts as well, could well be better equipped than some British pubs I find back home in London.
There were several plaques on the wall commemorating the champions of Guinness drinking contests dating back decades ago, which perhaps said more about the function of La Ardosa than the age of the establishment.
At least there’s a chalkboard tapas menu with “tortilla” written on it.
My purpose intact, I waited a while for my order – with a pint, naturally – until the cooked-on-demand quarter grail arrived without even a hint of indignation: lightly browned on the surface, crammed with softened but not pulverised potato, and, as a wet kiss to someone who likes his fried egg yolk runny, oozing in molten yellow.
As I’ve always insisted: great food doesn’t just taste great; it makes you think. I did ponder, in between bites of my search’s reward, about what ultimately gives Madrid the entitlement of culinary capital of Spain – or, twisting its wording, a centre stage of the Spanish cuisine.
I was obliged to take inspiration from the tortilla: surely an egg, however expertly cooked, is only as good as the quality of the egg?
Ingredients, then. Especially for a cuisine so heavily dependent on its produce, whereupon its regional gastronomic identities are defined by what they specialise in producing, the Spanish cuisine excels in minimal preparation and allowing ingredients to sing for themselves – like eggs and potatoes.
And, one might notice on a map of Spain, all its major roads and therefore ingredient trails converge – and the convergence point is none other than Madrid.
The next time I ate out with Erin confirmed my theory.
Sala de Despiece is unique – a word I never use liberally – in many ways. Its bone-white decor with an open kitchen and likeness to a market counter, though seemingly aesthetic, actually mirrors the restaurant’s concept; its menu, more like a handwritten stocklist, stated what’s on offer quite simply: name of ingredient, its place of origin, delivery notes, and a mere word or two about how it’s being prepared.
As we were seated before the worktop, the gastronomic activity unfolded inches away from our peripheries – even with dishes ordered by someone else and not destined for our palates.
And, true to the simplicity suggested by the menu, they were only finite yet delicate touches applied to ingredients: a tomato, big as two hands clasped together, was merely trimmed at the top and drizzled with olive oil; long strips of raw beef received a scattering of shaved truffle and oil on the silver tray whereon it’s served; whole razor clams – from Palamós, to my delight – grilled only for seconds before dusted with sea salt and pimentón, the Spanish paprika.
But the one item that summed up Sala de Despiece’s philosophy was what Erin most eagerly pointed her finger.
Calçot, a type of green onion the shape of baby leeks, is harvested only from Spain’s Catalonia region in late autumn and winter, and consumed then with limited availability. On that late January afternoon, we were fortunate to score even a pair of these barbecued sprouts, augmented by a pistachio and pepper Romesco sauce – and its own flame-intensified juices.
They were, quite simply, a marvel in its purest, most natural form.
Not only did it unravel an emphasis on the quality of ingredients, and ingredients alone leading the flavours and character of dishes, Sala de Despiece and its uber-seasonal approach in sourcing only the best only at their best is a revelation of just how the Spanish cuisine is determined by its produces’ excellence.
More so when, as though it’s grander than the restaurant alone, the menu listed what the entirety of Spain has to offer.
Though I had an inkling that the gastronomic destiny of Madrid isn’t determined by only the present. Sure, the Spanish cuisines’ reputation in the worldwide arena is an accolade of recent years, but its traditions and renowned dishes have origins stretching way into the past. Just like, as I marvelled them every time I visited, the royal capital’s architecture goes back to the 9th century.
Not to mention that, at the height of Spain’s colonial discoveries, it has brought back indigenous ingredients and flavours from the Americas and absorbed them into its larder. Think tomatoes, potatoes, and capsicums, which is dried and powdered into the iconic pimentón.
But then, if I was to start getting under the skin of Madrid’s culinary dominance and the history leading up to it, I needed an expert opinion. Thank goodness, then, for Devour Spain.
Established by Lauren Aloise of Spanish Sabores as Madrid Food Tours, who has since expanded her business and gastronomic compass to Barcelona, Seville and Malaga, their Ultimate Spanish Cuisine Tour was the one I joined – and had high hopes of getting some answers from.
I met Luke, my guide, in the morning at Plaza Mayor, and around the corner of this landmark was one of our first pitstop: Mercado de San Miguel. The venue has stood since 1916 and left derelict, until it was renovated and reopened in 2009 – and became a triumphant showcase of epicurism.
That is until tourism has overrun the place a bit and jumpstarted the price hike.
Nonetheless, an institution is such for its worth, and it’s still rather enjoyable ordering a glass of wine or small beer – caña – while people-watching and admiring the building’s interior design.
What I hadn’t tried, not till Luke brought me there for that pre-noon beverage, was vermouth or vermut in Spanish. La Hora de Vermut, which I shall colloquially translate to “Vermouth o’clock”, is a stall in Mercado de San Miguel that specialises in this fortified bittersweet wine by serving them from taps, dolloped with ice cube and a slice of lemon.
Like gin, vermouth is fast becoming a fashionable drink in Spain; I must admit it’s an acquired taste, but anyone – myself included – who fancies slurping a bold sherry or dry spiced wine can revel in this change of scenery.
As Luke and I chatted, he reminded me of an integral component of the Madrileño social dynamics: with the average home limited in space, the city’s residents prefer to socialise in public spaces such as La Hora de Vermut. It’s the true function of the now world-famous tapas culture: a tipple or two to go with friends catching up on an ordinary day basis, in turn accompanied by nibbles to soften the effects of alcohol.
And sometimes, when designed for the connoisseur, food serving to pair with drinks – like the vermouth duetted with olives and a skewer of quail egg, sweet pepper, brined chili and anchovy.
Combined with this innate lifestyle, Mercado de San Miguel sowed the seeds of a 2010s hype of market dwelling; the likes of Mercado de San Antón and Mercado de Antón Martín are modernising to cater for grocery shoppers as well as an eat-drink-chat clientele, while the newly-erected Mercado de San Ildefonso in the hip Malasaña district mimics the street market concept of London and New York – boasts its website – inside a multi-storey industrially-stylised building.
And with popularised market eating comes an advancement: diners are no longer isolated but brought face-to-face with the conception of what they eat – raw ingredients, cooking techniques, and a closer look and know-hows of food standards.
The pickier the consumers, the higher the quality demand – and more room yet for Madrid’s gastronomy to aspire to and excel.
But all this glitz is recent history.
The urban redevelopment, as well as culinary innovations, only began to take hold upon the dawn of this millennium – a skin graft on an more antiquated organism. Especially when it is to heal the third-degree burns from the Spanish Civil War and Francoist dictatorship between 1936-75.
For decades after a conflict that decimated its working class, businesses and economy, Spain was plunged into deadly famine – not helped by Franco’s initial ban of international trade. In order to restore conservative nationalism, what his authoritarian regime also culled were numerous civil freedoms, liberalism, cultural diversity and any hint of regional identity.
If you’ve ever wondered why the Spanish cuisine may sometimes appear so homogenous, that’s one reason.
The recession and, in compensation, heavy industrialisation of Madrid saw its common lives driven frugal; convenience was placed above the fanciful and elaborate. Even the cocido madrileño, or Madrid stew, receded in popularity when labouring folks favoured the quick and easy as bread and oil.
Restaurants found themselves out of customers and out of business – even centuries of existence or royal warrants didn’t matter.
Though some did survive to this date.
La Bola‘s kitchen is still simmering terracotta jugs of chorizo, chickpeas, potatoes and morcilla – pork blood sausage – the practice of cocido madrileño that would’ve faced extinction in the austere years along with the historic restaurant.
Perhaps what saved it from closure was, paradoxically, nationalism: because cocido was deemed significant in the Spanish culture and preserved – amongst the many fateful establishments that still occupy their original location, and are commemorated for their longevity on bronze plaques outside their shops.
The gem that’s a gem’s throw away from Mercado de San Miguel, and a stopover on the food tour flight path, was Bar Cerveriz.
Inconspicuous under the iron-and-glass shadow of the famous market, this drinking hole’s appearance could surely be described as utilitarian: varnished wooden top nested the glass encasements of dishes; epileptic jingles and coins clinking sporadically interrupted constant hums of the fruit machines. The odd stool-occupying punter consumed in silence, either buried in newspaper or gazed seemingly distanceless into the TV.
Yet, as I discovered with every visit to Spain, sparsity is often a perfect disguise for something extraordinary.
After Luke greeted the owner’s wife, she plonked an empty tumbler on the bar; then, high as her arm could hoist it, the green bottle trickled its content into the glass below. Aerated, the cascade’s aromas followed: alcoholic and appley.
This is cider not as us Brits know it. Sidra, as it is named in Spanish, is a heritage brewed almost exclusively in Northern Spain; once again, this considered regional practice dwindled under the oppression of Franco’s nationalistic regime, yet flourished again under the cultural resurgence of Basque Country and Asturias – as well as Galicia, where Cerveriz’s proprietors hail from.
It isn’t only a proven method of oxidising the liquid and therefore enhancing its flavours; with every pour, it looks and feels like an exertion of regional identity – and pride.
What had been praised as highly as the cider flowed was the owner’s tortilla.
Before we got to the joint, I was telling Luke about my own quest of tracking down the best tortilla Madrid has to offer, and having might well sought it in Bodega La Ardosa. His smirk was a counterproposal.
“Wait till you try the one at Bar Cerveriz.”
While we slurped sidra and pecked slices of Manchego cheese, Carlos was busy whipping up the competition in his fluorescent back kitchen. As my fork sank into the contender, its contents oozing as my tongue caressed it, the verdict was clear: the tortilla de La Ardosa had found its match.
The egg, while browned on the exterior, was gooey in the centre; cutting through it, the caramelised onions whispered the sweetness and umami La Ardosa’s tortilla lacked. But what ultimately impressed me were the mini fingers of potatoes: surely blessed by the patron saint of spuds, they retained an ideal texture whilst uncompromisingly concentrated in their own earthy flavour.
No wonder Carlos’s was one of the most famed tortillas in Madrid: it was the tortilla tortillas want to become when they grow up.
Considering all these variables, it’s difficult for me to pin down which contributes the greatest to the Spanish cuisine.
While quality ingredients constitute its building blocks, and the regional specialisations lending diversity and composing its overall character, it is the people like Carlos and the gastronomic masterminds behind the likes of Sala de Despiece and Bodega La Ardosa as well as the produce makers who make magic happen daily in the name of Spanish food.
They, in turn, influence each other: ingredients inspire regionality, which in turn propels individuals who take inspiration from ingredients and regional ways as well as create them. And this creative cycle is what drives the cuisine – and it has never spun faster in the boundless modern day.
By the time I got to the fourth tortilla, I could reach my own conclusion of Madrid’s culinary identity.
Inside the narrow eatery tucked away in Mercado de la Paz, in turn hidden within the Salamanca neighbourhood, Erin and I met for a final meal before my return flight. It was lunchtime; the upheaval of workers from offices, construction sites and vendors alike piled the bar top with empty plates and litter.
This is food at its most frivolous – yet, as the most recent tortilla suggested, by-no-means a negligent and poorly-conceived affair. Its clientele demand it: a snapshot of the nationwide obsession of culinary greatness, from the home kitchen to gourmet eateries – and Madrid, as the capital city and convergence point, gets that from a population absorbed from the whole of Spain.
Madrid may lack Costa Brava’s world-class avant-garde, Basque Country’s regional profile, Andalucía’s Moorish heritage and abundance; yet what it possesses is the best of all worlds, a cross section of everything that is attractive, exquisite, flavoursome and experiential about the Spanish cuisines.
Like any performance, elements may be flawed – an odd wrinkled and frigid tortilla here, an apathetic tapas bar there – but those that sing, loudly and proudly, only do so spectacularly because of an appreciative crowd; with every bit of exposure to food conception and innovation, the people want more – thus the gastronomy of Spain refines and evolves.
And Madrid can truly claim to be a centre stage of it all: a convergence of the Spanish cuisine like blood always rushes back to the heart.