TRAVEL: Touring Madrid’s Tapas Bars with Adventurous Appetites

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Iberian HamWE MET AT the geographic center of Spain: Puerta del Sol. My guide, James Fraser from Adventurous Appetites, was there to help navigate the alleys — and traditional food stuffs — found in central Madrid.

On this chilly winter evening, I was the only culinary tourist meeting the native English speaker at the base of Madrid’s famous bear and tree statue.

He gamely carried on with the inexpensive evening tour; although six participants is the usual number and allows for more varied tapas sampling as the night progresses.

Menu BoardNote: In this post I’m leaving out details (establishment names and locations) to honor a request from James.

Adventurous Appetite’s tours are his livelihood, and — more importantly — the historic bars themselves are hesitant to incur heavy traffic from tourists. These are small, family-run businesses, whose clients are almost exclusively neighborhood residents.

CortinaA lack of addresses and phone numbers won’t really matter when you visit Madrid, however, because half the fun of a tapas bar crawl is simply going with the flow.

You can discover your own favorites by turning down the wrong alley or following a fragrant whiff of ripe cheese… There are thousands of tapas bars in this great urban city.

HAVING A low-key and personable guide, like James, was a godsend for someone like me: I’m traveling on my own and have limited Spanish language skills. I can order una copa de vino tinto at a bar, but without the help of a fluent Spanish speaker, I’m usually stuck with drinking whatever generic tipple the house chooses to pour.

With Jame’s help, I discovered the beauty of Arzuaga Ribera del Duero (a deep, chewy red) and Sidra Cortina (fermented apple cider; fizzy, with a citrus-tang).

CabralesAT A HUNDRED YEAR OLD sherry cooperative, we sipped a light yellow fino and a darker (almost red) amontillado which had hints of almond and cherry. Both were decanted from oak barrels whose wood exteriors had been burnt to a deep black lacquer.

Served alongside the sherries were meaty green olives, swimming in rosemary infused olive oil, and Cecina — robust cured beef slices — with dry crackers shaped like miniature baguettes.

AT A STOP specializing in Asturian cuisine, we sampled earthy Cabrales (blue cheese) smeared on top of toast rounds. This was the house specialty and a “free” tapa served alongside glasses of tangy Sidra Cortina.

BeansThe lemon-yellow sidra/cider is poured from high above each glass to ensure the liquid is properly aerated — and to entertain the crowd…

As we watched the spectacle, James clued me in on the fact that many of the old-fashioned bars serve a free tapa to customers after they order their first drink.

The trick is to order your drink, then wait to see what (if anything) the server provides gratis. You can then place a food order. Some bars have chalk boards with menus describing what’s on offer (in Spanish), but looking at what other bar guests have on their plates is an easy way to figure out what the house specializes in. (You may also want to carry a copy of The Gourmet’s Companion Spanish Menu Guide & Translator.)

EmpanaditasAT A BUSTLING, brightly lit bar decorated with handsome ceramic tiles, we tried tripe and garbanzo beans — as well as starchy white beans soaking in a hearty broth — served in tiny cazuelas (terracotta cooking vessels).

Both tapas were free.

We then ordered Empananditas stuffed with cinnamon-scented chicken, and plump, egg-shaped Croquetas bursting with Bechamel sauce, truffle-like mushrooms and chunks of Jamón (ham).

Croquetas OUR FINAL STOP was a bar straight out of a Hemingway novel — ham hocks hanging from the rafters, a serious variety of beer to choose from, and mostly men gathered at the bar animatedly discussing football (soccer), women and food (not necessarily in that order).

These men were eating a variety of hearty, open-faced sandwiches topped with cured pork, ripe tomatoes, conserved tuna, hot peppers, olives and cheese.

Garlic ShrimpJames helped me focus on the less-filling tapas menu, choosing spicy Gambas al Ajillo (garlic shrimp) and a rich Manchego cheese drizzled with deep-green Spanish olive oil.

If I’d had any room left in my stomach, I would have liked to try dipping the hard miniature bread sticks into a runny round of cheese sitting on top of the counter. Or, perhaps, a basket of patatas fritas (fried potatoes) and hunks of the flaky empanada stuffed with pork — cut from a pile stacked on top of the bar.

Jamon & Queso

Thanks to James/Adventurous Appetities, I now have the necessary skills to head out on my own and continue sampling the marvelous cuisine of Madrid.

It’s a good thing I know I’ll be just as hungry tomorrow.