I am highly entertained by the different eating hours in countries that are so close to each other. A while ago when I was in the UK I was hungry into the evening and was told by the bar/restaurant that I was in that the kitchen had closed, it was 10.05pm. In Madrid they don’t start cooking until 10pm.
And lunch times are different too. In Paris 1/1.30pm is normal, in Madrid it’s usually 3pm. Many people still have their main meal at lunchtime, often washed down with a glass or two of tinto (red wine). In Spain, companies often give out luncheon vouchers to employees for this reason. I love the menu del dia culture which offers fantastic value for money – for around 10euros you can eat a (good) three course meal with a glass of wine – look out for them around town and pick somewhere busy as the locals know best.
When people come and stay in Madrid they find it strange meeting friends at 10pm, but that’s the norm. In Madrid we usually meet at 10pm, and the real Madrilenians often don’t eat until 11pm or 12am.
Also, at tapas bars, it is a custom that you receive a small tapa with your drink (at no extra charge). This can range from a few crisps or peanuts to a mini sandwich or even a small plate of a local dish. You will notice this mainly in small places when you aren’t ordering food straight away.
The first night that friends come and visit, we usually meet in Plaza Mayor and then I take them for an apero in Mercado San Miguel – a must do for any foodie visiting the city – before heading off down the famous Cava Baja tapas street.
Mercado San Miguel is wonderful (probably why it won best gastronomic shop with El Mundo’s Metropoli awards). It’s a relatively recently converted market that has various food and beverage stalls around the edge and seating in the middle – it’s a like a posh food hall. Depending on your tastes, I usually start with a vermut (a bargain at 1.5 – 3€/glass) or jerez and the most fresh green olives I have tasted (usually I am not a big fan). Then a wander around the stands to see what is on offer. I highly recommend trying the Carrasco Jamon Ibercio Bellota (Bellota is the key word). You’ll see the stand easily enough and it’s well worth getting the good stuff at 14€/100gms. Note that when it is busy, some stands have tickets and serve people in order.
Make sure you don’t fill up too much here if you are then planning to go to Cava Baja!
The Cava Baja street has some superb places to eat, all full of atmosphere and too many to name names. Most specialize with one type of food so make sure you visit a few bars. Coming from Plaza Mayor and going from north to south down the street you can stick to the right of the street and be sure to get the variety you need.
Start at the bar with the tostas – a wide selection of open toasted sandwiches. Try the goats cheese (queso de cabra) and onion (cebolla) marmalade. Further down try the street you will see a bar with jamon being sliced from the bone – again, have the Jamon Iberico Bellota). There are a number of bars so it’s best just experiment depending on how you feel on the day. The other thing to note is that the window of time for the tapas crawl is short – 9pm until 1am.
Some of the specialities, apart from the Jamon Iberico Bellota,that are worth trying are:
- Gulas: baby eels, usually incredibly garlicy and surprisingly tasty.
- Morcilla: known as black pudding in the UK and blood sausage in the US but this tastes a little different and often has more rice. It’s one of my favourites in Spain.
- Cochinillo: roasted suckling pig traditionally from Segovia (more on this here)
- Lechazo: roasted suckling lamb traditionally from the area north of Madrid in Castilla y Leon
An Irish friend, who I met in Paris, summed up the joy of eating tapas with friends perfectly: In Paris eating is so slow and boring, you only get to talk to the people in your immediate vicinity; in Ireland people go straight to the pub and forget about food entirely – maybe a packet of cheese & onion crisps if you’re lucky – and come out hammered when pubs close; But Madrid, well it’s a perfect mix of socializing and eating. I love that philosophy.