Madrid, Day 1: Food Tour with Devour Madrid

My sister and I are back from three wonderful days in Madrid, and naturally I'll be using today and tomorrow's post to fill you in on all of the delicious food we ate there. As with all vacations my sister and I take, food was our number one priority, and good foodies that we are, we decided to start off our trip with a food tour organized by the company Devour Madrid

Having fallen prey to tourist trap restaurants in my first trips in Europe as a student -- I can't even tell you how much mediocre paella I had in Barcelona, and anyways, paella is actually a dish from Valencia -- I am always eager to have a little local culinary guidance when traveling. The food tour we signed up for, entitled "Ultimate Spanish Cuisine Tour," thus seemed a perfect way to start off the trip. Our tour guide, Mette (Danish and living in Spain for the past year and a half) greeted us at Plaza Mayor at 10:30 am to begin our four hour tour, where we learned we would be trying the following dishes (as you can see in the below photo, we were quite happy with the selection): 

So, let's get started! 

Our first stop on the tour was El Riojano, one of Madrid's very oldest bakeries, opened in 1855 by Dámaso Maza, the personal pastry chef of Queen María Cristina of Austria. If a bakery has been open for 161 years and the founder was baking up sweets fit for royalty, you know the place has to be good, and El Riojano did not disappoint. Here we tried soletillas -- spongy sweet pastries akin to ladyfingers -- dipped in hot chocolate. The hot chocolate was worlds away from the powdered mix stuff I had growing up, more like melted dark chocolate thick enough to eat with a spoon. The soletilla had a delicate flavor and texture that made it perfect for dipping in the hot chocolate -- the hot chocolate was allowed to shine and not overwhelmed by the soletilla, and the soletilla was enhanced by the richness of the hot chocolate (win win!) We washed all of this down with a nice cup of café con leche, which was so good that I completely forgot to miss my usual morning cappuccino

After the sweet treats at El Riojano we jumped right into the more savory side of Spanish cuisine with a quail egg, olive, anchovy, and pickled pepper skewer accompanied by a glass of Vermouth at El Mercado de San Miguel. A little background on the mercado itself -- originally built in 1916, the market was renovated reopened in 2009 to great success, and now houses a variety of different vendors selling tapas, baked goods, beer, wine, champagne, among many other things. I admit I was a bit wary of the skewer. Hard boiled eggs are one of my least favorite foods, and I only like anchovies when they're mixed into pasta or accompanied by some other ingredient. I was pleasantly surprised however -- the salty anchovy, sweet pepper, and quail egg in the first bite joined in perfect flavor harmony, and the same went for the tart pickled pepper and mild olive in the second bite. The Vermouth was ice cold and just sweet enough, exactly what you want to drink on a warm Spring afternoon in Spain. Off to a good start!

Our third stop on the tour was at El Jardín del Convento, or rather the Convent Garden. Here Mette explained to us that the nuns who live in the convent here are Hieronymite nuns, or cloistered nuns, who regularly bake cookies that they sell to the public. They've devised a system in which the customer rings the doorbell of the convent to be let in, and then goes down the convent hallway to a turnstile set in to the wall, where they can see what sweets are for sale that day. The customer selects and pays for their cookies using the turnstile device, all without ever seeing a nun. A sign on the convent door informed us that the cookie operation was closed until Monday, so we did not get to see how the cookie/turnstile set up worked up close (next time!) We did however go around the corner to another bakery, where they sell dulces del convento, or rather "sweets from the convent," which sells sweets made by all different orders of nuns in Spain. Here we sampled a soft and chewy coconut cookie -- reminiscent of the American style coconut macaroon -- that was delicious. I took two. 

Next on the menu was a "regalito" ( a "little gift,") or rather a bulltail stew wrapped up in phyllo pastry, topped with a sweet red pepper and a balsamic reduction served with a jus that we were instructed to pour generously over the top. The tail of the bull was a cut of meat that was usually reserved for the poorer class, but after trying this dish I'd be apt to say that the richer Spaniards missed out. The bulltail was slow cooked and perfectly tender (reminiscent of Rome's coda alla vaccinara) and the crispy phyllo was a nice contrast to the filling (I had thought that it might get in the way of or take away from the stew itself, but this was not the case). This perfect little parcel was the highlight of the tour for me, and when a six year old picky eater on our tour decided he did not want to eat his, I happily split it with another member of our group (I may have given him the smaller piece, though)...

During our tour Mette told us to look out for gold plaques outside some restaurants and shops in Madrid. She explained that these plaques are reserved for institutions that have been open for at least 100 years, and our next stop, Taberna La Bola -- opened in 1870 -- proudly sports a its own plaque, cleaned every day with lemon juice to keep it extra shiny. Taberna La Bola is known for its cocido madrileño, a chickpea based stew with chorizo and potatoes.We learned that cocido madrileño actually has its roots in Jewish cuisine, the addition of pork coming in later in the 15th and 16th century when Jewish Spaniards began to incorporate pork in to their meals to prove that they had converted to Christianity. Seeing as how a whole serving of cocido madrileño might have been too heavy at this point in the tour -- we were at our fifth stop, after all -- Mette instead had us try the course served before the stew itself, which was the broth from the cocido served with noodles. It was tasty, but not by any means my favorite stop on the tour. This could have been because the dish was eaten after the regalito -- a tough act to follow! -- but I felt that it needed a bit more flavor and could have perhaps simmered for a bit longer. Still, it was fun to be allowed in to La Bola's kitchen to see them preparing the cocido madrileño for the many hungry diners that were expected for lunch -- the restaurant was completely booked for that afternoon!

After Taberna La Bola, we headed over to La Dispensa de Carmen, or "Carmen's Pantry," which sells freshly prepared classic Spanish dishes. I imagine this little shop is the saving grace of busy families and bachelors alike, or anyone who hasn't quite learned to cook like their abuela but is still craving home cooked food. This a version of fast food I like far far more than McDonalds or Burger King -- actually, it is reminiscent of Italy's tavola calda, where you can also buy a variety of freshly prepared dishes -- and indeed, the albóndigas (meatballs) and empanadas we tried here were delicious. The meatballs were light and flavorful -- the meat had been mixed together until just combined, and no more -- and the empanadas, with a tuna and hard boiled egg filling, had a light, crispy exterior, not at all heavy or bread-y like I had been expecting. Another successful stop!

No trip to Spain is complete without trying some jamónand on our stop #7 on the tour, we sampled jamón ibérico serrano and jamón bellota at Ferpal. Having grown accustomed to Italy's prosciutto di parma I was interested to see what the Spaniards had to offer. If I remember correctly, the jamón ibérico serrano is aged for at least 12 months (though some are aged up to 48 months) and made from black Iberian pigs. Jamón bellota is aged for longer, is more expensive, and is made from pigs that eat only acorns (bellotas). While both were good, I found I preferred the jamón ibérico serrano, which had a milder flavor and softer texture than the jamón bellota

I had been told by many friends to try gambas al ajillo while in Spain -- one even declared it "the best thing I have ever eaten, ever," so I was excited to see it on the menu for the day's tour. La Casa del Abuelo specializes in this dish, which consists of shrimp (gambas) cooked quickly in terracotta pots with chili, olive oil, and garlic. Mette told us that the restaurant originally specialized in sandwiches, but when flour became scarce during the Spanish Civil War, they switched to shrimp, which was cheaper and more readily available. And I'm glad they did -- this dish was far better than any sandwich, with tender, perfectly cooked shrimp and lots of spicy, garlicky olive oil, the ideal accompaniment for the fresh bread served alongside. We were also given a sweet red wine, served cold, that helped cool off the heat of the chili. I would seriously considering hopping on a plane back to Madrid just to order this one again. Really. It was that good.

For the very last stop on our tour (sob!) we visited Torrons Vincens, which specializes in turrón, a candy made with egg whites, sugar, honey, and sometimes almonds. It is similar to Italian torrone, and can be either soft and chewy or hard and crunchy depending on how long it is cooked. Mette has us try three different kinds of turrón, the first being the traditional hard and crunchy kind, the second being slightly softer and sweeter, and the third being the sweetest, with a sort of toasty, caramel-y undertone (this one was called turrón de yema quemada). This last one was my favorite, and I was sure to buy a large piece of it before leaving the store (I am proud to say that I managed to bring it back to Rome for my colleagues in one piece rather than devouring it all myself).

And just like that, our food tour was over! To anyone visiting Madrid soon, I highly recommend Devour Madrid's Ultimate Spanish Cuisine tour -- our tour guide was lovely and the food was superb. It also gave us a good introduction to the city and it's cuisine on the very first day of our trip -- indeed, I would recommend doing the tour at the beginning of your stay, rather than at the end -- as well as an idea of what to look for foodwise during the rest of our trip. I'll be back tomorrow with another post on our adventures in Madrid!

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