I love to travel, and on occasion, I seek out a local person to show me his world. In Madrid, that person was Luis.
While reviewing Trip Advisor’s “Top Things to Do in Madrid,” I saw a recommendation for Spanish Tapas Madrid. Luis’s website showed that they do more than just tapas tours. And their “ten reasons why you should choose Spanish Tapas Madrid” gave me the trust and confidence to book with them.
The Tapas Tour actually encompassed way more than food. We met at La Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s most famous plaza. While waiting for all parties to arrive, we listened to a mariachi band; street performers come in all types. Besides Luis, a man from New York and a family of four from Norway joined us.
Luis started the tour right there, explaining that La Puerta del Sol is equivalent to Times Square: this is where people from Madrid (and the rest of Spain via TV) celebrate New Year’s Eve. The tradition here is to eat one grape at each dong as the clock strikes twelve on the clock of the Real Casa de Correos. Luis explained that one year, when Spain enjoyed a massive grape harvest, some enterprising person came up with this idea and it stuck. Now people can even buy small cups in the square with exactly twelve grapes on New Year’s Eve.
The plaza is also famous for being Kilometre Zero, the starting point for Spain’s six national roads and Madrid’s streets. Anywhere you are in Madrid, if you follow the street numbers from larger to smaller, you will wind up here.
Luis explained that Madrid only became the capital of Spain in 1561. At the time, Spain was newly united. King Felipe II chose to settle in Madrid because it was a smaller city that he could mold to his needs without interference from noblemen seeking favor for their own cities. It was also near the King’s favored hunting grounds. Despite the humble beginnings, Madrid grew into its responsibilities.
All this time we were walking to our first tapas bar. Here we began introductory conversations over Cava, a sparkling white wine, several types of ham (jamón de bellota ibérico and jamón serrano), sheep (manchego) cheese and goat cheese (queso de cabra). This place was all about the jamón ibérico, and had a concise chart describing the rating system for Iberian ham. (See Firewater, witches, black pigs and bota swigging in La Alberca Spain for more information on this special ham.)
On the way to Luis’s next favorite tapas tavern, he showed us a modern-day adaptation for happy hour: one of Madrid’s long-time markets, Mercado de San Miguel, has turned into a foodie place.
You pick up your beer, then wander around with a few Euros in your pocket, and snack on whatever looks good, like olives stuffed with ham or peppers, or other skewered snacks. They still have traditional stalls, like the one with the giant ugly fish, but much is ready-to-eat tapas, and all under one roof.
We sat outside at our next stop, at one of the entrances to the Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s other famous plaza, very near our flat. By now we were getting to know one another, and we enjoyed a far-ranging conversation that covered political parties in Norway, the implications of Brexit for Gibraltar, why there is no far-right nationalistic movement in Spain, and the American election. It was like pub-crawling with old college friends.
We drank Sangria, and ate cheese-covered potatoes, garlic shrimp, and garlic and parsley topped green tomatoes. It was so delicious that we sopped up the remaining garlicky olive oil from the shrimp with our bread. Good thing nobody cared about their breathe that night!
While here, Luis explained that in Andalusia and other parts of Spain, tapas were traditionally little snacks that taverns gave away with drinks. Often salty, like olives or a sardine, they encouraged patrons to drink more. There are still taverns that do this, and so with good choices, one could go to three or four different places serving different tapas and get a whole meal with the drinks. Wikipedia gives several explanations for how this tradition started. Here are my favorites. Tapar is a Spanish/Portuguese verb meaning to cover. In the old days, Andalusian tavern owners covered the glasses of sherry for their patrons with thin ham or bread slices to keep the fruit flies away. Others served strong cheese with cheap wine to “cover” or mask the taste of the wine. Later, the king ordered that all alcohol be served with a “cover” of food to help cut down on soldiers’ and sailors’ drunkenness by ensuring they were not drinking on an empty stomach.
Since those days, the custom has morphed into an opportunity to fill the time during the long wait between the end of the work day and the traditionally late Spanish dinner at 9 – 10 pm by tavern-hopping for tapas.
Our final stop for tapas offered a dish that was already one of my favorites, having bought it in the markets in both Barcelona and Marbella: Tortilla Española, or Spanish omelet.
It is thick and sliceable like a pie, made from potatoes and onions held together by eggs. This is Spanish peasant food at its best. Luis explained that the dish could make two eggs go a long way to feed a family. Here, it was accompanied by pimientos de padron (crunchy deep fried green peppers), chorizo sausages, and sangria. By this time we were definitely slowing down. Luis escorted the Oslo family to a Flamenco show, while we continued to eat and talk with the New Yorker. When Luis returned, we carried our bellies out the door to our last stop, ice cream in the Plaza Mayor.
By now we felt like old friends. As we returned to La Puerta del Sol at 11:30, I saw that it was still bustling with activity and people. Luis invited us to meet the love of his life – his motorcycle. He was generous with it, insisting that my daughter and I get on and rev it up just for kicks. Knowing he was a family man, I hadn’t pictured him with a bike. But as I learned the next day when we went to Toledo, Luis is a man with a vision for this life and the determination to manifest it. A man after my own heart.
For the rest of my Spanish adventure, see:
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