A Return to Madrid

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Looking ahead towards Madrid Fusión 2009, I thought back to my last visit to Madrid for Madrid Fusión 2008, which in turn brought back memories from my first visit to that wonderful city.

The first time I was in Madrid, it was 1974. Franco was still alive
and The Man Who Would be King was being filmed at the Retiro Park. As an
American teenager, two culinary items stuck in my memory. One was the
hamburguesas that I ate as a matter of course. The other was the Cochinillo or roasted baby pig that I ate at Casa Botin,
courtesy of the Jesuit priest who accompanied my school trip. While the
hamburguesas were comfort food to a young man in a foreign land, the
cochinillo was a revelation, a dish that opened me up to the possible
glories of food in exotic lands and one that helped set the course for
subsequent culinary explorations, much the way that Hieronymous Bosch's
Garden of Earthly Delights at the Prado Museum opened my eyes to the mysteries of painting.

The red eye flight from JFK was mercifully empty and I was able to
get a reasonable amount of sleep on the way over. Once I made it
through immigration and customs I took the efficient Metro to my hotel
in central Madrid, the charming, nicely priced Room-Mate Laura Hotel,
where I managed to freshen up before my Madrileño friend, Rogelio, met
me in order to show me around and have some lunch. A beautiful, sunny
and crisp January day was just right for walking to the nearby Plaza
Mayor, then to the winding-down Rastro flea market before arriving at Calle Cava Baja where we stopped for some tapas.

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 Our first respite was at Casa Lucas, a small, comfortable spot towards the Plaza end of the street. We each started with a glass of jerez or sherry with which we were served a few slices of longaniza, a mild Spanish sausage. Rogelio ordered two pinchos or light tapas that were served together. The first, called "Mancha" or "Manchego," consisted of a pisto, a slightly sweet fried ratatouille-like vegetable medley with a fried quail egg and crisped jamon or Spanish ham. The other was the fitting "Madrid" or "Madrileño," a sweet combination of Morcilla,
a Spanish blood sausage with onion and sweet tomato scrambled like
eggs. Both of the items were served on toasted bread and served with
fried matchstick potatoes.

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Given that the idea of tapas is to keep moving, we continued down the street to another location, Taberna El Tempranillo,
where we drank another Jerez whilst enjoying more chorizo and a ration
of Jamon Iberico, the wonderfully seductive ham made from a special
breed of pigs recognized by their black hooves. After this it was time
for lunch for real.

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We hopped in Rogelio's car to drive to Asturianos, a small
neighborhood wine bar/restaurant that happened to serve some of the
best food I have had. We arrived to find my friend, the noted American
wine and food writer, Gerry Dawes, having his own lunch with the
well-known Spanish film director Jose Luis Cuerda and a friend. We were
seated at the next table and immediately started with some more jerez,
this time a special, difficult to find bottle of La Bota de Manzanilla "Las Cañas". Being neighborly, we exchanged glasses with our friends. They had been drinking a lovely white from the 2006 vintage called Sanclodio from Cuerda's own vineyards in Ribeiro.
This was crisp and bracing, a perfect food wine. Rogelio entrusted us
to the kitchen for our food choices and they did not disappoint. We
started with the most succulent berberechos or cockles that I
have ever had. They were cooked justIMG_8637.CR2 - 2008-01-20 at 10-32-16
to the point that the shells
opened and were dressed with immaculate olive oil, garlic and parsley,
the same treatment I use for linguine with a white clam sauce. I would
have been pleased just continuing with more of these plump, delightful
creatures, but the kitchen wanted us to see what else they had and
could do. Next up was the bovine version of jamon called cecina.
This wasn't just any old cecina though, as it came from cattle owned by
the same people who own the much heralded Bodegas Vega Sicilia winery.
Their venture into beef using a breed of cattle originally from
Switzerland but raised in the mountains of León is known under the
label Valles del Esla.
With a touch of fresh Spanish olive oil poured on top, the thinly
sliced meat was rich, silky and quite complex. The red wine we had with
this, Tres Patas,  made by the brothers who run
Asturianos, was smooth and fruit forward with enough depth to work well
with the cecina and the next dish. This was a lovely stew of Asturian
green beans with seafood that could have been the very definition of
comfort food. Unfortunately, all the food so far was taking its toll on
me as I was becoming quite full. Fortunately, I was able to eat some
dessert. Although not particularly fancy to look at, the chocolate
mousse with olive oil, black pepper and Maldon sea salt and the cheese
flan were amazingly and outrageously delicious. I don't care how full I
am, there will always be room for either of those desserts for me. The
highlight of the meal, however, came at the end as the cook, who I will
always affectionately consider "Mama Asturianos", Julia Bombin came out
to greet us. She is the spry mother of the two energetic brothers who
run the front of the house, while she manages the kitchen.

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The next few days, my dining was done at or in conjunction with
Madrid Fusion, the culinary conference and gathering that mixes Spain's
best chefs with others from around the world and which was my reason
for returning to Madrid. Through that, I got to sample culinary
delights from a number of Madrid's best chefs as well as others from
around Spain at such venues as the Restaurant Europa Decó at the Hotel Urban, La Terrazza at The Casino de Madrid and the Real Cafe at Bernabeu Stadium, the home of the Real Madrid Soccer Club. One restaurant that I heard much about was the tiny DiverXo
of David Munoz. Unfortunately for me, however, I was not the only one
who had heard about it and wanted to go. This small restaurant was
impossible to get into even with a direct plea to the young wunderkind
chef. He was the toast of the conference having been awarded a number
of prizes including what is essentially the best new chef in Spain. He
promised me next time.

Fortunately, Madrid is full of interesting restaurants, new and old.
I was pleased to have been invited along with some very interesting
dinner partners to one that had piqued my interest – Astrid y Gaston.
I had been in Lima, Peru a year before where the original Astrid y Gaston
continues to flourish. Unfortunately, I was unable to dine there at
that time. Needless to say, I was pleased to be able to try the one
recently opened to much fanfare in Madrid. According to both Victor de
la Serna and Ignacio Medina, both well-traveled and well-known deans of
Spanish food writing, Madrid is perhaps the premier location in Europe
for the quality and variety of restaurants featuring the food or
infIMG_0203 - 2008-01-24 at 17-35-19luences of other culinary traditions in its restaurants. Astrid y
Gaston is but one of the latest restaurants in Madrid to highlight this
phenomenon. It also happens to be one of the best, the only complaint
being a level of noise making it difficult to communicate across a
table. Our meal starting with a superb Pisco Sour cocktail, consisted
of a panoply of Peruvian dishes, which included a classic ceviche with sea bass, 
causa limeña antigua,a classic Peruvian dish of flavored mashed potatoes topped with various items – in this case marinated tuna belly, anticuchos or small grilled meats, of
octopus and the classic beef heart, a scorpion-fish stew with yucca and
rocoto peppers and Peruvian style roast suckling pig before a
degustation of Peruvian desserts including  a version of the classic suspiro a la limeña.
The food was all superb, returning a few of us back to wonderful
memories of Lima and Peru while creating a desire to visit for the rest.

With the conference over, I had to get my fix of Jamon Iberico de Bellota, the
very best of Spanish hams from black-footed Iberian pigs fed on acorns
in the woods, elsewhere. One of my favorites from IMG_0231 - 2008-01-25 at 07-17-20
tasting at the
Conference was the jamon from Cinco Jotas. It just so happened that
they had a small restaurant, Mesón Cinco Jotas, near my hotel
just off the Puerta del Sol. The morning after the conference ended,
that is where I went for my daily ration of that wonder meat. I spent
the remainder of the morning walking through Old Madrid soaking up its
charms, while meandering towards the Prado to see my old inspiration, The Garden of Earthly Delights
again. Just as I was starting to develop an appetite, I passed by the
Hotel Urban, at whose restaurant I enjoyed a lovely dinner as part of
the Conference. while the dinner was great, I was only able to sample a
very small portion of the work of the chef at Europa Decó, Joaquin Felipe, but that portion intrigued me so I stepped in for a light lunch.

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I started with a lovely, bright glass of cava from Juve y Camps from
the 2004 vintage. After a couple of delightful amuses, I was served a
"Tasting of Red Tuna" sashimi style. The tasting consisted of cuts from
different parts of the tuna prepared in ways to highlight their
textures and flavors. Felipe had given a IMG_0317 - 2008-01-25 at 10-51-21
presentation at the Spain and
the World Table Conference held at The Culinary Institute of America's
Greystone campus in California in November of 2006 on the anatomy of
the tuna and how to use its various elements. This dish was proof of
his knowledge and skill with the fish. The tuna was followed by a
delicate and delicious "Sea Bass from Estero" with a sea broth with
nettles. A marvelously rich dish of "Iberian Pork Jaws with Bone
'Royale Style'" completed the main portion of the meal. This dish made
with classic style proved a mix of opulence and warmth. Dessert was a
refreshing parfait incorporating Hendrick's Gin.

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Fortunately, after this lunch, the Prado was close by and I was able to
amble over and walk it off amongst the artwork, which included a lovely
exhibit on Velasquez as well as the Bosch that culminated my visit.

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With one night left in Madrid, I couldn't waste it and I didn't. I
was able to score a much-coveted reservation at the Madrid institution,
Casa Lucio, where I went to have a final dinnIMG_9418.CR2 - 2008-01-22 at 19-58-41er in Madrid  with new friends. We opted for some classics from the menu
including outstanding boquerones or vinegar 
marinated anchovies, olives, the famous huevos estrellados, which are fried eggs broken up amongst fried potatoes, roast lechazo suckling lamb and to round out my return to Madrid, some wonderful cochinillo.
The meal finished with an amazing rice pudding with a burnt sugar crust
recommended quite rightly by our waiter. The evening and essentially my
return to Madrid came to a close down the street with some moody and
evocative Flamenco singing, a beautiful end to a wonderful return.

For my report on Madrid Fusión 2008, please see here.

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For more photos from Madrid in 2008 including Madrid Fusión see here.


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3 Responses to A Return to Madrid

  1. Janna says:

    Reading your account of food in Madrid brought back a flood of memories. I lived there for a year, way back when in 2001. What a wonderful city with simple, flavorfully bright food.
    I’ll never forget the tortilla espanolas, the jamon iberico, the cafe con leche, and the manchego that I bought from the grocery store in blocks as big as a car wheel. Sigh.
    Have you taken a culinary and wine tour of Chile yet?
    Cheers.
    Janna
    Secret Stash Sea Salts
    http://www.secretsalts.com

  2. John Sconzo says:

    Thanks for your comments, Janna. Madrid is a marvelous city with truly great food. I am very much looking forward to returning in January. Speaking of tortillas, a delight that I did not mention in the article was the breakfast tortilla I would have every day at my hotel. That along with a little jamon, chorizo or lomo and a croissant with a dash of café made for a lovely start to each day.
    As for Chile, not yet, though I would love to visit some day. Too many places, not enough time (or money)!

  3. Roberto N. says:

    I feel that my visit to Madrid was not good enough. We didn’t do enough food exploring. I must go back and make up for it.
    I do remember eating at Casa Botín, probably one of the higlights of the trip.

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