Rolf Potts travels around
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Tapas for ignoramuses: Madrid in 9 dishes and 7 drinks

August 29, 2010 by Rolf Potts

There was a point at which, well into an evening of eating and drinking with friends in central Madrid, I began to wonder when we were going to stop in at a place that served tapas.  I’d been hearing about tapas for years, and I was vaguely aware that they were the bar-food equivalent of dim-sum, but beyond that I was completely ignorant of this Spanish culinary tradition.  I’ve never been much of a foodie on the road, but I was hoping a night of tapas-hunting would offer me a window into life in Madrid.

As it turned out, my crash-course in tapas had already begun hours earlier, when I visited Miguel de Avendaño, my host for the evening.  Miguel, who I met through an old travel-friend, had invited me to his apartment for wine and anchovy-stuffed olives, and when he asked me what I wanted to do in Madrid, I told him I wanted to experience tapas in a way that was “authentically Spanish.”

I tend to be suspicious of anyone who uses the word “authentic” in regard to travel — which makes it all the more perplexing when I use it myself. For travelers, it seems, a search for the “authentic” is a quest for something unchanged by outside influences, something that proves you’re having a real interaction with the place you’re visiting. The irony, of course, is that — as outsiders — travelers aren’t really qualified to judge what is and isn’t culturally authentic. Culture is, after all, a constantly changing force, and (to paraphrase the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard), invoking the word “authentic” in a travel setting only proves that we’re already mired in the simulacra of our own expectations.

Had I not been so rooted in my own preconceptions, I might have realized that my tapas experience began the moment Miguel offered me wine and olives and offered to accompany me on a stroll into central Madrid.  As I was to learn over the course of the night, “tapas” might be considered a verb as well as a noun — a word that applies less to a series of specific dishes than a way of structuring an evening out on the town. If, as Miguel told me early on, “life in Madrid is about eating and drinking and socializing,” tapas could well be the city’s greatest metaphor.

After wine and olives, Miguel walked me past central Madrid’s classic landmarks (the Palacio Real, the Plaza Mayor, the Puerta del Sol) before taking me to the delightfully named Museo del Jamón (Museum of Ham) for a small plate of chorizo and a cold glass of clara (beer mixed with lemon-lime soda).  The Museo del Jamón gets its name from the countless shanks of acorn-fed pig lining the walls like museum displays, each capped with a bristly black hoof and skewered with a plastic cone to capture the fat drippings.  The chorizo was the best I’ve ever tasted, and food and drink together cost a modest one euro.

From there we proceeded to a bar called the Valle del Tietar, where Miguel ordered calamare (rings of battered squid), Pimientos de Padrón (spicy peppers fried in olive oil), and tinto de verano (summer red wine mixed with lemon-lime soda).  The calamare was slightly greasy and not all that different from what you’d find in an American bar, but the tinto de verano was the perfect drink for a hot Madrid evening, and the pimientos were delicious (with a texture and taste less like hot-peppers than mildly spicy okra).

The next stop was the Taberna de la Daniela, where Miguel introduced me to Morcilla de Burgos (pig’s blood sausage with peppers) and Callos a la Madrilena (Madrid-style tripe with chorizo, blood sausage, and spices), and some more tinto de verano.  As unappetizing as pig’s blood and tripe might sound, these were actually my favorite dishes of the evening. The blood sausage was served hot, and had a mild spice and a moist, bready consistency; the tripe was rich and savory and pork-like (if a bit mushy on the tongue).

It was at this point, chasing bites of tripe with sips of cold wine, that I looked around and noticed what the Spanish diners were doing: They were coming into the bar in small groups, sharing a single dish with drinks, chatting, and moving on.  Tapas, I realized, wasn’t a menu-item so much as a social ritual.  When I admitted this realization to Miguel, he (perhaps taking note of the full breadth of my ignorance on the topic), gave me a quick tapas history lesson.

Since dinner often starts at 10pm or later in Spain, tapas are meant to assuage the appetite and counterbalance the effects of alcohol while socializing in the evening.  Legend has it that King Alfonso X of Castile started the practice when — in a ruling meant to cut down on public drunkenness in his kingdom — he decreed that all wine in taverns must be served with snacks.  The word “tapas” comes from the Spanish verb for “to cover” (tapar), since the small plates of snacks were traditionally placed on top of the drink.  Miguel, who is half English, noted that the British tendency to go out on the town with the intention of getting drunk is a foreign notion in Spain, where consuming alcohol is part of a more integrated ritual that also involves eating and socializing.  The point is not to get hammered, but to maintain a pleasant buzz over the course of several hours.

Thus enlightened, we took our buzz to a Basque bar called Lizarron, where the owner served us sidra (alcoholic apple cider), patatas bravas (french-fried potatoes with hot sauce), orujo (a medicinal-tasting yellow liqueur), pacharan (a berry-flavored purple liqueur), and Tortilla Española (a potato omelet on bread).  As we ate and drank, Miguel noted how the wait-staff at all the authentically Spanish places we’d visited weren’t actually Spanish — they were from Ecuador and Colombia and Honduras — and how this is actually counts as “authenticity” in Madrid these days. “The Spain of 50 years ago wouldn’t recognize itself,” he said, noting how the country has opened up and diversified in terms of immigration, morality, and religion.  Older locals, Miguel added, are at times startled to be sharing their city with so many Latin Americans (a refrain I heard in previous days in London and Paris, where Eastern European and North African immigrants are changing the cultural landscape).

Perhaps authenticity anywhere is simply a matter of whatever a given place looks like on a given day.

We ended our night with anis (a licorice-tasting liqueur) and boquerones (white anchovies in vinegar) in a bar whose name escapes me, since by that point I was enjoying my Madrid experience too much to care.

Note: My stay at Madrid’s Malasana Travelers Hostel came courtesy of Bootnsall Travel Network. One night in a two-bed room here (with shower and toilet down the hall) costs 20 euros per person.

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