*You’ll have to excuse any editing errors, given my sporadic internet accessibility, there may be some spelling and/or grammatical erros. <—There’s one now.
On my third day in fickle-weathered Madrid, it became apparent that I needed to buy groceries for my apartment. When I first arrived I was so hungry, but most markets were closed due to Dos de Mayo Uprising, so my options were severely limited. I scoured the cupboards for food and made use of what was left behind: half a package of dried noodles and a can of lemon sardines. Let it be known that few things in life are as revolting as canned sardines, namely hairy knuckles on a woman or the joyous laughs of small children. But being desperately ravenous and without any other recourse, I developed a negligibly edible lunch that would definitely besmirch my cooking abilities had anyone else ate a modicum of a nibble. I couldn’t help but think that someone – anyone – on Top Chef could have made better use with these ingredients and ended up throwing out the majority of what was made. The garbage groaned and declared me a mortal enemy.
The following day I made my way up to Puerta del Sol, which translates literally to “Door of the Sun”, but appears to be more a door to the tourist conglomeration of Madrid. Puerta del Sol is a huge shopping district within Madrid’s city center containing large, four-story-plus department and clothing stores which accommodate the most cutting edge and fashionable items at somewhat steep prices. Like most plazas throughout Madrid, Puerta del Sol opens up to a large courtyard displaying ancient edifices sprawling in each direction. Off to one side I see an incongruously placed, but considerably busy, McDonald’s and wonder how many American tourists necessitated that build.
Inside one of the stores I try to buy groceries and toiletries, but I’m thrown off by the prices. Fingernail clippers are no less than 6 or 7€ and hand mirrors run around 50 to 110€. I skip the beauty section and make way toward hygiene. At this rate I can expect to find toothpaste for around 4 or 5 thousand euros.
Around the center of the courtyard was a flowing fountain and large seating structures that were being torn down by construction crews. Apparently I’d missed a spectacle, but part of one still remained where a motley crew of costumed characters walked around.
I found Mickey and Minnie.
And Cookie Monster.
A sad and possibly suicidal Hello Kitty.
And Minnie and Mickey. And…Mickey?
NO. AN IMPOSTOR.
Also throughout the center are droves of street performers with sheets or hats laid out in front of them to fetch payment for their productions. There were two shady-looking tattooed men dressed as clowns (and what I mean by “dressed as clowns” is they had on mismatched knee-high socks, a sullied red nose and the clowns said “honk” when they squeezed them and multicolored baggy pants that probably hid shivs. Or diarrhea. Or both.). There was an older shawled woman turning away at an aging, large-sized music box that emanated a melody that warbled pleas for a tuning gone long neglected. I asked the person next to me where the monkey in a fez was, but they ignored me.
And then there was this goat…thing. It clacked its jaws in a way that was simultaneously hilarious and incontrovertibly terrifying, keeping a cash can less than biting distance away from its active mandible.
Here it is examining its prey.
And here it is looking DIRECTLY AT ME OH DEAR GOD.
That night I walked to Plaza de la Villa for the wildly popular Walk of Spain tapas crawl. This tour is run by one man named Andrés, a native to Madrid and proclaimed wine savant. Among the group were an older Irish couple who had flown in for a long weekend, an American college-aged girl who’d spent the last 4 months studying in Madrid, along with her mother, aunt, uncle, cousin and his wife.
We walked through the plaza to our first restaurant as Andrés pointed out bits of Madrilenian history. He discussed the development of Spain and Madrid as we passed by a sequestered convent where nuns never leave, but spend their time baking goods and selling them through a backdoor, almost like a pastry-laden speakeasy. These nuns probably eat a lot of pie. Do they make habits in extra large? Do nuns tell jokes? Are fat nuns funnier than skinny nuns? We arrive at our first stop and I realized I’d missed the rest of Andrés’s history lesson.
At Casa Paco we were served bowls of large, green Spanish olives and dark, spicy and sweet wormwood vermouth served out of a pristine sterling tap. Casa Paco was owned by a man unsurprisingly named Paco and was founded nearly a full century ago. It’s been a favorite haunt of many famous people to visit Madrid to include Celia Cruz, Penelope Cruz, Monarch crews with fancy shoes and…I don’t know where I was going with this. I finished my vermouth and realized I was smiling at everyone a little too much. Maybe I should slow down.
Next we went to Cantina la Traviesa where we we drank Gran Boquero, a dark and powerful Sherry wine from Cordova which tasted roasty-toasted and had subtle coffee undertones. Served with the wine were thin slices of aged Iberico ham, and I should stop here and mention that the Spanish are very serious about their ham, with Iberico being the most expensive and prized in the country. What makes it so special is its diet and the way it’s cured; one year prior to the pig being butchered it’s fed a diet of only acorns and some grass as minimal filler. We’re told that this diet provides a lot of antioxidants to keep the leg from rotting during its 5 to 7 year curing process. When cut, you can see the effects the diet had on the meat by the way the leg shines, or “cries,” Andrés tells us.
Along with the ham we’re given Manchego cheese, a dry and crumbly cheese that reminds me of a milder pecorino-Romano, but when paired with the wine it imparts a strong and semi-bitter taste. Me likey. Finally we’re given a tuna empanadia, which is like an empanada, except an empanadia is small and baked whereas an emapanda is larger and fried. It tasted okay, but was more or less a baked tuna sandwich that most lunchladies are privy to making.
D’Fabula was our next stop where we drank Circe wine that tasted and smelled exactly like mango, though Andrés tried to convince us that it tasted like tangerines. I thought otherwise and wasn’t budging on my convictions. I drank it all in one gulp and start to feel really mellow. I catch myself wanting to talk about my cat at some point.
The first of our tapas was a plump mussel on a bed of fresh seaweed, drizzled with a mild, tangy sauce and SERVED IN AN EDIBLE SHELL. AN EDIBLE SHELL THAT WAS SO DELICIOUS. I CAN’T TURN OFF CAPS LOCKS I’M TOO EXCITED ABOUT THIS. The shell is made from high protein pizza dough baked from a mold and colored/flavored with baby squid ink.
The following tapas served was my favorite from the entire trip: a baby squid ink filled croquette paired with viña norta; a woody and spicy half red, half white wine. The inky, ebony filling of the croquette was smooth and tasted almost as though it was filled with a creamy mushroom puree. I asked Andrés how the croquette was made, because I had to know. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t ask the ‘how’ as long as the ‘what’ is delicious.”
Our final tapas at D’Fabula was what they called “planeta marta.” It’s a firm, round and hollowed-out baguette filled with a barely poached egg and served with a sweet balsamic wine reduction. Everyone else in the group favored this dish, but I hadn’t gotten over the baby squid ink croquette yet to fully appreciate it.
We make our final stop at La Chata down Calle de la Cava Baja, which is known as the gastronomic district of Madrid. We ate in the basement dining room where all the wine was kept and drank Roda, a dry and fruity wine that tasted like blackberries and was produced by the Bordeaux method. Our last tapas of the night was slow braised oxtail, and nobody could tell us what the braising liquid included. We were unanimous in assuming hints of red wine, onion and possibly bitter chocolate.
To complete the tour we ate a vanilla bean ice cream served with a thick, brown, syrupy raisin wine aged in American oak.
The tour then ended with our goodbyes, and as I walked down Calle de Jesus y Maria toward my apartment I felt a cold and clammy finger glide across my forearm seductively. Instinctively I pulled away and looked over, horrified to find a downtrodden vagrant with a stained t-shirt bearing the Union Jack flag giving me the eye.
She smiled a sparsely toothed grin and belched, “muy guapo,” in a guttural, husky voice likely weathered by hard years on the streets and innumerable packs of unfiltered menthols. Not wanting to be rude, I responded.
“Uh…igualmente?” I questioned tentatively. She smiled wider displaying a sprawl of an unhealthy gum to tooth ratio, and I suddenly wish I hadn’t said anything.
It’s only my third full day in Madrid, I’ve imbibed more alcohol in the last three days than I have in the last three years, and I may now be going steady with a dentally challenged homeless woman.
So far, so good.