Behind Every Plate: A Day with Insiders Madrid

The more immersed I become in the Spanish gastronomic world, the more interest I have in where food comes from, who makes it (or butchers it or cures it or raises it) and the stories behind everything I consume.

I recently spent the day with Joanna, the founders of Insiders Madrid. I was jet lagged, emotionally fraught from my grandfather’s death and not really sure what day it actually was.

Given the choice between many different types of tours, I chose the follow my nose and stomach on the Gourmet Food Shop Tour on a bright June morning. We met right on Gran Vía, the juxtaposition of old Madrid and shiny new Madrid. Apart from snacking at four stops along the way, I was able to meet the owners and operators of some of the most renowned food shops in Spain’s capital. 

Joanna has traveled extensively and worked in television for years before deciding to follow her passion: to provide luxury and off-beat tours to people from around the world. Between samples of Spanish foods like ham and olive oil, we shared stories about dining and drinking in Spain. 

Our first stop in Malasaña was at Madrid’s oldest charcuterie. A photo of owner Antonio’s grandfather – the shop’s founder – hung above the door.

I had mentioned to Joanna that the Novio’s family raises livestock and produces ham, and she quipped, “What could I possibly tell you about ham that I don’t already know?”

The truth is, plenty.

Antonio explained the way that feed and climate can affect the taste of the ham, mixing in family anecdotes from nearly a century of holding down the shop in an area of town that has seen major gentrification in the last few years. Antonio’s shop sidles up to hip boutiques and art galleries that double as watering holes.

We snacked on freshly cut ham and picos and artisanal beers brewed just around the corner.

At the nearby church of San Antonio de los Alemanes, a priest gave us permission to look around in the oval-shaped chapel that has been dubbed Spain’s very own Sistene Chapel. He excused himself to tend to business down a spiral staircase as Joanna paid a small donation. After the financial crisis hit Spain, the priests at San Antonio opened a soup kitchen, called a comedor social, downstairs to serve those affected by unemployment and wage freezes. The money we paid for an entrance went right to feeding the needy.

My jet lag must have been noticeable, as Joanna suggested we go for a coffee at one of Madrid’s most prolific cafeterías, Café Comercial. The age-old, mirrored cafe was calm in the break between breakfast and lunch, but I chose a vermouth over a coffee, convinced I’d crash after so many coffees.

The establishment is run by Fernando, a young restaurateur who has been in the food service industry for two decades, and who invited me to breakfast the next morning. Joanna says the café doubles as her office – she meets clients and food providers here over a coffee or vermouth.

As we chatted over fresh orange juice and enormous toasts, Fernando pointed out the bar staff. Most had been working for Comercial for well over ten years and could speak of the evolution of a well-known establishment whose clientele de toda la vida had come and gone. Fernando told me about clients who had been around forever, eating the same dish and sitting in the same chair for ages.

Fernando is working to breathe new life into an old place by adding vermouth tastings, language exchanges and theatre performances.

Racing the clock, we sampled olive oils from beyond Andalucía before ending on a sweet note: a chocolate tasting at a renowned chocolate bar. Joanna chose six or eight different flavors, each of which had been blended with cocoa beans to form outages flavors with hints of spice, cheese and fruit. 

As we closed the tour with a quick caña after the sugar rush, we got to talking like old friends about our shared passions: food, drink and Spain.

Joanna and Seth of Insider’s Madrid graciously invited me on their Gourmet Food Shop tour, but all opinions are my own. The tour lasts approximately three hours at the cost of 65€ per head, which includes all tastings. Purchases at the stop are at your own cost.

Love Spanish food? Check out my biweekly food feature, Tapa Thursdays!

Tapa Thursdays: Nazca

We stumbled on Nazca one afternoon when our friend Scott was visiting from Madrid. I’d heard talk of the place – a Japanese and Peruvian fusion restaurant – for ages, and we quite literally stumbled there after spending a sweltering afternoon at the river catching up. Named after the Peruvian Nazca lines, the restaurant is just one of Seville’s gastro pub hotspots these days.

We arrived early enough (around 9pm) to snag a high table with bar stools in a bar that mixes industrial with international with a dash of Spanish (in the tiled floor of course). They were a bit unsteady, which made it difficult to share food once we’d ordered, but the food made up for it.  The menu is a mix of the nigiri and maki you’d expect to find at a Japanese restaurant, along with South American inspired meat dishes.

We settled on niguri topped with presa ibérica, a fresh chopped salad with chicken fingers (my life in Spain is complete!) and potato towers topped with a cherry tomato and some sort of cream sauce. Along with olives and picos, Nazca sets the table with chopsticks and Kikoman’s soy sauce.

Still hungry, we saw a waiter rush by with a hunk of meet. Hayley simply pointed and we soon had the dish at our table, which came with a deep-fried sort of croqueta, a slew of grilled and seasoned vegetables and a creamy, peppery sauce with rock salt.

Hayley says she went back the following week with her visiting parents and literally ordered everything on the menu. Don’t blame her – the food was really good and the presentation was incredible. I probably wouldn’t order the presa nigiri again, but stick to a ceviche or maki. From all accounts, the fish dishes stand out at Nazca.

Los detalles: Nazca is located on Calle Baños at number 32, just west of Plaza de la Gavidia. Open about 1:40 to 5 and 8:30 to midnight or so. They’re closed all day Tuesday and for lunch on Wednesdays. Expect to pay 12€ or more a head, particularly if you order wine.

Tapa Thursdays: Eating at a Guachinche on Tenerife

Julie’s plan had only three itinerary stops on my only full-day on Tenerife: Rental car. Teide. Guachinche :)

Eager not to ruin my own surprise, I refused to give into sneaking a peek at what this oh-so-tenerifeño dining experience was. I actually didn’t know it had anything to do with food until after we’d climbed to the peak of Teide on empty stomachs and was promised a mountain of raciones.

Zigzagging down the face of the active volcano through rollercoast roads, I actually think I heard my tripa gurgle. But the excitement in which Julie told me about these temporary, family-run restuarants blew my expectations (sorry, done on the volcano expressions and puns).

“Si esto se llama La Salú para mi madre, que descanse en paz!” 

The small restaurant’s owner, David, was showing us around the various dining rooms, all set around a humble kitchen where family members were peeling Canarian wrinkly potatoes (papas arrugás) and preparing meat at a grill. His mother, a sevillana by birth, married a Venezuelan before moving to the island. When she passed away, her family, who had always loved wine, planted a small vineyard and the guanchinche was born. The name, La Salud, is a homenage to the family matriarch.

We chose seats on the covered patio, watching the clouds roll in over Puerto Cruz. 

Guachinches began to spring up on Tenerife as humble restaurants from which small producers could sell their product. The island’s volcanic landscape lends well to producing young, fruity reds, so we ordered a half liter to begin with. The restaurants operate so long as there is wine to sell – it’s common to find guachinches closed late in the season. 

There were just five dishes on the menu, guaranteeing that everything we tried was fresh – eggs, sobresada and fries (huevos estampidos); garbanzos with a spicy tomato sofrito; chistorra sausage with fries, steak and cheese produced on the island. We ordered all but the steak and an extra half litre of the family’s fruity, fresh wine.

What I loved about the experience (aside from the price – 25€ for everything!), was the personal service we received. Everything was served hot and tasty, and we left satisfied.

Guachinches have started to pop up on nearby Gran Canaria, but the real thing is as tenerifeño as Teide itself.

If you go: La Salud is located in the town of La Orotava on the western side of the island, just east of tourist town Puerto Cruz. The address is Camino de Los Gomez, S/N. They’re typically open from 1pm until 11pm, though may be closed if the wine is depleted. You’ll need a rental car to reach many of them, or a reliable taxi service, as the guachinches tend to be set away from major cities in the north.

Have you ever been to a guachinche, or something similar? Would you eat with locals?

Tapa Thursdays: Room Art Cuisine

With the hiring of MaCuro’s head chef, ROOM Art Cuisine went from an American food bar to one of the center’s newest gastrobars only steps away from Plaza Salvador. When my friends and I used to meet in the city’s famous botellón plazas, we’d be stuck for a decent restaurant that catered to many international tastes.

I was invited in November to the Room’s soft opening, along with several other American friends and Tapas Queen Shawn Hennessey. We got a sneak peek at the revised menu, wine list and comfortable yet modern interior while waiters passed around small samples of dishes straight off the menu.

A month later, we were celebrating Mickey’s engagement and wanted to try out a new place. Most of my friends are vegetarians, so the Room has enough to keep their bellies full and Puja and I still got our meat fix with a delicately cooked presa ibérica.

It’s hard to categorize the Room’s food, as the gambit of Spanish wines can be paired with food from around the world – from Ireland to Lebanon. We tried fried cheeseballs in marinera sauce, guacamole with fried plantains, perfectly seasoned humus, a crisp salad with goat cheese and spicy papas bravas.

The service was exceptional – our waiter was quick to fill our glasses and served us two slices of cake to share to celebrate the occasion. The food was artfully prepared both times I went, and prices and portion sizes vary, depending on what you’ve ordered. We paid about 22€ a head, which included wine.

the Room is open for all meals and located at Cuesta del Rosario, 15, just across from Cuesta Sport gym on the Plaza de la Pescadería. They’re also open for happy hour and coffee. I was not compensated in any way for eating at the Room Art Cuisine, nor for this article. All opinions are my own.

Tapas Thursday: Sampling La Brunilda

I have visited so many places whose names ring famous, and usually have felt like something was missing.

When it comes to food, I’m beginning to have high expectations.

In Seville, a city that’s home to seemingly hundreds of tapas bars, it’s hard to not fall victim to the newest or the trendiest. New bars and eateries pop up so often, and even a week’s absence from traversing the center means I’m bound to come across a new bar.

When La Brunilda opened (I think) earlier this year, my friends raved about the food. Websites raved about the food. I went earlier this month, a bit skeptical but looking forward to a new place.

Like many trendy new bars, the space – which looked like a converted coach house, thanks to a large door and exposed brick – was airy and not busy  early on a Tuesday. Having to work two hours later, I chose to not even read and weep the wine list and opted for a beer.

My friends suggested asking the wait staff for daily specials, but we were clear: D chose papas bravas and a magret de pato with a carrot cream, G and I both got an oversized tapa of dorada with pisto and cream of Idizbial cheese, and I couldn’t resist risotto with crunchy onions and asparagus. 

Believe it or not, I liked each dish more than the last.

I hope you haven’t taken a bit out of your computer.

While the food was spectacular, I didn’t feel that the service was. Our dishes came out quickly, but it took ages to refill beers and get the bill – I couldn’t even imagine how long it would take on a busy weekend night.

If you go: La Brunilda is extremely popular, so it’s best to go early or during the week. Located on Calle Galera, 5, near Reyes Católicos, the bar opens at 1p.m. for lunch and 8:30 for dinner. Closed Sunday night and all day Monday.

A Cooking Day in Málaga: Preparing Spanish Dishes in Andalucía

Spain is a country that’s easy to get lost in. I don’t mean the culture or the romanticism – I mean, GPS systems are absolute crap, and it’s easier to end up on the wrong road than it is to arrive to your destination calmly and on time.

Stuck in our constant chatter, Mickey and I missed our exit, had a local forget we were following him to Almogía, and ended up on a dirt road. I called Mayte, one of the women behind A Cooking Day, and she told me she hadn’t heard of the town we’d just driven through.

“There will be wine,” Mickey soothed. “There is always wine on a Spanish table. Don’t stress.”

 As it turned out, we were in Mayte’s driveway, but wouldn’t find that out before turning around again. But Mickey was right –  as soon as we’d sat down in the airy courtyard of her country house, dripping with Bougainvillea and antique lanterns, I felt at ease and over my road rage.

Mayte and Keti announced the menu before anyone had been introduced – ajoblanco, a citrus salad with cod and spring onions, fideuà and quince pastries, plus homemade bread. As with any Spanish weekend meal, we’d snack our way through the process, eating olives they’d marinated and malagueño cheese with homemade fig marmalade.

Prepping our meal

After meeting fellow blogger Robin Graham and his partner, as well as locals Ute and Sergio, wicker baskets were distributed and we went into the small huerto to pick fruit. Oranges, persimmons, figs and lemons are ripe at this time of year, and we’d be using several in our recipes.

Once back in the house, we donned aprons. Robin and I set to peeling shrimp while Mickey and Sergio pounded almonds using an iron mallet and a stone, a traditional method. As an American used to my fish coming headless and my chicken breasts cleaned, it was refreshing to know that we were truly making farm to fork food.

Mayte’s kitchen is spacious and modern, blended seamlessly into a century-old farmhouse that’s full of interesting pieces from her travels around the world. She and Keti, a longtime friend, set up the cooking classes in both English and Spanish earlier this year. They cater groups of two to just six, ensuring that everyone will get their hands dirty.

There would be blanching, chopping and stirring, but not without a glass of Rioja and a few stolen almonds.

Making our Food

First up? Kneading the bread and preparing it to rise. Mine refused to cooperate with me, and coupled with my lack of kitchen skills, I was toast. Ha. The day was a bit damp, causing the bread to need more time to bake and rise. I took another sip of beer.

We focused on the ajoblanco next, peeling away the case and chopping garlic – it was a dish I’d surprisingly not tried before. Mayte dumped everything into the blender and turned it on, and we were sipping it a short time later between nibbles of our baked bread and organic olive oil (Mayte’s recipe is below).

As we peeled the oranges we picked and chopped them, along with the ripe spring onions, the shrimp shells we’d discarded and the monkfish boiled in separate pots to serve as brother for the fideuà noodle dish that would be our main plato

Keti showed us a family secret – frying the noodles with a bit of oil and garlic so that they’d not get too hard later. As a last-minute addition, we made a simple alioli sauce of egg whites, garlic and olive oil to accompany this traditional noodle dish that resembles paella. 

La sobremesa

Nearing 4 o’clock, we  sat down to eat. The fireplace crackled as Mayte served us the salad. While I didn’t think I’d be too keen on mixing salted cod with oranges and onions, the malagueña salad was surpassingly good and felt layered, despite its simplicity.

Our bellies were happy and in good company around the table. Sobremesa is a Spanish term that refers to the conversation and camaraderie that always seems to happen around a table. In fact, the work for striking up a conversation is entablar, which perfectly encompasses sobremesa chat. I chose to bring Mickey because I knew she’d be right at home. Like me, she loves wine, food and good conversation.

As Keti finished the fideuà, we drank up, a rich Rioja that blended well with all of the flavors on the table. The noodles were cooked perfectly, creamy and with the right amount of flavor. Again, I was taken back at how flavorful something so simple could taste.

The Takeaway

For someone who loves food and dabbles in cooking, the outing was a fun was to spend a day. We rolled up our sleeves and got to see the process through, from picking the fresh fruit to taking the quince pastries out of the oven. Perhaps by my own election and in the name of art (and Camarón), I didn’t cook as much as I expected.

Mayte and Keti are personable, helpful and patient, and they make great company. I appreciated that they came up with a menu that pleased palates from five different countries and our two vegetarian counterparts, and the food was simple enough to repeat, yet filling and delicious.

Ajoblanco
Print
Ingredients
  1. 150g almonds
  2. 2 cloves of garlic
  3. 2 slices of bread (crust optional)
  4. 1/2 glass of extra virgin olive oil
  5. 1 litre of water
  6. salt and white wine vinegar to taste
Instructions
  1. Blanch the almonds blanching hot water until the skin peels off easily. Peel and chop the garlic cloves into fine bits. Soak the bread in water to soften it, then break it apart into smaller pieces. Put everything in the blender with the olive oil, a bit of vinegar and salt, and blend until you get a fine paste, adding some water if necessary. Add a litre of water and the salt and vinegar to taste.
Notes
  1. Tip: day-old bread works best for this recipe.
Adapted from Adapted from A Cooking Day Blog
Sunshine and Siestas http://sunshineandsiestas.com/
 Mickey and I were gracious guests of Mayte and Keti of A Cooking Day, but all opinions belong to me. A Cooking Day is available to speakers of English, Spanish or French for 50€ a head, which includes the materials, food and drink, plus company. Mayte’s cortijo is located just off the A-7, right outside of Málaga. For more information, consult their website.

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