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!

Spain Snapshots: My Perfect Madrileño Day

Danny and I were on our third glass of vermouth in Malasaña when it dawned on me: Madrid had finally won me over.

Between the barrio life, the collision of old and traditional with new and different and the balmy late spring nights, La Capital is quickly becoming one of my favorite escapes in Spain.

Madrid isn’t as outright beautiful as Seville or as wildly gorgeous as the calas on Menorca. It’s not old and cobblestoned or dripping in Gaudí’s whimsical architecture. It’s a bit grandiose on one block, and a bit gritty on the next.

 Simply put, it’s a Spanish city that encompasses it all and is the epicenter for nearly everything in Iberia.

My most recent trip to Madrid was two-fold: I was coming back from an emergency trip to the US, and I’d be brainstorming and hamming in front of the camera for a project I’m working on with other social media darlings. But as soon as I’d touched down in Barajas, my jet lag dissipated, and I spent the day retracing my favorite madrileño haunts and finding new spots to love.

My perfect Madrid day, unfiltered: Strolling, snacking, meeting lifelong madrileños and other adoptive gatos who have decided to call Madrid home.

Like Madrid? Check out these posts: Mercado de San Miguel // The Saturday City // Casa Hernanz // Visiting Alcalá de Henares

Spain Snapshots: A Saturday Portrait of Madrid

An eclectic mix of old and new, Madrid is a city that has slowly crept its way into my heart. At first, it was a necessary stop on my way to or from Chicago, but after so many visits, it feels like an old sweater, a city I can navigate just as well as Sevilla, a cosmopolitan exclamation point in my sometimes mundane expat experience.

After all, there is international cuisine in Madrid. And original version movies. And cupcakes.

I must admit that I’m something of a creature of habit in the Spanish capital, often just letting my feet take me down the streets I know and love. There’s the ice cream shop in Plaza Dos de Mayo, the sometimes English-language book carrying book shop off of Plaza Santa Ana, my favorite Thai place on Atocha. As my  trips to Madrid become more frequent, the list of places I love to visit grows longer.

When Kay suggested we meet in another rincón of the city for a midday beer, in Alonso Martínez, we grabbed our umbrellas and set off from T’s house outside of the M-30 ring road. At just one stop from Tribunal – the metro stop closest to the Novio’s childhood home – I was thrilled to find another stretch of street that I didn’t know.

 Calle Fernando VI is a hipster’s dream - barrio fruit shops and tobacco stands are sidled up next to cactus shops, swanky eateries and macaroon shops lie age-old bars. Hayley and I shared a heaping plate of tortilla for breakfast before we sat at the high chairs and shared tables at Lo Siguiente. A Madrid-brewed craft beer is on tap (spoiler: it taste just like madrileño favorite Mahou) and the exposed brick looked like the café could have been in Brooklyn.

Madrid is truly a Saturday city – bars are always spilling customers, and events all around town are full. There are always exhibitions, shows, honking cars, teenagers dressing up to go to discos, traffic, chaos and every other hallmark of my favorite cities.

Later that night, we walked towards Chueca from the Ópera metro, the streets beating with energy and flashing lights. My heart seemed to skip a beat as I bumped shoulders with strangers and breathed in pollution. Madrid always seems to give me a surge of energy and the courage to comerme el mundo.

Maybe it’s being away from Seville and caught up in the frenzy of movement, or just the way the city seems to glisten, even in the rain.

Have you ever been to Madrid? What do you love (or not) about it?

Seville Snapshots: The Sights of Alcalá de Henares

The Spain of my pre-Sevilla had one leading protagonist (perhaps loverboy?) : Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Spain’s most famous author is best known for his chronicle of Spanish knighthood, Don Quijote, Man of La Mancha, and he penned the book while living in Valladolid.

It seemed only fitting to make a day trip from Madrid to Alcalá de Henares, the city in which Cervantes was born and to which his name is commonly associated to pay an early homage to Día del Libro, a celebration of his death and contributions to the Spanish Language and its literature. My sister-in-law Nathàlia just finished up her degree at the famous Universidad de Alcalá, so I took the train early one Friday morning to Madrid and spent an afternoon wandering the old city.

The Universidad de Alcalá is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the world (and several of my blogging friends like Cassandra and James have earned masters degrees from the formerly named Complutense!). Taking a tour with a guide was the best way to learn about the long and interesting history of the campus.

Nath and I walked arm-in-arm through the winding streets of the city, gossiping while huddling together from a biting April day before dipping into a bar near the law faculty for a few tapas. Bars clustered around the university buildings typically serves free tapas with drinks, so we toasted to Nathàlia’s big move to Dublin and one more city to cross off of my list.

If you go: Alcalá de Henares is a quick cercanías trip from Madrid – it will take you 40 minutes on the C2 line from Atocha. Be sure to visit the Plaza de Cervantes, the Casa Natal de Cervantes (free, like tapas in many bars, too), and the university tour cost less than 5€ with a student card. 

Seville Snapshots: Colorful Windows in El Centro

Madrid and I have a complicated relationship: it took me a few years in Spain and several trips to discover what was beneath the flashy Gran Vía, to understand the pulse of the big city that houses Velázquez and Guernica. Then my friends showed me where to have the best Thai on Atocha and Indian in Lavapiés, the metro became second nature.

I’m a city girl. I love walking over grates and feeling the subway thunder under me (or above me back home in Chicago), anticipating the changes of the stoplights and the cacophony of car horns and radios.

But returning to Seville after ethnic food and cañas with friends in La Latina or Malasaña feels like the new me. The car horns are replaced by horse hooves in the city center, and the metro can’t take me as far as my feet or bike. The garritos in Madrid aren’t as lively as the flower-clad iron bars in Seville, and while the orange and stone buildings of La Capital are beautiful, I prefer the crumbling, whitewashed walls of Andalusian villages like Osuna or Arcos. To me, the hallmarks of Andalusian architecture help it stand out from Madrid’s busy streets and high-rises.

Te dejo, Madrid. It’s an inevitable stop for me while traveling or for work, and perhaps the Novio and I will end up there in a few years, but for now, yo soy del sur.

Have any photos of Spain or Seville to share? Sunshine and Siestas is looking for contributions from readers for the busy summer months ahead. Get in touch with me through Facebook with your ideas, photos o lo que sea!

Sleeping in Spain: A Guide to Accommodation (and 30€ Voucher Giveaway!)

If there’s one thing that’s weathering the Spanish economic downturn (no doubt tied to the weather itself), it’s the tourism industry. Accounting for nearly 11% of 2012’2 GDP, Spain constantly pushes the envelope within the tourism industry and has grown to be the second-largest in the world!

Where will you be pillow hugging tonight?

One aspect that sets Spain apart is its ample offering of accommodation and luxury brands. Iberostar, Melià and Bareclò hotels are considered some of the best brands in the world, and backpackers can find a haven nestled on cobblestone streets or just steps from a private beach. Still, in an ever-changing industry, there’s quite a bit of confusion as to each type of accommodation, and sometimes where to find it at an affordable price (don’t worry, there’s an entrance to a voucher at the end of this explanation!).

The view from the rooftop bar at Seville’s Hotel EME.

Hotels, like in any country of the world, are plentiful and of varying quality. There’s also been a recent surge of new hotels offering boutique accommodation, quirky decor and plenty of character. Spain’s tourism board has instituted a nationwide ranking, using the Q of quality and between 1 and 5 stars. Hotels are marker with a white H and the ranking below. High season is during the summer months, local festivals and Christmas time, so expected steeper prices and less availability.

The Spanish government now controls a network of historic buildings converted into luxury hotels, called paradores. From castles to convents, a night in the sumptuous lodging will typically run you more than an average hotel, but booking during the low season can ensure a one-of-a-kind experience in a historically important building.

Tiles on the outdoor terrace of the parador in Carmona, Andalusia.

Hostels and Albergues  are often considered a common type of backpacker accommodation, they are as varied as one could imagine. Typically, they can be found in city centers and offer beds in shared or private accommodation, shared bathrooms and common areas such as living rooms, rooftop terraces or kitchens. Most beds in a shared dorm are less than 20€ a night, making it an ideal place to meet other travelers through free events and walking tours.

A typical dorm room in hostels. This one is Grand Luxe in Seville.

Slightly nicer than hostels, pensions (pensiones) are more budget-friendly than hotels and are typically smaller, too. Most similar to boarding houses, one can expect loads of hospitality and often meals!

Thanks to Spain’s varied landscape, rural accommodations are becoming popular, particularly for families wishing to escape city life.

A bed at Almohalla 51, a luxury rural house in Archidona, Spain

Apartment Stays are also becoming a popular way to live like a local in larger cities. Available for days, weeks or months, a piso turístico will allow travelers the privacy of their own space while having access to amenities. Typical rates for a month can be between 500 – 800€, depending on the season.

Camping remains a cheap and popular option for staying in Spain, particularly on the coast. Rates are low, even during the summer season, and most offer on-site food and washing facilities.

No joke, I spent a night here in the Islas Cies.

I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in a tent on the pristine Playa de Rodas in Galicia, an ancient piso in front of the Basilica Santa María del Mar in Barcelona and a friendly pensión within earshot of the tingling churchbells of Santa María la Blanca in Seville. My head has rested in sumptuous hotels from Toledo to Valladolid, as well as old fortresses, which is why I’m excited to present you all with my newest giveaway.

I’m teaming up with Your Spain Hostel to offer a giveaway of a 30€ voucher to be used on Your Spain Hostel on any property in any city you’re interested in visiting in Spain. Simply enter by leaving your email address and telling me in the comments where you’d like to travel to in Spain should you win the voucher (extra points if you send a postcard!), or otherwise!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

From a bungalow on the beaches of Ibiza to a casa rural in Cangas de Onís, Your Spain Hostel is your one-stop destination for unique and quality accommodation around Spain. The site also provides discounts on tours, entrance to sites, food and even taxi pick-up! You can win extra entries by following both Your Spain Hostel and Sunshine and Siestas on Facebook and Twitter.

Happy travels for 2013! Where are you headed, and where do you like to rest your head at the end of a long day of tourism and tapas? Got any great recs?

 

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