Sarah Maguire gets close to the heart of Spain on a tapas tour of Madrid.
It turns out Spain maybe couldn't afford its train fleet, the most modern in Europe, but as an AVE high-speed number hurtles us towards Madrid at 300km/h, a parched landscape flashing past and a dubbed American movie playing on communal screens, questions of economics are not on our minds.
Rather, it's tapas - those delightful, delicious morsels for which Spain has been known far longer than of its economic crisis - and how much more of it we can possibly eat.
We've just binged our way through Barcelona and now it's Madrid's turn to fill our bellies. In the meantime, train attendants have come by distributing trays of tuna focaccia, nuts, olives and alcohol in an all-inclusive, airline-style service. It's a first-class experience but right now, schmick as it is, this train is no more than a delivery system for a bunch of tapas-bedazzled Australians moving from one food orgy to another. Bring on the swordfish adobo. We're getting hungry again.
Spain is many things beyond its signature style of cuisine, and there has and will be much sightseeing during our five-day visit, but it is on a tapas crawl of Madrid that the insight into this sprawling, suntanned country, the land of the hanging jamon, feels at its most authentic.
Here in Spain, we like to talk a lot. We take one bit, one drink, then talk.
Spain may have a surfeit of the finest restaurants globally - in the latest World's 50 Best Restaurants awards it took Nos.2, 3 and 8 in the top 10 - but on this tour we visit traditional tapas bars and restaurants that have been in the same family for generations, and in one case operated on the same spot for centuries. The euro hasn't changed one jot how they do things, from the perspective of a customer at least.
"In the era of franchises, it's so good to have these old-school places," says Joanna Wivell, an Englishwoman who runs the Insider's Madrid tour company and has lived in the city for 12 years. She meets us at our hotel, the Mercure Madrid Santo Domingo, in a cavernous, 16th-century cellar unearthed by the hotel about four years ago and now a bar that opens until the wee hours. As we've sat there, talking with the hotel's sales manager, Ignacio Migens, the tapas have multiplied around us, the foie gras with chocolate and sweetbread being a new experience, but others, such as the delicate, overlapping slices of the ubiquitous jamon Iberico (dry-cured ham from the Black Iberian pig), being dishes with which we are by now well acquainted.
"Here in Spain, we like to talk a lot," Ignacio says. "We take one bite, one drink, then talk for half an hour.
"Many years ago we lived with open doors. It was a case of, 'Come into my house and eat as you want, for tomorrow I will come to yours'."
He tells us that 20 metres from where we are seated, about where the hotel's restaurant is today, Spanish inquisitors once tortured non-believers. It's quite a fact to take in between mouthfuls of prawn and potato frittata, but easy to imagine given the dungeon-like scene of our latest tapas undoing.
We strike out into the Madrid evening, led by Joanna, whose passion for Madrid is contagious; so often overshadowed by the international street cred of its cool Catalan cousin Barcelona, the Spanish capital is responsible for stealing Joanna's heart.
"I have always felt the sense of possibility in Madrid, the hidden surprises around every corner," she says. "Madrid feels like the real Spain to me."
Our first stop is the Villa Rosa restaurant, where beyond its leadlight and mosaic facade we drink sangria and watch a flamenco dancer move to the singing, stomping and clapping of a seated row of men, all in folk costume; the lighting is dim and the mood almost reverent; at one point the barman shushes us quiet.
However cranky he might be, he is no patch on the barmen at La Venencia, a sherry co-operative that is a celebration of dinginess: opened in 1925, its sombre wood-and-leather interiors, which match the mood of the barmen (they don't even take tips), have not changed since, although the posters on the walls take an observer through the years of the annual Jerez festival, held 460 kilometres away in the Andalusian city of Jerez de la Frontera, the home of the fortified wine.
The sherry is served with tapas we haven't met before: mojama, salt-cured tuna loins that have been dried in sun and wind for 20 days; and cecina, smoked and air-dried beef from the north-west province of Leon, served with finger-size crunchy bread rolls on top. The flavours are more challenging than we're used to. The tuna is almost fizzy. As we sip sherry, none of us really enjoying its sharpness although the time-capsule surrounds are a hit, Joanna's ballad to Spain continues: "My father is conservative, but he really opens up here. You see Spain changing people; it's easy to get a personal experience here.
"I lived in London for four years and felt at home after two. In Spain, I felt at home within two months; it's very inclusive, very open."
We soak up some of this joie de vivre at La Trucha, an exuberant tapas bar that has been run by the same family since 1963.
This eating session is done standing. The menu, all cooked to order, is painted on the bevelled glass between bar and kitchen, in which we can see the women cooks at work. The all-male wait-staff take orders from one customer after another without writing them down ("Spanish waiters are very good with their memories," Joanna says). We eat steaming hot potato tortilla and bite-size squares of toast topped with caviar, smoked trout and cod's liver, and no tapas stop is complete without a plate of jamon Iberico. We eat so much of this flavour-packed staple on our Spanish sojourn that it brings new meaning to pigging out. We start to laugh every time it appears in front of us.
By the time we get to Restaurante Botin, established in 1725 and named in Guinness World Records as the world's earliest restaurant, there is no question as to whether we have room for its signature suckling pig slow-roasted in the original oven. We don't. Instead, we wander through its dining rooms, pausing at the table that was Ernest Hemingway's favourite (the final scene of The Sun Also Rises takes place in Botin) and reading a framed note from a satisfied customer on the wall above, Nancy Reagan having penned her praise on White House letterhead. Botin has been in the Gonzalez family for three generations; until the 1950s they lived on-site, in what is now the Philip IV dining room.
That was the same decade in which Ava Gardner danced barefoot on the tables at the wrap party for The Barefoot Contessa. Frank Sinatra, Joanna tells us as a waiter in bow tie and jacket walks past bearing a plate of glistening pig trotters, wanted to buy Botin; The Hoff was there just a couple of weeks before our visit.
The next evening, we leave Madrid as we arrived, on a train, although this time we are headed for Paris and it is a hotel on wheels, an Elipsos Trenhotel. We will sleep on bunk beds, shower in en suites, and breakfast on chocolate croissants and omelet as the French countryside zooms by.
Our final meal in Spain takes place in the same a la carte dining car: I can't go past a last jamon hoorah, ordering a selection of Iberian cured meats for entree.
Times in Spain have worsened since our visit, but life goes on despite demonstrations against economic crisis cuts, Joanna said from Madrid last week.
"The economy has affected many Spaniards, either their pocket or their outlook, and cutbacks have to be made," she said.
"Despite these adjustments, the pleasure of enjoying a good wine and some tapas is still as important as it was; it's almost part of the nation's DNA. The need to meet, to be with friends ... is not going to disappear."
The writer travelled courtesy of Qantas, Rail Europe and Accor Hotels.
The hot Tickets for a culinary adventure
If you didn't already know Tickets was a restaurant venture by Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame, the neat lime-green blobs on spoons would give it away.
What once was an olive is now more olive than an olive could hope to be, its juice having been extracted and reformed in the molecular gastronomy alchemy known as spherification.
Pop that blob into your mouth and the olive-flavoured explosion might knock you off your seat, if you didn't feel committed to staying put for another 15 tapas courses.
Tickets La vida tapa, a venture by Ferran and his brother Adrian in partnership with a trio of other well-known restaurateurs, the Iglesias brothers, sits on a corner of a wide and busy road in the former theatre district of Barcelona, Paralelo. You need to book two months in advance for a seat but if you're heading to Barcelona, you would be mad not to do the pre-planning; this is a dining experience you will not forget.
Entry, where you'll be greeted by staff in ushers' uniforms, is via a red carpet past theatre-style posters that promote dishes and drinks on the menu ("Tickets presents La Air Baguette de Jamon Joselito"), while the credits name the men behind the restaurant.
The theatre theme continues inside with such whimsies as a mobile cart with a green-striped canopy from which waiters serve ice-cream in delicate cones. There is the same sense of fun wherever you look: in love-heart-shaped chair backs, resin-topped tables in different colours, aircraft mobiles made from cola cans.
The restaurant is divided into individually themed cooking, eating and drinking stations: La Dolca is where the desserts are made (the lemon peel cream with toasted sesame and elderflower essence is so light it disappears before you can swallow); El Garatge (the garage), framed by hanging tomatoes, is where bocata (sandwiches) and meats (indeed, "all the products which are locked in everlasting love with grills") are prepared.
Diners of all ages, casually dressed as is the Barcelona way, sit at tables small or large, or along bars where chefs work in front of them.
In the fresh, laid-back, noisy space, served snappily by young, handsome waiters, we eat 16 courses of divine tapas. Some, such as cheese air bags and fried fish which no longer resemble fish, have been tricked up; others are more traditional, but put them together and it is a once-in-a-lifetime flavour adventure.
Over the four-hour lunch, Lucy Garcia, Ferran Adria's personal translator, has told us that formal dining is on the wane in Spain. "The trend is to offer more informal food that is really good quality and at affordable prices."
Tickets has it nailed. When we get the bill, we nearly fall off our seats all over again. It has cost, with beer, wine and liqueur, just over €60 ($70) each.
Tickets La vida tapa, 164 Avinguda Parallel, Barcelona. Bookings can be made online only, ticketsbar.es.
Qantas flies from Sydney to London or Frankfurt with connections to Madrid. qantas.com.
A five-day Eurail Spain pass starts at $350 for first class, $281 for second class. Holders of any Eurail pass only need pay for a seat reservation to travel on the Elipsos Trenhotel, saving on a night's accommodation. Otherwise a point-to-point Elipsos ticket can be bought with prices starting from $257 a person in Gran class or $235 a person in Club class, based on two people sharing. raileurope.com.au, elipsos.com.
In Madrid, the Mercure Madrid Santo Domingo has individually themed rooms featuring murals by local artists. Rooms from $149. 1 San Bernardo, +34 91 547 0803, accorhotels.com.
In Barcelona, the five-star Pullman Barcelona Skipper is 50 metres from the beach and close to Olympic Port. Rooms from $229. 10 Av del Litoal, +34 93 221 6565, pullmanhotels.com.
Insider's Madrid conducts a variety of tours, including tapas, The Botin Experience and walking tours. +34 91 447 3866, insidersmadrid.com.
Restaurante Botin, 17 Calle de Cuchilleros, Madrid, +34 91 366 4217, botin.es.
La Trucha, 3 Manuel Fernandez y Gonzalez, Madrid, +34 91 429 5833.
Villa Rosa, 15 Plaza de Santa Ana, Madrid, +34 91 521 3689, villa-rosa.es.
La Venencia, 7 Calle de Echegaray, Madrid, +34 91 429 7313