Life measured in tapas

Traditional tapas in Madrid.
Traditional tapas in Madrid. Photo: Getty Images

When the sun sets, Brian Johnston joins Madrilenos in the tapeo, the city's essential bar-hopping ritual.

In Madrid, I've become a creature of the night. Mornings are a dim awareness of clinking coffee cups beneath my hotel window. The fingers of light that creep between shutters make me cringe like a vampire in a crypt. By afternoon I'm shuffling through the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, fragile as an egg and slack-jawed in wonderment. By 6pm I feel alive. At 8pm I'm heading off with a lover's eagerness. As the sun slides behind the suburbs and the sky turns mauve, I shrug off the day's heat and join Madrid's grand theatrical performance.

The men are pretty in pastels, the women Penelope Cruzes of perfumed hair and tanned legs. Retirees sport dapper beards as if painted by Velazquez. I sit at a table on Plaza de Oriente and watch the passing parade as the chatter swells towards a midnight crescendo.

Across a riot of purple petunias, statues leap from the shrubbery and an equestrian monarch waves a baton as if trying to prevent pigeons pooping on his palace. From behind a window floats the odd, arrhythmic clapping that accompanies flamenco. By 3am the Madrilenos are still packing the plaza, arguing over football and politics and the best tapas bars.

My evenings are devoted to the tapeo, the ritual of tapas bar-hopping essential to Spanish life. Plaza de Oriente is my favourite spot for the glory of its setting, and the tree-lined Paseo del Pintor Rosales for its long stretch of terraces abuzz with life. But Madrilenos each have their own preferred tapas district. "There's nothing better than seeing the sky through the treetops over the terraces on the Paseo de la Castellana on any given night," art-house publisher Elena Ochoa Foster says.

"Tour the taverns along Avenida Toreros and compete for a tomato-and-tuna salad or potatoes with Iberico with the men who have just been at the bullring," suggests the editor-in-chief of Spanish Vanity Fair, Lourdes Garzon, who also recommends Fuente del Berro park.

"I regularly have a beer on the terrace there with a leftist singer-songwriter, a former conservative politician, a TV news commentator and a journalist or two. As they say here: each to his own and God watching over everyone. Sometimes a peacock passes by and we throw bread to it."

The whole point of the tapeo is to move about. The Spanish call having a night on the town "ir la marcha", or marching, and this is exactly what I do, criss-crossing the city centre like a lost gypsy. I walk off the latest drink and plate of olives and let the passing architecture seduce me. I walk 20 minutes to a favourite tapas bar such asLa Trucha, just off Plaza Santa Ana. I like its whitewashed rusticity and windows on to the kitchen, where stern-faced matrons toil. I like the traditional Andalusian offerings such as Jabugo jamon and oxtail stew and delicious croquetas de jamon made to order. Nobody cares if I spit olive pits onto the floor.

La Trucha is owned by an Andalusian family and does tapas the old-fashioned way. Madrid and the southern province of Andalusia are regarded as the best places in Spain for tapas but Madrid has the edge for variety, with tapas from all over Spain and increasingly with culinary influences from beyond.

"Together with chickpea stew, tripe and bartolillos or custard pastries, from Madrid's own recipe book, you can also taste a good Galician octopus, Basque-style beef or the best seafood," says the food critic for El Pais newspaper, Jose Carlos Capel. "And next to traditional bars offering tapas, designer gastro-bars have sprung up in which prestigious chefs prepare quality tapas to order: fried potato cubes with a spicy sauce, blood pudding sandwiches, fried squid."

I'm not one for tours but in Madrid I make an excellent investment of €85 ($114) to join an all-inclusive tapeo with Joanna Wivell, a long-term English resident of the capital. She's a no-nonsense woman with a startling set of braces that look designed to bite the head of a chicken but she's excellent company and has the born-again passion of all cross-border converts. If it's Spanish, she loves it. If there's a tapas bar in town, she's been there.

She takes me places I would never otherwise find, like Plaza de Santa Barbara just outside the town centre, where the terrace hubbub drowns out the passing traffic. Here the Cerveceria Santa Barbara, one of the city's oldest beer bars, cools and pours its beer to produce a soft, almost sherbet-like head and an aching coldness perfect for hot Madrid evenings.

Wivell politely suggests a lady-like cana of beer rather than a doble - the night is young and the tapeo isn't a pub crawl. It's more a way of life, a celebration of sultry summer evenings, an excuse for endless conversations. Tapas are central to the Spanish passion for life lived large, Wivell says. Years after moving here, she still bursts with relief at escaping grey northern England with nothing but her accent. We have our beer with small green peppers fried in salt, known as pimientos de padron. These are the Russian roulette of tapas: most are pleasantly mild but one in 10 makes your eyeballs explode.

We walk south, deep into Chueca district, where tapas bars are as common as weeping saints in neighbourhood churches. On my own, I might have found a table in scruffy Plaza de Chueca, with its bohemian-meets-professional crowd. But Wivell marches into Taberna Angel Sierra instead, unabashed at the mostly male, slap-your-back clientele. This is one of the last places in Madrid to offer vermouth on tap and just the place to try Galician tuna pie. The rustic pie seems to match the wooden beams and tiled walls but, when I look up, an alarming baroque ceiling pops with cellulite and naughtiness.

Even beyond its venerable tapas houses, the tapas experience is highly theatrical. Outdoor terraces offer grandstand seats over improbable palaces, cream-cake churches and elegant squares. Here you can be both actor and spectator in the lively event that is Madrid at night. At 2am, housewives can be seen flapping sheets from balconies and old gents gossip in neighbourhood tobacco shops. Senoritas in short skirts set necks swivelling with their walk-on parts, pigeons shuffle on sculpted perches and the streets are loud with life and love and laughter.

Do we have time for another pit stop? Why not. El Bocaito's porcelain wall tiles depict bullfighting and flamenco scenes, obscured by dangling Iberian hams and barrels of sweet Malaga wine. The house specialities are Catalan-style bread spread with tomato and garlic (pan tumaca) eaten with ham and delicious whitebait with green onions, "Best accompanied by a glass of summery Valdelainos white," Wivell says. She knows the joy of drinks and nibbles spreads over hours. "When you eat tapas, you don't really eat," she utters Delphically. "And you never have a hangover. Madrilenos don't get drunk; they like conversation too much."

In fact, some claim the tapas tradition began when the 17th-century monarch Felipe III compelled taverns to serve food with every drink to combat drunkenness. "But I think it began with people putting a slice of cheese or bread across the top of their wineglasses to keep out the flies," Sergi Arola says. The molecular gastronomist and Michelin-starred celebrity chef has helped shake up the tapas scene in Spain with his whimsical additions to the traditional olives and anchovies. He might serve plantain chips with Japanese ponzu sauce or sunflower-seed nougat filled with goat's cheese.

On my last night in Madrid, I begin my tapeo at Sergi Arola Gastro, where the degustation menu allows me to sample the ever-changing monthly selections of this culinary maverick. I start with an edible gin-and-tonic, a cherry-tomato bonbon stuffed with trout roe and wasabi and marinated salmon with rice ice-cream.

But Arola is probably at his best with his updates of classical Spanish dishes. His gazpacho - a tapas favourite in Madrid - is topped with garlic ice-cream and cucumber caviar and his cod loin is sensational.

Arola is in the kitchen tonight. He looks like a grey-bearded, ear-ringed grandee from a painting in the Prado but wears a black leather jacket. He's one of the world's most accessible celebrity chefs, wandering through his restaurant, full of random thoughts. "When I was young, I dyed my hair blue ... I love rock'n'roll, I even talked to Matt Preston about music. You know, I sleep in bed with my wife on the right and the guitar on my left."

I ask for some tips on favourite tapas venues and get the same elaborate reply as from any Madrileno. "A real favourite of mine is La Cruz Blanca on Calle Mayor for an important reason: it's the best in the world at drawing beer. I never leave the Tabena Matritum on Cava Alta without trying their tomato bread and potatoes with cheese. And one of Madrid's best places for tapas is the indoor market on Plaza de San Miguel, which serves delicious oysters."

It's only midnight when I leave his restaurant. At home I'm a suburban, 10-o'clock-to-bed kind of guy but the night is still young in Madrid. Tapas beckon.

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Emirates Airlines and the Tourist Office of Spain.

Tapas etiquette

THERE are many styles of tapas bars; some have table service, others have bar service. Some have tapas prepared to order, while others have pre-prepared dishes on countertops where you help yourself. Waiters keep track by counting plates or toothpicks but, mostly, an honour system prevails.

Bartenders can make recommendations or provide you with house specialties, which makes a good random tapas experience (tell the bartender in advance how much you're willing to spend). It's cheaper to stand at the counter inside a bar, as tapas on terraces are charged at a higher rate.

Push and smile — it's the Spanish system for getting a terrace table. You might stand behind a table until it's free but don't suggest sharing a table with strangers, a big no-no. Tapas dishes are shared among friends and the Spanish don't hold back on the ordering.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare to Madrid for about $1970 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax. You fly to Dubai (about 11hr), then Madrid (8hr).

Eating there

Cerveceria Santa Barbara, Plaza de Santa Barbara 8, Alcala. Phone +34 913 190 449, see cerveceriasantabarbara.com.

El Bocaito, Calle de la Libertad 4, Chueca. Phone +34 915 321 219, see bocaito.com.

La Trucha, Calle Manuel Fernandez Y Gonzalez 3, Santa Ana. Phone +34 915 320 882.

Sergi Arola Gastro, Calle Zurbano 9. Phone +34 913 102 169, see sergiarola.es.

Taberna Angel Sierra, Calle de Gravina 11, Chueca. Phone +34 915 211 290.

Touring there Insider's Madrid offers gourmet tapas tours, lead by the highly informative Joanna Wivell, for €85 ($115). She also conducts walking and flamenco tours and tailor-made itineraries. Phone +34 914 473 866, see insidersmadrid.com.

Staying there

The Relais & Chateaux accredited Hotel Orfila has old-fashioned style and impeccable service with a central but tranquil location on Calle Orfila just north of the city centre. Rooms cost from €245. Phone 02 9299 2280, see relaischateaux.com.

More information

See spain.info.

Comments