Did you know that the food capital of the world is no longer Paris? I have to say, I have been quite surprised about France lately. We refer to a unifying language as the “lingua franca”—literally the French language. Going back generations, we also have taken for granted that France will provide us with both innovations and a baseline for the best cuisine. For years, Julia Child alone was enough to ensure France’s hallowed place, and the Michelin star system reinforced it. But now a young upstart, with as ancient a lineage and pedigree (if a slightly more rustic sensibility) has come on the scene. Congratulations to that new haven for all things Gastro: Madrid.
Going to Madrid for the first time is quite an experience. The architecture alone ensures your eye is constantly casting over beautiful scenery that includes palaces, museums, and a deeply European sensibility. The many medeival buildings, frequent cobblestone streets, and delightful hand-painted street signs continue to surprise as you walk a city with both an excellent subway system and something new at every turn. Especially the food. It calls to you from every coffee shop, from every cervecería, from every restaurant—and there are hundreds. Most of them feature glass cases with the food on display, especially the hot and cold tapas so ubiquitous in this part of the world. “Come drink my café con leche,” they whisper. “Come dine on my Jamon.” “There’s always room for one more of these tiny plates.” Never mind that you ate an hour ago and have been walking around enjoying the views of the local food hall, so beautiful that you just had to stop, even though you were on your way to a palazzo.
For us, we had terrific meals at both the best-known establishments and the ones we stumbled across during our walks, and everywhere there were unexpected delights. Each Spaniard we met was concerned that we have a good food experience, a deeply enriching and satisfying one. Waiters took the time to explain the difference between this tapa and that one. At Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world (which has been in business for nearly 300 years) we arrived after walking the city for two hours, casually dressed and without a reservation. Yet we were welcomed in warmly, seated with a great view of the comings and goings at the bar of this busy establishment, where haunch after haunch of jamon was sliced and served on giant white plates by white-jacketed waiters whose practiced hands would do this until the day they retired. Sometimes even the guests got involved with our food experiences. At the very first cervecería we entered, a man ordered Liquor des Herbes, a distillation that is usually homemade and varies between bars depending on what herbs they steep in the alcohol. This one was so thick and green I initially mistook it for olive oil, so of course I had to ask the customer about it. The next thing I knew, the proprietor was pouring three shots, so my husband and I could experience this most local of drinks and learn how the unfamiliar concoction was made.
And so it was all over this city where vegetarians can find plenty to eat, but pork and beef are the centerpiece. We were told that we must only order seafood on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays; by Saturday is too old and they must use frozen fish. At first I was dismayed, as we would not be there on the appropriate days and I wanted paella, but then I realized it was a throwback to the way things used to be before the days of eighteen-wheel, nationwide refrigeration—each region offered up its local produce and protein, and its cooking was determined by what was available fresh. What a great opportunity to discover the delights of what only Madrid could create, because other areas would have their own specialties. It is something that Americans as a society are learning again to do, with farmer’s markets and the locovore movement leading the way.
During my time in Madrid, I learned to be more casual about my meals, less controlling of the specifics and more open to changes, adjustments, and new experiences that I might not have otherwise encountered. It was a great lesson for other areas of my life, and one that I took home with me along with the memories of wonderful and unexpected foodie treats.
At the end of the week, I was convinced that though Spain is a Catholic country, their spirituality is in their cuisine — soul-nurturing, passionate, and deeply felt. I can’t wait to return to learn more about the new food capital of the world and more about myself.
Spirit Quest Tours’ new line of Gastro-spiritual tours launches with Wine, Tapas & Tales in Madrid & Barcelona this September. Join us to feed your body, mind and soul.