Getting used to Madrid, starting with Tapas

Posted on January 6, 2010


I have recently moved to Madrid and for one reason or another, the city is taking some time to grow on me (top tip: pickpockets are rife, if it’s not tied down, it’s gone, make sure pockets are deep and zipped!). After huge enthusiasm for tapas in the first couple of weeks, I got bored of variations of ham, cheese and pawns with mayonnaise, all on bread – it’s not quite San Sebastian – but then I started exploring…. MMmmm

The first night that friends come and visit, we usually meet in Plaza Mayor and then I take them for an apero in Mercado San Miguel – a must do for any foody visiting the city, before heading off down the famous Cava Baja tapas street.

Mercado San Miguel is wonderful. Really. It’s a relatively recently converted market that has various food and beverage stalls around the edge and seating in the middle – I guess it’s a like a posh food hall!  Depending on your tastes, I usually start with a vermut (a bargain at1.5 – 3eur/glass) or jerez and the most fresh green olives I have tasted (usually I am not a big fan). Then a wander around the stands to see what is on offer. I highly recommend trying the Jamon Iberico Bellota (Bellota is the key word). You’ll see the stand easily enough and it’s well worth getting the good stuff. Note that when it is busy, some stands have tickets and serve people in order.

Make sure you don’t fill up too much here if you are then planning to go to Cava Baja!

The Cava Baja street has some superb places to eat, all full of atmosphere and too many to name names. Most specialize in some degree so make sure you visit a few bars. Coming from Plaza Mayor and going from north to south down the street you can stick to the right of the street and be sure to get the variety you need.

Start at the bar with the tostas – a wide selection of open toasted sandwiches. Try the goats cheese (queso de cabra) and onion (cebolla) marmalade. Further down try the street you will see a bar with jamon being sliced from the bone – again, have the Jamon Iberico Bellota ). There are a number of bars so it’s best just experiment depending on how you feel on the day.

Apart from the Jamon Iberico Bellota, one experiment  that a foody must do when tasting Tapas is to try Gulas. They are baby eels, usually incredibly garlicy and surprisingly tasty.

The other thing to note is that the window of time for the tapas crawl is short – 9pm until 1am.

An Irish friend, who I met in Paris, summed up the joy of eating tapas with friends perfectly: In Paris eating is so slow and boring, you only get to talk to the people in your immediate vicinity; in Ireland people go straight to the pub and forget about food entirely – maybe a packet of cheese & onion crisps if you’re lucky – and come out hammered when pubs close; But Madrid, well it’s a perfect mix of socializing and eating. I love that philosophy.

It’s worth getting a city guide before you come, I prefer Madrid: City Guide (Lonely Planet City Guide)

If you want to try some tapas at home, I have Tapas: Simple Flavours, Striking Combinations and love it.