When we got out of the Temple of the City God in Shanghai, it was about 5 in the evening. This is about the time that a typical person in China would be thinking of dinner. It was our first evening in China, and our bodies were still two hours behind. We decided to go with the body clock and treat this as tea time. Our plane would leave at 11 at night, giving us a clear six hours more to finish our dinner.
We walked through the spectacular food market (gallery above, click to enter) peering at the food on display in various stalls. I always think that it must be extremely tiring to man these little stalls of food. It must take a wonderful person to keep one’s smile while serving hundreds in an evening. I did catch the tiredness on the faces of people behind the counters, but I was distracted by the variety of food on display. Many things were familiar, but the plates of desserts threw me. I saw something like a custard tart, a Portuguese Pasteis de Nata. I had one later in the trip; it was comparable to the ones I’d eaten in Belem and Sintra. The Family and I chose something that we had no referents for, the green and pink blocks which you see when you click on the photos of the desserts. They were wonderful; very mildly sweet like all desserts in China, made of rice and beans. We had to choose one out of all the things on display, and we did not regret our choice.
We walked out of Plaza Mayor in Madrid through the north-west exit, and we were in the San Miguel square. In front of us was a wrought iron and glass structure from the beginning of the 20th century: the market of San Miguel. In recent years Madrid has converted many indoor spaces to the equivalent of food courts, from this to the upmarket Platea near Plaza Colon. We were in Madrid for too short a time to try more than one.
The main business of the market started behind the stall with fruits and vegetables. The sides of the market are lined with shops selling interesting tapas: fish on toast, cheese on toast, hams, stuffed olives, and so on. We diffused through the market slowly. The central aisle had long tables where you could sit and eat what you had bought. This part was crowded, and we realized that we would have to wait a while to find a place.
A very pleasant discovery was a counter for wines. I had my first tasting session of wines from the Rioja and Ribera del Duero areas here. We had discovered the grape varietal called Tempranillo a year ago in Portugal. We met it again. My previous experience with Spanish wines was inadequate. I resolved to repair this gaping hole in my experience during the trip. There was also a counter with sherries and vermouths, which could serve us over another evening, if we had one.
Decades ago, I had my first view of live performances of Flamenco in Tokyo. The cultural compliment seemed to be returned here. I tasted something called Gulas which adapts Japanese cutting techniques to create a dish which looks like eels on toast (click on the thumbnail above to see the details). Later I found a stall selling sea urchins. I’d only ever had it before as the wonderful raw goo that is called uni in Japan. This is different, as you can see in the photo above (if you haven’t seen sea urchins before, click on the photo of the things which look like hairy doughtnuts).
The Family found a stall with Sangria, and I got myself a Rioja. We found seats at a table and settled in for a bit of tapas: some fish, some ham. I’d not had much experience with the cheese of Spain. This was a good opportunity to try out the varieties available here. Madrid has an olive which I had not tasted before: this variety looks bright green, and has a different flavour (you’ll see it in the bottom rack below the stuffed olives if you click on that photo). The sweets did not seem specially Spanish. There were macaroons and chocolate of various kinds, and the Portuguese Pasteis de Nata, all of which looked and tasted authentic.
We thought it was a nice place to have an early evening’s drink. Dinner, as always in Spain, comes much later, well after sunset.
Every day at tea time we learn a little more about Portugal. It started with queque, little muffins which are lovely to have with tea. I’m sure Proust would have approved. Then we discovered the Pasteis de Nata. These little custard tarts were so good that it took us a couple of days to move on. Even after that, we got a little hung up on various queijadas, which are filled tarts. The Pasteis de Nata are just one example. We had one filled with passion fruit, another with apricots and topped with roasted almonds.
But yesterday at tea time we discovered a wonderful bread with a sweet coconut topping which is called, very poetically, Pao Deus. The web is full of recipe after recipe for this wonderful tea-time delicacy.
It seems to me that if I were to be in Portugal for another two weeks I would be able to walk into a pastelaria and order a snack without having to point at things.