The friendly San Miguel market

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.

Looking for something to drink in Spain?

Soon after the late breakfast coffee is finished, people in Spain seem to begin to look for something to drink. In this season the heat begins to sap your energy already by noon. So a glass of Sangria is never unwelcome. There are as many recipes for Sangria as there are bartenders, so apart from the constant red wine and sour fruits, the proportion of triple sec, brandy and sugar vary widely. The Family had a large variety ranging from a nice bitter pre-lunch drink to a sweetish late-afternoon cooler. I tried the Tinto de Verano a couple of times. It is similar to the Sangria but seems not to have the sugar.

Late in the trip I discovered Cava. When you walk into a restaurant and they offer you a free glass of Cava, it is hard to refuse. Later, as I contemplated asking for a glass of red wine, a waiter came by saying the bottle of Cava had to be finished. Again, an offer hard to refuse. Dry sparkling Champagne-like wines are not my favourite accompaniment to food, but the Spanish weather makes them more acceptable.

In a trip through Spain you will have to make a special effort if you want to miss sherries. I had a fresh tasting Manzanilla while watching the afternoon sun baking the walls of the Alhambra. In less exotic surroundings I tried out a nuttier Amontillado. I did put in an effort to avoid this and try the regular wines instead.

My trusty fall-back was the Vino Tinto, typically a Rioja or a Ribero del Duero. The ones I liked best used the grape known as Tempranillo (aka Tinto Fino), often mixed with small amounts of other varieties. A few places had Riojas made with Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz (Syrah), which also turned out to be interesting and worth trying. I was pleasantly surprised by Granada wines. They have recently been awarded the Designation of Origin (DO) status which protects their special local character. My exposure to Spanish wine is less than two weeks old. It has been a wonderful learning experience.

Interestingly beer is a common drink in Spain. It seems that Spain is the forth largest producer of beer in Europe. I found this surprising, given the deep roots wine has in the culture. The beer of Spain is light, and had in small quantities. I ordered my first beer on a blazing afternoon in Seville, and it came in a small 20 cl glass. San Miguel 1516 is a common brand, bitter and light. I was told to try the Alhambra 1925. It is very individual, and a little heavier. The bottle is very distinctive, as you can see from the featured photo.

I wish I had found good teas in Spain. There are many tisanes, but I love aromatic black teas. This is not a Spanish drink. I’m sure there’s much more to find. I cannot possibly have explored every drink in such a vast country within two weeks.