We knew of the Spanish fascination with bulls well enough to discuss whether or not we wanted to see a bullfight (our decision: not). But we did not think its tail would play an important role in the cuisine. After a long day of walking about Madrid we settled down for a sundowner: The Family with a Sangria and a Tio Pepe for me. After a few sips, and some nibbling at the large plate of croquettes and olives which came free with the drinks, we thought we needed a little more to munch.
The lady who served us suggested a plate of little pies made of Rabo de Toro. What is it? She explained that when you cut the tail off a bull, you can remove the meat and cook it. "What happens to the bull?" one of my nieces asked on Whatsapp. We were not worried about these little details. We ordered a plate. That’s what you see in the featured photo. The red is grilled chili, and the brown sauce is the house speciality. Considering that the house is more than a century old, I had no hesitation in dunking my pastry in the sauce. The filled pastries were brilliant, as was the sauce.
We had lucked on to a wonderful place. Although it is at the edge of the tourist area of Madrid, the food and the drinks were good, and the servings were generous. This was our first encounter with the notion of a free tapa with drinks, something that we encountered again later. Perhaps we should have sat there for dinner, but our Indian habits are not far from the Spanish style of eating late. We finished our nibbles and drinks and wandered off.
I encountered Rabo de Toro as a stew later on, and was impressed again. My advise to you, young niece, is not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
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 whether to ask 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 an 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.
Our first evening in Barcelona was spent in a lovely bar in the Eixample district. I understand that the notion of tapas started with bars serving little eats to customers so that they would stay on for a second drink. Unfortunately, these little eats are no longer free, or even cheap.
We sat outside the friendly neighbourhood bar. After the heat of the day, The Family wanted a Sangria. I decided to have a glass of Rioja. The little dishes kept coming: anchovies, local ham, a couple of tostadas, grilled chilis, a wonderful blue cheese. We stayed on for another glass of wine. People from the neighbourhood dropped into the bar in ones and twos. A small birthday party was in progress in a neighbouring table.
As we munched a fresh and light tostada, The Family said "It’s all so fresh and light." The toast, for example, had tomatoes, greens and smoked salmon with olive oil. Later the waiter got us a simple thing he wanted us to taste. "Totally local", he said. It was bit of toast soaked in fragrant olive oil and some grated tomato on top. Light and simple.
It was a lovely relaxed evening, exactly what tapas is designed to create.