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.

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Rabo de Toro

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.

A Tapas Experience

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.