During my Summer spent in Texas, the first question I was always asked after telling someone of my plans to move back to Spain was, “What is it about Spain that you love so much?” My reaction was always the same: the food. Or more accurately, the culture that surrounds creating and eating food. In Spain “slow food” is not a fad, it’s the norm. Lunches here are hours-long affairs and serving day-old bread is sin. In the rural garden-filled hills of Galicia (my home for the past school year), farm-to-table wasn’t the restaurant’s advertised enticement, it was the diner’s unwritten expectation, one I came to cherish.
Moving to the 4-million-strong metropolis of Madrid this year, I feared my days of abundant food freshness were over. I’ve been a Madrileña for less than two weeks and already any and all of my food fears have evaporated. Madrid is not only a mecca of fruit stands and bakeries, but a foodie treasure chest bursting with traditional tapas bars, specialty restaurants and coffee-conscious cafes. Madrid, I am coming to find out, is the melting pot of Spain’s culinary excellence. In other words, it is food heaven. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:
Exhibit A: Squid for Lunch. Claro!
Picture two American roommates in their early twenties planning a dinner with friends. What will the menu look like? As an early-twenties American, I can tell you from experience it will likely include ground beef or pan-grilled chicken, perhaps some pasta, probably a salad or maybe some homemade (and by ‘homemade’ I mean from-a-box) brownies.
Two days ago I experienced the same sort of meal with two twenty-something Spaniards. After some rapid-fire Spanish debate over what to fix, my new amigos announced it was time to ir al supermercado. At the corner market, my fearless masters of delicious cuisine marched straight up to the seafood counter, flagged down the haz-mat-style suit wearing attendant, and asked for three gooey, floppy, football-sized squid — well, technically cuttlefish — as nonchalantly as if they were ordering sliced turkey from the deli.
Package-o-fresh-squid in-hand, they strolled over to the fruteria next door to pick up fresh sprigs of parsley and cilantro, informing me that fresh herbs were clutch to making the family recipe’s sauce delicioso. An hour of kitchen-clanking and taste-testing later, my new meal-preparing role models laid a steaming pile of perfectly seared squid pieces on the table next to a dish of boiled new potatoes, a carafe of bright-green parsley-cilantro sauce and two plates of pan-fried Chanterelle mushrooms. One bite of the crisp, yet succulent squid bearing a hint of the tart, garlicy punch of the green sauce and I floated off into Spanish food heaven…
Exhibit B: Viva la Vida, a Vegetarian Buffet
In a country where your typical bar has cured ham legs hanging from the ceiling and the “vegetarian” menus feature five kids of tuna, there exists the unimaginable: a plaza of not one, but two vegetarian restaurants. Ironically enough, these unexpected changes of culinary pace are nestled in the heart of one of Madrid’s oldest neighborhoods: La Latina.
I stumbled upon the first and most impresionante of the veggie eateries last week while in search of a tasty-looking lunch spot. Inside I discovered everything I could want in a Spanish-style vegetarian restaurant. Lush green vines blanketed the ceiling and Chinese lanterns hung over the bar. Bowls of flowers floated on tables between flowy-skirt wearing diners. Along the black wall, buffet tables overflowed with vegetarian fare with a decidedly Spanish flare.
There were whole-wheat croquetas and meatless albondigas (meatballs). A clay pot of cold gazpacho was nestled alongside salads with bright red tomatoes, blocks of feta and dried dates. Every dish was bursting with color and flavor. I loaded as many kinds of exotic veggie goodness onto my plate as possible, awaited my glass of accompanying white wine, looked out over the Plaza de Paja and dug into veggie heaven…
Exhibit C: The Tomato Man
There are three fruterias between where I’m staying and the metro which means every day I’m torn between the green-and-yellow striped melons at the cavernous self-serve Rosa’s, the 2,35/kilo neon-green figs at Tomate’s and the so-purple-they’re-black bunches of grapes at Un Dia. Trying to cover my bases, I decided to hit up each store and compare quality, variety and price. Five seconds after setting foot in Tomate and I realized not one of those three standards mattered.
The jolly round man that runs the smallest of the three produce stores, Tomate, hopped up to greet me the second I entered his shop. I asked for a quarter-kilo of figs (my new fruit obsession) and then stood dumbfounded in front of a table of six types of tomatoes. “Which is the best?” I asked after he’d carefully placed about a dozen small figs into a clear plastic bag. “These,” he said without hesitation, pointing to the least-red bunch of lopsided tomato-like forms. “They are ugly, but they are the most sweet, the most tasty.” He plucked the reddest mound from the table. It was relatively nice-looking on the top but squished on the bottom. “Eeh! Esta mal,” my tomato guru grunted, snatching instead a yellowish-red one and placing on the register with my figs.
Skeptical that such a bland-colored vegetable could be as rico as the brilliant red variety sitting next to it, I headed to the back to find a suitable salad back-up. “Toma! Probalo!” Tomato Man shouted across the store, a dripping hunk of the slightly-squished tomato extended in my direction. I rushed over before the waterfall of tomato juice could coat the entire register. Slurping, I shoved the chunk of light red flesh in my mouth. A symphony of sweet, garden-fresh flavor enveloped my tongue and I drifted off into this-is-what-real-veggies-taste-like heaven…