Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
Madrid, the grand city that is the capital of Spain, is also an autonomous region in its own right. As befits the capital, it sits almost in the exact center of the country, and, also befitting the capital, it draws for its culinary resources and inspiration on the entire country, although more from the surrounding Regions of Castilla La Mancha and Castilla y León than from more distant parts. Eager enthusiasts of Basque, Galician, Catalan, Valencian, Andalucian, and other regional cuisines are bound to find something to delight them amid the narrow alleys and broad avenues of this handsome capital.
Still, there are a number of dishes that are considered to be the special province of Madrid, most of them rather humble, home-style preparations that often have been taken from a working-class environment and elevated by Madrileño chefs to something more stylish if not more tasteful. Dishes like cocido madrileño, the hearty stew of chickpeas cooked with chicken, beef, pork, and a whole plethora of tasty vegetables, and callos a la madrileña, veal tripe and muzzle (knuckle) cooked with spicy chorizo, black sausages (morcillas), onions, and sweet and hot pimentón. From both of the Castilles that surround it, Madrid also draws on the famous sopa de ajo (savory garlic soup, thickened with bread and often flavored with saffron) and the asador tradition of meats, especially succulent baby lamb and kid and suckling pig (cordero, cabrito, and cochinillo asado), roasted in wood-fired ovens. A long-established Sunday custom for madrileños is the drive out to the immediate countryside for a meaty lunch in one of the many asadores or smoky chuletascas, where the specialty is tiny one-bite lamb chops, called chuletas, grilled over wood embers. And although one doesn’t think of farming in bustling, urbane Madrid, the quality of strawberries and asparagus from nearby Aranjuez is outstanding.
Many of Spain’s finest and most acclaimed chefs, even those who have made their names in other parts of the country, have opened restaurants in the capital, as a quick glance at the Guide Michelin or the Guía Campsa, its Spanish equivalent, will show. There are even fast-food eating places in Madrid, established by well-known chefs, that put McDonald’s to shame.
Madrid’s MercaMadrid is the largest wholesale market for perishable goods in Europe and the second largest fish market in the world (after Tokyo’s Tsukiji), but even before its installation some 30 years ago, Madrid was famous for the quality of its seafood, rushed to the capital overnight from Spain’s many productive fishing ports. Despite being in the heart of the country, the quality and diversity of fresh seafood offered in markets and restaurants throughout the city is incomparable.
A typical madrileño food experience also deserves mention: the tapas custom which, although it exists practically throughout the country, is very well developed in the capital where "ir a tapear" (to go for tapas) in the many tascas, as tapa bars are called here, is an evening tradition, a way of stoking up before the very late madrileño dinner hour.
Iconic Dishes and Products of Madrid
Breakfast: Breakfast time for died-in-the-wool madrilenos means chocolate y churros, thick, dark chocolate into which are dipped strips of unsweetened fried dough called churros. One of the oldest and finest places to indulge is at the Chocolateria San Gines just outside the central Plaza Mayor where breakfast is served from 4 a.m. on.
Beverages: Far more beer than wine is consumed in Madrid, although, as the capital, it’s a great place to taste and buy wines from all over Spain. A popular local drink is chinchón, an anise-flavored digestif that is distilled in the nearby town of Chinchón. Or try a clara, beer diluted with local fizzy water, which is better than it sounds.