Madrid is a foodie heaven. You see it in the markets that offer row after row of fresh produce, and the tapas stacked on café countertops, beckoning passersby in with the thrill of bite-sized pleasures. Pages could be written of the tapas in Spain; hell, pages could be written on the jamón ibérico alone. But for now, the focus is the simple pleasures of tapas in Madrid. Nothing fancy, nothing molecular, just good eating that taps into a heritage of soul-satisfying dishes.
Croquetas de Jamón (Ham Croquettes)
Although many varieties exist -- spinach, Roquefort, duck -- the best version of the crisp, golden, savory pastry is the classic ham. Filled with rich bechamel and fatty jamón ibérico, croquetas are cheap, filling, and, if done right, transcendental. Prices vary, but at the San Miguel Mercado you can get one for about €1.50, or $2.
Tortilla Española (Spanish Tortilla)
A well-made tortilla Española (or tortilla de patatas) will make even the most anti-foodie want to Instagram photos of their slice. Similar to an omelette, but much better, the tortilla takes five fairly run-of-the-mill ingredients -- potatoes, eggs, onions, olive oil, and salt -- and makes a robust and gratifying snack or meal. One of the few dishes that is just as delicious served cool, hot, or at room temperature, it's made by sizzling potatoes and onions in oil, mixing them with eggs, then pan-cooked and flipped like a thick pancake. Try it alone, or tucked between pieces of bread for a bocadillo.
Sure, you've heard of gazpacho, but what about its richer, heartier cousin hailing from Cordoba in the southern Andalusia region? Served as a starter or first meal, salmorejo is a chilled, pureed tomato soup that is usually topped with some sort of protein like jamón ibérico, crumbled hard boiled egg, or tuna flakes. The combination of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and silky olive oil makes spooning and dipping a refreshing treat. Prices range between 5 and 8 euros, depending on the size.
Erizo (Sea Urchin)
In terms of visual appeal, erizo served in an enormous sea urchin shell is one of the best Spain has to offer. The purple spines are dangerously in tact, making this a tapa for the badass within. There are an infinite amount of ways to prepare erizo, and the one I tried (again in San Miguel Mercado) is a creamy custard version. Mixed with cream and egg whites, the sea urchin's brininess is mellowed yet still conjures up visions of the Galician seaside. The downside to erizo is that it's expensive, due to the difficulty of extracting them from the sides of rocks and cliffs, so prepare to spend around 4 euros a pop.
My all-time favorite, my biggest Spanish culinary weakness and love is without a doubt jamón ibérico. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack; sliced, crumbled, chunked, cubed; in a cone, on a baguette, garnished atop soup, sliced in front of me and put directly in my palm. It never, ever gets old.
This visit, my companion took me to one of many jamón ibérico stores by Enrique Tomas, located on the busy Calle Preciados. The tiny shop is like a dream, full of hanging legs, knives, and artisanal jamón holders. A tall Spaniard with clear eyes and a black and white pinstriped apron carefully cuts paper-thin slices of jamón and we make a beeline for him. We receive samples from Jabugo, located in a high valley in rainy Andalusia, widely thought of as the mecca of jamón ibérico.
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The ham there comes from plump, black pigs that dine on bellotas (acorns), the reason for the famous nutty taste that you'll never find in any prosciutto. A leg from one of these babies can run between €75 ($100) all the way up to €810 euros ($1,150). As much as I want my own leg to cherish and love for months, I know my bank (and Homeland Security) won't be happy, so I settle for a freshly sliced bocadillo, a cool €4 ($5.50).
We park ourselves under a tree, in front of the Callao metro station, eating in silence, savoring the rich nuttiness, the perfect marbling of fat. Afterwards we lick our fingers clean and I can't help but wish I had another bocadillo in my hands.