Since I was a teenager, Spain has been near the top of the list of places I wanted to visit.
I studied the language in high school and college, and the history and beauty of the country had always fascinated me.
Life happens, but a few decades later, I finally got my wish.
I’ll tour much more of the country with readers in the fall (if you want to join us, here’s info), but when Spain’s tourism office asked if I wanted to visit Madrid this spring, I was elated.
The visit was to check out Madrid Fusión, a giant culinary expo, but I would also have some time to explore on my own and eat at some of Madrid’s finest restaurants in the evenings.
In a too-short week, I got a real taste of Spain’s beautiful, bustling capital, and I can’t wait to return with some of you.
If you’ve ever been to a food and wine event, imagine that on steroids, and you have Madrid Fusión.
The three-day event occupied two floors of the enormous convention center IFEMA in the northern part of Madrid. Many of Europe’s top chefs attend, and this year, I heard talks on everything from using local London ingredients to re-create the tropical flavors of Mexico to making kombucha with artichokes. It was mostly in Spanish, which challenged my rusty skills, and it wasn’t until day two that I discovered headsets that offered translation into English. Still, food is a universal language, and it was easy to discern what the chefs were talking about by what they were cooking on stage.
Wandering the expo floors, a large part of each was dedicated to cocktails and wine. Because I was alone in a foreign country, I was hesitant to drink any hard liquor. Wine tasting was more my speed.
Though I wouldn’t be able to buy most of the wines I was trying, I learned about how verdejo grapes can be transformed into three wildly different wines, depending on fermentation and aging methods, and sipped some really special riojas.
Spain’s olive oil contingent also had a prominent showing, and I enjoyed sampling the sharp, peppery versions along with the more mellow, blended varieties.
Regions of the country offered coursed lunches to special guests, and though I missed most of a day because of a (quickly solved because of Spain’s excellent health-care system) medical issue, I did get a fabulous sit-down lunch from the region of Andalusia in the south of Spain. Because it is a coastal region, the lunch consisted of a lot of seafood — much of it raw. I ate everything from scallops to the largest langoustines I’ve ever seen to beautiful, fresh-caught shrimp.
In all, Madrid Fusión was a big, brash celebration of modern Spanish — and all European — cuisine, but was lacking what I really wanted to see and taste, which was history.
RICH CULINARY HISTORY
Luckily, the tourism office of Madrid had evening plans for us to dine at some really excellent restaurants, a few of which have been in operation for a century or longer.
One of those restaurants, Lhardy, opened its doors in Madrid’s city center in 1839. There’s a pastry shop when you enter the doors — the opulent dining rooms reside on the second floor.
There are a handful of dining areas, including several intimate private dining rooms, and each has its own decor. A hallway connecting them has giant hooks that an employee explained were used to hang the muddy jodhpurs of patrons who had ridden through the dirt streets to arrive at the restaurant.
Most of the artwork in the restaurant was created by the original proprietor, Agustín Lhardy, who was a well-known impressionist at the time.
The menu is old-school Spanish, and our group sampled a variety of dishes, from pickled partridge to young duck to clams and a filet of sole. All were decadent and mostly prepared well. My favorite parts of the meal, though, resided at the beginning and end. Each diner starts with a small glass of rich chicken stock, enriched with a dash of aged sherry. Warming, comforting and packed with flavor, it was the perfect palate cleanser. And because Lhardy is well-known for its pastries, we sampled a smattering of the dessert menu and loved each of them equally — from an eggy, custardy torrijas (sort of like French toast here) to a sublime baked-Alaska-type dessert with homemade ice cream that was set aflame tableside.
After a very special tour of the kitchens of the Royal Palace (more on that later), we descended to the caves below Casa Ciriaco, a restaurant which was originally a wine cellar that began operating in 1887.
The restaurant, which has been serving traditional Spanish dishes since 1929, served some of my favorite dishes of the trip, including fluffy croquettas (breaded and fried potato puree studded with bits of jamón), hake in piquillo sauce and a fricassee chicken that had our entire party wanting to lick the plate.
When I had a day of free time, I opted for dinner at Restaurante Botín, which is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world.
Its rustic wood beams, shutters and light fixtures, as well as traditional Spanish tiling, really make it feel like you’re stepping back in time. And the restaurant’s famous suckling pig is still prepared in an ancient wood-burning stove.
I had the standard three-course meal, which included a delicious, fresh gazpacho, that tender, crisp-skinned pig and a perfectly executed flan. And of course, a half-bottle of richly fruity Rioja.
DINNER AND A SHOW
The group was also treated to a multi-course meal at Corral de la Morería, which has been serving dinner and fantastic flamenco shows to patrons since 1959. Photos of celebrities who have enjoyed dinner and a show here line the walls — Benecio del Toro, Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, Pelé, Harrison Ford, Rock Hudson and many more.
The show was absolutely amazing, with expressive, graceful dancers and a world-class guitarist holding our attention until well after midnight, but the nine-course dinner before it, paired with sherries from the restaurant’s incredible 1,200-plus-bottle collection, was equally as magical. Seriously, I sampled sherries that ranged from 14 years to (just a few sips) of a sherry that was 150 years old. It was almost sticky sweet because of evaporation, but also intensely flavorful, with notes of dried fruit. I learned that I really, really like sherry, especially when I have a guide as magnificent as the sommeliers at Corral de la Morería.
As I yawned on the bus back to my hotel, I felt like the luckiest person in the world.
A MAGICAL BASEMENT
Perhaps my favorite part of the trip was a tour of the basement of the Royal Palace.
The basement, which extends throughout several wings of the enormous structure, contains the kitchens. You might not think a kitchen tour would be that special, but no one has lived in this palace, which is still considered the official home of the Spanish monarchy, since 1931. The kitchens remain largely the way they were when the royals moved out.
Room after room, from a pastry kitchen with a stove and oven from 1914, to a medieval-looking prep kitchen to the cavernous room where the main dishes were prepared, utterly fascinated me.
It’s hard to say what was most impressive. Possibly the giant wood-burning stoves, or maybe the copper pastry molds the size of a toddler. Or maybe the six-foot-tall iron warming cabinets from 1861, which kept the food warm before it traveled up a dumbwaiter to the service staff. My imagination ran wild, thinking of what it must have been like for the chefs back then, slaving over giant, wood-fired equipment in the freezing cold basement.
TOWARD THE FUTURE
Although Madrid Fusión featured some of Madrid’s best chefs, I was eager to see some modern Spanish cuisine in its natural habitat.
The easiest way to see that in a short time was a visit to Galerìa Canalejas, a gorgeous, modern food hall that will eventually be the bottom floor of a very swank mall full of high-end fashion boutiques. Cartier and Hermès are already there — the rest of the stores are set to open later this year.
As for the food hall, the strikingly modern design is eye-catching at every turn. There are 13 full-service restaurants. Some of the highlights: A burger joint from a Michelin-starred chef, a Mexican/Japanese fusion spot, a restaurant focused entirely on octopus and the Chinese eatery where I ate, which focuses on high-end dim sum. Most of the dumplings that were served to me in a towering bamboo steamer were fairly traditional, except the last, which was stuffed with the elements of a Spanish tortilla and topped with a fried quail egg. It was all delicious.
There are also 20 stalls, which are serving tapas, pintxos (small snacks), poke bowls, sushi, smoothies and much more.
It’s unlike any food hall I have seen anywhere in the United States, not only in its stunning design, but also in the breadth and depth of quality food being served. I definitely hope to return — and bring some of you along — when I’m there this fall.
TRAVEL WITH JESS
Did you enjoy this story? You can travel with me to Spain at the end of September, and when we return, I’ll write a story about our journey.
We will visit Madrid, but also Valencia, Toledo, Granada, Barcelona and Seville.
Hurry, the trip goes up in price on April 26.
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