Travel: The flavours of Spain in a single city

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Indy Lifestyle Online
You don't need to leave Madrid to get a good taste of regional Spanish cuisine. Annie Bennett eats her way around Spain on a tour of the capital.

Ever since Philip II made Madrid the capital of Spain in 1661, people have been gravitating there from all over the country in search of work, wealth and a good time. Today, this is reflected in the strong presence of the various regions in the city.

As well as a huge number of restaurants representing every part of Spain, the capital is dotted with regional clubs that were set up as meeting- places for these "immigrants". So if you are in Madrid for a few days and want to expand your Spanish horizons, there's a quick way to sample the many different cultures and cuisines of the country.

You could start by making a spiritual journey to Galicia, in the north- west corner of the peninsula. The Celtic heritage of this region is reflected in its literature and music - bagpipes are often played at local festivals, and many of its myths and legends also crop up in the folklore of Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

The Casa de Galleia (C/Casado del Alisal 8), a swanky cultural centre on the hill behind the Prado, runs a programme of exhibitions, talks and concerts, most of which are free and open to the public. It is aimed at promoting Galicia rather than providing home comforts for its exiles, a role filled by the Casa Gallega (C/Carretas 14, third floor), which also has a bar and restaurant. Here you can try pimientos de Padron (fried baby green peppers from the eponymous Galician village) and pulpo a feira (octopus sprinkled with paprika and olive oil), but as the atmosphere is a bit fuddy-duddy, you may prefer to eat at one of the many other Galician restaurants in Madrid.

A good bet is the boisterous Ribeira do Mino (C/Santa Brigida 1), where you simply order a mariscada to share. This consists of a platter piled with a huge variety of seafood, including the much-prized percebes (goose barnacles), which resemble the toes of a prehistoric monster. Wash it all down with a bottle of cloudy Ribeiro white wine, and wait for a sense of raucous euphoria to kick in.

Your next stop could be the neighbouring region of Asturias, which boasts both mountains and beaches - a sort of Switzerland-on-sea. The lively Centro Asturiano de Madrid (C/Farmacia 2) has a tourist information centre, and is used for concerts, films and plays of local interest. There is also a popular bingo hall, the cultural relevance of which is not clear.

The third floor of the building is incongruously done up like a typical rustic tavern and is given over to the consumption of Asturian cider, which is paler and poppier than the English version. The restaurant, Fuente La Xana, is on the second floor and offers a daily set menu for pounds 14, including wine. The best-known Asturian dish is fabada - a heavy stew of butter beans, black pudding, pork hocks and cured ham. Sopa de matanza translates literally as "slaughter soup", but is in fact made with a variety of pork products, and is not as gory as it sounds. Cider crops up in the local cuisine, too, and here is used to flavour chorizo sausages.

Moving eastwards to the Basque Country, drop in at the Casa Vasca (C/Jovellanos 3) and go straight down to the cosy bar in the cellar. There is a good selection of Basque wines, served in the squat little tumblers typical of northern Spain. The imaginative tapas menu varies according to seasonal availability, but may include stuffed baked peppers, kokochas (hake cheeks) and bacalao al ajoarriero (salt cod in a red pepper sauce). You can also try cheeses such as Roncal, from the Pyrenees.

For top-quality Basque cuisine (at a considerable price) go to Amparo (Callejon de Pulgcerda 8) or try the buffet lunch at Guro Etxea (Plaza de la Paja 12). Marihartola (C/Raimundo Lulio 24) is an excellent, cheaper alternative - and is set in a tourist-free zone. At all these places you can expect to find marmitako (tuna casserole), xangurro (stuffed spider crab) and angulas a la bilbaina (eels in garlic sauce).

Everyone is familiar with the wines of La Rioja, but in Spain the area is also known for its fine cuisine. You can try it out for yourself in the grand setting of the Centro Riojano (C/Serrano 25, first floor), which sells local produce and books as well as providing tourist information.

In the evening, the place looks shut from the outside, and you have to ring the bell to get in. Once upstairs, however, you enter a series of dining-rooms packed with noisy diners and bustling waiters. The wine list - scrawled in Biro and pencil - will thrill Rioja fans, with a huge variety in the pounds 5-pounds 25 range. Specialities include patatas a la riojana (potatoes fried with pork, spicy chorizo, garlic and paprika), and pichon relleno de pasas y pinones (pigeon stuffed with raisins and pine kernels).

Sunday lunchtime is a good time to go to the Casa de Aragon (Plaza Republica do Argontina 6), when some of the women wear the traditional long, full velvet dresses with silk sashes. Despite its spectacular mountain scenery, rich history and Mudejar architecture, Aragon receives relatively few foreign visitors, and it is worth visiting this club to get an idea of what the region has to offer.

You can choose from several set menus in the very popular restaurant. The best-known Aragonese dishes include pollo al chilindron, which is chicken cooked with roasted peppers, tomatoes and onions, and perdiz escabechada (marinated partridge). If you just want a snack at the bar, try the local morcilla or black pudding, which is made with pine kernels and rice, or torreznos (fried strips of belly pork). A jug of robust red wine is the usual accompaniment, or you could try a rose from the Borja vineyards.

Next stop, the Circulo Catalan (Plaza de Espana 6), which sadly does not reflect the dynamism of the region, and is decorated throughout in a dull brown, rather than the breezy Mediterranean white and blue one might expect. You can sign up for classes in Catalan, and are invited to practise your sardana dance steps in the Retiro Park on Sundays.

Although the restaurant menu features local specialities such as suquet (seafood stew) and escalivada (roasted vegetables), you will find more inventive dishes and a much livelier atmosphere at Paradis Madrid (Marques de Cubas 14), which also stocks a good selection of Catalan wines.

Moving down the coast, head for the Casa de Valencla (Paseo del Pintor Rosales 58), where, not surprisingly, the restaurant is one big paella- fest. One of the most exquisite dishes is arroz a banda, where the rice is cooked in a rich stock and served separately from the fish.

This is only a selection of Madrid's regional clubs, and you have eaten your way around only half the country, but Andalusia, Extremadura and the two Castiles (not to mention the Balearic and Canary Islands) will have to wait for the next visit to Spain's capital city.

How to get there: British Airways (0345 222111) and Iberia (0171- 830 0011) fly from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Madrid, whereas Debonair (0500 146200) flies from Luton and Aerolineas Argentinas flies from Heathrow. The lowest fare is likely to be on the latter airline, for around pounds 111 through agents such as Air Tickets Direct (0990 320321). Madrid's airport, Barajas, is 10 miles east of the city centre. Buses to the centre leave every 15 minutes, for a fare of around pounds 2. A taxi ride costs around pounds 10.

Who to ask: The Spanish Tourist Office is at 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (0171-486 8077; brochure-line 0891 669920). Open 9.15am- 4.15pm, Monday-Friday. Nearest tube: Bond Street.

The main tourist office in Madrid is on the Plaza Mayor (266 5477); others can be found at the airport arrivals hall, and at Chamartin station. Most museums and galleries are closed on Mondays.

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