A taste of the city: Madrid on a plate

Spain is the most innovative country in the world when it comes to food. It's also the most traditional. Try it in the capital, says the cookery writer Claudia Roden, where you can sample dishes from every corner of the country

A desiccated, pulverised squid flattened into a sheet of paper, then cut back into its original shape and deep-fried. A Dublin Bay prawn cooked "internally" with a syringe injecting steam through the tail-end. Gum membranes enveloping liquids and jellies, compressed fruit and vegetables, soft and crispy foams, croquants of artichokes and mushrooms. These were the kinds of things demonstrated at Madrid Fusion, an international gastronomic conference in the Spanish capital. Top chefs and food writers from America, including Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, and Charlie Trotter shared the stage with Spanish avant-garde chefs. More than 1,000 chefs, caterers, restaurant critics and food writers from across the world watched them use blow torches, syringes, pumps, drills and as yet unnamed contraptions. They heard about sous-vide (a modification of the cook-chill system), and the use of laser and liquid nitrogen.

Ferran Adria, the Catalan star of the conference and international icon, was voted the most influential chef in the world. For years he has surprised the food world with his creative innovations. He is always asked to define his cooking. Is it Post-Modernist? Is it deconstruction? Is it molecular cuisine? He says he cannot define it. Instead, to explain what his food is about, he showed a three-minute film (cut from four hours) of a middle-aged Italian couple eating at his famous restaurant El Bulli, which overlooks the sea on the Costa Brava.

Their expressions ranged between being surprised, incredulous, joyful, laughing, emotional, even orgasmic. At the end of the film, set to John Lennon singing "I saw a film today, Oh boy! The English army had just won the war!", you could almost feel the ground move.

Adria's team demonstrated one of his famous inventions: a golden egg. They wrapped the raw yolk of a quail's egg in a crisp caramel, paper-thin wafer dusted with gold powder, which they softened briefly with a petite blow-torch to make it malleable. The new trend, Adria explained, represents a second revolution. The first revolution was in the 1970s when chefs in the Basque country, led by Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana, went to see Bocuse and created a Spanish version of nouvelle cuisine.

He listed 23 basic "commandments" of the new culinary philosophy. Science and technology - some borrowed from industry - are tools used to create what will give most pleasure and emotion. A dish should be enjoyed through all the senses as well as being thought-provoking and stimulating. It should surprise and amuse with contrasts of temperature and texture and trompe l'oeil.

The classical structure of a meal is analysed and the barriers between sweet and savoury are broken down. Courses may be served in a new way in small portions (Adria serves 25 to 30 tiny, sometimes bit-sized courses). Teamwork is important in creativity. The cuisine is global and international, but local cooking traditions are not to be forgotten; they are a way of bonding with the environment. Many young chefs have passed through Adria's kitchen at El Bulli and his "laboratory" in Barcelona where he experiments with his team for six months of the year. He has influenced a whole generation of young chefs and his influence is felt in fashionable restaurants around the country. You find savoury ice-creams, foams, mousses, jellies and unusual combinations such as lentil soup with foie gras. Meanwhile, the chefs go to great pains to explain that they want to "give emotions".

Today, Spain may be the most innovative country in the world of food, but it is also the most traditional. Food is a matter of cultural identity. The 17 auto- nomous regions were born out of separate medieval territories, and they continued to have autonomous status after the country united in the 16th century. Their distinctive cultural identity, which is sometimes expressed in their own language, is vital. Each region, city and village has its own special dishes.

Madrid, by virtue of being the capital, has attracted internal migration from all the regions. The city's inhabitants tend to come from all over Spain. Their presence is especially evident in the great number of restaurants representing each region. The Guia del Ocio lists 14 Andalucian restaurants, 23 Asturian, 31 Galician, 39 Castilian, 90 Basque, and so on.

Migrants from overseas - mostly Latin Americans - now form about one sixth of the population. At the weekend you can see them in the Parque del Oeste, where they set up stalls to sell their home-made foods. You can hear their music and see them dancing. Nearby are the Kiosks del Paseo de Rosales where, depending on the season and time of day, you can have churros (fritters) and hot chocolate or leche merengada (milk boiled with lemon peel) with coffee granita; beer, wine or horchata.

There is intense pride in locality. A window display of pulses in a small food store called Alimentacion Espinosa gives the place of origin of every bean (there are many kinds), lentil and chickpea. At the Mercado de la Paz where, apart from fresh produce, you can buy baby anchovies and elvers in oil, white sausages and morcilla (black pudding), chorizos, jamon serrano and Iberico, a variety of cheeses, empanadas (pies), membrillo (quince paste) and turron, every item is marked with its place of origin.

Spain is a country of many faces. The greatest division is between the vast and mountainous interior, which has always been somewhat isolated because of its harsh and arid climate and sparse population, and the rich and luxuriant coastline with its string of vibrant port cities. There is a wet Spain in the rainy north- west, and a dry Spain in the centre. In the east and south, extensive irrigation means that the huertas (the garden farms) can produce three or four crops a year. Local cooking evolved around the produce of the land and the sea. But every dish has a past and holds memories that reflect Spanish history.

From the eigth century for almost 800 years, it was a story of constant war against Islam, and of the reconquest of the land from the Moors. That was followed by a Golden Age of discovery of the New World and the acquisition of a huge overseas empire that set the country's stamp over almost half the world and brought foods to the Old World that had never been seen before. Then, in the 17th century, the country went into dramatic decline.

Every region has its own particular local story that influenced its cooking. Starting as a Muslim fortress to protect Toledo, Madrid became the capital of a united Christian Spain in 1606. The history is palpable in the city. There are several different Madrids that each reflect its different periods, each in its own separate quarter, surprisingly unspoilt, and packed with eating places.

In the old medieval and Renaissance town centre, the Madrid de Los Austrias (so-called because it was built during the reign of the Habsburgs, and once the home of the Spanish nobility), the Calle Echegaray is full of tapas bars - mesones, tabernas de vinos y tapas, casas de vinos, cervecerias - as well as restaurants Madrilenos, which serve local and regional traditional foods at reasonable prices. The 18th-century Baroque and neo-Classical Madrid De Los Borbones (of the Bourbons) is the luxurious and bourgeois quarter of the Prado Museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, the Reina Sofia art centre.

The restaurants around the Barrio de Los Literatos, in the area from the Museum Thyssen to the Palacio Real, which was the haunt of painters, writers and poets, offer traditional fare at reasonable prices in atmospheric, "a bit decadent", settings with beautiful tiles, chandeliers, trompes l'oeil frescoes and inner patios. In the Romantic 19th-century Madrid Isabelino, in the Paseos de Recoletos and de La Castellana and the Barrio de Salamanca you find the most innovative, avant-garde stylish places to eat, which are both popular and sophisticated.

In the modern Madrid, from the turn of the 20th century, everything is represented. Everywhere is always full, everyone eats out, but at home they also eat traditional foods, which are sometimes made easy, and at other times display considerable innovation.

I discovered Madrid with my friends Alicia Rios and Lourdes March. They are food writers who know the city well because they have "eaten it". Both are specialists in olive oil. Alicia was a teacher of philosophy and psychology, and then a chef, before turning gastronomic performance artist. She makes hats out of foods, organises concerts of smells and makes edible libraries, gardens and cities. She describes her projects - Eating Madrid and Eating Melbourne - as "urbanophagy". She explains that she "wanted to explore the unconscious desire of people to devour their environment, to make it possible for them to see their everyday reality in terms of taste, texture, smell, colour, and to have a mental picture of their city in terms of edibility". She says: "It is an ephemeral art that requires the participation of the public. It is theatre."

With a small band of architects that call themselves Ali & Cia, she sent a group of architecture students round the old town to get inspired about how to "cook" the city. They made a hyper-realistic model of Madrid using traditional foods. It was eaten with great pomp during a grand celebration. In Melbourne she rallied members of up to 35 different ethnic communities - Aborigines, South Africans, Japanese, Lebanese, Iraqis, Iranians, Afghans, Turks, Greeks, Serbs, Croats, Vietnamese, Chinese - and got each group to build part of the city with their own traditional foods (stuffed vine leaves, cheese filo cigars, pilafs, pasta, doughnuts, spring rolls, fritters).

All the parts - 10 square tables each measuring two metres by two metres - were brought together (on wheels) into Federation Square for a feast of music and dance. Eating London is scheduled for June 2007 as part of the International Festival of Theatre.

In Madrid there were, for me, many examples of déjà-vu. Traces of the Muslim presence, from architecture and ceramics to music and food - garnishes of raisins and pine nuts, meats cooked with fruit, spinach cooked with chickpeas, almond pastries, fritters sprinkled with sugar - evoked images of the Arab world that I come from.

One side of my family is descended from Jews who were expelled from Spain and went on to live in Ottoman lands. Many in our community in Egypt had names such as Toledano, Cuenca, Leon, Burgos, Sevilla, Navarra - a reminder of the cities that their ancestors had come from.

They were proud of their Spanish ancestry, spoke an old Judaeo-Spanish language, and sang ballads about hidalgos and Moors, and princesses in distress. They believed their dishes to be Spanish - and some were. That is why a taste, smell, or name of a dish triggered memories of my childhood.

Madrid specialities are ever-so-tender and succulent roast suckling pig (great) and cocido, which is a pot of boiled chicken, beef, pork sausage and black pudding with chickpeas and cabbage (restaurants serve it on Wednesdays). Its origin is said to be adafina, the Sabbath dish of the Jews. In 1492 the Jews were given the choice by King Ferdinand and Isabella of leaving or converting to Christianity, whereupon many converted. Fearing the Inquisition, they put pork products in their dishes to prove that they had truly rejected their old religion.

Claudia Roden stayed at the Hotel Orfila (00 800 2000 00 02; relaischateaux.com), which offers double rooms from €332 (£229) per night. The next Madrid Fusion (00 34 91 310 6670; madridfusion@madridfusion.net) conference will be held on 16 and 17 January 2007. The theme will be China and raw materials

CLAUDIA RODEN'S TOP TABLES

HOOKED ON CLASSICS

For taverna classics, go to La Monteria, Lopez de Rueda (00 34 91 574 18 12), a bar with a restaurant at the back. Try venison with salmorejo, tiny baby squid, soft-shell crab, chard, roast peppers and artichokes.

ANDALUCIAN CHOICE

For fish and Andalucian specialities, head for La Dorada, Calle Orense 64-66 (00 34 91 57 02 004). Try a fry of elvers, squid, anchovies, red mullet, king prawns with alioli and red-pepper salad or grilled langoustines.

OLD FAITHFUL

Botin, Calle de los Cuchilleros 17 (00 34 913 66 4217), is said to be the world's oldest restaurant. It specialises in roast suckling pig, lamb, stewed partridge, fish and seafood - hake, clams and squid in ink.

PAELLA PIG-OUT

For fun rice dishes, Arroceria, Gala Moratin 22 (00 34 91 429 25 62) offers every permutation - paellas, fideuas and soupy calderetas. And you can eat as much as you like for €18 (£11).

HOT CHOCOLATE

For everything chocolate, go to Cacao Sampaca, Orellana 4 (00 34 902 18 19 40). Famous for its chocolate drink (really thick), tarts, cakes and confectionery, it serves savoury snacks, sandwiches and churros.

My top sight-seeing

The Real Monasterio de Las Descalzas Reales (00 34 91 542 00 59) was built on the old palace of Carlos I in the 16th century. It was for women of royal birth who joined the Carmelite order of Saint Theresa of Avila, which was sworn to poverty and sandal-wearing. There is a fascinating collection of tapestries, paintings, religious sculptures and holy relics brought by the nuns as a dowry. There are still cloistered nuns there from Kerala and Africa.

My top plaza

Plaza Mayor is one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. Completed in 1620 for Philip III, it has twin spires, arches and frescoes. Everything happens there. I sat outside in a café watching the world go by: Cadiz supporters, in town to see a football game against Real Madrid, sang their songs, while a huge sandpit was prepared for equestrian dance. This is also the place to come for concerts, political demonstrations - and a Sunday market.

My favourite hotel

Hotel Orfila, Calle Orfila 6, Is a small 19th-century palace and Relais & Chateaux member. It is the most beautiful hotel in Madrid. Period furniture, exquisite décor - every detail makes you feel spoilt. The restaurant adjoins a dream-like walled garden. The food was the best I tried in the city: traditional in an innovative way. I ate pâté de foie gras with a thin caramel crust accompanied by bitter almond jelly; sopa de ajo - breadcrumb and garlic soup with an egg yolk dropped in; rosemary sorbet; bream sautéed in Iberico fat served with sweet, diced tomatoes sautéed with thyme and dressed with olive oil and parsley; roast pigeon served with brown lentil purée and artichoke purée.

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