Donald Strachan tours Madrid’s tapas bars and with a teen and a tween
As a certified omnivore, I sometimes find travelling with my kids frustrating. They’re fussy. They’ll reject an unfamiliar fish, yowl at a hint of chilli, and poke suspiciously at chicken cooked marginally differently to the way we make it at home.
I hoped a trip to Madrid might change this. They will certainly swerve the cecina (air-dried bull ‘ham’) and mollejas (a type of offal), but cooking here is Mediterranean: simple ingredients prepared and served without fuss. What could possibly go wrong?
La Musa Latina seems a good place to ease them in gently. Tapas here are ‘fusion’, quirky and injected with Asian flavours (a hit in our house). I dive right into a delicious, unusual bowl of ramen with bacon, kimchi, mushroom and egg; moreish empanadillas filled with Japanese ponzu chicken barely touch the sides. I’m loving it.
“Can this be our last tapas meal?” asks my 13-year-old daughter Lili, who’s hardly eaten. I fear she’s in for a long few days.
On Cava Baja — one of Madrid’s busiest tapas streets — the Madrileño vibe is in full effect. La Perejila looks like it’s been dressed for an Almodóvar film, with glass chandeliers and walls hung with memorabilia. Sold by the beaker, their vermut (vermouth) is flowing in heroic volumes. The kids pick at some perejilas (meatballs in sauce), but turn up their noses at tasty pulpo a la gallega (octopus with paprika and potatoes). Once again, their loss is my gain. Time to call it a night.
We’re on safer ground the following morning at Chocolat Madrid, a small, bright cafe-bar with a marble counter and tables. “Many places in Madrid serve churros fried early in the morning and then delivered,” explains Katie Stearns of Devour Food Tours, who run authentic food walks and experiences in six Spanish cities. “In other words, they’re not fresh — but not here! They’re fried to order, right in the back.” As well as the classic churros (thin, ridged doughnuts), they serve porras, which are larger and fatter, like a deep-fried boomerang.
“It looks a bit like battered cod,” says 10-year-old Ruby, tearing a piece off and dunking it into the warm chocolate. Fatty, sugary-sweet and silky cocoa… it’s an open goal.
Central Madrid also has superb produce markets, many doubling as food halls. At the indoor Mercado de Antón Martin, butchers, florists and fishmongers share floor space with tastes of the ‘new’ city including Mexican street food and a Taiwanese dumpling bar. We deposit the teenager ordering a pizza Margherita at an Italian cafe and pop a few doors down for some super-fresh octopus and prawn ceviche. Madrid is landlocked, but its fish market is Europe’s biggest, according to Katie, with deliveries around the clock arriving direct from the Galician coast.
Posher, more tourist-oriented, Mercado San Miguel is an even bigger hit with the kids. The tapas are arranged like works of abstract art. Lili makes for the paella — a Valencian dish, not typically Madrid, served here in tapa and larger ración sizes. The little one latches onto a proper local speciality: Aranjuez strawberries immersed in thick, sweetened cream.
For our last night, we go for tradition. Casa Toni is an atmospheric old-stager in the Barrio de Las Letras, with tiles, stools and bullfighting posters. We order generous raciones of grilled chorizo, calamari, pimientos de Padrón (fried small green peppers), and prawns sizzling in chilli-garlic oil. This is the sweet-spot of Madrileño food, and brought speedily in classic earthenware dishes.
After the last of our plate of salty ribs have been stripped to the bone, Ruby pipes up: “I wish we could eat like this at home.” It feels like a victory. Hard won — but victory nonetheless.