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Cover story: The best of Spanish cuisine

Spain is home to an impressive array of Michelin-starred restaurants but the country also offers a wide range of affordable local food experiences — from olive harvests in the Sierra Nevada to tapas tours in Madrid, wineries hosting sherry tastings, and food festivals celebrating everything from spices to seafood and onions

Cover story: The best of Spanish cuisine
Tapas at Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid. Image: AWL Images.

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Madrid: top tapas spots

Spain’s obsession with food is nowhere more conspicuous than in the capital’s world-renowned restaurants and tapas bars. Eating out is a fundamental part of life in Madrid, and with competition so fierce, it’s hard to eat badly. Not only does the city serve up the hearty specialities of the surrounding Castile-La Mancha region, but its location, smack in the centre of Spain’s diverse agricultural landscape, means it draws in the finest produce and regional cuisine from around the country.

A perfect Madrid morning starts at a traditional cafe, with the favourite, churros con chocolate (hot chocolate so thick you eat it with a spoon and fried pastry for dipping). For the essential experience, join the locals poring over a chess game at the emblematic Café Comercial. Restaurants are already flat out by breakfast and hungry punters keep rolling in. The next onslaught is for the mid-morning sandwich, traditionally with jamón serrano, chorizo or tortilla. Then comes lunch, evening tapas and, for those still standing, dinner around 11pm.

Lunch is serious business here. For the full experience, try historic favourites like La Bola, where time stands still in dining rooms dressed with velvet curtains and celebrity photos. The same family has reigned here for 200 years, serving an unbeatable cocido, Madrid’s signature stew. For an affordable meal, try Andalucian specialities like tortillitas de camarones (shrimp cakes), chocos fritos (fried cuttlefish), and, of course, delicious gazpacho — best sampled at tapas bar La Taberna Sanlúcar. Or head to La Sanabresa, a traditional bodega with a great daily menu at around €10 (£8.20).

Squeeze in an afternoon snack from Madrid’s best bakery, Pomme Sucre, before taking to the streets of the La Latina neighbourhood, dropping into bars along Cava Baja, for deliciously plump, crisp croquetas (croquettes), hearty slabs of tortilla de patatas (thick potato omelette), pulpo gallego (Galician octopus) or salty, fried green Padrón peppers. Or try the new wave of fusion tapas bars, like the ever-popular Nakeima Dumpling Bar.

And of course Madrid’s frenetic food markets offer the ideal setting not just for shopping but also for some of the city’s best tapas. Mercado de San Fernando has several interesting new stalls, all serving great tapas; or try a craft beer at La Buena Pinta. Why not grab a glass of vermouth on tap, and snack on olive skewers at the Sherry Corner in Mercado de San Miguel?

Still got an appetite? You could do worse than Sobrino del Botín, the self-proclaimed ‘world’s oldest restaurant’ and, according to Ernest Hemingway, the world’s best. Lavish dining rooms exude old world charm and tireless waiters serve up favourites such as tender roast suckling pig, the speciality of Segovia. Or if you prefer a less formal experience and different regional flavours, ignore the average-looking facade at nearby Norte Sur for its superb Asturian fish dishes.

For off-the-beaten-track tours, try Madrid Food Tour’s half-day Ultimate Spanish Cuisine Tour (from £80 per person).

Madrid Food Tour: madridfoodtour.com
Café Comercial: elcafecomercial.blogspot.com
La Bola: labola.es
La Taberna Sanlúcar: latabernasanlucar.com
Pomme Sucre: pommesucre.com
Mercado de San Fernando: mercados-de-madrid.com
Sobrino del Botín: botin.es
Norte Sur: marisquerianortesur.com


CavaTast annual Cava festival, Sant Sadurní d'Anoia, Catalonia. Image: Cavatast.

CavaTast annual Cava festival, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalonia. Image: Cavatast.

Cava country

Exploring the rural heartland of Cava, it’s hard to believe it’s less than an hour from Barcelona’s cosmopolitan bustle. The sparkling wine synonymous with Catalonia’s buzzing tapas bars and sophisticated culinary scene, Cava’s historic base is the bucolic Penedès region, where tractors overflowing with grapes idle through valleys swathed in vineyards and rustic villages, all set against a jagged, mountainous backdrop.

Catalans are fiercely proud of their Cava, which has become one of the distinctive tastes of Spain. Produced using the same method as Champagne, it’s traditionally made from local Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada grapes, although other varieties, including Chardonnay are now used. Once dismissed as cheap and cheerful, Cava’s reputation is rising as ambitious cellars gain international acclaim. A trip to Catalonia wouldn’t be complete without extensive sampling. Barcelona’s Cava bars range from local joints such as Can Paixano — where the Cava slips down easily and the tapas is hearty — to wine bars such as the upmarket Monvinic. And sipping a local Cava at the venerable La Vinya del Senyor, by the Santa Maria del Mar church, is a quintessential Barcelona experience.

To explore Cava’s roots, head to the village of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, where Cava is a way of life. Grape vines stretch as far as you can see and even burly farmers in local bars nurse dainty glasses of bubbly. To get an overview, take the train from Plaça de Catalunya straight to Freixenet, a producer of around 140 million bottles a year. Directly across from the train station, regular tours include a train ride through the labyrinthine underground cellars. The tour is an eye-opening exploration of Cava’s mix of ancient traditions and cutting-edge technology, and the sheer scale of the operation is impressive in itself. Spain’s first Cava was made by Codorníu, a nearby rival producer based in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. It’s worth visiting for its cathedral-like modernista buildings, designed by Antoni Gaudí’s rival, Josep Puig i Cadafalch.

For a more intimate visit, many smaller cellars offer tours, although booking is always necessary. The best place to start is the new Cava Interpretation Centre, in Sant Sadurní, where the tourist office organises visits and several exhibits revolve around the history and production of Cava. Cava Emotions offers day tours from Barcelona (from £108 per person), including a vineyard and winery visit, picnic lunch and an afternoon learning how Cava is produced. Better still, come for the annual Cava festival, CavaTast, an annual three-day extravaganza at the beginning of October.

Can Paixano: canpaixano.com
Monvinic: monvinic.com
La Vinya del Senyor: lavinyadelsenyor.com
Freixenet: freixenet.com
Codorníu: codorniu.com
Tourism Sant Sadurní: turismesantsadurni.com
Cava Emotions: cavaemotions.com/en


Read more in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)