Since we had the shortest distance to get from our hotel to the meeting point for the Ultimate Spanish Cuisine tour of anyone in the group, we were of course the last to arrive.
We were meeting in Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s main square, built in the 17th century and originally used as a marketplace for livestock. On this sunny November day, it was undergoing some renovation, so wasn’t looking its best.
Grainne, a young Irish woman from Limerick who’d been living in Madrid for three years and the other members of the group (three Americans and a Canadian) were waiting for us as we arrived perhaps five minutes late, sorrys and excuses pouring out of our mouths in true British fashion.
We began the tour, as it was just after 10am, with breakfast. As we waited for the churros con chocolate to arrive, standing up at the bar of our first food stop, Grainne told us about her confusion with Spanish breakfast when she first arrived in the country: instead of offering her food, a friend who was putting her up when she’d first arrived simply asked if she’d like coffee or a glass of milk.
Apparently, it’s not common to actually eat anything before leaving for work in the morning, so Spaniards take a breakfast break around 10am and may have toast with ham and tomato or something sweet like churros con chocolate.
These are generally vegan, as the churros are made with just flour, sugar, water and salt and are deep fried in vegetable oil, served with a chocolate dip (though it may be more like a paste in some places) that is made from cocoa powder mixed with water rather than milk.
Our next stop was for turrón, a nougat with the basic ingredients of honey, sugar, eggs whites and nuts, often with other things for different flavours (chocolate, for example). The recipe was first developed in ancient Greece as a kind of energy bar for long distance messenger runners, but is now a popular sweet in Spain, especially around Christmas.
As we walked around the city from place to place, Grainne would stop and tell us interesting or funny anecdotes about the places we found ourselves in. For example, we stopped outside a door to a tower just off Plaza de la Villa, the original central square of Madrid before Plaza Mayor was built in 1619.
Here, she told us a story of how the King of Spain once held the King of France captive in the tower, who was much taller than his Spanish counterpart. In order to try and trick the French king into bowing before him, the King of Spain covered the top part of the door with a plank, so that he’d have to bend down to come out onto the street. Instead, though, the King of France exited backwards, showing the King of Spain his bottom first.
Our first stop for some savoury food was at the Mercado de San Miguel, a market specialising in typically Spanish foods that’s only been open for 10 years. This wasn’t just any ordinary food market where you’d go to buy ingredients.
Instead, it was a place where you could flit from one counter to another to try many different specialities from around the country.
We started with some fresh (rather than pickled) olives, as well as almonds served with fennel, thyme and garlic, along with a glass of Reus vermouth.
After that, we headed to another counter to try some pinchos (tapas served on a piece of bread) which are typical of the north coast of Spain. My favourites were the goats cheese with caramelised onion.
Next we tried a couple of different fish nibbles, though Grainne said that if there were strict vegetarians on the tour, she’d buy a selection of other things to eat while the fish eaters were munching away.
Our last savoury stop on the tour was at an informal sit-down restaurant, where each person in the group chose something from the menu and we shared it all, including patatas alioli and bravas (fried potato chunks with garlic and spicy tomato sauces), pimientos padrón (mild to hot green peppers typical of Galicia in northwest Spain) and deep-fried aubergine slices drizzled with honey.
Finally, full but not overly stuffed, we came to our final food stop: an old fashioned bakery that was absolutely heaving. Grainne didn’t hesitate to recommend the napolitana, a freshly-made cream-filled pastry, but added that we could in fact choose whatever we wanted. I went with her suggestion, and though the pastry looked simple, it was one of the best of its kind I’d ever tasted, especially since it was still slightly warm.
In order to help us remember the places we’d been on the tour, and to recommend a few more we hadn’t visited, Grainne gave us all a sheet with details of several places to eat, as well as shopping and sights worth visiting.
We both thoroughly enjoyed the tour, and have since decided that food tours are the way forward: getting to know a city through its food scene is right up our street and we’ll definitely be looking to do more of them.
Madrid Food Tour clearly knows what they are doing, and we found dealing with them via email very pleasant and straightforward, and Grainne, our guide, clearly enjoyed her job and was very friendly and patiently and thoughtfully answered all of my silly questions. The tour was also well designed in such a way that we were able to eat something at every stop, without feeling like we were stuffing ourselves unnecessarily, but we also left feeling we’d had a good meal.
I would love to wholeheartedly recommend this tour to anyone coming to Madrid, though I am slightly hesitant to do so because of the price: for the amount of food we got, it seemed rather high, though the insights and organisation we got from doing it as a tour rather than on our own were indeed excellent.
- Cost: this tour, the Ultimate Spanish Cuisine tour is €95 per person and includes all food and drink and tour services, though you may wish to tip the guide additonally
- Times: the tour begins at 10am and finishes around 2.30pm
- Website; Facebook; Twitter
Many thanks to Lauren of Madrid Food Tours who kindly arranged a complimentary tour for us. She did not request that we write a favorable review, and our opinions are, and always will be, our own.