The Mercado de San Miguel is a magnet for foodies in the Spanish capital. Sample the mouthwatering fare of its food stalls, then set off on a tapas crawl of Madrid or join an evening wine tasting
Something you really should get your head around if you are going to Madrid is the hora del aperitivo. This is the hour (or two, or three), some time after noon, that the Madrilenians like to devote to having a civilised drink, preferably accompanied by a few tasty morsels to sharpen up the appetite, before the main event of lunch. Although this custom is as traditional as it gets, one of the best and buzziest places to experience it is the Mercado de San Miguel (www.mercadodesanmiguel.es), the gourmet market that opened in May 2009. Right by the Plaza Mayor, the dainty ironwork structure dates back to 1916 and housed a neighbourhood food market until a couple of years ago.
While there are still a few fruit and vegetable stalls, the aisles are now lined with chichi shops and bars where you can try a few slivers of marbled ham, half a dozen oysters or maybe some chunks of crystally mature Manchego cheese, along with a glass of wine, sherry or beer. The purist’s choice of aperitivo, however, is draught red vermouth, topped up with a dash of soda water – and there is an excellent one on offer here. Order white anchovies in vinegar to go with it, and you will feel as Madrilenian as Penélope Cruz.
There is also a bookshop with more than 1,000 food and wine titles, and a branch of Vinçon, the Barcelona designer temple, where you can buy suitably stylish kitchen stuff. Lhardy, which opened in 1839 and is Madrid’s oldest restaurant, has gone all 21st-century at its stall here with takeaway versions of its traditional dishes, as well as gazpacho and irresistible little pasties and pies. Unlike most Spanish markets, the Mercado de San Miguel is open all day until 10 at night, and later at weekends.
The only trouble with the market is that, once you have got an idea of the gourmet scene in Madrid, you won’t want to stop there. I would recommend continuing the vibe on a tapas crawl with Adventurous Appetites (+34 639 331 073, www.adventurousappetites.com), run by a multinational bunch of foodies who take you to places you would never find on your own. I thought I knew pretty much every bar in downtown Madrid, but made a few new discoveries on this tour, led by James Fraser, the former financial journalist who set up the company.
First up was El Neru (Bordadores 5), on a sidestreet opposite the market, which specialises in the food of Asturias in northern Spain. Here you drink cloudy cider from squat tumblers, poured from a great height by the barman to get some air into it. With it you eat hunks of bread spread with fiercely strong Cabrales blue cheese, which I love but not everyone is so keen on.
We moved on to El Lacón (Manuel Fernández y González 8) just off the Plaza de Santa Ana. Although not exactly off the tourist beat, it is actually one of the best for traditional tapas. Getting served in a packed tapas bar involves quite a bit of shoving and shouting, and it was quite a relief not to have to try to catch the barman’s eye, I must admit. Soon we were dipping into little earthenware bowls of tiny green peppers, morcilla sausage and oyster mushrooms. We also tucked into a tasty tomatoey gunge with mysterious bits in it. Only when we were mopping up the dregs with bread, did James reveal that we were eating callaos a la madrileña – the local speciality of slow-cooked tripe. Momentarily nonplussed, we all took a swig of the velvety Ribera del Duero wine we were drinking before asking James to order more.
If you fancy finding out a bit more about Spanish wines, sign up for the Monday evening tasting session at Planeta Vino (www.planetavino.net), where the dynamic Mary O’Connor from Washington will talk you through both established and emerging production regions – and there are more than 70 spread all over the country, as well as the Balearic and Canary Islands. You taste eight wines over a couple of hours, and are free to drink more of your favourites at the end with some tapas. Great fun and decidedly unsnobby, it doesn’t matter if you know nothing about wine at all, or have never had the chance to try anything but Rioja. And it only cost €15 per session.
Just off the Plaza Mayor and two minutes’ walk from the Mercado de San Miguel, the Petit Palace Posada del Peine (Calle Postas 17) dates back 400 years and is officially the oldest hotel in Spain. Don’t panic – it has undergone a stylish revamp and there are laptops and free wi-fi in the rooms as well as lots of beams and open brickwork. Doubles around €135 including breakfast.