I remember my 8th grade Spanish teacher Mr. Kolar teaching our class about tapas. He described them as “finger foods.” I immediately loved the idea of it. First of all, who doesn’t love finger foods? Moreover, it seemed like a perfect solution the combination of my natural indecisiveness and my love of food – why choose one item off the menu when you have a small plate of three different ones?! I remember wishing I could find a restaurant who served tapas. Welp, I did. In Madrid. Where I live now. It’s casual.
Danielle and I signed up for a tapas tour our first week here, where our guide brought us (along with a really fun group of people from all over the world) to three different restaurants in the city. At each place, we were served three different tapas “family style” and one drink! Our tour guide started off by giving us a little bit of the history of tapas. In reality, tapas have been around for centuries and there are many legends as to how they came about. The most widely-known one I found super interesting because it actually has to do with medicine! It is said that King Alfonso X came down with an illness and was instructed by his doctor to drink small glasses of wine as treatment (wise advice indeed). To avoid drinking on an empty stomach, he would have small snacks with his glass and not surprisingly enjoyed this combo greatly. There are many other tales as to their origin, but I’m just happy they exist, however they came about!
– Brace yourselves, this is a long one. But it’s a mini introduction to SO many classic Spanish foods that I got to try all in one night! –
The first restaurant we went to was called Inclan Brutal Bar, where we had some of the most traditional tapas. The vibe is very modern, some might say hipster; one of the guys in the group observed that he felt like he was ‘in an Urban Outfitters.’ First things first when out for tapas: a drink! We were served a glass of rebujito, a cocktail that originates from the southern region of Spain (Andalucía), made with Spanish white wine (fino) and mixed with a lemon-flavored carbonated beverage, for example Sprite. It is as clear as water, mildly sweet, and you’d never know it was alcoholic by the taste… which can be potentially problematic because according to our guide, it is also 15% ABV!
The first tapas served at Inclan were croquetas. Croquetas are deep-fried balls of HEAVEN. Er, I mean – small, round balls with a perfectly delicate outer crunch and a creamy center of small pieces of serrano ham in a bechamel sauce. They were fried seconds before arriving at our table and we were told that this is the only way we should ever eat them. Won’t argue with that!
There were two couples from Israel who were Jewish and follow a Kosher diet, so unfortunately they couldn’t partake in the croqueta lovin’. The restaurant kindly provided gazpacho for them instead. Gazpacho is a tomato-based soup made with raw vegetables and served cold, also from the Andalucía region. I tasted a spoonful and it was much different than I anticipated. The texture of this particular one was a puree (think applesauce consistency), when I had been expecting it to be more similar to a broth. It also had a strong/strange undertone of beet, which I have to admit is not one of my favorite vegetables. Now that the summer is over I don’t know if restaurants will continue to offer it, but if so I would love to try some other variations of this classic.
While croquetas remain my favorite tapa, the next one was a very close second – “patatas ‘brutal.'” Small white potatoes cut into rounds, deliciously seasoned with herbs and roasted to perfection, then topped with a spicy pumpkin aioli (in Spain and still livin that #pumpkinspice life). Pretty much every restaurant in Madrid serves their own version of these, traditionally known as “patatas bravas” but NOT traditionally made with pumpkin. I know I’ve literally only tasted one kind but I really don’t think they will get better than the ones at Inclan. Danielle can attest – she’s had them in several different regions of Spain is just as obsessed with these.
Our last tapa here was called “tortilla trufada” (truffled tortilla) also known as “tortilla espanola” or “tortilla de patatas.” In this Spanish omelette, less is more – the classic version is made with only eggs and potatoes (potatoes all day erry day).
Click the pictures to enlarge! (I apologize for the poor photo quality – that hipster neon lighting was not the easiest to work with)
Our second stop of the tour was at Museo de Jamón, translated literally to “Museum of Ham” (I’m telling you these people cannot get enough jamón). Despite the fact that there are nine locations throughout Madrid, they are still a family-owned business which is awesome. To start, our guide passed around bottles of ‘tinto de verano,’ (translated literally means “red wine of summer”) a basic red wine mixed with lemonade – definitely right up my alley.
Our first tapa here was a mini bocadilla de jamón – just picture a ‘slider’ hamburger bun with one slice of salami on it. Honestlyyyyy, I could’ve done without that one. But then our guide came out holding platters of various pork products for us to sample: serrano ham, jamón iberico, chorizo. I don’t think Spaniards batted an eye at that WHO article warning against processed red meat published last year. Pork is such a huge deal here, I’ll have to do a whole separate post on that later.
Spain is famous for the cheese that was served with along with our ham samples- Manchego cheese. Manchego is the name of the breed of sheep whose milk it is made from. Manchego sheep are raised specifically in the La Mancha region of Spain, a large region just underneath Madrid. Manchego cheese is light yellow, firm, and aged for at least 60 days, giving it a pretty strong and distinct flavor – similar to that of goat cheese.
Our last stop of the night was at La Cristiana Taberna. I loved the personality of this place, the wait staff was so fun and made us feel like family. Our guide first talked about how people used to drink wine out of wineskins and proceeded to demonsrate the correct way we should squirt the wine into our mouths out of said wineskin. (Note: this is NOT the traditional way to drink out of one, we just didn’t want 15 people’s mouths on the same nozzle).
There really are only a few foods I dislike, and olives are one of them. Despite this, I tried one (“when in Rome!” – or Madrid 😉 ). In Spain, they sometimes pickle them with vinegar. I’ll admit that when I was pretending to spit out the pit, I spit out the entire thing. Ha. Maybe next time.
Next, we sampled a specific type of tapa called a pincho because it is served on a small slice of bread. Our guide actually forgot to describe this one to us, so it remains a mystery to this day. Given the smell and texture (slimy) I am 90% sure it was some sort of sea creature but I’m a little afraid to know which. This was a one-biter. 2 strikes!
Luckily the third tapa here was a home run. The night would not have been complete without a little paella. Arugably Spain’s most famous dish, paella has its origins in Valenica and is a rice dish typically made with shellfish (shrimp, mussells, clams) and other seafood (oh hayyy octopus) but there are infinite variations where you’ll find anything from chicken, to rabbit and very often snails. Paella was actually the poor man’s dish, because originally it was cooked by fieldworkers as a large lunch using whatever ingredients they could scrounge up. This one was creamy and so flavorful; I could’ve eaten the whole plate.
Going out for drinks and tapas is ‘eating like a Spaniard’ in it’s truest form 🙂 We had a ton of fun on this tour, learned a lot, got to know our new city a bit better, conversed with some really cool people, and ate more than our fill of traditional Spanish food and drink.
Hasta la proxima!
Have you tried Spain’s tapas before?! I would love to hear how your experience compares!! OR if you have any suggestions for cool tapas bars in Madrid, let a sista knoowwww