Sunday, July 21, 2013

Madrid Food Tour: Tapas, Taverns and History

Plaza Mayor
You know I'm all for learning a country's culture through its food. What better way to do it than like a local? If you want to get some history, traditional food and the general feel of a place when you're traveling, I find a food tour takes care of all three. Of course, you want to go with one that is good and offers the best bang for your buck. I found all this and more in Madrid Food Tour.


Puerta del Sol
I planned my Madrid Food Tour early on in the Spanish leg of my trip. It was one of the best things I could've done. Depending on your preference, there are a variety of tours to choose from and each one offers a unique glimpse into the city. Caught between a couple of tours that sounded right up our alley, we chose the Tapas, Taverns and History tour because it offered a little bit of everything we wanted to experience in the shoes of a Madrileno: food, history and drinks.  After participating in the 4 hour adventure, we were completely psyched with Madrid, and had a list of places to go and things to do in the coming days.

James Blick, our tour guide
Like most food tours, the fun consists of a cultural walk through the city center, stopping at various taverns to indulge in mouth-watering tapas and drinks.  However, this is where the likeness ends. From the moment we met our guide, James Blick, I knew this was going to be en extra special evening. A New Zealand native, James came to Europe to find love, which he did, and has lived in Madrid with his wife ever since. His passion for both food and history are evident in the way he tells the stories and brings the magic of Madrid's past to life. Just imagine strolling through picturesque, cobblestone medieval streets on your way to having an aperitif and a tapa while learning about the vivid events that made Madrid the city it is today. It's completely unforgettable.

Our first stop, Taberna Real

Our first stop was a popular tavern that was booming with Madrilenos: Taberna Real. James ordered us a Vermouth as an aperitif, the traditional Spanish way to start a meal, and two tapas: Marinated olives and potato chips fried in olive oil. The Vermouth, a fortified white wine whose brand was Miro, was outstanding with subtle hints of caramel. It was actually served from tap (it comes in barrels) rather than from a bottle. The olives were the most flavorful I've ever had.  So much so, that several of us wanted to find out where we can get some to bring back home at the end of our tour. I learned two interesting fun facts at this bar: In Madrid, once you finish an olive, you don't throw the pit in the garbage. Instead, you toss it on the floor underneath the bar's counter. Interesting! And, whenever you order a drink at a taberna, there is a small tapa included in the price of the drink. It is their choice which they include and you don't really mention it if it doesn't come, but it is a standard custom.

Stop Numero Dos: Taberna La Concha

Tostas de Cabrales and Anchoas
Our next stop was Taberna La Concha, a small place we probably would have never thought to visit. Along the way, James pointed out a wealth of more information like the known and unknown final resting places of several famous Spanish artists such as Velasquez, the difficult time when the Moors conquered Spain, and the ins-and-outs of the Spanish Hadsburg dynasty. Once we arrived, we were greeted by the friendly owners and staff and served a refreshing Parxet Cava. The effervescent wine had a delicate citrus aroma and a delightfully long, clean finish. It was paired with an assortment of tapas that were mind-blowing. We enjoyed some Boquerones en Vinagre (anchovies in vinegar), Morcilla (blood sausage), Salmorejo (this was the tapa included with our drink), Tostas de Gamba with homemade mayo (a toast topped with shrimp), and Tostas de Cabrales and Anchoas (toast topped with blue cheese and anchovies).  Each tapa had its own distinct taste that was highlighted by the Cava. My favorites were the Salmorejo, a gazpacho-like soup with a thick, creamy texture and the Boquerones en Vinagre, which opened my appetite and made me pucker all at once.. Just between us, we learned another fun fact at this bar: In Asturia, Blue Cheese is called the devil's shit.

Rich history and culture: La Venencia
Feeling giddy with excitement at all this fabulous food and drink, we walked through the ancient streets to our next stop: La Venencia. This spot only serves Spain's finest sherry, out of the barrel and in all of its glory. It is named after the long, narrow tool that is used to sample the sherry through an opening in the casks. It's very quaint and once we walked into the wood covered place, I felt as if we were stepping back in time. Ernest Hemingway himself sipped sherry here during Spain's Civil War from 1936-1939, where left-leaning Republicans fought against the Fascist. It was during this time he wrote "For Whom the Bell Tolls" about the war. James ordered us two styles of sherry - a light and a dark one, and a table full of tapas. I would have loved to have taken pictures to show you, but that is one rule in La Venencia - no photographs. The reason? It just dates back to the Civil War days when Republicans would gather here and didn't want to be exposed by Fascist spies. Pretty cool, huh? I sampled both sherries, and preferred the stronger, dark one. Although they both come from the same grape, I learned the darker sherry changes color and flavor during the oxidation process. Something else I loved is that as I ate the tapas, the flavor of the sherry changed for me. We ate Mojama, (cured tuna), Cecina (smoked cured beef), Chorizo, and aceitunas (olives). As I looked near the bar, I noticed a large chalkboard with writing on it. It turns out when patrons place their orders, the tabs are written in chalk on the board. Once you're done, you just look at it and see how much you owe. It was a truly enchanting experience.

Pimientos de Padron

Callos Madrilenos
Our last stop for the evening was a bustling taberna named El Lacon. The place was packed and had a vibrant, pulsating ambiance. I actually sampled two drinks here - the Tinto de Verano, which is the less complicated yet delicious way Madrilenos actually drink their "sangrias", and a glass of Tempranillo wine. As we worked our way to a table, James ordered a huge selection of tapas. It was awesome! We had Empanadas de Carne (meat patties), Callos Madrilenos (a stew of cow trife and chick peas), Pimientos de Padron (fried peppers with sea salt on top), and Pollo al Aji (Pepper Chicken). We also shared some raciones, which are larger tapas. These were Cazon (marinated cape shark or dogfish), Asparagus (cooked a-la-plancha) and the ever famous Secreto Iberico (the fatty, juicy armpit of the Black Iberian Pig).  The Cazon was tender and seasoned perfectly with cumin. I couldn't keep my hands off the plate. The Callos Madrilenos were outstanding - a hearty, bold flavored  dish for a midsummer night.This was the grand finale of the savory part of the evening- sort of like the fireworks at Disney World.  Once we were all finished moaning out of pure delight over the incredible tapas we'd just devoured, out came the desserts: Flan Casero con Helado (homemade custard served with ice-cream), Crema Catalana (catalan crème) and Filloas Caseras con Chocolate (homemade pastries filled with chocolate)

Crema Catalana

We all walked away full, a bit tipsy and deeper in love with Madrid. Because the groups are kept small, they afford you the opportunity to ask as many questions as you want and interact extensively with each other. James was an excellent guide that truly enjoyed sharing his knowledge and passion, and took the tour to a whole new level. I feel there is still so much I need to see, eat and drink in this beautiful city, that when I return, I will definitely take another Madrid Food Tour. For more information or to reserve your spot, visit them online at


  1. Thanks for this review Maria! I just booked the Tapas, Taverns & History Tour for Wednesday and I'm really excited!