November 30, 2012

More Madrid

As if tapas, paella, Mercado de San Miguel, vibrant city streets, and historic palaces were not enough, we discovered even more in the amazing city of Madrid! When we were planning our trip to Spain, Jonathan insisted that we spent at least four days in this city. I am glad he did, Madrid far exceeded my expectations!

That said, I want to share more of my experiences in the capital of Spain. What else did we do? Went shopping and ate more food, of course! On a sunny day, we headed to the Chueca and Salamanca districts of Madrid. These neighborhoods are both filled with shops and cafes, but they are very different.

We began in Chueca. This district has narrow streets, old architecture, a more edgy feel, and is home to more small shops and local businesses. (There are many international brands there too along Calle de Fuencarral, including Camper, my favorite shoe store.) The best part about shopping here is that it is that it is home to another Madrid market - Mercado San Anton. The day we were shopping Chueca, we stopped at this market for lunch.

This market is sells more groceries and ingredients than Mercado de San Miguel. The first floor has stalls selling cheeses, vegetables, spices, seafood, meats, and baked goods. The second floor has stalls selling a variety of different tapas and the third floor is a restaurant. We began our market adventure and lunch on the first floor. There were a million ingredients we wanted to buy to bring home. Unfortunately, the only thing we could bring home was photographs...

Moving up to the second floor, we picked out a few tapas to share and found a place at the counter to eat our lunch. We tried a variety of different seafood dishes and some cider. In northern Spain hard cider is a common beverage for lunch or dinner. It is mild, not sweet, and slightly bubbly. It is not as delicate or high in alcohol as wine, but not as heavy or carbonated as beer. It’s perfect with a few tapas.

The first was bacalao al pil pil. This is a very traditional Spanish dish made from salted dried cod. This fish is not native to Spain, but is integral to its cuisine. Before cooking the dried, cured fish has to be rehydrated for over twenty-four hours. The consistency and taste of the bacalao is so moist and delicate it seems like fresh fish. The pil pil sauce is made creating an emulsion of olive oil and the liquid and gelatin that come out of the fish during cooking. It is light, creamy, and delicious.

Next we tried cured tuna. This was served on a piece of toast with an almond and olive oil. One thing I learned to love about Spain during our trip was the amount of detail they put into even the smallest bites of food. Each dish - no matter how big or small - is a perfect combination of flavors and this tuna on toast was no exception. The flavor of the cured fish was very mild and slightly salty. Adding the sweetness and nuttiness of the almond and olive oil made it perfect!

I do envy the Spaniards who live near Mercado San Anton or Mercado de San Miguel. (I have a secret dream that I’d like to live in an apartment upstairs from one of them!)

But, moving on... After lunch we walked from Chueca, along the wide boulevards and past the statue of Christof Colon (Christopher Columbus) to the trendy neighborhood of Salamanca. This is home to designer shops, cafes, and El Cortes Ingles (Spain’s most fashionable department store). Along the way we stopped at Cacao Sampaka for a some hot chocolate. (And to wait for the shops to reopen after siesta.)

Spanish hot chocolate is decadent! It is rich, thick, and creamy - and the chocolate I had at Cocoa Sampaka was the best I had in Spain. It was definitely made with very high quality chocolate and was a perfect siesta snack. Before leaving, we went to the beautiful boutique attached to the cafe to buy a couple of chocolate bars to bring home!

Shopping, wandering the streets, tasting tapas, and having some wonderful hot chocolate was an excellent way to spend our last day in Spain. And while, I truly didn’t want to leave, we had other places to discover. And I know I’ll be back to Madrid soon!

November 23, 2012

Nighttime in Madrid

Madrid is vibrant and alive - it's a city that never sleeps! Here's some photos of Madrid after dark...

A busy street lined with tapas bars near Puerta del Sol.
A tapas bar with a bright tile facade.
El Abuelo, a tapas bar that makes delicious gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic).

Another colorful tapas bar!

We stayed at a hotel on Plaza del Carmen.

November 14, 2012

Home of Kings

I often skip museums in favor of wandering the streets and visiting cafes when I travel. I prefer to learn about the life of the city rather than see the paintings they own. However, one exception is I enjoy visiting palaces and other residences that show art and artifacts in their original settings not randomly displayed in cases.

The Palace Gates
So, when we were in Madrid we visited Palacio Real de Madrid. The building itself is impressive on its own - a large, majestic, white palace built in the 1700s when the King of Spain moved the county's capital from Toledo to Madrid to be closer to the center of his kingdom. It is still the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family today, however it is currently only used for state ceremonies. There are over 3000 rooms in this palace and several of theses rooms are open for the public to tour. In addition, the public an visit the Royal Pharmacy, see the Royal Armory, and explore the palace grounds.

Inside the Palace Grounds
After getting our tickets, we entered the palace grounds and walked walked around the large paved area in front of the main entrance. The stones in this vast area were worn from centuries of use, but still serve their purpose today. It was great to see people from all over the world enjoying this space - walking around, taking photographs, and admiring the architecture.

Inside the palace we walked up the broad stone entry staircase, observing the well worn tracks where people have stepped repeatedly over the last 300 years. From there we walked through multiple elaborately decorated rooms - dining rooms, the former King's living quarters, the throne room, the living quarters of other family members of the former King, and the royal chapel. Each room was decorated in different colors - rich blues, greens, reds, and yellows. The walls were covered with ornate cloth and many of the ceilings were decorated with intricate paintings. (Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside the palace.)

After touring the inside of the palace we visited the palace pharmacy (filled with old jars and potions), and went to the armory.

After spending three hours exploring the vast palace it was time to move on to my other passion - food. As the sun was setting, we headed to Mercado de San Miguel for some (more) olives and vermouth before dinner...

Olives and Vermouth

November 3, 2012

¡Mi Mercado Favorito!

Mercado de San Miguel

When traveling to different cities I always love to visit the local markets. Some of my favorite markets include Pike Place Market in Seattle, Chelsea Market in New York City, and Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver. Now I have a new ultimate favorite - Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid!

Tucked into the neighborhood near Plaza Mayor in the old part of the city, this place is a gourmet paradise. There is food to buy and take home (fresh fruit and vegetables, seafood, and other ingredients) but the majority of the stalls sell ready to eat tapas. There is a cheese vendor that sells delicious cheeses, a sweets vendor, a paella vendor, several vendors selling freshly cooked seafood, and (since it's Spain) a couple vendors selling wine. But, my favorite vendor was the one selling olives and vermouth on tap. Whether you choose to get a couple of tapas for a snack or make it a meal, after buying your food go to tables in the center of the market to enjoy your purchases.

During the four days we were in Madrid we stopped by this market three times - once when we first discovered it, another time for a couple of tapas before going to dinner at a nearby restaurant, and finally for dinner on our last night in Madrid. And there are still dishes that I did not have time - or space in my stomach - to try.

Olives and Vermouth
But, let's talk about olives and vermouth. Before coming to Spain, I had never really paid attention to this aperitif. I love olives, but I had not considered them a dish unto themselves. This vendor has numerous varieties of olives - green, black, stuffed with cheese, stuffed with pimentos, stuff with garlic, served with anchovies or tuna, and much more. It is almost impossible to decide which to try, and there are so many that it is (probably) equally impossible to try them all. So, each time we visited the market I ordered a plate of a few different olives. To go with the olives they serve glasses of sweet vermouth - or vermout con grifo (vermouth on tap in Spanish). The combination of the sweet, herbal vermouth and the strong marinated olives is amazing - the perfect start to any meal!

Pulpo de Galicia (octopus cooked Galacian style)
Pulpo de Galicia (Octopus)
Other than olives and vermouth, we tried numerous other dishes during our visits to Mercado de San Miguel. For seafood there was delicious Pulpo de Galicia (octopus cooked Galacian style), bacalao (salt cod), calamari, and a Spanish specialty called percebes (goose barnacles). The octopus - served with pimenton (or paprika) - was my favorite seafood dish. The bacalao and calamari were also very good. But, I have to admit I did not understand why precebes are so prized. They have a flavor similar to strong sea water, look like dinasour claws, and are very labor intensive to eat.

Another vendor, Paella y Ole, sells several different versions of the traditional Spanish rice dish, including paella de marisco (seafood), paella mixta (seafood and meat), paella de verduras (vegetables), and arroz negro (seafood and squid ink). I tried the marisco and Jonathan got the mixta. The paella was good, but not as good as the version we had at La Barraca.

Paella, Calamari, and Wine from Rioja

Then there is a vendor selling wonderful cheeses from all over Spain. I tried some different manchego cheeses, as well as some goat and sheep's milk cheeses. We also got some cheese, mushroom, and cod croquetas from a vendor selling them from a little cart near the center of the market. And since it's Spain, there is a vendor selling ham and other cured meats. (I think this was Jonathan's favorite market stall.) On the evening that we ate dinner at the market he enjoyed a plate of the Jamón Ibérico Bellota - a ham made from black-footed pigs that roam the woods free range and eat only acorns.

Lastly, there were vendors selling sweets. There were beautiful - and very tasty - pastries, turron, chocolates, helados (ice creams), and candied fruits. These are are almost too beautiful to eat. (Note, I said almost...) Like the olives, there were so many different pastries it was hard to choose what to buy. The pastries I tried were light, flaky, and fabulous!

When I return to Madrid, Mercado de San Miguel will definitely be the first place I go!