Where to eat and what to do if you find yourself with 24 hours in Spain’s grand capital, Madrid 9.00am: Wake up to churros con chocolat
When in Madrid do as the Madrileños do and start the day with a piping hot plate of churros
, a gloopy cup of dark chocolat to dip them into and a steaming café con leche. And where better to do that than the charming cream and green halls of Chocolatería San Gines, which has been churning out churros since 1894. Sinfully thick chocolate, slightly salty crisp dough – there are few more perfect ways to start the day.In and around the area: Madrid’s monumental plaza - Plaza Mayor - is perfect for taking a stroll or gawking at buskers, artists, protestors and football fans, while the little shaded shops lining the square are good places to pick up some trencadis curios, mini Velazquez meninos, matador aprons and other take-away tat.11.30am: Taste some tapas
No one goes far in Madrid without being hit by the urge to graze and there’s plenty of grazing to be done at Mercado de San Miguel
– the buzzing covered market where you can have your fill of all sorts of tapas, sherry, wine and desserts and still find loads more you wished you had tried. From croquettas de jamon iberico, to Galacian octopus, truffle arancini and crispy fried langoustines,
grab a glass of syrupy sweet Pedro Ximenez, a dry sherry or a glass of sangria
and taste your way around as many stalls as you can get through. In and around the area: The pretty Plaza de la Ville; Palacio Real de Madrid with its sweeping colonnaded courtyard; the glowing stained glass interiors of Almudena Cathedral and people watching among the statues and gardens of the grand Plaza de Oriente. 2:30pm: Lunch at a legendary spot
The world’s oldest restaurant and high praise by Ernest Hemingway to boot (he called it “the best restaurant in the world” in The Sun Also Rises
), if that’s not enough to tempt you into the tiled dining halls of Botin
, then the row-upon-row of roasted suckling pigs (cochinillo asado
) should do the trick. A moist chunk or pork, crispy crackling and a swig of Spanish wine – delicioso!In and around the area: You’re in the original land of the siesta so follow the lead of the locals and head back to your hotel for a nap. If you are feeling a little more energetic, grab a metro to the lungs of the city - Retiro Park - and spend the afternoon rowing on the lake, strolling down the pretty paseos or visiting the Palacio de Cristal. (And if the urge to nap is too strong after all, you can always crash on the lawn under a canopy of trees.) 7:30pm: Drinks and duende
Head to Villa Rosa
, settle back with a drink and catch some of the country’s best
flamenco dancers whip up a storm at this charming restaurant tucked along one side of Plaza de Santa Ana. With its colourful Andalusian-tiled interiors and intimate stage, you can see why some of Madrid’s most famous inhabitants, movie stars and even King Alfonso XIII himself often headed here to catch the moving magic called duende
that is the mark of a great flamenco tablao.9:00pm: Kill the night with a tapas crawl
Don Ernesto (that’s what the Spanish called Ernest Hemingway) put it poetically when he said “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid before they have killed the night” and you can take a fair stab at it with a tapas crawl in some of Madrid’s most famous tapas quarters like Huertas. Head to Casa Alberto
for some typical Madrileño dishes such as oxtail stew and pig’s ears and other favourites such as boquerones, croquettas, meatballs, patatas bravas, chorizo and more. Then wander down to La Casa del Abuelo
for fried langoustines and melt-in-your-mouth gambas al ajillo. Just make sure you pace yourself so you can try several tapas bars.In and around the area: Wander down to Puerta del Sol for an obligatory picture next to 'El Oso y El Madroño' - the statue of the bear eating from a Madroño tree that is the symbol of the city, and a chance to step onto the kilómetro cero – the plaque that marks the symbolic centre of Spain.
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Angula or elver eels are a Basque specialty
I'm all for trying weird new food. So when these little babies turned up at our tapas table in Serrano, Madrid, and at least two of our party cringed and pushed their stools back a bit, I thought 'Great. All the more for me!' :)
The truth is, not all my experiments with weird food end well. I tried pig's ears in Madrid last month (more on that in another post), unknowingly ate frog ovary fat in Taipei (probably wouldn't have eaten it if I had known what it was!) and once ate a truly disgusting durian sweet that resembled something someone with bronchitis had coughed up - it looked, smelled and tasted vile!
But thankfully, these little eels - angulas, as they are called in Spain and elver eels elsewhere - ended up being one of my more successful weird food experiments.
If you took the angulas out, the rest of that particular tapas creation was fairly run of the mill - salmon wrapped around a cream-cheesy filling. But the angulas gave it real bite. Slightly fishy, a little vinegary... a nice little touch to top off a classic combination.
Although the eels look like little babies, don't get too squeamish as they are actually almost 2-3 years old by the time they get to the size they are in the image. And although they might also look as though they were still moving when I took this picture, thankfully they weren't.
Turns out angula are fairly pricey, so in recent years the ever resourceful Japanese have found an answer for the everyday angula-lover - faux angulas called 'gulas' made from surimi.
The best way to know if you are eating the real thing is to look closely for the little eel eyes and little eel smiles.
But don't look too long... it may make you change your mind about biting off the teeny little heads, which - in the world of tasty weird food experiments - would be real shame.
It's time for yet another dish list and this time it's dominated by all things
Spanish and Portuguese. Here are the top 5 things I hope to be chomping down on (or slurping up) in the next two weeks:
Pedro Ximenez Sherry
Syrupy sweet sherry (Image: wineanorak.com)
Yes it's yet another sweeter than sweet wine on my list of favourites. With it's thick, syrupy texture, raisin and mollasses flavour and deep berry scent, this sweet sherry was one of my top finds in Spain last year and I'll be looking to raise a few happy glasses (and hopefully bring back a bottle) when I visit Madrid this weekend.
The francesinha looks like a good way to line your tummy before a string of port wine tastings (Image: wikipedia.org)
Despite its deceptively dainty name (it means little French girl) the Francesinha sounds like a monster sandwich. The sandwich is a Porto specialty and according to Wikipedia is made with "bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausage like chipolata, steak or roast meat and covered with molten cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce served with french fries". If that doesn't sound like a Man vs Food-style sandwich, I don't know what does. Still, I guess I'll need something stodgy to soak up all that port ;)
Sweet cherry brandy mixed with dark chocolate sounds like the perfect night cap (Image: ginjadeobidos.com)
I've already sung the praises of this cherry liqueur before
, and although I'm still not sure if I'll make it up to Obidos, I'm hoping to spot a bottle of chocolate ginja on the bar shelves elsewhere in Portugal. Sweet morello cherry nectar paired with dark Belgian chocolate.... mmmm. I know alcohol shouldn't make my mouth water but this does :)Pasteis at Pasteleria Picole
Will Pasteleria Picole be able to take on the legendary Pasteis de Belem?
I stand firmly by my belief that Pasteis de Belem
is the only place to eat Lisbon's famous pasteis de natas but my sister says otherwise. According to her, Pasteleria Picole gives the famous Belem pastry shop a run for its money. What has come to light in the last discussion we've had on these famous custard tarts is that my sister has never eaten pasteis de natas hot from the oven in Belem (she ate takeaway pasteis which I believe may have taken away something from their piping hot goodness). I however have never eaten pasteis at Pasteleria Picole. Ever. So guess I can't really knock them till I've tried them. So the pasteis-off is declared. May the best tart win :)Pesticos at Pérola do Fetal
When I think about my most memorable meals, lunch at Pérola do Fetal
definitely comes to mind. More so because it wasn't even the mains that did it; it was a humble platter of pesticos - small snacks that are served at the start of a meal in Portugal to whet the appetite. The ones we were served did so much more - I'm close to drooling just thinking about them and I ate them three years ago. Dates wrapped in bacon, soft cheese with berry preserve, crusted mushrooms, bacalhao fritters... it was a simple selection of food that tasted divine. Again, not sure if I'll be able to find this restaurant again or get to it as it was some distance out of Lisbon, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I will.
Tickets booked, visa stamped, less than a month to go before I board a plane to Spain. Needless to say, I can't wait! :)It's a super short stop (basically a day and a half in Madrid each way, sandwiched around a longer trip to Portugal and France) and it's sure to be fraught with the battle I always face on visiting a place I've been to before - should I eat at a tried-and-tested favourite or venture out to sample something new?
I think I might have to meet myself halfway - visit top food haunts such as the Mercado de San Miguel and order stuff I haven't eaten before, and dine at new tapas bars and restaurants on bites I can't afford to miss (like croquetas de jamón Ibérico).
Either way, I'm sure I'll leave knowing a lot more about Spanish food than I do currently. Here are the top 5 things I learnt in Spain last summer:
Number 1: How to order coffee the way I like it
Un cafe con leche, caliente por favor
Until I went to Spain, I thought 'caliente' was something semi-rude Latino men shouted at hot women. Turns out it is something Latino men shout at hot women, only it isn't rude. It simply means 'hot' in Spanish. And adding the word caliente to the end of my coffee order made sure I always got my cup of coffee just the way I like it, steaming hot and not at a terrible tepid temperature.
Number 2: Salt + chocolate = delicious
Porras are the fatter cousins of churros and just as delicious
I can't believe I never came across this combination until my very first taste of churros
. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water! Hot, crisp churros (or porras
, their thicker cousins) are the perfect vehicle to deliver this sinful flavour combo. Deep-fried salty dough, dipped in sweet, muddy chocolate of perfect churro-coating consistency... heaven! Number 3: Squid ink has a distinctive flavour (and mouth feel)
The squid ink seafood paella may not look nicer than regular seafood paella but it sure tastes better
Until actually tasting squid ink paella in Barcelona last summer, I always assumed squid ink was used primarily for its food colouring abilities. Turns out I was wrong. Squid ink actually has a pretty distinctive taste - something that's somewhere between briny and metallic - and even more weirdly, a distinctive feel - like something thick, heavy and comforting that coats your mouth. I can't really describe it, but let's just say seafood paella with squid ink tasted (even if it didn't look) a lot nicer than seafood paella without.
Number 4: Coffee with condensed milk can actually be improved
Cafe pipo - a sort of super Vietnamese coffee :)
As I have described before
, Vietnamese ca phe sua da was a revelation -something that made my world instantly a better place to live in. But how could anyone improve the potent coffee+condensed milk combo? Enter cafe pipo - a shot of espresso, a liberal layer of condensed milk and a shot of whisky. Nothing could make a more perfect night cap than this sweet concoction (as we found out almost every night in Barcelona). This is one thing I'm definitely going to keep my eye out for in Madrid.Number 5: Toothpicks = tab in pintxo bars
As you can tell from all the toothpicks, the pintxos at this bar were fab
I've written about this before
and I'll probably mention it again at some point. Holding onto the toothpicks that spear your pintxos
to arrive at your bill is probably one of the coolest food customs I've ever come across. (Yes I know, it really doesn't take much to amuse me).
PS: I plan on maintaining a very healthy toothpick tab when I head to Spain next month :)
No, I haven't started blogging in French. This post is just my way of paying homage to the gourmet store that succeeded in taking this passport-less platetrotter on a culinary journey across Spain, France, Japan, Thailand, England and several other countries all in the span of a couple of hours.
I don't like not having a passport. And as mine has been swallowed by the black hole that is the Naturalization and Residency Department to complete the necessary evil of renewing my visa, my fear of being marooned in the desert for an indefinite period of time has become a reality for the past couple of weeks.
Which meant an invite to a food blogger's night at Lafayette Gourmet
last Wednesday was a welcome means of escape - if not literally than at least gastronomically. More so because the rumours I had heard about the place in the days leading up to the event was that it was well stocked with all sorts of exotic treats.
I'm happy to confirm all the rumours were true.
Spain in a bite - a slice of jamon iberico being carved up for a tasting
While I did spend most of the evening gorging on a seemingly endless parade of
delicious little bites, a quick scan of the shelves (and the pork section neatly
tucked out of sight behind a sliding door) revealed plenty of hard-to-find delicacies - everything from melt-in-your-mouth jamon iberico with a near perfect sweet-to-saltiness ratio, to the quince paste that should have accompanied the manchego cheese I took to a tapas night a couple of months ago - if I had known where to find it in Dubai. With no real chance of boarding a plane to Spain any time soon, those two ingredients instantly took me back to the many evenings I'd spent devouring tasty tapas and pintxos in Madrid and Barcelona last summer.
Say cheese and quince should follow
There were other gourmet goodies that caught my eye. The most intriguing was an Italian fig saba – a smooth, almost liqueur-like fruity must vinegar that I’d
quite happily sip on its own, but would also make a great dipping sauce, salad
dressing or syrup to drizzle over ice cream.
Vinegar I'd quite happily drink
Add to that the extensive selection of ingredients showcased via the mammoth
tasting menu created by resident Gourmet Culinary Director – the energetic
Chef Russell Impiazzi – and you can get an inkling of what's on offer at the
well-stocked food hall or live cooking stations occupying various corners of
The man behind the food - Gourmet Culinary Director of Lafayette Gourmet, Chef Russell Impiazzi
The evening’s selection of dainty creations brought together produce from across the world, including (among others) silky Scottish salmon with an avocado salsa, creamy buffalo mozzarella paired with cherry tomatoes, delicately spiced mini Moroccon tagine on a bed of couscous, Japanese wagyu prepared as English Beef Wellington, fun little Asian takeaway boxes of yakisoba noodles and pad thai, mini ice cream cones topped with caramelised popcorn and marshmallows, frozen chocolate pops and – to draw the spread to a comforting close – the best churros and hot chocolate I’ve tasted since my last evening in Spain.
As for the highlight of the night? I’ll award that distinction jointly to the two foie gras mini masterpieces that vanished almost as soon as they arrived – foie gras bonbons dusted with crushed nuts (if you were wondering, foie gras bonbons do taste as good as they sound) and a lightly crumbed foie gras croquette served with sweet cranberry sauce.... mmmmmm, I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking :)
In addition to being created by Lafayette Gourmet’s team of chefs from ingredients found in the food hall, the selection we savoured is part of its catering and events menu
– available for a cosy gathering of as few as 10 guests to more elaborate affairs numbering in the thousands.
With an inspired menu of Western, Middle Eastern and Oriental creations on offer - and a long list of ethnic ingredients to explore - I'm already planning a few more trips to Lafayette Gourmet (and I imagine I'll be heading there even when my passport is safely back in my hands).
Here's a quick pictorial tour of the tasters we enjoyed that evening:
The full events and catering menu (and price list) can be found below:
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It's no secret I pick my holiday destinations based on what the country in
question brings to the table, quite literally. I have to confess though, besides food I have one other source of influence that plays an almost equal role in helping me choose where to go next. Books.
While travelogues feature quite heavily in my literary diet, it's often great fiction that gets me thinking about packing my bags and heading to places I never would have considered visiting before.
Apart from adding new places to my holiday wish list, some of my best-loved novels have also led me to - or heightened my interest in - great bars, cafes and restaurants around the world. Here are a few of my favourites:
Casa Botin - Madrid, Spain
Called "one of the best restaurants in the world" in The Sun Also Rises
by Ernest Hemingway
I couldn't really ignore a restaurant that got Hemingway's seal of approval
If you read this in a Hemingway novel, wouldn't you want to try it out for yourself?"We lunched upstairs at Botin's. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta."
- Jake, The Sun Also Rises,1926
More than 80 years on, the place is still going strong and has been for quite a while (Casa Botin
has another claim to fame which will probably merit another mention in this blog at some point). The roasted suckling pig was as tender as I imagine it must have been in Hemingway's day, to have earned such high praise, and the wine - not rioja alta but syrupy Pedro Ximenez - was very sweet and went excellently with the pork. The upstairs dining room is a cheerful tiled room and a pleasant place to enjoy a leisurely lunch or dinner. And although I didn't visit it, my brother-in-law (who did) told me the exposed brick dining hall downstairs is also a great spot to grab a meal.
Tucking into a great big chunk of tender pork covered in crispy crackling at Botin
The Elephant House - Edinburgh, Scotland
One of the cafes where J.K Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Elephants, coffee, great views and literary connections - definitely my sort of place
I remember glancing through an early interview with J.K Rowling when I first
started reading the Harry Potter books. It pictured her seated by a big window
at The Elephant House
with a stunning view of Edinburgh Castle. I knew then
that if I ever went to Edinburgh, that was a cafe I'd definitely visit. I'm no Harry Potter nut - although reading this blog series
I did in 2007 may give you that impression. It was work, I swear! :) - but I am enough of a fan to have wanted to see the place where this strangely gripping saga first took shape. The cafe is a bit of a nerdy writer's haunt which made it even more appealing. Some of the tables have drawers underneath that contain all sorts of fascinating scraps - poetry scribbles, badly drawn pictures, bills... I loved it! And it isn't famous-for-the-sake-of-being-famous either - The Elephant House was voted the best coffee shop in Edinburgh so you can be sure you can grab a nice cuppa when you drop in.
View of Edinburgh Castle from The Elephant House. (Image source: Earthinpictures.com)
Leopold Cafe - Mumbai, India
Played a starring role in Shantaram
by Gregory David Roberts
Famous? Notorious? Whatever it is it's definitely a Colaba landmark
(or Leo's as we always called it) was a favourite even before I heard of Shantaram
. As a student in Mumbai, this is where I went on lazy Sunday afternoons for a big plate of fried rice after a matinee show at Regal
, or for drinks and dessert before a late night film. Leo's is one of the oldest Irani-cafes in Mumbai and despite being the site of one of the 2008 terror attacks, I was pleased to have seen it as busy as ever when I visited Colaba Causeway
a couple of months ago. It has the true faded charm of an old-school traveller's hangout, complete with whirring ceiling fans suspended from long rods, wooden furniture that has seen better days, eager gap year students exchanging travel tips and leather-skinned veterans nursing midday beers. The food is not the best, but the hearty portions and the atmosphere more than make up for it. The upstairs bar is generally darker, drunker and probably closer to the sort of place where anyone who read the book would picture underworld deals being done, but for a true taste of Colaba charm, dine at Leo's at street level.
Having a drink with the greats back in 2005 as a student in Mumbai
M Bar - Hotel Majestic Saigon, Vietnam
Rooftop bar of the hotel where Graham Greene wrote the first draft of The Quiet American
Great place for a G&T (sure that's what Greene drank in his day)
My favourite book of all time, I challenge anyone who reads it not to want to
visit Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon (the old name just sounds so much more romantic and truer to the era in which this melancholy novel is set). While the
Continental Hotel got more than a few mentions in the book, it was at the Hotel
Majestic - also on Dong Khoi street (the oft mentioned Rue Catinat) - that Greene did most of his writing. The grande dame perched on the street corner is still pretty impressive and its rooftop M Bar
is one of the best places in the city to linger over a cocktail. (Or in my case a mocktail, as I was on pretty heavy meds when I paid it a visit, after a bout of what was initially thought to be malaria, then dengue fever before finally being downgraded to a particularly nasty flu bug). Even without the help of a glass of something to lend a rosier glow to memory, the panorama of River Saigon and the city spread along its banks is not one I'm likely to forget any time soon.
Saigon River at sunset from M Bar