Distance to destination: 2734 kms. On the cobalt television screen of Turkish Airlines, the miles between Istanbul and Madrid looked stretched in the tidy serif font. But I was distracted by the aroma of billur kebab, kahve and the onomatopeic sound of the stewardess’ black shoes as she hurried around aisles living up to the reputation of Turkish Airlines as Europe’s Best Airline. Amidst the fluffy clouds, I was listing the must-dos in Madrid, one of world’s food capitals. In Casa Botin, the world’s oldest restaurant, I’d book the corner table on which Ernest Hemingway quaffed rioja alta and dug his fork on roasted suckling pig; I’d step into the historical Palace Hotel which Salvador Dali frequented; spend a crisp evening in Museo Chicote which was a favourite haunt of Rita Hayworth and Frank Sinatra, and sing a folkloric cante in Viva Madrid where a tipsy Ava Gardner would do flamenco on tabletops. My Madrid food trail was getting cluttered with a writer, artist, singer, Hollywood sirens…
But lo! before I could book the Hemingway table, King Alfonso X (The Wise One) interrupted and nudged me on a tapas-trail in a tapas-crazy city. Well, blame tapas on the 13th century Spanish king and a gusty wind that prompted the innkeeper to cover the king’s sherry with a slice of ham to prevent it from getting dirty. Thereafter, not only did the King order another sherry, he requested another ham tapa (lid). That is how the tapas tradition began in Spain. Or, so the story goes.
What really is tapas? Is it croquettes? Bocadillos? Tortillas? Patatas bravas? Washed down with Sangria? I threw the question at Joanna Wivell, the lissome guide who does gourmet tapas tours. “Tapas is Spain’s greatest food invention,” Wivell began as she and I walked on the cobbled pathway on way to LaTrucha near Plaza Santa Ana. “It could be anything – with olives strung on toothpicks, fried aubergines, bread topped with cheese/ham, cold meat… Small servings eaten before a meal. The idea is to drink while you eat and eat while you drink…” My tapas trail began in LaTrucha, which resembled a tavern where beer was perennially being pumped from the taps and the chefs were passing tapas plates like cats on helium. In El Neru, the cider was lethal and the baguette topped with blue cheese potent; Spaniards troop to Casa Lucio for huevos rotos (literally, broken eggs); and for fine wine and interesting tapas in La Cruzada, Madrid’s oldest bar.
That evening my feet were sore with walking and I, the vegetarian, was still yearning for something more than the tapas which invariably has more options for meat lovers. Spaniards relish the suckling pigs, pork and chicken dishes, but what about vegetarians? I was all prepped for another grass-grazing (read: salad) but Wivell had several vegetarian restaurants on her fingertips: Yerba Buena, El Estragon, Al Natural, Vega Viana, among a few others.
The vegetarian meal could wait, that night I was in a little Ava Gardner-ish mood. Madrid is rife with stories of how she would often walk into restaurants with her bull-fighter friends, quaff a sangria/drink or two, hop onto the tabletop and break into an impromptu flamenco. And surely, I could not step out of Madrid without a meal + show in a tablao flamenco. Madrid is cluttered with tablaos which are contemporary nightclubs where flamenco is performed on a raised wooden stage. I chose Tablao las Carboneras in the old city. The restaurant is small, its lighting dim, its décor minimal, but the paintings nailed on the walls compensate for its minimalism – the intensity of painted flamenco dancers is absolutely palpable. But it all paled into nothingness when three lithe women in brown/black/beige outfit (Alas! They were not wearing red) broke into rhythmic rapid heelwork, slapped their thighs, spiraled their spine, shrugged their shoulders, sang, clapped and pirouetted with their sweatdrops as two men in black tore the silence with their guttural cante. When the flamenco dancer in brown hit the crescendo, I forgot what lay on my dinner plate. The intensity of the dancers killed my hunger. Trust me, in Madrid, I sang no elegy to the dead hunger.