Our first time in Madrid, we spent most of our time roaming the streets between the Atocha train station and the Puerta del Sol. We loved the pedestrian street Calle Huertas and the surrounding area bustling with bars, shops and nightlife. We didn’t know it then, but the area that we enjoyed so much was the Barrio de Las Letras (The Literary Quarter). This neighborhood is named for the famous playwrights and authors that lived there during the Spanish Golden Age of theater and literature.
We were recently fortunate to be invited to join Devour Madrid Tours for a Hidden Madrid Food and Market Tour that explored the Literary Quarter. Learning about the culture of a city through its food is not only fun but makes sense because the two are closely intertwined, especially in Spain.
We met our guide, the very cheerful Arantxa Lamas, in Plaza Santa Ana in the center of Madrid. From the start, Arantxa promised to fill not just our bellies, but also our minds. True to her word, she was full of interesting information. Arantxa is a professional chef and her passion for food and its history came through. She explained how three milestones in Spanish history have influenced the food in Spain today. Roman rule brought olives and wine and methods of preserving food in oil. Later, Arabs introduced techniques for preservation in vinegar. Most recently, Columbus’s discovery of the Americas brought tomatoes and potatoes to Spain.
Arantxa was born and raised in Madrid, and throughout the tour she shared insight into the life of madrileños – the city’s locals. Devour Tours focuses on family-run businesses, which are the heart and soul of the neighborhood. You have to admit, you don’t learn much by going to the local Starbucks.
We began at 10:15 in the morning, which is the perfect time for a classic Spanish breakfast of chocolate and churros. Our first stop was Chocolat, a chocolatería opened by Juan Alfonso in 2003. Unlike many other shops that bring in their chocolate and churros from other makers, everything here is handmade. They make their chocolate, churros and porros from scratch each morning. The super thick chocolate is made with very little sugar for rich chocolatey flavor. We had ours with porros – which are similar to churros but fatter and lighter due to the addition of baking powder in the batter. There’s nothing like a good sugar buzz to get you ready for a 3 hour walk around town!
We stopped at a few landmarks along our walk. This nearly 200 year old tavern is a great example of how you could tell what a business did by the color of the storefront. In a time when most of the population couldn’t read, it was important to know that if a tavern was painted red, it sold wine.
On Calle León, Casa Gonzalez is another family business emblematic of the barrio. The business has been passed down through generations of the Gonzalez family since grandfather Vicente opened the grocery in 1931. The family home was in the back of the store. Arantxa shared the story of how the owner Paco’s grandfather was imprisoned for holding secret meetings during the Spanish Civil War. These days, Casa Gonzalez sells wine, cheese and gourmet products with a restaurant where you can enjoy a glass of wine with some of their delicacies.
We were treated to a wine and cheese tasting, with a white Albarino from Rias Baixas and a red wine blend from Monsant. Arantxa used a map of Spain to point out the wine regions and areas where the cheeses were produced. The blue crumbled cheese from Cabrales was particularly good. Blue cheeses from Cabrales, a municipality in Asturias, are made from a mixture of cow, sheep, and goat milk, and are aged in natural limestone caves.
Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, lived and died here in the Literary Quarter and reminders of his life are scattered around the neighborhood. Our walk took us past the house where he lived and the Convento de las Trinitarias Descalzas de San Ildefonso (Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians) where Cervantes’ body was found in 2015. That’s right, they had lost him. He was buried there in 1616 but his coffin was lost when the convent was rebuilt in the late 17th century. Researchers discovered him in a forgotten crypt just in time for the 400 year anniversary his death.
At the heart of many Spanish neighborhoods is the local market. At home in Valencia, we visit our local market several days a week which allows us to build relationships with our favorite vendors. The Mercado Anton Martin has been the heart of the Barrio de las Letras since 1941. We learned about and tasted some of the most typical products in the market: olives, anchovies, Iberian and Serrano hams, and cecina dried beef.
Within the Mercado we visited a food stall run by the family that owns restaurant La Tragantúa just a few blocks away. Mercado Tragantúa serves some of their authentic dishes freshly prepared for takeaway or to eat in the market at their large communal table. We each had a small bowl of the garbanzos con bacalao, a delicious savory stew of chickpeas and cod traditionally served during lent.
We arrived at Los Gatos tapas bar just in time for “ la hora del vermut” – the vermouth hour. Now, I like to drink vermouth at any time of day, but we’ve been told by numerous Spaniards that you usually have vermouth right before lunch. Arantxa ordered us a dozen vermuts de grifo (vermouth on tap) for the group and let us in on the secrets of tapas bar culture in Madrid.
A few of her tips: First of all, don’t try to sit down at a table. The idea is to stand at the bar, socialize, have a drink and tapa or two and then move on to another tapas bar. Second, order just a drink and then wait for a few minutes to see if you get a free tapa. We had a variety of the tostas that Los Gatos is known for – slices of bread topped with morcilla, or tuna and red pepper, shrimp, anchovies, etc – there was something to please everyone.
Personally, I think this would be the most helpful stop on the tour for newcomers to Spain. Los Gatos is a very authentic and very popular tapas bar. A crowded bar like this can be very intimidating to the uninitiated. Our first day in Madrid, I looked longingly into a bar filled with people having fun, but I was unsure of how to approach it. It took a while to get up the nerve to dive in. Thank goodness my husband has more courage, or we may never have eaten.
We finished our tour of the Barrio de Las Letras the same way that we began it, with something sweet. Just steps away from Los Gatos, Pan de pi bakery is owned and run by a family from Galicia in Northern Spain. The shop was too small for us all to fit, so we stood outside in the sun and devoured slices of traditional Galician style cheesecake while Arantxa continued to fill our minds with stories about Galician nipple cheese (you’ll just have to look that one up).
By the end of the tour, we had made nine stops in just under four hours. In addition to everything above, we also tasted olive oil, honey, exotic fruit jams, and sparkling cava, while learning the history and significance of each morsel. Arantxa was a fantastic guide and even though most of the food was already familiar to us, we still learned a few new things. For travelers or newcomers to Spain, a food tour like this at beginning of a trip would be a great introduction to some of the most traditional products seen on menus around the city. With this kind of insider information, you can have the courage to jump right into one of those lively tapas bars and feel like a local.
Many thanks to Devour Madrid for inviting us on this complimentary tour. As always, all opinions expressed here are solely my own. Devour Tours offers food and culture tours in major cities throughout Spain. Check out their website to see what is available in the city you are visiting!