I can only imagine that many tourists have similar experiences when they come to Spain for the first time. The three years I’ve got under my belt have made me feel so very comfortable in this country: I know the polite set phrases you’re supposed to say when entering a restaurant, asking for more food, or going up to pay; plus picture-less menus and unlabeled trays of food at the bar don’t scare me at all. But not everyone has the luxury to live abroad in Spain, and apart from the stereotypical sangría + paella combo, lots of times people simply just don’t know where to start with Spanish cooking.
A different kind of guided tour
|Translucent sliced cured ham|
Madrid Food Tours offers a handful of options to get to know the city with your stomach, but I chose to join in on their evening “Tapas, Taverns, & History” tour while I was in town for Holy Week vacation this March. Debbie, a gregarious Londoner who’s called Madrid home for five years, took our group under her wings and introduced us to some of the best restaurants in the city.
|Inside of the five places we visited|
Although we stuck mainly to the touristy Madrid de los Austrias, the oldest part of the capital between the Royal Palace and the madhouse that is Puerta del Sol, Debbie led us into the monumental Plaza de la Villa (deserted at night), discussed the country’s difficult postwar years in front of an eerie centuries-old convent, and told us some wild stories in Plaza Mayor all the while evading those annoying trinket-sellers. As we hopped from place to place, Debbie filled us in on 500 years’ worth of stories from Madrid’s role as the Spanish capital, so this was as much a food tour as it was a guided tour around the historic center.
What all did I eat?
|Pickled anchovies—not your typical brown, super-salty fish!|
Moving on to a cozy family-run bodega, we momentarily traveled to northern Spain as we paired a glass of white albarín from León with boquerones en vinagre (delicate cured anchovies), Asturian blue cheese, and secret off-the-menu meatballs. This was my favorite stop along the tour as the nine of us passed around raciones (platters of tapas) and shared our newfound appreciation for things like anchovies, normally served brown and salty elsewhere.
|Shrimp, shrimp, shrimp!|
We finished things off with a proper dinner at eleven at night; gotta love Spain! It was a relief to finally sit down and I enjoyed this family-style bookend to the tour where we passed around platters of chorizo, pork, fried eggplant, spiced pork skewers, home fries, and fried green peppers.
|Pimientos de Padrón: some are spicy, some are not|
But you can’t beat Madrid Food Tour’s incredible value. You get to sample fifteen Spanish dishes, from the humble tapas that come with your drink to elaborate platters shared at the dinner table. (And all of your food and drinks are ordered for you in Spanish, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally getting pig ear!) You get to experience five quality, family-owned Spanish bars and restaurants, hand-picked from the tens of thousands that operate in Madrid. And you get both an insider’s explanation of the food you’re eating and a mini guided tour of historic Madrid.
Madrid Food Tours offers solo travelers a great opportunity for getting a broad exposure of Spanish food. Since I went along with group of three other married couples, we were able to order several dishes at each stop and split them between the eight of us—something that can be really awkward or impractical to do if you’re on your own. I also felt very comfortable tapas-hopping with a group of complete strangers; Debbie, the tour guide, made all of us feel very welcome…plus she did most of the talking, so my inner introvert rejoiced!
|Calle Cava de San Miguel, near Plaza Mayor|
For bookings and more information, check out Madrid Food Tour’s website. Even if you’re not interested in going on a tour, you should still browse the archives of their blog, which has a lot of free, useful information about eating in Madrid and Spanish food in general. Their Instagram feed is also drool-worthy!
Full disclosure: Lauren invited me to go on one of her company’s food tours about a year ago and I was excited to finally accept her offer this spring. I’m always wary myself whenever I come across sponsored or freebie posts in the blogosphere but rest assured I’m being totally honest with what I’ve written here.
For more pictures, check out my album on Flickr.