A Tapas Crawl in the Spanish Capital with Madrid Food Tour

It can often be really intimidating to visit a new country, especially if you don’t speak the language, aren’t acquainted with cultural habits and customs, or aren’t familiar with the local cuisine apart from one or two famous dishes. Even the simple act of walking into a restaurant can be an anxiety-inducing feat: how are you supposed to greet the servers, when is it appropriate to eat lunch or dinner, and what exactly should I order?

Madrid Food Tour
Grilled mushrooms

This is exactly what happened to me when I was in Germany for a few days last week and Portugal last year; I didn’t do my research and was forever frustrated when it came time to eat.

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

Madrid Food Tour
Translucent sliced cured ham

Enter Madrid Food Tours. Founded a few years ago by language assistant-turned-entrepreneur Lauren Aloise, this company offers visitors a chance to get an authentic taste of Spanish food by recreating the tapas bar hopping and market shopping that madrileños do every day. English-speaking tour guides lead small groups of no more than ten from place to place around Madrid’s historic center, eschewing the touristy restaurants that advertise defrosted paellas in favor of small, decades-old joints frequented mostly by locals.

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.

Madrid Food Tour
Inside of one of the five places we visited

We started the night off early (at 7:30pm) and didn’t end until about five hours later, in true Spanish form. Debbie brought us to five separate restaurants over the course of the evening: some were classy sit-down establishments, others were narrow holes-in-the-wall without any chairs, and still others were places so crowded that we literally had to push and shove to munch on tapas. These bars truly encapsulated the Spanish word castizo: authentic, genuine, and typically Madrid—something hard to find amongst the Café & Tapas chains all over the capital.

Although we stuck mainly to the touristy Madrid de los Austrias, the oldest part of the capital between the Royal Palace and Puerta del Sol square, 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?

Madrid Food Tour
Pickled anchovies—not your typical brown, super-salty fish!

But of course the food was the real star of the show. We hit the ground running by sipping on some fragrant red vermouth and trying some Spanish tapas essentials: marinated olives that were grown outside Madrid and the highest-quality Spanish cured ham you can get, jamón ibérico de bellota.

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.

Madrid Food Tour
Shrimp, shrimp, shrimp!

At our next two destinations I felt like I was simply going out for tapas with friends—not on a guided tour of the city. It took us a couple minutes to squeeze into one jam-packed restaurant famous for mushrooms (throw out any Anglo-American notions you may have of personal space!) but once we had pushed cleared out a small patch for the group we tasted some extremely-tender grilled mushrooms. It wasn’t long before it was time to pay and move on to the next round, the place where gambas al ajillo was invented. I was completely unaware that they originated in Madrid seventy years ago, but it’s easy to understand how a simple clay dish of tiny shrimp fried with garlic and hot peppers has spread across the country since then.

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.

My verdict

Madrid Food Tour
Pimientos de Padrón: some are spicy, some are not

I’ll be the first to admit that I often read sponsored blog posts with a healthy dose of skepticism, and I need to state up front that Lauren graciously comp’ed the cost of my tour, which normally runs 95€. Would I have gone on this tour on my own, given my meager language assistant pay? Perhaps. Usually my travel style is penny-pinching backpacker, and I opt for 12-bed hostel dorms, 10€ menú del día lunches, and student discounts whenever I can. The almost 100 euros the tour costs is equivalent to a round-trip Ryanair flight, or four or five nights in a hostel.

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!

Madrid Food Tour
Calle Cava de San Miguel, near Plaza Mayor

I can honestly say this was one of the funnest nights I’ve had in Madrid and I can’t recommend highly enough signing up for Madrid Food Tour’s groups if it fits into your budget. It’s the perfect way to get to know Spain’s liveliest, loudest city.

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.

Madrid, March 2015

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