© Rodney Bolt
Oliver Reed swimming naked in a fish pond is not an image I would voluntarily call to mind. But he famously did so, in the heady 1970s, in the vast, glittering lobby of the Castellana hotel in Madrid. Back in the days of General Franco, the Castellana was a clandestine Hilton (foreign companies were theoretically forbidden to own property in Spain). It was spangled with the likes of Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra and Zsa Zsa Gabor. They came to make films in the country, then to party in the capital. Madrid had allure. Even Franco could not detract from that.
For Madrid is every inch a capital city. It was created as a capital – at the whim of King Phillip II in the 16th century. It wears its grand architecture and great boulevards with ease. It generates energy and attracts genius. The Movida – that outburst of iconoclasm and creativity of the 1970s and 1980s, which produced among others the film director Pedro Almodóvar – was centred on Madrid. The city’s princes have bequeathed it some of the greatest art in the world. Its style is palatial – but it’s also eclectic, electric and chic. Grandes dames stalk the streets on thin legs and high heels, swathed in furs; gay boys strut their stuff in Chueca, half the city seems to dance till dawn. Everybody wants to come to Madrid. In Madrid, people say, the flamenco surpasses that in the south, the Catalan, Basque and Andalusian chefs kick dust back at those at home, and the seafood is the best in the country. (In the 1930s, I was told, the train that brought the morning’s catch from coast to capital was the fastest in the world.)
“It’s not that one”. I was in the Castellana lobby, trying to work out the logistics of Oliver Reed and a flimsy water feature, one which could barely have contained Mia Farrow (another erstwhile resident). “It’s on the other side, in the courtyard. Almodóvar shot the first scenes of Atame there. Anyway, it’s been filled in.” My friend Ana knows that sort of thing. That’s why I was meeting her. She grew up in Madrid, and has all the best tips.
She whisked me first to the Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s main square. There’s no traffic. Tall, 16th-century buildings enclose it completely. As if at the bottom of a giant box, people wander about criss-crossing the hard lines of light and shade, ducking in and out of arcade arches. We headed straight for La Torre del Oro – at first glance just like a typical Andalusian bullfighting bar, cluttered with corrida paraphernalia. But this one has an acerbic madrileño touch – it’s dedicated to fights where the bull won. The certificates on the wall are death certificates; the flash of gold in the corner is from a dead torero’s bolero. We sipped a feather-dry fino, munching on crispy fried pescaditos (whitebait) and shrimp escabeche, thankful that most of the gory photos on the wall were black-and-white.
Our evening tapas crawl had begun. Next came Casa Alberto, which has been going strong since 1827, still boasts its old zinc and marble bar, and has not only beer but vermouth on tap, from a tall, brass, five-spouted draught-head with a cherub on top. Here it was chorizos simmered in cider, and fat mussels, marinated in vinegar then piled with chopped chillies, paprika, onion and tomato – ready for us to suck out of their shells, like oysters. Then down through the busy, restaurant-lined alleys of the Los Austrias district below Plaza Mayor, to Juanalaloca, a hip bar with lounge music and purple walls, where tapas became pintxos – Basque haute cuisine in miniature: a cone of pale-green spinach crepe, wrapped around a wriggle of fried elvers; foie gras with caramelised apple.
Later, after a drink at the bar of nearby Casa Pata, we join the squash in a back room for raw flamenco. This is not the tourist world of flouncy pink dresses and castanets. The two dancers seem possessed. They’re dressed in black. A flash of red. They could be stamping hard earth beside a campfire, their bodies taut and jutting, at times dead still (one shoulder muscle quivering), then a staccato explosion, a blur of limbs, arcs of flying sweat – and for minutes on end no sound but heels on wood, sharp clapping palms and fingernails on the sound box of a guitar. It’s nearly two in the morning by the time it’s all over, and though this is early for Madrid, we’re so drained simply from watching that we go home to bed.
Next morning involved a trail along one of the narrow alleys in Chueca – the largely gay, hip night-life quarter, by day the scene of somewhat bleary-eyed shopping for club wear and street fashion – to a specialist olive oil shop for a bottle of my all-time Spanish favourite (Nuñez de Prado, from Baena); then a visit to the magnificent Prado museum for a look at my desert-island painting (a Roger van der Weyden Descent from the Cross), and after taking in Velázquez and the El Grecos, and Picasso’s Guernica at the nearby Reina Sofía museum, a quick run by the Mercado San Miguel – not a patch on Barlecona’s food market, but with its bright piles of fruit, mushroomy aromas, and lines of hanging hams quite enough to whet an appetite.
Our hunger was suitably sated at Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world (well, you have to, don’t you, it’s in the Guinness Book of Records). In the 278-year old tavern, we tucked into a dish of their justifiably famous roast suckling pig, steaming with sweet, farm-yardy aromas, its perfect, piglet crackling far more delicate than that of a full-grown animal. I’m heartless and incorrigible when it comes to such things. Veal, baby squabs and foie gras all frequently pass my lips. I’d have eaten a nightingale one day in Catalonia, if my friends hadn’t threatened to walk out of the restaurant. My karma sucks. I’m probably down there with the people who grow human ears on mice.
My chances in the salvation stakes plummeted even farther when I cursed violently a few minutes later, on the threshold of a nunnery. Just around the corner from Botín, the cloistered nuns of the 17th-century Convento de las Carboneras make excellent biscuits, and deliver them up to the outside world via a torno – a wheel set in a wall that enables business to be conducted without the participants seeing each other. But the heavy oak door that led to the torno was very low. Nursing a bruised forehead, I made my way back to the hotel for a siesta and a calorie-burning workout in the gym, in preparation for the evening’s visit to Santceloni.
Some chefs are gods. Or so I thought as I made my way through Oscar Velasco’s celestial menu at Santceloni. A protégé of legendary Barcelona restaurateur Santi Santamaria, the shy, softly spoken Velasco looks barely old to tie his own shoelaces, yet comes up with the sort of dishes that, for a moment, seem to bring the entire surrounding world to a halt. A soft quail’s egg with ginger and anchovy, setting different patches of your tongue and palate on the alert. Caramelised chestnuts in a creamy soup that brings with it associations of innocence and nursery firesides – and in the middle, a wickedly sleazy piece of foie gras (then underneath, one last plain whole chestnut, just to end on a note of purity). A dramatic angle of turbot with a tomato confit and flavours of nuts and vanilla; a careta (‘mask’) of veal with a smile of apple, wafting with aromas of black truffle, and with a soft quivering surround of marrowy, chocolatey fat (like biting in to a Rubens buttock). Rum pudding topped with crunchy walnut, pine-nut and crisped banana. The parade of small, exquisite courses went on way past witching hour, with Catalan wines alongside: a delicate, buttery Penedès chardonnay from Albet i Noya, one of the fashionable, intense Priorat reds from Joset Maria Fuentes.
But midnight, in Madrid, is just the beginning. We moved on to the Chicote cocktail bar, once the hang-out of Grace Kelly and Ernest Hemingway, and still super-hip with djs and hot music, then on to the lively bars in Chueca, and finally back towards the Plaza Mayor and to Palacio Gaviria, which built as a city palace in 1851, and after a century or so converted into a dance hall. Priceless tapestries hang in the cigarette smoke, the ballroom is still resplendent with ceiling paintings, huge mirrors and crystal chandeliers; life-size Moors with gilded locks hold aloft giant candelabra. You walk over parquet, marble and Persian carpets, from salon to salon – tango in the one, hip-hop in another, then salsa, garage, golden oldies. Then it’s next door to the bright lights and white tiles of Chocolatería San Ginés, where the air is thick with the aroma of hot chocolate, and where night-owls sit alongside the early-morning breakfast brigade, dunking churros into choccie heaven.
Ana near wore me out. Very late nights were followed by early-morning shopping forays – to the antiques shops in the Rastro, admiring the religious paraphernalia in the church shops along the Calle Mayor, jostling with housewives at the counters of old-fashioned pastelerías. We visited her favourite restaurant: La Trainera – a neighbourhood fish tavern that seems lodged in the 1970s, with brass portholes and wooden ships’ wheels. The waiters have a gentle, old-fashioned charm, and the abundant zarzuela (a sort of bouillabaisse, replete with crayfish, langoustine and piles of shellfish) was a triumph.
By the time Sunday came round, and the flight home loomed, I only just had the energy (and the capacity) to respond to Ana’s insistence on visiting Taberna de la Daniela in the smart Salamanca district, north-east of the centre. Well-dressed, prosperous-looking families gathered for lunch, tucked in their bibs and launched into cocido madrileño, a pan-animal stew that comes in three waves: the broth served with vermicelli, a plate piled with stewed beef, chicken, sausages, meat balls, marrow-bone, salt pork, and black pudding; and then the vegetables – chick peas, potato, carrots and cabbage. Cocido is the Spanish national dish, and the Madrid version reigns supreme. It takes all morning to make, and is beginning to achieve a cult status among young professionals as nostalgia food. It was a sumptuous note on which to leave.
Madrid, says Ana, never disappoints, and you leave it always wanting to return. She’s right. I certainly want to go back – just as soon as I’ve caught up on my sleep and recovered my appetite. Probably in about a month.
© Rodney Bolt