We had a bit of a rough start to our European Adventures, but one of the positives of the break-in was that we HAD to travel to Madrid in order to pick up our new emergency passports from the NZ Embassy. While Madrid was on our list of places to get to in Spain, it was probably more in the “if we have time” column rather than the “must see”. How wrong were we?
My fellow kiwi friend Liz from Passport Packed had spent a couple of years living in Madrid, so she was the first person I thought of when our new route took us to the capital city. I perused her top tips for Madrid, but decided that we needed something to make us fall in love with Spain – and a food tour was the key! We were lucky enough that Liz put us in touch with Madrid Food Tour, and we jumped on their Ultimate Spanish Cuisine tour the very next day.
We met our guide Luke in Plaza Mayor, along with fellow foodies Becki and Clay from USA. We came hungry, and with our stretchy waistbands – ready for whatever Luke had in store for us. We were presented with a menu of the stops and tastes for the day, and my mouth started watering immediately!
5 Reasons to do a Food Tour
1) Get acquainted with the city
A tour of any sorts is the best way to come to grips with a new city’s layout and it’s main attractions. We often look for a free walking tour to take when we arrive in new places as not only is it a way to learn some of the history of the place, it’s also a great way to orientate yourself.
The Ultimate Spanish Cuisine tour was as much a walking tour as it was about food. We met in one of the main squares, Plaza Mayor, and made our way through the Mercado San Miguel, past the royal Palace (the largest still functioning palace in the world, with a tiny 2800 rooms!) and back around Puerta del Sol – the heart of Madrid.
As it was our first day in Madrid, this really helped us find our way and work out where we were on the map!
2) Taste MORE than the typical cuisine
When you think of Spanish cuisine, apart from tapas your first thought is Sangria and Paella right? Turns out there is a huge amount more to traditional tastes than just the typical go-to’s.
In fact, on the Ultimate Spanish Cuisine tour we didn’t even touch Sangria or Paella – which I was thankful for.
What we did try though was unusual delicacies – like Bull’s tail regalito. I’ll be completely honest – if I saw Bull’s tail ANYTHING on a menu, I wouldn’t order it. I’d opt for the safe option (probably the typical paella) and would miss out on trying the most amazing little parcel of deliciousness.
As history goes, after the bull fight – when the bull was dead – nothing would go to waste and the bull would be eaten. The poor would get the offal and offcuts – the organs and the tail. A traditional dish is bulls tail stew, where the tail would be slow cooked and spiced in to a brisket like meal. In 2009 El Anciano Rey de los Vinos (the bar we were in) took the traditional dish and put a modern spin on it – wrapping the bulls tail meat in filo pastry, deep frying it, adding a red pepper and a balsamic drizzle and serving it up as “a little present of bulls tail stew”. Matched with a Marques de Grinon Rioja wine, it was delicious and VERY more-ish!
I was also excited to eat plenty of serrano jamon (similar to parma/proscuitto) while in Spain – but it looked like we were going to have to fight the locals to get to it! What I didn’t realise was the different jamon delicacies we would get the chance to try and compare. Suddenly serrano wasn’t all that special when put next to iberico de recebo (also known as “black hoof”) which is made from black iberian pigs. It was much gamier in flavour, and as we stood and chewed and contemplated the different tastes we were able to watch the champion jamon slicer work his magic in the window of the store Ferpal. To be a champion slicer you need to cut by hand with a knife, and are judged on the speed and thinness of the end product. It should be so thin that you can read through it!
Luke then revealed the jamon to beat all jamon’s (is that a saying?) – iberico de bellota – or acorn fed ham. Apparently the pigs are only fed acorns (they can eat up to 10kg of acorns a day!), and the fat of the meat is chemically more similar to to a “nut fat”.
The meat was oily and nutty, sweet and not too salty – and I pretty much decided that serrano was totally average and bellota was the way forward. Bellota is normally double the price of regular iberico, so I’m pretty sure my bank account is going to prevent me from overdosing on bellota!
3) Eat the way that locals do
In New Zealand (and the UK – depending on whether you class a cup of tea break as a meal!), we tend to have 3 meals a day, with dinner being the largest. In Spain, they eat up to 6 smaller meals a day, the largest at lunch and a much smaller dinner. Luke took us through all of these, allowing us to taste typical “meals”
We started the day with a tiny coffee, and home-baked soletilla – a sweet bread like biscuit – dunked in warm chocolate. Any country that starts the day with chocolate is a winner to me!
We headed to Mercado de San Miguel – which was originally a fishmarket with 88 vendors all selling (smelly) fish in the middle of the city. It closed in 1995 but was reopened in 2007 with a deli/bar/market theme – frequented by locals as well as tourists.
It’s absolutely gorgeous inside and I loved perusing all the stalls. Luke knew which were the best and most authentic, and it wasn’t long before we had some typical tapas in front of us, along with a palate cleansing glass of sweet red Reus vermouth.
The Campo Real olives and the toasted rosemary salted Marcona almonds were so good, but the real star was the skewer of goodies set in front of us. Luke explained that to get the best flavour combinations, we should eat the first half in one mouthful, and then the second half – so I decided to follow his advice.
The hard boiled quails eggs, olive and sweet roasted red pepper set off a taste explosion in my mouth, only to be bettered by the second mouthful – the anchovy, sweet chile and olive. If we hadn’t been with Luke I a) probably wouldn’t have purchased a skewer like that at all and b) would have eaten each item one at a time – totally missing out of the flavour combinations.
I really wanted to order 5 more skewers and sit there and continue eating – but this was only an aperitif, and we were headed off to taste more Spanish delights!
4) Experience a city through all 5 senses
While taste is an obvious one, it’s true that you use all your senses during a food tour.
SEE – we were taken Taberna La Bola – a restaurant which dates back to 1870. We were taken out the back and in to the kitchens where we watched one of the chefs prepare a Cocido Madrileno – a traditional chickpea based soup from Madrid. When we were served a portion of the soup later, it was hard to believe the time and ingredients that had gone in to making it!
TOUCH – a food tour isn’t JUST about eating, sometimes it is about drinking too! We visited Bar Cerveriz and were given a quick demonstration of how to pour Trabanco Asturian Cider before the bottle was thrust into our own hands – it was time to try and pour the cider from a height in order to aerate it.
While a fair bit hit the ground, we were all quite adept at getting more in the glass than on the floor! Food tours can be very interactive which is another reason they are so memorable.
HEAR – Luke took us down a small side street and through a regular looking door which opened in to a courtyard. We had entered the home of a still-active 16th century convent with cloistered nuns. To fill their days, the nuns bake cookies which they sell.
You turn up, ring a bell, and speak to the nuns from behind a door – you can’t see them, only hear them nattering away behind the walls.
You don’t know what flavour cookies they will have on any given day, so we were lucky to taste their most delicious ones – a lovely citrus flavour.
SMELL – We popped our heads inside La Despensa del Carmen, a tiny wee “pantry” shop which made mama-style dishes for the locals to pick up and have as a takeaway.
The smell of the different dishes were divine, and when Luke came out with a couple of dishes for us to try we all couldn’t wait to tuck in. Carmen’s homemade Spanish meatballs were so tender they fell off the toothpick into our waiting mouths, but the real delight for me was the freshly-made egg and tuna empanada. It was warm and crispy and I can still remember the smell of it!
5) Meet new people & get insider knowledge
We loved meeting the other two food enthusiasts on our tour and had a lot of fun getting to know each other – so much so that all four of us continued on at the end of the tour for a few drinks!
We’d asked Luke for some insider knowledge…if we did so happen to want to get some “authentic” sangria, where would one find it? He directed us to Cuevas de Sesamo, a short walk away – but was sadly closed for siesta when we arrived. Regardless, we found some (probably not very authentic) sangria close by and chatted away while watching the local goings on.
Overall we thoroughly enjoyed our Madrid Food tour – we left full and happy, and with great memories of the city.
The Ultimate Spanish Cuisine Tour runs Mon/Wed/Fri and lasts around 4 hours. It is €85 per adult and includes at least 12 food tastings and 3 beverage tastings (non alcoholic options available). Click here to visit the Madrid Food Tour website and read more.
Have you ever taken part in a food tour?
I can also HIGHLY recommend Culinary Secrets of the Old City from Istanbul Eats in Istanbul, Turkey – which is one of our top 3 travel experiences!
Disclosure: I was offered a bloggers place on the tour, however we paid for Jason to join as we really LOVE food tours!