Monday, October 8, 2007
As shocking as it seems, but I didn’t plan out my entire food itinerary before I got here. I only had reservations at one restaurant in Madrid, I had no list of “must-dos.” What I wanted to feel was the culture of food here, for ordinary people everyday, to be in a world where anchovies were normal. Poor Anne, she patiently followed me as I walked up and down the aisles of the grocery store at the basement of the department store chain, El Corte Ingles, not looking at me like I was a crazy person while I peered at flan sold in pudding packs, tins of shellfish, and jars of marmalade. She even took a photo of me caressing an entire ham.
So in my first 6 days in Spain, in Madrid, I’ve inevitably had meals that were so-so, not bad, just very ordinary, except it wouldn’t have been very ordinary in New York. I had a cheap bocadillo, or sandwich, the other day, a plain almost tough roll with some fried boquerones, or white anchovies, inside, no mayo, no sauce, no nothing. It was the equivalent of a decent slice of pizza on any random corner in N, but in NY, Whole Foods sells boquerones for some insane price per pound.
And then there are places like Txirimiri, a pintxos/tapas bar in La Latina with food so good that when I dropped half my tapa on the floor, I considered applying the five-second rule and eating it.
Anne and I arrived there by accident. We were aiming for one of the more famous places in La Latina, along Calle Cava Baja or Cava Alta, but it was pouring and we jumped in. Instantly, I was overwhelmed. The bar was lined with people chatting, drinking, eating, there were pintxos, or Basque-style tapas on bread on the counter, and then a blackboard listing more. I’d read all the guide books on how tapas worked, but I felt so frozen, so totally lost. Anne says I hid it well, but I was terrified.
Luckily, I didn’t have to fight for the bartender’s attention and I managed to order a glass of wine and two raciones, or larger portions of tapas, of the blackboard.
This was called a bacalao tempura, and it came on a bed of caramelized onions and peppers, so sweet and rich, and a perfect balance to the golden cod. I had told Anne earlier how much I loved the word “bacalao,” and when I told her it was salt cod, she had been wary, but not after tasting this. The crisp crust, the meltingly tender fish inside—it brought fried fish to a whole new level.
This was called “habitas baby,” and we deduced after it arrived that the “habitas” must refer to the beans. More caramelized onions, which was good as I can never get enough. It was like an intense, salty shot of flavor, topped with jamon and foie.
By now, I was relaxed. The wine was working its magic, especially since it was so cheap, and we just started pointing and eating. I started to fall in love with Madrid. Three nights later, we came back for our last dinner in Madrid and ate another round of the bacalao and things I didn’t need to identify to enjoy.
Txirimiri is special and obviously popular, as packed as it is with hip young things, but in its own way, felt as ordinary as the corner bar selling bocadillos de boquerones fritos. I’ve long gotten over my embarrassment taking pictures of my food, but I felt a pang of sadness, knowing that to eat cheap, delicious food and drink a $2 glass of wine in a comfortable bar was nothing notable for the Spaniards around us. But not so sad that I lost my appetite.