Spain’s capital, both on the map and in terms of the sheer variety of gastronomic experiences at every corner, Madrid is puzzlingly often overlooked as a dedicated destination for food tourists. It was only on a recent trip to the international food symposium Madrid Fusion that I realised the land-locked city could hold its own with the gems of my beloved Basque region or seafood Mecca Galicia.
Madrid is of course home to tempting tapas bars, with old and new dotting stylish restaurant strip Juan Jorge and tucked away in all corners of the city. Cutting-edge cuisine is none too hard to find, with fine dining destinations such as two Michelin starred Coque and Ricard Camerana’s Canalla Bistro in the gastronomic theatre that is Platea.
However, one of the best ways to understand a nation’s cuisine is to immerse yourself in the gathering of the raw materials, meeting the experts behind them and taking them away to experiment.
With this in mind, we sniffed out those hidden gem spots offering a true taste of what this eclectic European hotspot has to offer, so you’ll know exactly where to go and what to try for an insider’s taste of Madrid. Be warned – you may need to check in an extra case to haul it all home!
If you want a true, lip coating, indulgent flavour bomb of a Madrid experience, look no further than Antigua Pasteleria del Pozo, as traditional as you can get in the pastry stakes and a must-visit for the breakfast (or pre-Siesta snack) of champions in Madrid.
All puff pastry here is made with Manteca de Iberico (Iberico ham fat) rather than the traditional butter, historically a practice to distinguish the bakery from the Jewish and Arab pastelerias. Nowadays, these pastries are devoured by all and represent a genuine taste of history – as delicious today as they were hundreds of years ago.
Pick up a Bayonesa, a pumpkin stuffed slice or one bursting at the seams with vanilla spiked creme patissiere and thank me later. While you’re at it, you can also indulge in classic pastries and bakes like Roscon de Reyes or try something a little more modern with a torrón (more on that later) or dulce de leche semifreddo.
This place is Disney land for lovers of pastry and a firm Madrileño favourite, as locals filter in and out to pick up their rolling orders.
Where: Calle Pozo
The stamen of the crocus is the most prized ingredient in Spanish cuisine and beyond, for the inimitable flavour it imparts to seafood dishes, risottos and stews. The most expensive spice on the planet, these fronds of flavour add instant luxury to all manner of dishes, but you have to know what to look out for when saffron shopping.
At the stylish La Melguiza, you can find genuine DOP saffron, with its characteristic golden tinged stem and fiery red colour – fresh, young and vibrant. Pro tip: always look at the date to ensure the saffron you’re buying is less than a year old – anything harvested more than 12 months ago is no good.
There is more to saffron however than this, and this dedicated saffron haven offers stamen-spiked chocolate, sea salts, vinegars, olive oils, pâtés de quesos (jars of oozy manchego goodness to you and me) and even soaps and perfumes, so you can smell like a Michelin-worthy morsel if you so choose.
Where: Calle de Santiago
Traditionally a festive treat across Spain, Torróns is a tooth-sticking, lip-licking delight not unlike French nougat, made with honey, egg whites, sugar and toasted nuts like almonds. Proving classics can be improved upon, Vicens was established in 1775 as a purveyor of the original, but has undergone an evolution to make turróns a year round source of pleasure for the sweet-toothed.
Paris has Pierre Hermè and Ladurée, Madrid has Vicens – a seriously high-end boutique of pure pleasure. Here you can sample over 400 types of the ubiquitous Spanish sweet, from the original to innovative, more dessert-like bars designed by none other than Albert Adria.
The Best Pastry Chef in the World 2016 has created 24 sinfully indulgent flavours such as zesty Gin and Tonic, Churros spiked chocolate torróns (requested by the Mayor of Madrid no less) and my personal addiction – sweet and salty bread and olive oil dark chocolate torróns. Bites of heaven worth weigh down your suitcase to smuggle home.
Where: Calle Mayor
Venturing to Madrid without (over)indulging in Jamon Iberico is tantamount to skipping the obligatory pint of Guinness in Dublin, but not all of those tempting legs, crying out to be carved, are created equal. The seductive cuts of the acorn fed delicacy at Joselito’s are the jamon equivalent of Gisele’s legs 11.
Here you can become an expert with one of their ham courses, pick up gifts (including the ultimate glam ham – Swarovski gift boxed 48 month aged jamon) or cones of cortado a cuchillo(hand cut bite size chunks, like ham popcorn) and seriously consider moving to Madrid to devote your life to idolatry of Iberico’s finest.
Where: Calle Velazquez
Tinned seafood may not be our idea of luxury in Ireland, but everything from San Sebastian’s famous Gilda pinxto (anchovy, guindillas and olives, skewered) to Mejillones (juicy mussels bound in tomato juice) and Ventresca De Bonito Del Norte (bonito tuna belly enrobed in olive oil) have their humble beginnings in tins and cans.
Prices for these tempting tins range anywhere from €4 to €40, with the higher end of the scale reserved for tricky ingredients like clams, expertly cleaned, shelled and guaranteed sand-free, ready to devour.
It isn’t uncommon to have Mejillones served to the table still in tin as a makeshift tapa, alongside some potato crisps to use as a vessel and you can sample conservas of all types at the chic and nautically inspired Frinsa La Conservera Deli-Store in the heart of Madrid. These make sumptuous souvenirs which can bring you back to Spain in one bite months after you’ve reluctantly returned home.
Where: Calle Mayor
For the queso contingent, stepping into Poncelet Cheese Bar is like stepping into heaven – a pungent, yet intoxicating nirvana. With wall to wall cheese from all over the globe, you can challenge your tastebuds to a world tour of quality queso.
As well as the obvious need to wrap your mouth around Manchego in all maturations, do try to get your hands on some unpasteurized queso de cabra like La Cabezuela, which is produced just outside Madrid and is essentially Spain’s answer to our award-winning Corleggy goat’s cheese.
Where: Calle de José Abascal
The last iron-clad market hall in Madrid, Mercado de San Miguel is an obvious but justified inclusion on the list. As beautiful as it is bountiful, San Miguel has the edge on San Anton (another covered market jam-packed with artisan produce and temptations) when it comes to memorability.
As with most Madrid markets, both fresh produce to buy and tapas style delicacies are on offer, so you can weigh up your take-home options while grazing on an overflowing cone of crisp-fried squid or take a bite out of the city’s staple Bocadillo de Calamares – a Calamari sandwich of epic proportions as you peruse.
Other must-trys include traditional oozy Croquettas, cheesy delights speckled with either jamon or Cecina (a delicious air-dried veal which marries the meatiness of bresaola with the tenderness of bellota) and sea urchin, shucked before your eyes.
Where: Calle Mayor
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake Off and am passionate about discovering and creating delicious things – I can sometimes be caught in the act on TV3’s Six O’Clock Show or RTE Today. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me on my pursuit of deliciousness.