La Venencia – Madrid, Spain

La Venecia
La Venencia

I was out to dinner the other night with my family and friends and did a little research before I went.  It was a warm summer evening and we were going to be dining outside under a cloudless sky.  The thought of sucking down heady Czech beer seemed a little heavy handed to my palate so I made a strategic decision early on.  I ordered one of my favorite drinks, Sherry.  I’ve written about a few of my experiences with this typical Spanish drink before but nowhere outside of Jerez typifies it more in my mind more than the place I’m about to tell you about, quietly, like a well-kept secret.  The place is – come closer – La Venencia in Madrid, Spain.

My first experience in La Venencia was brought on by my wife, well, needing a bathroom break.  We were cavorting around Madrid one evening about nine-or-so years ago and nature called.  The rest, as they say, is history.  My wife found what she needed and for me the doors to a secret world opened by dumb luck.  Upon my first visit, I had no idea where I was.  I didn’t know what they served but I did see a whole lot of what looked like wine casks.  I figured I could at least get a glass of wine while I waited.  So, I asked for a glass of “algún vino blanco y seco” (some dry white wine).  The guy behind the bar just smiled and said “Solo tenemos blanco.”  Not knowing what I had stepped into, I did what came naturally.  “Vále” (OK), I retorted.  The next 7 seconds passed, he smiled and, for some unknown reason, decided to take pity on me.  He reached for one of the five corked bottles behind the bar and poured the light, grassy copita of Sherry.  “Fino,” he said as he re-corked the bottle and scrawled my order on the bar in chalk.  My senses were reeling.  Chalk on the bar?  Leather on the walls?  Casks?  Air impossibly thick with smoke?  This must be it.  Heaven!

For anyone with even a passing interest in Sherry, it was and is a slice heaven.  La Venencia is about as authentic as anything gets in all of Iberia.  From the people behind the bar to the impossibly yellowed posters and pictures adorning the walls, the place is so Spanish it hurts.  It’s the place where my wife turned into a Sherry fan and I believe the place where we first considered the idea of a trip to Jeréz which we just completed earlier this year.  It’s also a place that I visited with my brother while in Madrid – on several occasions during our trip there.  In fact, every time we walked by and it was open, we stopped in for a copa.  From the Seco Amontillado, to the Fino, to the Manzanilla (among others), all glasses are served with an intensity and sacredness that really respects the liquid that is being poured as much as the tradition of the place.

Rounding out the flavor package are the complimentary plates of tapas that go with the delicious copas.  The olives are some of the best I have had in Spain.  Garlicky, slightly salty, and steeped in grassy Spanish oil.  The cheese under the glass cover behind the bar is a queso de cabra, I believe, but can’t be entirely sure.  Then there are the slices of chorizo that seem to melt in your mouth and lay the perfect foundation for a sip of this Spanish ambrosia.

Finally, there are the people themselves.  The faces behind the bar are solemn and seem as worn as the dark brown wood and the leather covered walls.  Their faces appear to tell a story of the place with years of tobacco smoke plotting a sort of relief map of Sherry history.  They can be fairly conversational if the stars are aligned correctly.  On one early visit,  I was mistaken as an Italian and the bartender seemed amazed that I was, in fact, an American.

This bar would be an impossibility in another country.  Not only could one never find this many smokers in one city but the phenomenon of Sherry is purely Spanish.  However, there is something else.  This is Spain, or more specifically, Madrid.  It’s the tradition of the city.  The grittiness mixed with hospitality that exists but is not over-exuberant.  It is authenticity like I have never witnessed anywhere else.  Of course, it wouldn’t be the same without the Sherry.  And, oh, the Sherry.

Corazón Loco – Madrid, Spain

Corazon Loco 4Perched on a corner just around the bend from Cava Baja and just up the street from Almendro 13 sits one of the most quintessential Spanish hipster wine bars that I’ve ever seen.  When I say hipster, I must make it clear that I’m not talking about Euro-hipsters – the vapid, label-wearing big sunglass bunch.  By hipster, I mean that its home to young, hip, Madrileños.  The group that congregates at Corazón Loco is a likable crowd. There’s your fair share of piercings and tattoos in the bunch but they’re a congenial lot overall and they won’t stare too hard at a couple gringos and their curly blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter on a Sunday afternoon after El Rastro.

The requisite chalkboards behind the bar advertise the wines that they have on hand and, as with Corazon Loco 6El Tempranillo, it’s best to go to the bar with a good idea of what you want to order and a good accent.  You can’t go wrong with what they’re pouring so there’s not much to fear.  But man cannot live by wine alone so Corazón Loco also has a good menu of eats on the chalkboard to the left of the bar.  The “Papas Arrugadas” are one of my favorites and are perfect for splitting with some friends while relaxing on the beer keg barstools.  The potatoes themselves are a Canary Islands specialty that come with a green and red sauce that has to be tried to be believed.  Never has a boiled, salted little potato tasted so good.  They’re served with a red “mojo” pepper sauce and a green one that, I believe, is a garlic and cilantro mix.  Everyone ends up liking one over the other but both sauces are super tasty.

Corazon Loco 1In the back of the establishment, there is more of a sit-down restaurant.  It looks cool but I’ll admit, I’ve never been back there.  The front wine bar area is where the action is and the corner location gives one a strategic view of La Latina and all of the goings on in the Costanilla San Andrés.  It’s an inviting atmosphere and one that I return to every time I’m in Madrid.

This place is the real Spain as I remember it.  The Spain before the EU, mass immigration and the Euro.  It’s the Spain that I hope never goes away.

Tortilla de Camarones

It’s easy to get in a rut when dining in Spain.  However, Spanish cuisine is incredibly varied when you decide to extend beyond the staples.  Factor in that most of Spain is bordered by the sea and it increases your chances of finding something you had never heard of.  On my last trip there, one such discovery was the tortilla de camarones.  When my wife told me, according to her pre trip research, that the place in Sanlúcar in which we were seated was famous for them, I was skeptical.  Shrimp in a tortilla?  It sounded kind of low on the texture scale.  Plus, I’m a tortilla purist and the thought of sticking anything other than the essentials (egg, potato, onion) in a tortilla is just a distraction.  Luckily, a couple of tables down, the folks ordered an unidentified plate of something heaping and fried and it piqued my curiosity.  I went to the counter at Casa Balbino and ordered a plate of the tortilla de camarones for two and another couple glasses of La Gitana.  I waited and was greeted with this:

Tortilla de Camarones
Tortilla de Camarones

It’s not a tortilla in the classic sense but an incredibly airy, perfectly seasoned, fried nest of whole baby shrimp.  The crunch of the batter mixed with the shell of the shrimp reminded me of softshell crab – without the unfortunate mush that sometimes accompanies the latter.  It was incredible.  The Manzanilla cut though the grease perfectly and I had no problem devouring the majority of the plate.  My wife enjoyed it as well but is not quite as adventurous of an eater as I am especially when it comes to baby shellfish.  Still, she said she loved it.  (Maybe I just didn’t give her a chance to eat more!)

Spain is a big country and the amount of culinary diversity is immense.  Tortilla de camarones is a standout, however.  If you ever find yourself in a restaurant where it is served, order it – and don’t forget the manzanilla.

Churros con Chocolate… in Prague?

Churro Press
Churro Press

Sunday was Father’s Day in the NH household (but not in the Czech Republic) and I woke up to a good little celebration. My daughter had colored a picture of Ernie holding a piece of cake and presented it to me proudly. A stack of small boxes was on the table in the living room and minutes after getting out of bed (I was the last one up) the three of us proceeded to the balcony for a Father’s Day celebration. My wife had managed to buy me a churro press from LaTienda.com and some traditional Spanish “chocolate” for dipping purposes. I was wowed and a little scared.

You see, I don’t have a Fry Daddy. I grew up in a household where “grease” was a very, very bad word. I have also been witness (usually an accomplice with my dad) to various grease-based [fried] dishes that came out soggy and relative culinary disasters. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. We always agreed that, “the grease was just not hot enough.” Yes, we had some wins (beer batter fish comes to mind) but every fried stroke of brilliance was countered by a soggy defeat.

That being said, I had some good success about a year ago with tempura fried vegetables using a cast-iron skillet on the grill. The mess was kept to a minimum and by closing the grill lid and the grease was hot enough to fry in small portions. Yesterday, I employed the same system to the churro dough. I’m happy to report that after only one false start, the experiment was a success. I had to switch gears about 1/4 of the way through the dough when I decided that the recommended nozzle on the press was too large my under powered rig couldn’t muster the heat to fry them all the way though. Sure enough, the switch to the smaller nozzle produced some delicious (if not slightly oddly shaped) churros in about 4 minutes. After they were coated in powdered sugar and dipped in the pudding-like chocolate, we were transported to the sidewalk of Madrid and the Cafeteria Ricote Churreria.

Like many recipes, this one was tough on the first try but not intrinsically difficult and should be easy to master on subsequent outings. As a matter of fact, it’s the perfect recipe for overnight guests who drink too much of our wine the night before. What says good morning more than a strong cup of joe, a plate of crispy churros and a steaming cup of thick, rich Spanish chocolate. ¡Buenos días y feliz Día del Padre!

Sherry Rebujitos in Grazalema, Spain

A Rebujito in Grazalema, Spain
A Rebujito in Grazalema, Spain

Our last trip to Spain opened my eyes to lots of new food and deepened my understanding of a few of the most classic Spanish drinks.  One of the tipples that I really got to know on this journey was Sherry, or Jerez, as it is called on the peninsula.  I’ve been a fan of Sherry since the first vacation to Spain with my wife.  Oddly, when I lived there as an 18-year-old foreign exchange student, I didn’t get into it.  I think I was too busy discovering J&B with coke.  (Don’t ask.)  Anyway, a little more maturity has paved the way for the immensely satisfying world of Spanish Sherry.  Its flavor is legendary and is as varied as the Spanish landscape itself.  There are many more experienced Sherry palates on the web to discuss the topic in detail so I’ve chosen to bring one small strata of the world of Jerez to you  – El Rebujito.

El Rebujito comes from a long line of Spanish drinks that mix beer or wine with juice or soda (sangria, tinto de verano, cerveza clara…).  El Rebujito takes this a step further and mixes Fino Sherry with lemonade or, as we experienced more often, 7-Up.  Yep, 7-Up.  The flavor of the sherry was mellowed by the 7-Up, which managed to take away some of the characteristic acidity of the Fino.  Served over ice, it was the perfect midday sipping concoction to enjoy in the local sun-drenched plaza.  Mixed with a salty tapa or just a good bunch of potato chips, it was perfect.  Having enjoyed the single drinks early on in the trip, imagine our delight when we found it served in a pitcher in a little place in Sevilla, outdoors, on a characteristically scorching Sevilla day.

Sherry showed its incredible versatility and variety on this trip.  It’s made a permanent home for itself in my bar/armory.  And, the Rebujito is a welcome foot soldier in the war to beat the summer heat.

El Tempranillo – Madrid, Spain

El Tempranillo's Wall of Wine
El Tempranillo's Wall of Wine

La Latina’s El Tempranillo makes you feel like you’re stepping into a forbidden guiri-free slice of Spanish bar culture.  I’ve never seen anyone in there speak a word of English in my 3 or 4 visits.  I think the fellows behind the bar would like to keep it that way as well.  On our last visit there, as all prior visits, upon stepping up to the bar to look at the chalkboard wine list, I was asked “dígame” and was subsequently stared at until I put on my glasses and made heads or tails of the list.  Kind of a cold, unblinking dark-eyed Spanish stare.  If you go and the same thing happens to you, don’t flinch.  Just calmly make up your mind and order a couple of glasses – in the best Spanish and accent you have.  Then, to show them you really know what you’re doing ask for “la carta.”  Ask for the menu and you’re dead meat.  (I learned that in another place in Barcelona and have never repeated the error.)

After that, you’re home free.  You’re in.  You can enjoy yourself.  If you flinch, you’ll be gone after the first glass – or maybe before.  But for those who persevere, surviving the stare is worth it.  The place itself is what a wine bar should be.  Warm, rustic, all chipped paint, exposed beams, cool pillars, attractive but not ostentatious clientele and a gravity defying wall of wine.  Oh, the wall of wine.

They feature several varieties of Spanish wines by the glass and even more by the bottle.  “La carta” reveals a decent bunch of tapas and tostas that pair well with the wines they serve.  The plate of “queso curado” we ordered on the last trip was big and probably some of the best cheese I had while in Iberia.  Maybe it was the wine (they have cañas, too) or maybe it was the fact that my 2-year-old made friends with a little Spanish girl whose parents were there enjoying the place as well but El Tempranillo is everything it should be – and nothing it shouldn’t.

No wonder the guys behind the bar seem to guard it like jealous boyfriends.  It just wouldn’t be the same if it was packed full of people clutching copies of Lonely Planet Spain.  Not to mention, those folks would never survive the stare.

Plaza del Salvador – Sevilla, Spain

Patatas Fritas y una Caña - Plaza del Salvador - Sevilla, Spain
Patatas Fritas y una Caña - Plaza del Salvador - Sevilla, Spain

This has to be my favorite part of Sevilla and it’s certainly one of my favorite characteristics of Spain.  Cañas outside in a plaza (this one is Sevilla’s Plaza del Salvador) on a nice day with your closest Spanish compatriots.  Our cañas were served for 1.10 euros from “La Antigua Bodeguita” located on the edge of the square.  There’s something about a glass of beer in a public square that seems just a bit illicit and dangerous as to make it one notch tastier.  Pair it with fresh fried “Patatas Fritas” from the vendor selling them in the square and you have something as delicious as it is bad for you.  Damn the torpedoes.  If you ever make it there, I’m told it goes on from midday well into the night.  Go.

Traga Tapas – Ronda, Spain

Traga Tapas - Ronda, Spain
Traga Tapas - Ronda, Spain
At a certain point in my Spanish vacations, I need to focus my palate on something other than the Spanish staples of bread, cheese, jamón and eggs served in countless combinations.  On the last trip it was a visit to Maoz for a delicious falafel in pita with veggies and yogurt sauce.  This time, it was a visit to Traga Tapas smack dab in the middle of the picturesque town of Ronda, Spain.  Traga Tapas is apparently the sister restaurant to Tragabuches, where I have never been and know nothing about.  Traga Tapas, on the other hand, merits repeat visits.  The sheer audacity of the combination of the flavors used and fused makes every dish we tried worth nothing less than contemplative study with each bite.
Salmon Marinated with Vanilla and Lime (Salmón Marinado con Vainilla y Lima)
Salmon Marinated with Vanilla and Lime (Salmón Marinado con Vainilla y Lima)

The salmon marinated with vanilla and lime (salmón marinado con vainilla y lima) shocked the senses with the first bite but as it continued, it made almost “why didn’t I think of that” sense. The stew crouquette (croqueta de cocido) mixed two Spanish classics together to form a delicious ball of well, fried stew. Much better than it sounds, believe me.

Pork Cheek on Gratin Toast with Cheese Fondant (Chapata de Carrillada)
Pork Cheek on Gratin Toast with Cheese Fondant (Chapata de Carrillada)

The pork cheek on gratin toast with cheese fondant (chapata de carrillada) was reminiscent of the richest pulled pork that one could imagine.  The texture of the toast plank underneath was perfect as well.  Leaning heavily on Asian side of the fusion wheel, the soy pasta dish (fideos de soja salteados con queso de cabra curado, cerdo iberico y rucola) combined Asian, Italian and Spanish flavors in to a sort of cellophane noodle, global village, pad Thai. 

I know, I know.  This reads like hyperbole – trust me – it isn’t.

Trumping all the dishes, the pork ribs (costillas de cerdo) broke little new ground but represented two different dishes to perfection.  The spare ribs were tender, succulent, with a seemingly flash-fried, light, thin outer coating.

Stew Crouquette (Croqueta de Cocido)
Stew Crouquette (Croqueta de Cocido)

  Complimenting their flavor were the best fried potatoes alioli ever served.  The potatoes themselves were enough to send Mrs. NH into gastronomic bliss causing her to beg me to order a full plate of them alone on her behalf.  (I didn’t – there was too much else to try.)  The potatoes were golden fried on the outside and fluffy and earthy on the inside.  The alioli was fresh made, rich, and all creamy-yolk-garlic goodness.  Garnishing the dish was a perfect scattering of coarse sea salt – just enough to make sure every flavor contained therein would have a chance to properly grace your tongue.  Writing this alone is making me salivate uncontrollably…

Pork Ribs (Costillas de Cerdo)
Pork Ribs (Costillas de Cerdo)

I can’t recommend this place highly enough.  With the combination of the inventive yet classic food, great deals on new flavors in local wine and excellent service and recommendations – you’d be a fool to miss this spot while in Ronda – and maybe within a 50-mile radius.

Churros con Chocolate in Madrid

Churros con Chocolate at the Cafeteria Ricote in Madrid
Churros con Chocolate at the Cafeteria Ricote in Madrid

Churros con chocolate feel very Madrileño to me just because that is the first place I experienced them and it’s where I’ve had some of the best.  The ones pictured above were had at the Cafeteria Ricote and are a heck of a way to start a morning.  Gruff service behind the counter gives way to bittersweet chocolate heaven in a cup and golden, heartily-crunchy churros.  Café solo was our drink of choice but they go fine with about anything involving coffee.  They have fresh-squeezed OJ for those looking to cleanse their palate afterward, as well.

After a breakfast like that, you can handle about anything that Madrid threw at you the night before or has yet to throw at you that day.  On Sundays, that means “El Rastro,” Madrid’s big outdoor market.  Muy Madrileño.

Return of the Spanish Caravan

I know where treasure is waiting for me.
Silver and gold in the mountains of Spain
I have to see you again and again.

We’ve just wrapped up another trip to Spain.  That’s three trips for me in just a little over a year and my obsession with Iberia shows little sign of abating.  On this trip we covered about 1000 miles through Andalusia, snapped about 1300 digital pics, consumed countless cañas, tintos de verano, finos, manzanillas, tapas of all stripes and saw some stunningly beautiful countryside.  I probably have enough material for 15 posts over the next few weeks so prepare for NotHemingway.com to shift into serious Iberiophile mode.

The road outside Grazalema, Spain
The road outside Grazalema, Spain

 

A Slight Change of Plans

We’re sitting on the balcony tonight after putting “el rug rat” to bed. We made a trip to the supermarket today and picked up jamon, queso curado, bread, wine and picked up a little amontillado from the hotel bar for dessert.

We took a side trip to Sanlúcar today and stocked up on a couple bottles of La Gitana Manzanilla – (the stuff they serve at Almendro 13). We also got to try the Shrimp Fritters (tortilla de camarones as they call them). A whole review with pictures is coming on those babies.

Off to Sevilla tomorrow. Looking more and more like Cordoba after that. It’s hot and sunny and the rebujitos are going down like water!

Ay, Tio

We’re sitting on another balcony tonight. This one is in Jerez, the home of sherry. We toured the Tio Pepe bodega today and learned a lot about sherry. Cool stuff. Thanks to a Zune, Dora the Explorer and some kid-sized headphones, the 2 year old NHer did the tour with us. Funny stuff. Especially for the tour guide.

Tried to enjoy some time on the beach today just north of Cadiz but the royal sandblasting proved to be too much for all of us. Maybe we should take up windsurfing – ay, tio!

Hasta pronto.

Help Me, Ronda

We’re sitting on our hotel balcony in Ronda, Spain drinking red wine and watching the swallows dive and play over the gorge. I got a good wi-fi signal here and decided to send a Memorial Day shout out. The forecast looks good and Madrid was fantastic as always. Great afternoon kicking around “La Latina” yesterday – tapa heaven. More from here if/when we get a chance.

El Xampanyet

dueno

As a grubby American expat living overseas, there are few trips home.  They’re long, expensive journeys that seem too long when you’re planning them and too short when you get there.  However, I’ve found a home away from home on the Iberian peninsula.  As a matter of fact, with just one trip, you’d feel like it was home as well.  The welcome is warm, the jokes are well-worn, the food is delicious and the drink is, well, El Xampanyet.

Just a few steps down the street from the Picasso Museum in Barcelona is my home away from home.  It’s not much when you pass by.  Just some “botes” hanging from the doorway, and a glimpse of tile and nice white marble bar.  However, a cursory walk by misses what lives at the heart of El Xampanyet.  It’s the soul of the family the runs it.  (The owner and patriarch is pictured above.)  At least three generations are there, manning the bar, serving up sardines that explode in your mouth like  M-80s and delightful cherry bombs of goat cheese stuffed red peppers.  The house drink is, of course, El Xampanyet (a sort of Cava-spritzer) but everything else is available with which to satisfy your thirst.

There’s rarely a place to stand and it’s even harder to find a place to sit.  Crowds come in before going for the big night out.  Every night.  During our last trip there, we shared the area in front of the bar with everyone from trade show tourists to self proclaimed Spanish royalty.  The funny thing was, they gave drinks to everyone at the same speed.  They were gracious, did their best to remember our last visit, and made sure the lady with us did not go thirsty. ( Really, she tried to, but they wouldn’t have it.   I’ve never seen club soda forced on anyone.)

The Spanish proverbs that hang on the wall just add to the ambiance.  Loosely translated, one says, “When feeling ill, inject platelets of jamón and red wine.”  Sage advice – heeded. When you’re there, you feel like an honorary Spaniard.  There’s no pretense, just tons of good food, very little elbow room and a cold, glistening silver tap to make sure your caña is never empty.  ¡Viva El Xampanyet!

El Museo del Jamón – The Museum of Ham

El Museo del Jamón - Madrid, Spain
El Museo del Jamón - Madrid, Spain

Used to be, when I thought of ham, I thought of something honey baked or square watery lunch meat in plastic.  Ever since I was a foreign exchange student to Madrid, Spain nearly 20 years ago, the picture in my mind changed.  Whenever somebody says “ham” I kind of feel a pending letdown.  It’s not that I don’t like ham but it’s just that I know that they’re probably not talking about jamón.

There is no such letdown at the Museo del Jamón in Madrid.  My fellow traveler and I visited the Carrera de San Jerónimo 6 location not once but twice, so interesting were the offerings of the museum.  Come to think of it, we only went to the Prado once and probably spent less time there than in the museum devoted to succulent cured swine legs.  Somehow, I believe Velázquez would understand.

It is less a museum than a deli showcase of all the types of jamón that Spain has to offer.  It is truly awe-inspiring.  Legs hang all around the walls, over the bar, over your head and behind the deli counter.  They fill golden cañas and plop them before you in pools of beer that would probably quench your thirst even if you could only gaze upon them.  The fluorescent lighting serves to make this museum a completely different experience than the smokey, earthy wine and tapas bars of “la Latina”.  Everyone here is a commoner.  We saw people pay with what appeared to be food stamps and saw fellows who looked like they might have been collecting trash all day talking to a group of abuelitas that were dressed to the nines – including pearls.  And for all of this mix of clientele, I did not see one other tourist – gringo or otherwise.  Maybe that’s the equalizing effect of the museum.

What was unequaled was the main event – the jamón.  We ordered a 1/2 plate of queso manchego and 1/2 plate of the Jamón Iberico de Bellota.  What sets this jamón apart from all others is that it is from a free-range, acorn fed pig.  It has a velvety consistency on the tongue and a tenderness that is unequaled by any of the other varieties.  The striations of delicious fat mix with the full flavored cured red meat on your palate and combine to create a flavor that exists nowhere else.  You can taste the meat, the process of curing the meat and slightly taste the nuttiness of the acorn in the flesh.  The richness gathers on the back of your tongue and holds there until ushered along by another sip from the caña.

All the while El Museo del Jamón bubbles and breathes around you.  Bartenders shout orders to the deli, checks are paid, new patrons arrive, and the hum of the traffic pulses outside.  Still, there is no better name for this establishment than “museum.”  When one thinks of a museum as a place to experience works of art with your fellow man, this fits the description.  It houses products that only a few talented individuals can do, things that are held in high regard the world around, things that may be loved by some and despised by others.

Happily, there is one thing that sets this museum apart from all others.   When your done marveling at the works of art, you only need to proceed to the deli counter to take one home.

* approximate times