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.

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.

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.

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 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

Almendro 13 – One of the Spanish Seven Wonders

Almendro 13 - La Latina - Madrid, Spain
Almendro 13 - La Latina - Madrid, Spain

I can’t count how many times I’ve been to Almendro 13.  I can’t even count how many people I have sent there when they tell me they’re going to Madrid.  You would think with all of that exposure, I’d be over it.  You might never guess that I would go there twice in the course of three days with a near miss of a third time.  Well, we did.  It is just that good.  Not only did we go there twice, we had the exact same thing twice.  Manzanilla, olives, and Huevos Rotos.  Simple flavors and an incredible parade of richness over the palette.  The green painted interior matching the flavor of the olives, with the shiny brass fixtures highlighting the bite of the Manzanilla and the wood bar and yellow painted walls capturing the savory essence of the bright yolks of the eggs, saltiness of the jamón and perfectly cooked, just thicker than a potato chip, slices of potato.

Yes, I realize the prose is a bit heady but I think it’s befitting of a place that is so deceptively casual as to ambush your senses with color, flavor and smell and make you even consider a third visit in one short trip to Madrid.  Go – and return often.