I grew up in Madrid in the 1960s and 70s and then, as now, life often revolved around food. This visit would last just a few hours on a Sunday between flights so I’d have to be quick but I visit Madrid whenever I can. It is a stunning city, but it also represents more than a decade of my life.
For this trip I was given plenty of great eating recommendations but with time so short, I decided to focus on a triangle in Old Madrid: the San Miguel Market, the Chocolatería San Ginés and the Plaza Mayor.
My first stop was the Mercado San Miguel, an ornate Beaux-Arts iron structure that has gone from derelict to distinguished in a few short years and about which I had heard many great things. It was convenient too, with more than 30 food stalls waiting to be sampled under a single roof.
First opened in 1916 as a regular food market, San Miguel slowly fell into disuse and was eventually abandoned, rising again in 2008 after private investors bought and remodeled the quirky building, leaving the original iron but adding wood and crystal.
It is hugely popular and visitors fill every available space, first for lunch, when locals vie with tourists for a slot at the crowded counters and tables, and in the evening for tapas, as I know from a second quick visit on my way back through the city.
Entering the market from the Plaza of the same name you’ll almost trip over ham heaven on your right: at Carrasco the walls are lined with entire hams.
The jamón ibérico de bellota is the finest of hams, made from pigs fed on acorns – bellotas – who run free for most of their lives. Bellota ham is usually cured for three years – mine was cured for four, so extraordinary that even at €18/100gm (about US$ 6.50/oz) I went back twice. The buttery substance attached itself to the back of my tongue, its sweet flavor lingering for hours. Just thinking about it brings that delicious tightness back to my throat.
Some pimientos de padrón caught my eye, a specialty from Galicia, Spain’s northwesternmost province. These withered green peppers may look spicy but are usually mild, even sweet, sautéed in olive oil and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. A plate is usually shared by two or more people but since I was on my own…
There was nothing moderate about my mad dash through culinary temptation as I peeled, stripped, sliced, shucked, sucked, dipped and tore my way through seafood, ham, potatoes, skewers, pastries and those lovely little deep-fried croquettes that I’ve somehow become addicted to.
With so many foreigners crowding the market, could the food really be good or was this a glorified tourist trap? Most of my bite-sized tapas or raciones (slightly larger than tapas) were every bit as good as those found in the neighborhood’s better bars – but at distinctly higher prices.
I did say most: my razor clams could have been better seasoned and the breading of the calamares from one corner stand tasted so stale I actually had to throw the entire cone away. So no, San Miguel isn’t perfect. But it’s not a tourist trap either.
Getting rapidly full and with limited time I walked a few short blocks to the Chocolatería San Ginés for something sweet.
Crunchy Churros in Old Madrid
It’s billed as the most famous of its kind in town and it is a lovely old café, dating back to 1894, its walls lined with black and white photographs of celebrities who were once regulars. It has always served churros, those long, crispy donuts you dip into thick creamy hot chocolate. Some prefer to bite into the churro first and wash it down with the burning liquid. Try it both ways – you’ll keep too busy to calculate the number of calories in evert crunchy bite.
Dropping by San Ginés is an old Madrid tradition, especially after dancing all night but churro quality has varied over the years. I found the chocolate piping hot and the churros crunchy and steaming, all good. It is so famous it’s often difficult to find a seat and the wait might be a bit long. Avoid that by ordering at the bar – but don’t forget to stop by the cash register and pay first. You’ll need the cashier’s ticket to order.
While you do that I’ll just watch the elderly men who have been coming here for decades lean against the bar, sipping their chocolate and reading the paper.
And the ongoing Madrid controversy over who makes the best churros will continue. Is it San Ginés?
Eating churros reminds me of my childhood in this city, when my father would walk me up to the Plaza Castilla from our nearby home for a special Sunday morning treat. In those days our churros would be wrapped in thick paper and sold from a wooden stall on a dusty square with the occasional donkey cart parked nearby.
The stall is gone now, replaced by skyscrapers. The donkeys have long since disappeared and the churros are just a memory, one I keep alive by dropping by a chocolatería whenever I visit Madrid.
The Eternal Plaza Mayor
As I walk around Old Madrid trying to remember images from childhood I keep bumping into the gigantic 17th century Plaza Mayor, which through history has been used for everything from football to bullfighting to executions of heretics during the Inquisition. It is a gathering place for all Madrileños, the heartbeat of the city, always alive and never more so than on weekends.
The Plaza is ringed with bars, cafés and restaurants, some great, some passable, and some clearly managed with tourist dollars in mind – high prices, mediocre food. That doesn’t stop some gems from dotting the square, like the Casa Botín just outside the walls, supposedly the oldest restaurant in the world. Its roast suckling pig is so tender you could probably slice it with a plate instead of a knife – or at least it was the last time I age there some years ago. But a quick glance at restaurant reviews shows me it’s still a huge favorite.
My early memories of the Plaza Mayor aren’t all food-related and I was happy to see that Sundays haven’t changed too much: the old stamp and coin collectors still gather under the arcades to trade and sell, families stroll around the Plaza, and entertainers continue to amuse children and their parents with mime, acting or music.
Four hours may not be enough to see all of Old Madrid, but it’s better than no hours at all.
Tell me, have you been to Old Madrid? What was your experience in the neighborhood?
What you need to know
- The Mercado San Miguel is open until midnight early in the week and until 2am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Get off the subway at the Sol station and walk down the Calle Mayor.
- The Chocolatería San Ginés is on a side street before you get to the market at 5 Pasadizo de San Ginés. You’ll recognize it because of the antique books stall on the corner and it’s now open 24 hours a day.
- Other noteworthy churros and chocolate stops include the Chocolatería Valor, with several venues across Madrid and Spain; the Chocolatería Muñiz at 3 Calle Calatrava (La Latina metro); and La Antigua Churrería at 190 Bravo Murillo (Estrecho metro). Going to the Prado part of town? Then try the Gran Café de Gijón at 21 Recoletos (head south from the Colón metro) – a good friend just tried the churros and chocolate there a few weeks ago and maintains they’re the best in Madrid. I’ll try them next time.