In Madrid, food is forever. Meals remain engraved in the collective memory, idiosyncratic ingredients and preparations occupy the urban consciousness. Caught between tourism and tradition, the city strives to preserve a fundamental way of life: the siesta, the antiquated streets, the boisterous community that flourishes amongst precariously tilting churches and eroding stone walls. Food, however, is never in question—even while exploiting naïve foreigners, restaurateurs maintain a sense of the original.
At the ancient Tabernas dotting the Plaza Mayor and surrounding streets, traditional dishes have been served for hundreds of years; madrileño come to these taverns for conversation and cold drinks, a practice that developed after the fall of Muslim Madrid and the establishment of “restaurants.” Light snacks accompany beer, wine, coca-cola and a slightly outdated mix of American tunes. On one impossibly winding street, Taberna San Isidro celebrates Saint Isidore the Laborer, a virtuous farmer who notoriously forced water from the earth with a stone and saved his son from drowning in a well. Ceramic images of the saint adorn the tavern’s exterior, but the sun-dappled bar and tables feel banal, if in the friendly manner of a neighborhood spot. Although house croquettes come out gummy and gluey, and patatas con salsa aioli taste like home fries dressed in tartar sauce, chopitos a la andaluza make this a worthwhile detour from Madrid’s main drag. Andalusian baby squids, battered and deep fried whole, are tiny, only a thumb’s length from mantle to tentacle tip. Creamy and appropriately fishy, each squid requires only one bite and a few chews, barely enough time to appreciate the product’s freshness. This dish, we nod in between mouthfuls, has been around for a long time.
Even more venerable than many taverns, Restaurant Botin claims the honor of “oldest restaurant in the world,” at least according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Founded in 1725 and continuously operational, this spot even appears in The Sun Also Rises:
We lunched upstairs at Botin’s. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta. Thus the restaurant quotes Hemingway on its website. As much as I enjoy The Sun Also Rises, I failed to take my copy with me on this trip, so I’ll have to rely on the provided excerpt.
Unlike Jake Barnes, my brother and I dined downstairs at Botin, though we did eat the famous roast suckling pig. Ducking down an absurdly narrow stone staircase, we found ourselves sequestered in a cavernous cellar. Impalpably dank, exposed brick and mortar, our dining room seemed like an Edgar Allen Poe creation, minus the bones of Fortunato. The gruff service felt similarly grave once we indicated our disinterest in Hemingway’s beloved rioja alta.
To start, two vegetable dishes preceded the meats. Segovia style big mushrooms possessed a gelatinous texture, tender and dressed with ham. Slippery, meaty, and generously proportioned, these fungi foreshadowed the forthcoming textural and visual displays. And eggplants Cordobesa style, thin breaded cutlets served with tomato sauce, tasted nutty and only faintly bitter.
Of course, roast suckling pig is the inarguable protagonist of a meal at Botin. A layer of skin shatters like delicate, hyaline pork rinds, yielding thickly perfumed fat and juicy meat. Imagining Hemingway and his characters chomping through chicharrones and flesh to bone, this dish induces fantasy and reeks of history.
Despite detractors who call Botin a mere tourist trap, simply experiencing its sedimented age seems worth the bill. In restaurants such as these, history stays salient. Turbid centuries suddenly clear, revealing a lost Madrid faintly visible on the streets.