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From Madrid to Heaven

De Madrid al cielo” (from Madrid straight to heaven) is an old saying that I first heard from Señora Pepita, an octogenarian survivor of the Spanish Civil War. She was a fixture of Plaza Santa Ana in Madrid, where everyone knew her. Daily, she sauntered out of her ancient building, buzzing from one conversation to the next. She gossiped in a nonstop patter that defied interruption, with every concierge, flower seller or passing neighbor who caught her eye. One warm spring day in 1999, it was mine that she caught. She would be my landlady for four glorious months.

When I close my eyes and transport myself to Madrid, it’s the clear, crisp morning air I think of first. I can just taste my rich dark and peculiarly Spanish café cortado, and my crunchy warm pan tostado, drizzled with bright green olive oil. I’m walking down the middle of the Castellana, a broad graceful avenue, about 5 p.m., returning from the Prado. I turn up at the Carrera de San Jerónimo, where the French carried their prisoners to be shot that cool May night in 1808, an event Goya painted so hauntingly. Entering the Puerta del Sol, I’m greeted by the smiling Tio Pepe sign eternally watching over the heart of this small city.

I first traveled to Spain in 1984, a long, low-budget trip, when the country was still emerging from the repression of the Franco years. A young Pedro Almodóvar was bringing to the screen the wild, new Madrileño social scene in movies like “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” but I wasn’t aware of that. All I knew was that I loved the somber, stolid but elegantly beautiful buildings, often decorated with antique tile advertisements; the hip, no-nonsense New York-like people; the good wine in bars at every corner.

$3 meals and brandy at breakfast

I didn’t eat well on that first trip to Spain, fresh fried calamares notwithstanding. The 300-peseta meals (about $3 at the time) I limited myself to usually consisted of a good soup, a piece of fried meat or chicken and fries. If you were lucky, you got flan for dessert, if not they tossed you an orange. Trying to emulate the locals, I drank huge snifters of brandy before bed and more with breakfast, a bottle of wine at lunch, another starting at 8. I wondered why I never felt very well in the morning.Arroz y Banda

Regional cuisine didn’t mean much to me, or anyone else, in those days — Spain wanted to rejoin the world, be modern and global. But things have changed. When I returned 10 years later I found that Spaniards were once again proud of their local cooking. And the world now wants to know about it. Local products, many not available during the dictatorship, are again proudly and artisanally made and sold.  The food establishment and media have taken notice.

Madrid lies in the center of the country and is chock full of restaurants celebrating the foods of every province. The only problem confronting a diner is whether to choose Basque, Galician, Andalucian, Murcian, Asturian, Catalán or the food from myriad other regions and nationalities. My travels through Iberia in recent years have opened a new world of cooking to me. What a revelation it was to discover the fresh, simple, intelligent quality of Spanish cooking. It has a way of taking a few of the finest ingredients one could imagine and combining them to create an exercise in harmony that you can’t forget.

Foods to go out on

Nicholas Gilman: Fabes con AlmejasIdeally my last week on earth would be spent downing croquetas de jamón, (from Bar Salamanca) bronzed and crunchy on the outside, creamy and buttery within and punctuated by tiny bits of smoky ham. Or montados de ahumados (from La Fábrica), smoked fish that could convert the staunchest Zabar’s habitué. Arroz a banda (at El Ventorillo Murciano) is the queen of paellas, its perfectly al dente rice infused with a rich brown seafood broth that sings of the ocean, amplified by a dollop of garlicky alioli. Then there’s my favorite of all, fabes con almejas from Asturias (at Casa Lastra), succulent, meaty white beans bathed in a velvety saffron-colored sauce whose easy richness is enhanced by super-flavorful Cantabrian clams, hard cider the preferred accompaniment.

A beautiful and simple Sunday lunch of Asturian roast chicken and cider should be had at Casa Mingo (after a visit to Goya’s playful Capilla de San Antonio de la Florida). And then there are the classic and ubiquitous tortillas de patata, mojama (sliced dried tuna eaten with almonds from the south), tajadas de bacalao (succulent salt cod battered, fried and accompanied by vermouth), the great cheeses cabrales and torta de casar, cocido madrileño (the hearty winter stew), lechón asado (roast suckling pig), tarta de Santiago (almond cake from Galicia), torrijas (better than any French toast) … all washed down with a great Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Penedés, Rueda or vino de Jeréz.

After midnight

Nicholas Gilman in Madrid

When not eating or drinking or looking at art, I like to wander the streets of Madrid. My favorite hours are after midnight, when the central areas are as busy as rush hour back home. I once saw a young couple pushing a stroller at 4 in the morning! After a show at Casa Patas, the venerable Flamenco venue, I can always dash into one of the Museo de Jamón bar-restaurants for a quick bocadillo.

But happy memories tend to don rose-colored glasses. A couple of months ago I was in Madrid for a brief visit. For the first time, I had the sense of the city becoming globalized like much of Europe, losing its “Madrid-ness.” Starbucks have planted themselves around town, old dowdy corset shops have closed, the glorious 19th-century Mercado San Miguel has been transformed into an upscale “gourmet” mall, complete with pricey wine bar. “Cool,” minimal hotels are all the rage. Carmen Maura, Almodóvar’s early star, is no longer “wacky” as she’s now a grandmother. I searched for Sra. Pepita. Her building has been renovated and turned into condos. Nobody knew of her whereabouts. Only an elderly flower vendor even knew whom I was talking about.

But I only had to take a walk through the Botanic Gardens, visit my favorite Zurbarán still life at the Prado, cross Paseo del Prado and head into the raucous Bar La Fábrica to reassure myself that it’s still close to heaven.

Nicholas Gilman is a founding member of a Mexican chapter of Slow Food International, the author of “Good Food in Mexico City: A Guide to Food Stalls, Fondas and Fine Dining” and served as editor and photographer for the book “Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler.” He has a website, and has appeared extensively on radio and TV in the U.S. and Mexico. He lives in Mexico City.

Photos, from top:

La Castellano in Madrid. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Arroz a Banda. Credit: Nichol Gilman

 Fabes con Almejas. Credit Nicholas Gilman

Gilman in Madrid. Credit: Jim Johnson

Zester Daily contributor Nicholas Gilman is a founding member of a Mexican chapter of Slow Food International, the author of "Good Food in Mexico City: Food Stalls, Fondas and Fine Dining" and served as editor and photographer for the book "Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler." He has a website,, and has appeared extensively on radio and TV in the U.S. and Mexico. He lives in Mexico City.