Madrid – Casa Lucio

A short two-day trip to Madrid this week. Flying from Venice with Iberia. Ostensibly a flagship airline as opposed to low-cost, but I discovered that it cuts service to the bone, i.e. zero: even the coffee on board (on a two and a half hour flight) you have to pay for. At least it offered on-line check-in from home one day before, so I could have a seat of my choosing.

Arrival at Madrid Barajas airport to find that a spanking new Iberia terminal had opened: in the style of modern airports, this is a very long building, certainly over a km long, concrete and glass with a wavy wood-clad roof. Soft reflected lighting. Very nice, pity the bags took a long while at arrival. Transfer to Madrid city centre couldn’t be easier: the metro arrives right to the airport. Modern trains with wide spaces, LCD tellies with newsreels and, please note, UK transport chiefs, a flat fare of just one Euro to travel all over the city!

I am here to visit a small trade show, but by happy coincidence, I discover my Man in Seville is here too, accompanied by our numero uno Spanish customer. What an excellent excuse to have a good meal together! The more so since Manuel, my distributor, is a fellow Gastronaut and is sure to know the right restaurant. Our taxi takes us to the casco viejo, the old city centre, where in a maze of narrow streets we find Casa Lucio, in an old medieval building. This is an old-established Castilian restaurant, much frequented by pols, actors and other important people such as ourselves. We are lucky to get a table: we were threatened with an 11pm reservation, but after some bargaining a table is “discovered”. Manuel orders for us all – as a starter a good plate of jamon serrano, the local prosciutto that comes in several varieties, some very expensive. This is always a good choice in Spanish restaurants, I find it excellent, but Manuel is picky, saying the jamon in Seville is far superior, but for him anything outside of Andalusia is suspect! Next on the menu is a hearty plate of callos a la madrilena, a tripe stew with tomatoes and chorizo sausages – a very traditional and classic Madrid dish, we happily dunk our bread in the sauce to finish it up! I find it a pity that tripe and other innards have fallen out of favour – there are many wonderful recipes out there that are no longer cooked for want of raw material. After the tripe, a surprise: a dish arrives with what seems to be a horrendous British culinary invention: fried potatoes mixed with scrambled eggs!. I gingerly taste a spoonful, despite the appearance the taste is excellent, and Manuel explains to me that such egg concoctions are a speciality at Casa Lucio. Our meat is a wonderfully tender solomillo a la parilla, a fillet served sizzling on a hot skillet, with large grains of sea salt sprinkled on top. Spain is blessed with good meat – maybe a by-product of the bull rearing?

Our wines are truly excellent: two bottles of Ribera del Duero, a potent full-bodied barrique red with an alcohol content of 14-15%. The first bottle, a 2003 Emilio Moro is wonderfully fruity with an intense bouquet of wild cherries and blackberries, the second, a 2003 Matarromera is also rich, but more rounded and very smooth. Pity that Casa Lucio sees fit to serve wine in glasses that could have come out of my grandmother’s pantry!

To round off this excellent meal, a snifter full of Gran Reserva Luis Felipe, a brandy from Huelva matured in old sherry casks, similar to my personal favourite Cardenal Mendoza. Great to cradle in one’s hands and catch the rising aromas, whilst discussing the intricacies of Spanish politics (Manuel is a committed Franquista). I’ll definitely have to add a bottle of Luis Felipe to my shopping list!

Casa Lucio, Cava Baja 35, Madrid. Tel: 91 3658217

Angulas

What a great day today! Two gastronomic events, and one of them a real treat! But before play, a little work is needed: my colleague and I set off from Vigo to a small town in the outskirts. Our customer is in a somewhat grim industrial area, but then again, most industrial areas are grim! We observe Spanish time: meeting starts at eleven a.m., we negotiate successfully for a new contract, spend a lot of time discussing new products and when we finish our meeting, the pangs of hunger signal it is well past our lunchtime – it is now half past two! But this is Spain, and when we arrive at the restaurant at 3 p.m., people are just beginning to sit at the tables!

Our happy customer invites us to Esteban in Mos, a modern restaurant where steel, aluminium and large glass façades are happily integrated in an old stone building. This is an elegant place, fine linen on the tables and smartly dressed waiters. With some help from our companions, we order and soon a selection of starters arrive: a slice of empanada gallega, a delicate pastry filled with tuna and julienned peppers, a superb dish of porcini mushrooms sautéed with little cubes of jamon iberico, and yet more pulpo - octopus, but this time it is asado (grilled). As a main course, I select rape a la plancha, a wonderful grilled monkfish. The wine, Albarino Rias Baixas, is a revelation to those who think Spanish wines cannot compare to the more blasé French tipples: this is one of the finest white wines in Spain, with a young, fresh taste reminiscent of the Portuguese vinho verde, but without the acidity. Very drinkable indeed!

After such a meal, it is fortunate we have no important meetings in the afternoon! After a short rest in the hotel, we are met by a couple of friends, who offer to take us for a drive around. We travel into the hinterland of Vigo, making for the nearby border. Facing the green hills of Portugal is the town of Tuy, on a hill above the river marking the border. It is a small, compact place, but features a cathedral on top of the hill with high massive walls resembling a fortress and gothic buttresses. Unfortunately it is closed, but we spend some time walking around the squares.

It is now evening and our friends lead us to a somewhat anonymous bar-café. You know the type: full of men playing cards, smoking and drinking beer, with a television blaring away in the corner. But do not be misled, for in this unpromising setting we are about to sample one of the world’s culinary delicacies, namely angulas!

What are angulas? They are baby eel – elvers – caught in the outlets of Spanish rivers in Galicia and the Basque country. Eel mature in freshwater rivers, then migrate in their thousands across the Atlantic to spawn in the Sargasso Sea. The eel larvae make their slow way back return to the rivers of their origin maturing into elvers, and are caught by fishermen standing in the mudflats as they migrate on dark moonless nights. As the angulas are barely 2 cm long and can breathe outside water, you can imagine the difficulty in catching them, which makes them a very expensive rarity.

The bar we are in, ambitiously calling itself Restaurante El Molino, serves us the angulas a la bilbaina, Bilbao style: they are simply quickly sautéed in olive oil, garlic and a little chili pepper, and are served in a covered earthenware dish with a wooden fork. Metal forks are supposed to taint the delicate flavour of the angulas, and wood holds the slippery creatures much more easily! I lift the cover off my dish and there they are: a mound of silvery white threads, remarkably resembling short spaghetti with a tiny black eye at one end. The taste? Very delicate indeed, not fishy at all, with the olive oil and the hint of garlic completing it very well! Another bottle of the excellent Albarino puts the final touch to this gastronomic experience!

Vigo

Leisurely start this morning – the Spaniards don’t like visitors to their offices much before 10 am! My appointments today are in the valley (el Vallès) behind the Tibidabo mountain dominating Barcelona. Most of Barcelona’s industries seem to be clustered here, and new Poligonos Industriales are sprouting like mushrooms! Getting there involves negotiating the car through the jams of the Ronda de Dalt – the local equivalent of Paris’s Périphérique or London’s M25, on a smaller scale.

I have two meetings, then back to the airport for the flight across Spain to Vigo on the Atlantic coast. Much of our route is overcast so no views out of the window, but the final approach to Vigo airport is spectacular: we break out of the clouds and a hilly green landscape is revealed, dotted with small farmhouses. The town is set by a steep-sided fjord with three islands just offshore protecting it from the ocean. The airport runway is visible to the right, cut into the wooded hillside. To land, the plane must make a tight 270 degree left turn to lose height quickly and stay away from the hills. Seems like an airport to avoid in bad weather! There is no taxiway, the plane has to make a U-turn and double back along the runway to reach the terminal!

I check into the excellent hotel Palacio de Vigo and have to wait a while for my colleague to turn up late from a different flight, so we opt for a quick meal in a small restaurant nearby the hotel: a plate of tasty _jamon íberico_, a _pulpo a la gallega_ as I had yesterday, accompanied by slices of bread with crushed tomatoes and olive oil, ubiquitous in Spanish restaurants.

Barcelona 2004

Snow is fine whilst you are on the slopes, and we had great fun yesterday on a 5 km piste on the Altipiano di Asiago. But not so fine when commuting to the office. So I’ll be off to Spain this week, first to Barcelona and then to Vigo in Galicia. Should be warmer than here. It’s a fine start today at Venice airport – plane delayed “at least an hour if not two” due to adverse weather conditions…

Finally arrived in Barcelona one hour late, just after 7pm. As soon as I step out of the airport, the temperature difference from Italy was noticeable – off with the overcoat, gloves and hat! This is the Med – a balmy 13C and the almond trees are bursting in bloom!

Long wait for baggage, then sorted out hire car and lost my way to the hotel amongst the various expressways of Barcelona, so I finally made it to my room at 9 pm. Weaker men would have gone straight to bed, but this is Spain, one eats late and your Gastronaut is undeterred! Quick brush-up, then I head for the Paseo de Gracia, the wide, elegant boulevard lined with the fantastic Gaudì buildings. Just on this street near the Plaza de Catalunya end is *Tapa Tapa*, would you believe it, a tapas bar! I have written about this previously, it is a large commercial establishment, but convenient and with a friendly atmosphere. I sit at the long counter at the bar and order three classics from a wide selection of tapas: _chipirones fritos_ (fried squid), _patatas bravas_ (roast potatoes with mayo and mustard) and _pulpo a la gallega_ (Galician octopus, finely sliced, with olive oil and ground chili). A great snack, accompanied by a cool Löwenbräu Märzenbier (yes, not authentically Spanish as a Cerveza Damm, but one has to take what is available!) A brisk walk back to the hotel in the cool evening air gets me ready for bed.

Barcelona 3 – a mini guide

Barcelona is one of Europe’s finest regional cities, with an impressive location: it is bordered by the Mediterranean to the South, by the Montjuïc hill to the West (Olympic site, castle, expo) and by the Tibidabo mountain to the North. The climate is exceptionally temperate, with the Tibidabo range sheltering the city from the cold winds coming down from the Pyrennées.

The ancient centre of Barcelona is formed by the Barrì Gotìc, with many exceptional buildings amongst its narrow streets, the Cathedral and the 15C Palau de la Generalitat (seat of Catalonia’s regional government) amongst them.

The modern city of Barcelona began to be developed in the mid 19C following a grid pattern with each street crossing having a unique octagonal shape. This area is known as the Eixample, and in it one can find several of Antoni Gaudì’s architectural works, IMHO inspired by a child’s sandcastle at the beach: La Pedrera, Casa Batllò, and the unfinished Sagrada Familia church.

The centre of Barcelona’s lively nightlife is the Rambla – a wide boulevard from Placa de Catalunya down to the port. The port area itself has been much redeveloped around the time of the 1992 Olympics, and is now a vast waterside entertainment area.

Barcelona 2

Afternoon spent walking up and down the show. It’s not at the usual exhibition hall by the Placa de Espanya, but in a newly built facility towards the airport. Our local distributors are exhibiting here, but I’ve got a few appointments every day until Thursday morning so I’ve time to waste.

Transfer to hotel around 5 pm. The show works on Spanish time (i.e. 10 am to 7 pm), but I’m knackered after my early start (5:30 am wake up call…) The bus from the fair to the city centre is free, too! And it takes a scenic route up the Montjuïc hill where the 1992 Olympic stadium dominates the Barcelona skyline.

I arrive in the hotel. It’s not my usual one, which was full, but another, organised by my travel agent. I’m not pleased: expensive by Spanish standards at EUR 169 a night, small room, walls that appear to be made of cardboard and T located amongst other 4* hotels up towards the top of the Avinguda Diagonal. Why they should place hotels here, I fail to understand. It’s far away from the Barri Gotic, the Rambla or any area of interest to the tourist or businessman. Maybe because the Royal Palace (Catalonia section) is close by?

After a due rest, it’s time for dinner (that is, about 9-10 pm if you observe Spanish custom). After much walking, I decide on a restaurant called El Suquet in Carrer Valencia. Here they offer a menu degustacion of catalan specialities We start with an assortment of cold starters –
bread with tomatoes and olive oil
ditto with jamon iberico
ditto with anchovy fillets and more oil
broad beans
roast spring onion, aubergine and red pepper in yet more olive oil

4 small plates of seconds:
grilled sausage with white beans
meatballs (?) with wine sauce
lamb chop with boiled potatoes in oily sauce
maybe the best of all – bacalhau (salt cod) in a Provencal-like sauce with tomatoes and vegetables.

To follow, crema catalana, that best can be described as a crème caramel brulée.

I’m not a fan of Spanish cuisine, with its tendency to overload dishes with oil, and this effort confirms my suspicions that it requires further evolution!