I’d describe the day I arrived in Spain for – what – the twentieth, thirtieth time since first I arrived in 1972 as un dia de sueño y angustia, a day of tiredness and anxiety. Not a typical arrival, when I feel as if I have come home again, but feel it I eventually did, and the afiçion I have and always have had welled up, despite my bag being (I hoped) in London and me in Madrid. As always, I’d prefer even that to the other way around.
The one thing that did work well was being picked up by the driver who had been assigned to the job, Manolo, a small, dapper man, in a greeny brown Prince of Wales check sports coat, a mauve and white striped shirt and a mauve paisley tie. What with the missing maleta and a late arrival, I didn’t emerge from the airport until over an hour later than the schedule, but there he was, the little piece of cardboard with JHON NEWTON on it, waiting patiently. They always mis-spell John
#1. Late has little meaning in Spain. This can be infuriating for the average hyperactive time starved non-Spaniard. Get over it. As quickly as you can. Because it works both ways.
My brain fried by 36 hours of travel and 4 non stop movies and my only just serviceable after some years Spanish had been reduced to gibberish. It was a a relief to discover, on the desk at the splendid little hotel (Paseo del Arte) Joseph from Melbourne, who had fallen in love with a Spanish girl four years ago and had lived happily since then in Madrid.
Joseph helped me in the search for the missing maleta, but shrugged resignedly – not a lot of chance of it turning up. I had an hour siesta and went looking for lunch – early – it was only 2PM.
#2. Being late for everything, the Spaniards eat later than just about anyone else on the planet. Be thankful. It’s a custom that has given rise to such wonderful institutions as the siesta, the afternoon quickie and tapas.
I walked up the hill towards the Barrio de las Letras, the writer’s quarter, to Plaza Santa Ana, one of Madrid’s most genial squares. I had decided there were three things I needed in the circumstances. A couple of new shirts, some underpants and something to eat. The shirts and knickers could wait as all shops remained firmly shut until 5 pm.
I remembered a little restaurant/bar next to the hotel I’d stayed in just behind Plaza Santa Ana the last time I’d been here in 2006, the very month that the Barrio de las Letras, the writer’s quarter, had been created, to honour all the writers who had lived or stayed there at one time or another: Cervantes, Galdos, Oscar Wilde among them. And that’s why you will now see wonderfully kitsch portraits of these writers on the windows of the local bars, and quotes from their work set into the footpath: En un pueblo de la mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero accordarme, vivió no hace mucho tiempo un hidalgo …, those famous first words from Don Quixote: In a village in La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to remember, there lived, not long ago, a gentleman…
#3. Standing in a queue at 7AM to get into the retrospective Velasquez exhibition at the Prado in 1990 talking to a farm labourer from Andalucia and a couple of gay men from Barcelona, all united in their admiration of and love for Velasquez. Culture lives on the street in Spain. Sure the Barrio de las Letras is a tourist honey pot – but it’s a heartfelt one.
Since I first stayed in this part of Madrid in 1981 it has become increasingly touristic and chic at the same time – backpackers pensions and temples to la nueva cocina living side by side. But it is still, to use that great Spanish word genial, meaning, according to my pocket Collins Gem dictionary, ‘brilliant and affable.’
I was looking for and found La Caserola, which, when compared to the sleek and bustling bars and tascas of the barrio was shabby, dark and, like the food, predominantly brown. That was exactly what I wanted.
I walked in and it was full of Madrileños of all ages sizes and stations. The young couple from out of town, the solitary local businessman, the couple – mid forties – colleagues I’d say rather than married and, in the back room, a large table of intellectuals, or at least knowledge workers, bearded noisy blokes, much laughter.
There’s a bar to the right with a glass covered display of the usual tapas and to the left, paper covered tables leading to a larger dining room at the back. Behind the bar, a tall bald man with wire glasses polishes glasses and pours the drinks shouted at him by the two waiters. There’s one large poker machine blinking away on the front wall, untouched, a cigarette machine next to it and a television set – unwatched unless there’s a futbol game – high on the wall in a corner bracket.
The moment I walked in the front room, the waiter – small, thinning dark hair slicked back, white shirt and black trousers – barked at me: “A comer?” You going to eat? When I nodded “Si” he ushered me to a table and wiped it with a cloth. There were heavy knives and forks and a cruet set, oil and vinegar, and salt but no pepper. You always have to ask for pepper.
I was here for the menu del dia at €9 which offered two courses, bread, drink and sweet. These were the choices (translated):
Mixed paella (seafood and meat)
Asparagus with three cheeses
Brussels sprouts with cooked ham
Salad of roasted capsicum
½ a roast chicken
Veal escalope with champignons
Salmon in a seafood cream sauce
Basque style hake.
My snappy waiter appeared as soon as I’d finished reading the menu.
“Y a beber caballero?” And what would you like to drink sir?
#4. First, my drink order. He had his priorities right. And I love that word caballero which means literally, a man who rides a horse. Used here it signifies an non-aggressive equality that is at the heart of Spanish relationships of this sort. Not ‘I’m as good as you are’ but ‘we’re all in this together’. Someone once said, many years ago, when it’s population was only 30 million that Spain is a land of 30 million kings.
I order the half litre of red, probably from Castile la Mancha, and definitely drinkable. It’s on the table in a flash with a basket of bread. I also order the brussels sprouts and the veal with mushrooms, and for postre, sweet, a flan Catalan.
The brussels sprouts were overcooked and over salted. The veal was tender, the mushrooms many and the sauce flour thickened. I sipped the wine. The best course was the flan, agreeably burnt. It was not memorable food but edible. I loved it for other reasons than critical. Why? Why had I sought out this place rather than, say, the touristy but reliable La Trucha or the much written about and excellent La Broche, where handsome chef and ex rock star Sergi Arola then cooked? While eating and sipping I watched my fellow diners for clues.
Was it the noise of waiters barking order? Was it the supremely relaxed patrons, eating and drinking what they had always eaten and drunk, not probing and analysing, not caring who was there or who wasn’t. Just relaxing with their friends and colleagues. Nothing jumped out.
Indeed it was almost impossible to put my finger on why, as I sat there with the glow of a half litre of average wine on me, the satisfaction of a perfectly ordinary and edible meal in my belly, this feeling of warmth for the people and the placed welled up.
If anything it was that absolute ordinariness that I had craved. People treating each other with cordiality and respect. And maybe the surroundings. The brown lightly stuccoed walls, heavy wooden beams and pillars, brown tiled floor – the kind of ‘Spanish décor’ you see copied in every Spanish restaurant from Hamburg to Helsinki. It spoke of permanence and not so much resistance to change as not seeing why change is needed at all. These people would have understood completely the plaintive cry from the floor of the General Synod of the Church of England in the 1980s, “why cannot the status quo be the way forward?”
This is not to say that the Spanish resist change. Since the death of Franco in 1975, the country has been convulsed with it and has emerged as a resilient democracy with a rich cultural life, creating a body of modern cinema the envy of the world, throwing up chefs one of whom, Ferran Adriá was pronounced by Joel Robuchon as ‘the best cook on the planet.’ And he’s only one. In music, art, design and architecture, works of remarkable intensity and ingenuity abound.
But they manage to embrace the new without dumping on then old. Indeed, in many cases, they build on the old. For all his inventiveness, Adriá has said “… you cook where you find yourself, and I find myself in Spain.” Carles Abellan of modern as tomorrow tapas bar Comarç 24 in Barcelona is quoted in Paul Richardson’s A Late Dinner, a remarkable tour of Spanish cuisines old and new, as saying “we’ve taken to creative cooking with tremendous speed. And now we’re missing a certain kind of food’ as his justification for putting an old fashioned dish like rice with cuttle fish ink and garlic on his menu. “Finding a rice like this,” he said, “is like putting our feet on the ground….. and anyway, if everything was modern, it would be boring. Don’t you think?”
Well yes, I do. And perhaps that’s it. As modern as Spanish food and film are, their roots are still deep in Spanish culture. “The glittering edifice of Spanish food” writes Richardson, “is built on the solid foundations of the old.” When I asked Atonio Campoviejos of El Corral del Indianu, a chef whose creations are so out there sometimes they fall off the edge, why he cooked like he did he said “my mother is such a good cook. I couldn’t possibly compete with her.”
In a review of a restaurant then good now not so good, I wrote “…. Spanish food at its best is not haute cuisine, nor even the flamboyant inventiveness of the Italians. It is the world’s best home cooking.” At its best, it still is. And even at it’s second and third best – like La Caserola, it still takes you home.
At the beginning of Pedro Almodóvar’s film Volver (which does mean ‘to return’), the women are cleaning graves. Every Spaniard would understand that scene. On the eve of todos santos, All Saints day, you go to the cemetery and sweep and clean the graves of your ancestors and leave flowers for them. You are respecting the past.
#5. That’s what I felt in La Caserola, a feeling I get nowhere else, certainly not in my novelty-obsessed home town of Sydney, where a new restaurant can open, fill up and be so five minutes ago in the space of a week. And it is that which I love about being there. Yes, the Spaniard says, we will embrace the new. But why should we turn our backs on the old?
Eating in Madrid
La Caserola: Calle Echegaray 3
La Trucha: Calle Núñez de Arce 3
Fast Good: Calle Goya 7
La Broche: Calle Miguel Angel 29-31