This is the fourth of an ongoing series of posts on culinary journeys outside of the Great Lakes region, and the lessons they help reveal about our attempts to define our regional cuisine. Today, we go to Madrid, Spain.
One of the early impressions of Madrid is how central food and wine are to Spanish culture; each block of this beautifully historic city seems to have a couple restaurants and a few bars. Every evening in Madrid is a journey across the country, and across time.
An almond pastry with a small café for breakfast perhaps? Maybe a set of flaky, warm Argentinian empanadas for lunch. A vermut (a Spanish version of vermouth) around 5 PM with some olives, or mussels, or a tin of sardines with bread, a tradition popularized in Catalonia, a three hour high-speed train ride east of Madrid. Then dinner around 9 PM, maybe a seafood paella made famous in Valencia on the coast with a deliciously bright Albariño grown in Galicia in the north. Then on the walk back to the hotel, lets stop at La Venencia, reportedly Hemingway’s favorite Madrid hideaway, and enjoy a Sherry from Andalusia in the south of Spain, and if you still just need a bite, we can get dried tuna slices or a bit of Jamón Ibérico, the quintessentially Spanish snack, which the bartender will slice to order on the back counter.
All of this reinforces the role Madrid plays in Spain; this central hub of the nation. Madrid is located in almost the exact geographic center of the country, and has been the social, political, and economic center of the country since Phillip II moved the capital here in 1561. Phillip II was the son of Emperor Charles V and Queen Isabella of Portugal, who had sponsored the exploration of Christopher Columbus to the New World. Phillip II also oversaw the mass genocide of the Inca people, the largest empire in pre-Columbian America.
Which leads to a distinctive feature of Spanish food. Many of the “core” dishes of Spanish cuisine owe their roots directly to what has become known as the Columbian exchange. Starting in the 16th century, an era coinciding with Spanish dominance of the globe, Europeans began to import critical new crops such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn, which were far more calorically dense than many of the European starches. They also began to import key flavoring ingredients such as tomatoes, chilies, and chocolate. The dominance of these ingredients in the majority of the “essential” Spanish food is telling. These would have been symbols of wealth and good taste and have ascended to the pre-eminent position on Spanish menus and in Spanish life.
One example that is everywhere – pan con tomate (bread with tomato) served for breakfast, lunch, or afternoon snack (our version is below). So ubiquitous in Spain, even Dunkin’ Donuts gets in on the act.
Just a simple, crusty bread, often toasted, then spread with ripe tomato and sometimes served along with ham and olive oil. The Spanish eat this like Americans eat bread with butter.
Or the popular tortilla, which in Spain is a delicious frittata-style snack made with only enough egg to hold the potatoes in place.
Each of those dishes feature key ingredients, but Patatas Bravas is like a greatest hits – potatoes diced, fried (often in corn oil), then served with a brava sauce, which is a combination of onions, red pepper, tomatoes, and chili pepper, featuring Spanish pimentón. Considered another “essential” Spanish dish, it’s existence is almost entirely reliant on the historic domination of the New World.
But after 500 years of figuring out a preferred use for the ingredients, Spain definitely has reason to claim these as “Spanish”. Yet this highlights an issue we have been exploring in previous posts about the nature of claiming a cuisine for an area. Our very reason for this blog is to define, explore, and promote the idea of Great Lakes Cuisine, yet our recent posts on indigenous contributions begin to question at what stage, what place, what time you define a cuisine. Cuisine is a useful placeholder, a loose categorization of foods, yet it is also fraught with the same issues of imperialism, colonialism, racism, and a whole hosts of other socio-economic issues.
Madrid in many ways is a display of empire, and ode to an imperialism past. Visiting the Prado Museum with a dizzyingly large collection of Masters, or wandering the broad paths of Retiro Park, or visiting the Royal Palace (pictured above), the history of the monarchy is ever-present.
Madrid is also a stunningly beautiful city, well-planned, impeccably maintained, with a deep and rich history. The people are surprisingly welcoming for a city of this size and everywhere we walked, we felt safe and comfortable. We visited nearly all of the city’s top food markets, which ranged from tourist havens like Mercado de San Miguel to neighborhood markets to what is reportedly the largest food municipal food market in Europe, Mercado de Maravillas. Amazing options on display from around the country and around the globe.
Many options for fresh seafood, far more than would be expected in a non-coastal town, excellent selections of domestic and foreign cheese, a myriad of sausages and dried meats, and of course, Jamón Ibérico.
There are a few options to experience the obsession the Spanish have for their beloved ham:
- Go get it at the food court in Spain. Typically they will charge you 6 euros for about 6 thin slices, maybe 2 ounces total. We’ll estimate that at about $50 per pound. But of course you’ll need to buy the flight to get there.
- Buy it online from Spain. Could set you back over $100 per pound if you’re going for the top-level stuff available online (and of course every Spaniard will tell you it’s not as good as you can get in Spain).
- Consider a domestic alternative. La Quercia in Iowa brings in a supply of the genuine article and then further ages them on site which you can get for about the same as the whole leg, but in much more manageable amounts. But consider going with the Speck Americano, a prosciutto-style ham that has also been smoked, for about $40 per pound.
The Speck Americano reproduces the buttery texture but the mild smoke adds a depth of flavor that mimics high-end Jamón Ibérico. This will be considered sacrilege to the fiercely proud Spanish, but within a week of our return from Spain, we featured this pan con tomate recipe below with the Speck Americano and most people would be hard pressed to find meaningful differences between the domestic option and what we enjoyed walking through the food courts of Madrid.
Pan con Tomate with Speck
- 2 ounces thinly sliced Speck Americano, Jamón Ibérico, or Prosciutto
- 1 loaf ciabatta-style bread (thick crust)
- 1 large heirloom tomato, core removed
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 3 Tbs. Olive oil
Heat the olive oil in a pan on medium low heat. Slice the garlic along its length and place all three cloves in the olive oil, cut side down. Simmer until just slightly golden. While garlic simmers, place the tomato in a blender and puree. Set aside. Slice the bread in half along its length and cut into 3 inch pieces. Place the bread on a sheet pan, drizzle with garlicy olive oil and toast until lightly golden brown. Serve toasts with a tin smear of tomato puree along with sliced Speck and additional puree tomato.
Enjoy alongside olives marinated in smoked paprika and perhaps a vermut, garnished with an orange slice and olives.
Our time in Madrid was filled with the rich history of the country, and the culinary journey is reflective of that history. We cannot disentangle discussions of cuisine from history, in fact these discussions depend precisely on these explorations of our collective past. Our walks through the streets of Madrid highlighted all the ways history informs how we think of cuisine and it’s role in our personal identity. That is an insight worth returning to in our ongoing discussions of Great Lakes Cuisine.