There are many great gourmet cities in Spain – Barcelona, San Sebastián, Seville and Santiago de Compostela spring to mind – but only one truly embraces culinary traditions from all over the country: Madrid.
As if to prove the point, chef Aurelio Morales’ tasting menu at Cebo, in the arty, elegant Urban hotel in the museum district, interprets classic but disparate dishes – pil-pil, migas, calçots, callos – in a modern, playful manner.
Calçots – the robust spring onions from Catalonia, usually blackened, grilled and trawled through a bowl of salsa romesco – are fashioned into a creamy croqueta, a blob of romesco on top, scattered with calçot ash; slices of razor clam sit in a “shell” of blackened chicken skin; a prawn head rises dramatically from a billow of lemon foam, shrouding a fine tataki of raw, chopped prawn; sweet lágrimas (tear peas) bathe in a wobbly bowl of hake pil-pil.
Morales plays with texture as much as flavour: a lacy, crunchy chickpea cracker partners a very polite callos (beef tripe) croqueta, the merest whiff of farmyard in its gloopy interior, while an umami-rich wafer of migas (crumbs) has both sticky, sweet trotter and crisp, pickle-topped ear for company. I have chewed many ears over the years, both literally and metaphorically, but none has been so rewarding.
While his offal dishes are distinctly polished affairs, Morales’ beef – from a 180-day-aged Galician cow – is anything but: served with a “mature soup” made from its bones, it has more punch than Roberto Durán. The smartly dressed, well‑spaced tables in Cebo are the perfect venue for Morales’ gastronomic tour of Spain, a journey full of wit and invention.
Belesar, a short walk west of the Prado, offers a more rustic welcome. Decorated like a Galician farmhouse, it offers great tapas: pimientos de Padrón; Galician-style octopus; baby squid and razor clams from the plancha; or caldo gallego, the traditional broth packed with leafy greens and piggy morsels.
I had Galician cow again. Served for two, a mound of thick, quickly seared slices of a venerable old milker arrive at the table with a scorching stone on which to finish their cooking.
Chips, salad and roasted peppers arrive, too, as well as a bottle of suitably muscular red (Palacio de Canedo Reserva, made from Mencía grapes) and a bowl of fat with which to lubricate the stone. So transfixed was I by the rusty, herbal flavour of the excellent beef that the chips went cold: a little more fat on the stone, however, a deft bit of work with the tongs, and they sizzled back to perfection.
The next day, I grazed happily on Galician percebes (goose barnacles) and Extremaduran jamón Ibérico in the lively Mercado San Miguel, then strolled to Alimentación Quiroga, a splendid deli and wine bar, for Andalucian mojama (wind-dried tuna) topped with almonds. Thanks to Madrid’s eager espousal of regional gastronomy, I had completed a gourmet’s tour of Spain entirely on foot.