The importance of food to travel…
How exactly does one engineer a spontaneous weekend jaunt to Madrid?
Here’s how. Wake up early. Just as your spouse stirs in the bed, whisper in his or her ear, “It’s only going to cost you $500.”
Next, note how expensive it would be just to go to Maine for a mid-October holiday. Then note that you’ve discovered round-trip tickets to the Spanish city for $287.
And that’s how Ann did it. I’ve learned not to pinch pennies when I’m with Ann—$500? well, not if you read the fine print—but more to the point is that I’ve learned to embrace being carried aloft on Ann’s powerful wanderlust. Because when I do, I invariably find myself in some new, terribly enviable position: Eating gooseneck barnacles in the Portuguese beach town, Nazarre; tasting mezcal, with the man who distilled it, in a garage in the woods somewhere outside Oaxaca. Eating at Dario’s restaurant in the hills of Chianti. With Dario.
Are these great moments always about place and food? Not always but too often to discount the oversized impact of food while traveling. The British War Museum in London—lord, the parallels between Hitler and Trump gave me goose bumps; remember this from summer?—was outstanding, but was the museum really better than our meal at St. John’s. Can’t make that call. I just know that memories and experience seem closely connected to food and drink.
I’ve learned firsthand that gazing up at the Acropolis from the pool deck of my Athens hotel is more enjoyable than actually hiking up there and walking amongst the ruins. It’s no wonder that the food tour we’d taken that morning in Athens would be a highlight of the trip as well as confirmation that one of the best ways to introduce yourself to a city is to take such a food tour. (I wrote about this just weeks into the pandemic for the NYTimes soon-to-be-gone travel pages.)
What a joy to arrive in different country! Nearly two years since our last trip and having lived through an unprecedented world-wide lockdown.
As with most New York-to-Europe trips, we arrived on a Friday morning and our rooms wouldn’t be ready until 3.
Which meant heading off in search of coffee on our own. We left the hotel, Posada del Dragon (lovely, we recommend), and the first open door we passed, we entered. Because it sold jamón Ibérico, some of the most famous and best ham in the world.
It was perhaps the best dry-cured ham I’ve ever tasted.
By the time we’d left an outdoor café, fully caffeinated, it was nearly one and the restaurants on this restaurant-heavy street, Cava Baja, were beginning to open. Ann had found three “Best Tapas in Madrid” lists and cross-referenced all those places mentioned in each list. One of those places was was Cafe Tempranillo, named for the grape native to this land.
After discussion with the proprietor, we decided on … more ham! And, a Spanish tortilla, tomato salad, chorizo, and an open-faced foie gras sandwich!
For dinner, Ann had made reservations just up the street at Restaurante Botín, famed for its suckling pig and for being the oldest extant restaurant in the world (serving Spanish families since 1725 AD!).
The following day, we stayed true to our maxim: food-tour-on-arrival. This was with Devour Madrid and our guide was Oliver Guardo, half Spanish, half American, and so expert that there was not a single question he could not answer.
Morning chocolate and porras (fat churros), a visit to a market, an olive tasting, then a ham and beef tasting, a calamari sandwich in Plaza de Mayor (where the Spanish Inquisition held public trials from the 15th century through the 18th century), concluding in a pastry shop, where, over coffee and ponche segoviano (a traditional cake), we went over notes and got more suggestions from Oliver. (I’ll put a list of places we loved at the bottom of this letter.)
After a tour of the Prado the next day, and an unplanned trip to the airport to get a Covid negative test (!), we had our final meal: Bar Sanlúcar and one of the best dishes of the trip. The dish is called huevos rotos con jamón y salmorejo (or broken eggs with ham and salmorejo). Salmorejo is a southern dish from Cordoba similar to gazpacho and thickened with bread crumbs. Eggs on top of sliced potato, covered with the salmorejo, covered with ham. It was fantastic.
How did we know about this dish? Because we bumped into Oliver, the tour guide, who was meeting friends there. You know you’re in a good spot when your tour guide is there off hours. Oliver joined us briefly, which was a great coda to a terrific, fast stay in one of the world’s great cities.
What We’re Watching…
I opted for the Tom Hanks movie, News of the World, for the plane ride home from Madrid. Though the performances and filming of this story about a man who finds a young girl raised by Native Americans and endeavors to bring her to blood relatives not long after the end of the Civil War, the story never really takes hold. I should have followed Ann’s lead and watched Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It, which she said was excellent.
Last time I flew home from Madrid, in 1987, the airline showed The Untouchables on big screens, and you either watched it or you didn’t. Today, you could spend the entire flight just trying to decide what to watch, so many movies are offered.
The best movie Ann and I watched together was At Eternity’s Gate, in which Willem Defoe is perfectly cast as Vincent Van Gogh. Terrible title, terrific performance by Defoe, as well as that by Oscar Isaac as Paul Gaugin. Van Gogh was clearly, as the movie describes, a man who painted for people not yet born. It even comes with a surprise ending neither of us were aware of.
The second season of Ted Lasso starts out a little slow but gathers steam, a story that continues to be both heart warming and hilarious at the same time. More great performances, most notably by Brett Goldstein as the footballer Roy Kent. A great growl of a performance. I love how he calls the 9-year-old girls he’s coaching in football, “Ya little pricks!” To which the girls laugh and smile and giggle at the funny man.
What we’re reading …
Unable to ignore the onslaught of press going to Sally Rooney for her most recent book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, I put it on my iPad. I definitely recommend this story about the friendship and correspondence of two women in their late 20s in contemporary Ireland, for Rooney’s felicitous prose and quirky, compelling characters. One of the main characters is a novelist who is more or less bewildered by her success—hard not to read as a partial portrait of the author herself. Ann tells me I must read, Rooney’s previous novel, Normal People, her second.
While I haven’t read P.G. Wodehose in years, he remains among my favorite authors, for his Jeeves stories in particular. I highly, highly recommend. I thought of him thanks to an entry is The Writer’s Almanac which reports that the author, born Pelham Grenville Wodehouse in 1881, described the origin of his most famous creation thus:
"I was writing a story, 'The Artistic Career of Corky,' about two young men, Bertie Wooster and his friend Corky, getting into a lot of trouble, and neither of them had brains enough to get out of the trouble. I thought: Well, how can I get them out? And I thought: Suppose one of them had an omniscient valet? I wrote a short story about him, then another short story, then several more short stories and novels. That's how a character grows."
Ann, who’s voracious reading is unslowed by foreign travel writes:
I am absolutely tickled by one of the most original detective novels I’ve ever had the joy of reading, EIGHT DETECTIVES by Alex Pavesi.
And I had to listen to another Paula Hawkins novel because I loved the other one so much. Boy, was I delighted when I saw that Imogen Church, the reader of all the Ruth Ware novels I loved, is one of the readers of INTO THE WATER.
But my favorite read is this excerpt from LYRICS, a book about how The Beatles songs were written which is coming out in November. This is the story of Eleanor Rigby (possible paywal). Paul McCartney wrote the book with the poet Paul Muldoon and I recommend getting Muldoon’s selected poems, too).
I am really enjoying Seth Rogan’s memoir, Yearbook. Rogan, who narrates, is such an unapologetic and gleeful stoner, he’s hard not to like. And admire: he started doing standup at age 12 at a lesbian bar in Vancouver. Soon he was taking lessons in stand-up, and he offers the first lesson in the art, which is kind of beautiful in its simplicity: find something that bothers you, say why it bothers you (this is almost funny by default), and then give a living example of it.
My pal, Dave, turned me on to a design podcast called 99% Invisible. Its coverage of the Sears kit house movement was fascinating.
Links we’re liking…
I want to personally thank the writer Darryn King for his defense, and brilliant analysis, of the album Jesus Christ Superstar, 50 years old this year. I think my grandmother gave me this album when I was ten hoping it would interest me in Christianity. It did, but not in the way she’d hoped. I can still sing the entire album. If you didn’t see the John Legend East Villagey remake, I highly recommend it.
This is a lovely tribute by actor Sir Patrick Stewart to the teacher who saved his life by giving him Shakespeare. His class read aloud from The Merchant of Venice and, while he didn’t understand the words, he loved the sound of them: “A 400-year-old writer reached out a hand in invitation to me that morning,” Stewart writes.
The cheese world lost one of its heroes, Ann Saxelby, who, writes Grub Street, “made New York a better place to eat.”
Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joes who died last year, has a memoir coming out posthumously, Becoming Trader Joe. From The New Yorker.
Speaking of eating, Ann pulled this NYTimes recipe for beef bulgobi, and it was outstanding. Had been meaning to make this for about a year now. It was worth the wait!
Here is a great obit on Gary Paulson, who wrote 200 books (and sold 35 million of them), primarily know for his YA novels of adventure drawing from his own hardscrabble youth. Hatchet was one of my favorites. Listen to Terry Gross’s remembrance of Paulson on Fresh Air.
This Guardian story by Jay Raynor on Stanley Tucci is a must read for anyone who has been obsessed with timpano, the great meat and pasta pie made famous in the 1996 movie Big Night (which we rewatched during lockdown and, 25 years old, it more than holds up).
This is one of the more fascinating word derivations: tabby, as in … cat? (Thanks for the link, Melissa Goldberg!)
And finally …
I highly recommend watching this great, bittersweet Anderson Cooper story on Tony Bennett, still performing at the age of 95. Watch how, amazingly, the Alzheimers seems to vanish when he’s about to sing. See you in a couple weeks!
And, as promised…
Some of the places we loved in Madrid:
Calle de Santa María, 30
Homemade porras, churros and hot chocolate. There may be no better breakfast on earth.
Calle León, 26
Freshly baked Galician style sourdough bread and Chorizo Preñao, small rolls with a chorizo center.
Mercado de Antón Martín (Calle Santa Isabel, 5)
A range of all foods Spanish, from offal, to olives, to fruits and vegetables.
Cafe Tempranillo (C. de la Cava Baja, 38)
We had a great lunch here while our rooms were being readied: tomatoes, chorizo, open-faced foie gras sandwich, and a classic tortilla.
Restaurante Botín (Botín, C. de Cuchilleros, 17)
Famed for its suckling pig, justifiably, this is the oldest extant restaurant in the world. Get the pig and the excellent gazpacho. And see if you can get your hands on one of their excellent ceramic pitchers.
Mesón del Champiñon (Cava de San Miguel, 17)
The mushrooms were brilliant. Seared on a flattop, whole button mushrooms are seasoned with garlic and oil and parsley and are served with a chunk of chorizo in the center. They also served perfectly cooked shishito peppers. And more ham, of course. A few doors up from Botín.
Bar Sanlúcar (C. de San Isidro Labrador, 14)
This was one of our favorites (though all were outstanding) for its intimacy and generally cool vibe. Also, those huevo rotos with jamon and salmorejo should not be missed.
Jamon Julian Becerro (C. de la Cava Baja, 41)
We wandered into this place fresh off the plane and the Ibérico practically made me swoon.