Botín: Eating in the World’s Oldest Restaurant

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Antiguo horno de asar castellano (c) Botín

The 18th century wood burning oven at Restaurante Botín, Madrid |Photo courtesy of Botín

A recent article for The Culture Trip on Botín, the world’s oldest restaurant, known for its spectacular Castilian cuisine and famous admirers – including Hemingway and Graham Greene:

http://theculturetrip.com/europe/spain/articles/botin-eating-in-the-world-s-oldest-restaurant/

Pan con tomate: The best breakfast in Madrid

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The madrileño breakfast par excellence, you’ll find pan con tomate (tomato bread) at cafes and bars all over the Spanish capital. Pick a good one and you’ll be presented with crisp slices of toasted baguette that glisten with olive oil and fragrant, fresh tomato.

Just as popular elsewhere in Spain, different regions have different ideas about how it should be done. At the risk of upsetting my host city where common practice is to blend the tomatoes before spreading the resulting salsa onto the bread, I more often make the Catalan version at home and rub a cut tomato directly onto the toast. While this method saves on washing up it isn’t without its downsides. You need exceptionally flavourful tomatoes to make it work as the toast softens before it has had a chance to pick up more than a thin layer of the flesh.

At the risk of upsetting everyone, I sometimes add a few slices of avocado, while slivers of ruby-red jamón serrano are a common addition, especially at brunch. Then of course there’s the garlic, which at breakfast-time many restaurants choose to omit. Personally, I’d rather take my chances. It’s the garlicky punch that lifts a piece of pan con tomate from the ordinary to the sublime.

However you go about it, it’s hard to think of a simpler way to feel both immensely satisfied and disgustingly virtuous before nine o’clock in the morning. ¡Buen aprovecho!

For the recipe, along with an edited version of this article, head over to wanderlust.co.uk

Review: Paolo Fresu and Dino Rubino bring a touch of class to Sala Clamores, Madrid

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Jazz duo Paolo Fresu and Dino Rubino perform at Sala Clamores, Madrid (Words and photos by Thomas Rees for jazzwisemagazine.com)

Jazz duo Paolo Fresu and Dino Rubino perform at Sala Clamores, Madrid (Words and photos by Thomas Rees for jazzwisemagazine.com)

My latest review for Jazzwise Magazine, and my first from Madrid, describes a richly-inventive set from Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and pianist Dino Rubino.

http://www.jazzwisemagazine.com/breaking-news/13130-paolo-fresu-and-dino-rubino-classy-in-sala-clamores-madrid

Must visit places in Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia

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Reina Sofia, one of Madrid's must visit galleries (Thomas Rees)

Reina Sofia, one of Madrid’s must visit galleries (Thomas Rees)

Over seven metres long and three metres tall, it dwarfs the other canvases in the room, a riot of severed limbs and contorted faces painted in black, white and grey. You can’t help but meet the wild eyes of the horse, trace the outline of its bared teeth and the diamond shaped gash down its side, or feel the pain of the mother who cradles a dead child in her arms. I claim no expertise when it comes to art, but I know that few paintings have gripped me the way that this one does.

You shouldn’t leave Madrid without visiting Reina Sofia, the city’s museum of 20th century art, and you can’t end a visit without fighting through the crowds and seeing the meticulously rendered chaos of Guernica, Picasso’s depiction of a Civil War bombing raid on a town in northern Spain.

Yet, while Guernica is the artwork that garners the most attention, it’s far from the only thing worth seeing in the museum’s galleries. There are the sun dappled marble fountains and modernist creations in the sculpture garden, and a series of unsettling bronze busts by Thomas Schütte in the hallway on the ground floor. Amongst the bare brick work of the museum’s vaults is a temporary installation by South African artist Tracy Rose. Dimly lit, featuring a striped parasol, a mound of glitter and powdered pigment, a disco ball, and a speaker that rattles and wheezes like an iron lung, it’s disorientating in the best of senses.

On the second floor are works by Palencia and Miró and an impressive collection of Dalís, filled with surrealist symbolism. A group of portly Americans in shorts are huddled around one entitled El enigma de Hitler which depicts a twisted black form recalling the jaws of an ant, a dripping umbrella, and a crumpled photograph of the dictator.

Elsewhere, there are more Picassos – including Mujer en azul, a portrait of a sour-faced woman wearing a meringue of a dress and a black hat garlanded with flowers – cubist still lifes by Juan Gris and photographs of posturing matadors by Alfonso Sánchez Portela. There’s a room filled with pot plants that is dominated by a wooden bird cage housing live parrots, and there are screens showing black and white films of Spanish guerillas with old carbines and cloth caps.

In fact, there’s so much worth seeing that it becomes a little overwhelming and I opt to take a break before exploring the rest in the afternoon. Choosing the stairs over the glass lifts that glide up and down the outside of the building, I find myself confronted by a silent group of women in pale blue uniforms that look like doctors’ scrubs.

Maybe it’s my art befuddled brain or the fact that I’ve come to expect masterpieces wherever I look, but there’s something calming about the hiss of their mops on the rough stone steps and for a split second I wonder if I’ve stumbled upon a mundane but strangely engaging piece of performance art. It says a lot about a gallery when even the cleaners are artists.

For more information: http://www.museoreinasofia.es/en

The Madrileño aesthetic

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The Madrileño aesthetic: Cafe, Lavapies, Madrid (Thomas Rees)

The Madrileño aesthetic: Cafe, Lavapies, Madrid (Thomas Rees)

Perhaps it’s the pale brickwork and the sandstone, the wrought iron balconies, or the fierce sunlight that bleaches the city of colour and renders it in the sepia tones of an old photograph, but living in Madrid feels as much like being in another time as it does another country. 

It’s a city in which extravagant churches, palaces, and sweeping plazas stand beside tired looking cafes and dingy bars populated by cigarette machines and austere septuagenarians perched on tall metal stools.

Done out in formica and faux marble, many of these establishments have an air of old world formality. Waiters wear waistcoats or matching pullovers and your change arrives on a little metal dish. Yet, the floors are littered with scrunched-up napkins and discarded sugar packets, the paintwork is peeling and the awnings are frayed at the edges. It’s hard to tell a good bar from a bad one when so many look a little like dives.

Outside, the city is just as shabby, graffiti-daubed, and dated. Gaggles of old women in shift dresses and shawls sit at wooden benches surrounded by pigeons and bags full of shopping. Restaurant frontages sport faded photographs of seafood platters and cups of strong black coffee that taste like civil war rationing.

Even crossing the street involves a nostalgia trip of a decade or so. The laser-beam chirp of the traffic lights means you tread the tarmac to the soundtrack of a 90s arcade game.

But this old fashioned feel, this air of gentle decay and dilapidation, adds much to Madrid’s charm. Like the noise of shouted conversations on the street below or the frenzy of extravagant beeping that erupts during rush hour, it endears you to the city and it makes you smile.

Moreover, it chimes with a lack of pretension or concern for polish that feels thoroughly Spanish. Why sweep the floors or buy new curtains when you could pour your energy into shouting orders to the kitchen, arguing about the football with your clientele, or dashing about with hastily poured glasses of beer and bowls of complementary olives? Character and attitude beat style hands down. Modernity can wait.

Late arrival

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La Cultura Madrileña: Metropolis building, Madrid by night (Thomas Rees)

La Cultura Madrileña: Metropolis building, Madrid by night (Thomas Rees)

They say that Madrid is a city that never sleeps, but all is quiet as we make our way from the airport and along Jaime el Conquistador. The entrance hall to the apartment building is dark. The walls are clad in cool marble and a heavy mirror stands in one corner. A caged lift takes us to the fourth floor, with its beige tiles and scuffed banisters, where the air smells sweetly of old varnish.

The flat is just what I expect: a long corridor that wraps itself around a central courtyard, lit by moonlight and crisscrossed with washing lines. The floors are old laminate and the walls are whitewashed and uneven. Pains of yellow glass sit in dark wooden door frames that shudder when you pull them to.

Outside my window is a treelined avenue scattered with fragile, dried blossoms. There are more on the floor of my bedroom and on the soles of my shoes.

At 2 am, a street sweeper passes beneath my window with a soft whirr of brushes and at 2.30 a white taxi stops by the apartment building opposite. Snatches of conversation drift on the breeze, strings of hard-edged consonants and clipped Iberian vowels that clatter like the keys of a typewriter.

My sleep is broken and filled with images of the cities that looked like islets of liquid light from the window of the plane. I wake at sunrise to the sound of car horns and the hum of traffic. Rousing itself from a weekend stupor, Madrid is beginning to stir.