(Hello. This post is the end of a 18-month hiatus. I’m going to post some things, not in small part inspired by the opportunities of the coming year, which I’m spending in Madrid. Expect a lot of chat about food, because HOT DAMN is it good here. Enjoy.)
The mountain-village romance of the elderly dog panting on the terrace while a couple of grizzled locals nurse auburn beer bottles and murmur in unintelligible Spanish is too hard to resist. I’m starving after a solo hike through La Pedriza, a southern patch of the Guadarrama mountain range, and the Hotel Rural El Yelmo in Manzanares El Real, about 45 minutes outside of Madrid, is to be my deliverer.
I sit inside (they charge you extra to sit on the terrace; I’m a student), and the maître d’ brings me a few gleaming slices of salty chorizo with a cold glass bottle of Coke. The menu is huge and lists a lot of words I don’t recognise, so I hedge my bets and order a tapa each of sopa castellana and pimientos rellenos and then a montado de jamón y tomate. The crucial task over, I check out the surroundings. The racks of Doritos and Lays crisps behind the bar, contactless card machine and flat-screen TV playing local news and cartoons signal that this place is well-adjusted to the twenty-first century and smartly equipped for the tourists who flood to La Pedriza on weekends. But my romantic village dreams are not totally dashed: the clattering espresso machine in the corner and the skinny cat that bolts across the tiles at one point are enough to make me feel at least a little like Norman Lewis, tramping through an untouched Spain.
The food keeps this irrational illusion alive. The sopa comes first, served in a tawny ceramic bowl. It’s sopping chunks of bread in a garlicky broth, laid thickly with a poached egg and strewed with trozitos of jamón and chorizo. It is bright and bolshy, a blast of pushy flavours insisting that you survive the winter. Next are the crimson pimientos, stuffed somewhat confusingly with a pulp of spinach, tuna and béchamel, ugly as anything but quite delicious accompanied by the zing of the al dente pepper encasing. The only disappointment is the sauce, a tomato gravy that is mostly salt, leaving me gasping for another gulp of Coke. The peppers could easily hold their own without it.
Last is the montado, summoned by the maître d’, who watches me take the last bite of peppers and yells ‘Montado!‘ in the direction of the kitchen. Moments later it arrives: a pudgy sandwich of silky jamón and fresh tomato on a crusty hunk of bread that has been sprinkled with olive oil on its spongy undersides. Newsworthy cuisine, it ain’t. But it is just the right answer to post-hike hunger on a hot day, and for a €12 bill, I have eaten well.