Lent begins on February 22 (Ash Wednesday). That means Madrid is on the cusp of Carnaval. Here’s an overview of what to expect along with tips to get the biggest bite out of the gastronomic ecstasy you’ll find in Madrid.
Madrid Carnaval traditions:
Similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, in Madrid, people party in the streets during Carnaval, an event that happens the week before Lent. This year’s Carnaval begins on from Feb. 16, so if you’d like to sin with a Spaniard (or party with one), start shopping for a flight soon. Many airlines offer nonstop flights from various U.S. cities.
Carnaval events include fancy dress competitions held in different parts of the city, shows in front of the Teatro Real (Royal Theatre) and evening concerts, usually presented at the Plaza Mayor.
The most famous event mocks the ecclesiastical tradition of burying the fat to mark the beginning of Lent. At some point pig fat evolved into a sardine, which led to the Entierro de La Sardina — the Grand Burial of the Sardine! This year Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 22, so that’s the day Carnival will culminate in a send off of the sardine. Typically, up to 60 members of the Burial of the Sardine Brotherhood don their finest funeral threads to piously carry a cardboard sardine in a coffin from San Antonio de Florida to la Fuente de los Pajaritos at Plaza de las Moreras (Casa de Campo). After the sardine is theatrically mourned and interred, celebrants feast on many of Madrid’s finest gastronomic temptations, which some may be giving up for Lent.
Although I didn’t witness a sardine burial last Fall, I tasted pork rinds that were flavored with sardines during a feast at El Club Allard.
Last October on my first visit to Madrid, I expected to absorb culture at the Prado and other museums. I also got a lesson in what constitutes a meal. At 52, dining was one activity I thought I had mastered. But it turned out I knew how to inhale food, but was a novice when it came to savoring multiple courses. I grew up eating Pop-Tarts, cereal and TV dinners, all three of which would likely offend our Spanish Tourism hostess, Ana Ramiro.
“Terry, a proper meal includes a first course, a second course, a dessert and a coffee,” says Ramiro. She looked straight into my eyes and frowned as she described how desperately pressed for time she must be to settle for a sandwich for lunch.
In my Madrid Guidebook, I review several restaurants, but I did have a few favorites. At Restaurant Ramon Freixa, I began understanding how Spaniards can feast without necessarily gaining weight. They walk a lot, and petite, tapas-sized portions allow you to eat more without leaving too stuffed.
After meeting Two-Star Michelin Chef, Diego Guerrero, just before dessert at El Club Allard, I began contemplating moving to Madrid because all the chefs are so handsome. El Club Allard was once a private club and is off the beaten path, but you don’t want to miss it on a visit to Madrid. As we arrived and we saw a large intimidating man out front, I wondered if he would let us inside. But he smiled and held the door for us. As we climbed the stairs, I decided he was a left over bouncer from El Club Allard’s private club days prior to 2003.
Although Diego Guerrero’s looks quickened my pulse, I developed my biggest crush on the Teddy Bear of a chef at Arce. Chef/Owner Iñaki Gamba comes to your table, sits down beside you and asks: “What do you like to eat? Fish, chicken, beef or pork?” And then he recommends what you should try. He did this with all seven of us at our table. I had a mushroom risotto that was so beefy with mushrooms that I contemplated becoming a vegetarian for about five minutes. When the lean, tender beef course arrived, however, my carnivorous instincts kicked in.
And sweets are a must in Madrid. From churros dipped in hot chocolate for breakfast at Chocolateria San Gines to pastries and a lighter hot chocolate at Mama Framboise. And shopping wouldn’t have been complete without a snack of handmade truffles at Moulin Chocolat in the Salamanca District.
Museums are the perfect place to walk off some calories after indulging your palate, and Madrid has several stellar museums including the Prado, the Museo Reina Sofia and the Thyssen (which I didn’t manage to visit).
If you’re not visiting during Carnaval, you can still see a sardine laid to rest by visiting the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando to see “The Burial of the Sardine” (1810) by Spanish artist, Francisco Goya.
Over six nights our group slept in two hotels. If you love trendy and hip, you may click with the Silken Puerta America. Although I enjoyed the Puerta America, my standard room was a bit small. All the rooms at the Hotel Villa Magna are very spacious suites that include a sitting area, a walk-in closet, a large bedroom and bath. Movie stars usually check into the Villa Magna for any movie premiere in Madrid. Although I never saw him, Justin Timberlake was a guest during our visit. The hotel’s service is so spectacular that I felt like a celebrity myself, and I didn’t want to checkout.
Spain’s tourism theme is “I Need Spain,” and since I’ve returned home, I’ve found myself craving Madrid. And I daydream about a Spaniard knocking on my door shouting: “Terry Gardner, put down that sandwich. You are committing a crime against Gastronomy. I am Officer Well Fed with the Gastronomic Police. You must accompany me back to Madrid so you can resume eating properly.”