What if we told you there was more to the culinary reputation of Spain than simply the temples of molecular gastronomy in San Sebastián or the Michelin-starred restaurants of Barcelona. What if we told you there was a place far-flung from any coast, snuggly nestled in the La Latina district of the country’s sprawling capital where wine spills, the grease soaks through and the revelry knows no limits? Journalist Matthew Bremner explores how Madrid’s Calle de la Cava Baja went from being a flooded defense moat to one of the most important gastronomic centers in the country for Madrileños and tourists alike.
An old man sits in the corner of the restaurant. His forehead hangs heavily over his eyes and shadows a gun-barrel straight nose. He is stooped and hunched over by age and looks on the verge of falling into his book. He fiddles with his fingers as he squints at the lines on the page and takes great, noisy swallows of his red wine. In front of him is a hunk of sizzling flesh – a quarter suckling pig with assorted vegetables. A waiter strides knowledgeably between the tables and jutting chairs and nods to him, “As good as usual, Pedro?” he adds stolidly. Pedro grunts an affirmation through his wine glass, “Yes, Juan,” and returns gloomily to his book.
Like Juan, all these servers, most of whom are middle-aged, wear freshly-pressed white jackets and severely straight trousers. Indeed, so pressed are these uniforms that they deny not only creasing but easy movement, too. When the waiters serve, point and go about their general business they appear constricted and formal. And like their livery, their stern expressions seem stubborn to the idea of emotive movement. They’re not unfriendly though, just straightforward and adept. Things are simple here — unchanging and economical — built for a world that no longer exists outside.
Open since 1725, Restaurante Sobrino de Botín in Madrid is the world’s oldest restaurant according to the Guinness World Records. Its oven has not been extinguished since it was first lit 290 years ago. It remained open during the torrid Spanish Civil War and the restaurant’s façade shows shrapnel damage from the conflict. Indeed, when most other establishments were shutting down for lack of business or opening up in times of economic prosperity, Sobrino de Botín (literally translated to “The Nephew of Botín”) continued to churn out portions of suckling pig to its loyal customers in the manner of a porcine power plant.
But the restaurant’s longevity isn’t its only remarkable feature. Throughout its long history it has been host to some of the world’s most famous artists and writers. Francisco de Goya worked at Sobrino de Botín as a dishwasher; Hemingway set the final scene of his novel, The Sun Also Rises, here and was an assiduous customer with his own designated seat. Other literary greats, such as Truman Capote and F. Scott Fitzgerald, were also known to frequent Sobrino de Botín during their visits to the city.
Seated at the opposite end of the restaurant from the disgruntled old man I, too, am laden with scorching-hot pork and blood-thick red wine. I am here to spend a day eating and drinking in La Latina, in and around the neighborhood’s most famous street, the Calle de la Cava Baja. Cava Baja is a stretch of some 650 feet that runs from the Plaza de la Puerta Cerrada to the Plaza del Humilladero. It is full to the brim with bars, restaurants and small inns — forty-seven establishments in total. Deathly quiet in the morning, but packed with hungry Madrileños and zealous tourists at night, this sunken alleyway has become one of Madrid’s most visited attractions. It is quite normal, particularly on a Sunday, that a visiting group will come to the street at lunchtime and not leave until midnight.
Of course, the history of Cava Baja runs far deeper than its modern incarnation as a culinary hotspot; it started out as something entirely different within a markedly different culture.
In the ninth century, Madrid was under control of the Arab King Muhammad I of Córdoba who had constructed a small castle there. The Moors built a citadel around the castle and, as time went by, the city became more and more populous. There is some evidence to suggest that the area that is now Cava Baja was then an arrabal (a medieval slum) that provided access to the city when the main gates were closed. But what is certain, however, is that after the Christians captured Madrid in 1085, the vicinity of Cava Baja was flooded and used as a moat to surround the newly constructed city walls; a second line of defense against foreign attacks.
In the 15th century, the moat dried up and houses were built along the fortification to relieve the cramped living conditions within the citadel. As the street became more developed — as a cheaper alternative to city-living — Cava Baja transformed from a soggy hole in the ground to a burgeoning center of commercial activity. Indeed, because of its location just outside of Madrid, Cava Baja became the ideal place for visiting entrepreneurs and merchants to conduct their business or sell their products in local markets. Such was the mercantile rush that many stagecoach companies decided to establish their stations and ticket offices here. In the vertiginous houses of Cava Baja, wine, wheat and horses from all over Spain were sold and the area’s acclaim grew.
As word of Cava Baja’s commercial reputation spread, so did its fame for hospitality. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, inns started to pop up along the street. Some of these original inns still exist today as relics of the street’s transition from defensive structure to gastronomic extravaganza. Two inns that reflect this journey are the Posada del Dragón and the Posada del León de Oro.
The Posada del Dragón was originally constructed as a guesthouse in 1868 by the architect Francisco de Cubas on top of the ruins of the old Christian wall. It was named after the mythical dragon that was sculpted on the façade of the Puerta Cerrada — one of the principal entrances to the old city that was destroyed by a fire in 1582. Throughout much of the 19th and early 20th century, it provided accommodation for many merchants and farmers who plied their trade in the nearby Rastro market. Within its walls was La Antoñita, a soap and fragrance shop that for years produced the distinctive scent of many of Madrid’s most cultured denizens.
Right next door, the Posada del León de Oro was a guesthouse for cheese makers, butchers and honey vendors, and the space was also used as a warehouse. It, too, was constructed on top of the old wall, but was owned by the Sanz Montero family. It is said that the guests who stayed at the inn had to obey strict rules: they were not allowed to arrive at the hotel drunk or after 11 p.m., and couples were not permitted to spend the night in the same room without showing the owner proof of marriage. Also interesting was the fact that the Posada del León de Oro did not have showers or baths — in the eyes of its proprietors, there were perfectly acceptable public baths nearby.
Today, both these inns are shiny boutique hotels that still embody the street’s gluttonous spirit, except now with English menus and slick IKEA furniture. While their refined taste and bursting bodegas may seem somewhat removed from the street’s old bustling spirit, the essence of the old Cava Baja remains intact.
I move from the historic Sobrino de Botín to my favorite bar on Cava Baja — Casa Lucas. Here, the wine is as good as anywhere else in the city and the beer as crisp as a frosty morning. This is where I always start, where I come to people-watch, eat the modest-but-consistently-excellent fare and enjoy the barely-contained exaltation at the beginning of a raucous night.
Tonight, the tavern smells of fat and garlic. All around me, people spill wine, beer and pleasantries, and everything — as it always does in that pre-drunken state — seems sincere, tasty and profound. Not here, must you suffer that uncomfortable social schmooze, where those skilled enough can network themselves into significance and those not, into an anonymous corner by a mountain of discarded sun-dried tomatoes and half-eaten tapas. “I’ve been coming [to Casa Lucas] since it opened,” Marco, a gnarled, tired-looking taxi driver tells me, “they pull a good beer, so I like to come here with my buddies and complain about life.”
Behind Marco, a cluster of bookish types slump at the bar: glasses, leather satchels and baggy jumpers. A musk of aged leather and dust hovers around them as they chomp with deliberate forlornness on their chorizo. In their bubble of manufactured melancholy they seem bizarrely content. Quite different is a group of Spanish businessmen: crisp and sharp, they are dressed in square jackets and tight-fitting trousers — their confident saunters to the bar leave behind a current of privilege and expensive cologne. Then there are the slightly-scared, slightly-excited tourists who, in their earnest endeavors to speak Spanish, arouse furtive smirks and patronizing tones from the surrounding clientele. “We get all sorts in here,” Casa Lucas’ owner, Jose Crespo, tells me, “mostly they come for the good wine and beer, some the food, and others to pass the time in good company, and to not be alone.”
Leaving Casa Lucas for another bar, I pass wandering vendors from India who sell roses and beer, their lilting accents burst out of their Spanish petitions. I pass arguing couples, happy families and tired chefs on their coffee breaks. A lantern-jawed and long-coated man smokes a cigarette outside of a crowded bar and looks on suspiciously at a gaggle of disorderly girls. The girls shout, sing, stagger and stumble around the perpetual flow of human traffic. Farther down the street, and further into the night, I chew on thin cuts of Iberico ham from Salamanca, chomp on chunky chorizo from Pamplona and gorge on rich morcilla (blood-sausage) from Burgos. In the next bar, bubbling bowls of callos a la madrileña(tripe), steaming octopus from Galicia and oily blocks of cheese from Asturias. To drink: sweet-smelling vermouth, a beefy red from Rioja, all washed down with a paralyzingly-strong gin and tonic.
For now the night is a happy one: full of propitious back-slaps, amplified laughter and drunkenly-proclaimed love.
A wander down Cava Baja is a wander through gastronomic Spain — a microcosm of its culinary diversity. And somewhat paradoxically, this makes the street very exclusive to Madrid. One of the most salient aspects of Madrid’s gastronomy is its adaption of — and experimentation with — other culinary traditions from all over Spain. These gastronomic revisions, so to speak, can be seen in some of the city’s most famous dishes. The celebrated callos a la madrileña, for example, a dish made from cow’s tripe and often served with morcilla and chorizo, has been around since the 16th century and is said to have come to Madrid via traveling immigrants from Asturias in northern Spain.
Another dish you will see (and undoubtedly smell) is the bocadillo de calamares — a roll of deep-fried squid. It, too, originated elsewhere. Spain was, and still is, a country with strong Catholic roots, and traditional Catholic doctrine does not permit the consumption of meat on a Friday. Therefore, to be able to follow their beliefs and their deprived stomachs, some of the best seafood was sent to landlocked Madrid weekly via specially-created routes from the abundant coasts. For peasants, the cheapest way to prepare this chewy delight was to fry it and serve it on bread — which is how the bocadillo de calamares came to be one of the most commonly-eaten dishes in the city. Ironically, so high is the demand for seafood in the country’s capital that its fish market, Mercamadrid, is now the second largest in the world behind the Tsukiji market in Tokyo.
Of course, this is not to say that Madrid is without its own gastronomic culture, quite the opposite. Since its great population boom in the 16th century, when King Felipe II made Madrid his capital, the city has become a literal and figurative melting pot for the entire country’s cuisine — a landlocked city where, some would argue, the fish is better than anywhere else in Spain.
Yet there is one dish you might say belongs completely to Madrid and particularly to Cava Baja. That dish is huevos rotos (broken eggs). Runny fried eggs on a bed of french fries are mixed together to form a rich, tasty slop of heart attack. And the best place to go for huevos rotos is Casa Lucio. Many of the world’s celebrities, including chef Ferran Adrià, Bill Clinton and even the former King of Spain, have fallen for this humble dish. It has arguably turned Casa Lucio into the most famous restaurant on the street and possibly in the entire city.
Another reason for the restaurant’s fame is its owner, Lucio Blázquez — a charismatic (if not smug) Spaniard from Avila, who has worked there for some sixty-nine years. He first arrived at the restaurant, which was then known as the Meson del Segoviano, at the age of 11. Back then he toiled away as a bellboy, working inordinately long hours for very little pay. Yet from the lowest rung on the ladder he gradually worked his way up to become one of its most famed waiters. “The then owner, Doña Petra, told me that I had learned more things in fifteen days than my predecessor had in four years,” he told a Spanish newspaper. Indeed, so hard-working was Blázquez, a “fighter” as he puts it, that he became known as “El Atómico” — the speed at which he served his clientele was legendary.
After years of consistent hard work and devotion, Blázquez came to own the restaurant in 1974 and changed the name to Casa Lucio. Under his ownership there has rarely been an empty table here and the bustling bellboy from the country has gone on to buy three more properties on the street: El Lando, El Viejo Madrid and La Taberna de Los Huevos de Lucio. Even at the age of 82, sunken-eyed but resolute, Blázquez parades from table to table greeting his customers and posing for photos whenever the opportunity arises. He lives for his restaurants and for the people who fill them: “I have millions of photos that show I have been friends with almost everybody and that at this restaurant we have always had a good time.”
Another bar. Another drink. Everyone is drunk now — too drunk to enjoy their food, but sober enough to want more of everything. People chew on their words before they are able to speak them and everything is understood with an imbecilic smile. At the bar, a slick Spaniard turns his tipsy flirtation into drunken groping, a cackling American woman spills wine on her white blouse and an old man nods off in a corner booth; the bar fills with ambient desperation and lascivious thoughts. Six hours, twelve places, fifteen types of food and too many drinks later, perhaps it’s time the night moved from here to more suitable surrounds.
The future of Cava Baja, like its past, is sure to be one of great gluttony and trade. As a street, it has weathered foreign invasions, civil wars, fascist dictatorships and, as of late, the worst economic crisis to hit Spain in centuries. Now, the Spanish economy is on the mend, and although it is not at its best, it is most certainly better — something that can only be good for the street’s immediate future. Moreover, as global tourism levels rise (there was a 5% increase in world travel in 2014 compared to 2013) and the Spanish government’s attempts to attract foreigners by relaxing its visa requirements, Madrid, along with Calle de la Cava Baja, is sure to reap the benefits. Lucio’s eggs may soon be spotted in Beijing.