Anybody living in or visiting Madrid between now and March 28 who wants to sample the capital’s signature dish should buy a map and follow the Ruta del Cocido Madrileño – the cocido Madrileño route – which for the fourth year running has teamed up with more than two dozen restaurants to celebrate Madrid’s culinary traditions.
This hearty dish, which became a staple in the hungry years after the Civil War, is not for the faint-hearted. It consists of three courses: broth with vermicelli pasta; chick peas and vegetables, typically cabbage and carrots; and finally, a meat dish of spicy chorizo sausage, boiled beef, chicken, blood sausage (morcilla), chorizo and bone marrow. There are dozens of variants, and everybody says that only their mother really knows how to make it.
As with any eating experience, the surroundings and atmosphere are as important as the ingredients. El Reservado is a tiny restaurant tucked away in an anonymous side street in the capital’s Argüelles district that can be hired for events. But even when open to the general public, it gives diners the sense of being somewhere special.
Álvaro and Rafael, the owners, say that throughout six years of an economic crisis that has hit Spain’s restaurant sector hard, they owe their success to “classic cuisine with a touch of good taste.” Aided and abetted by their grandmother, they make a cocido that lives up to her principles.
Having built up a base of loyal customers, they produce around 30 servings a day, and regularly close the restaurant for private events. At 12.50 euros per person (without wine or dessert), theirs is the second-cheapest cocido on the route. They offer a modern touch for anybody with room for pudding in the form of a homemade cheesecake. “This is what allows us to pay the mortgage,” jokes Rafael.
It takes true devotion to the art of cocido to drive the 30 kilometers southwest of the capital to Bodegas Ricardo Benito in Navalcarnero, a family-run establishment dating back to 1940, but the journey is worth it. This is the first year the eatery has signed up for the cocido route, offering its own take on the dish, native to the town, known as the harvester’s pot. Unlike the Madrid version, this dish leaves out potatoes and cabbage, replacing them with rice and mint.
The Navalcarnero version developed during harvest time, when farm workers would take their lunch with them into the fields. To avoid the dish turning into a purée by the jolting of the mule on which it was carried, rice and mint were added after the pot was removed from the stove, and the stew would continue cooking during the journey. Along with its own version of cocido, Bodegas Ricardo Benito offers diners two different broths to accompany it, as well as the chance to visit its winery. The visit, which includes an aperitif, plus cocido costs 35 euros, while the full stew, with all the trimmings, in the restaurant costs 29 euros per person.
Back in the capital, why not combine eating with a spot of history, and enjoy a traditional dish in a traditional place in the heart of Madrid’s old quarter? The Posado del León de Oro is a lovingly restored 19th-century boarding house that has been converted into a hotel and restaurant. The dining room is seated on glass bricks that afford a view of the capital’s 12th-century walls, around which a vast wine cellar has been created. “When we began the project, the cellars had been filled in,” says manager Óscar Lucas. “A team of archeologists was brought in to excavate, allowing diners to look down on the walls of the old city, built with the granite used in so many of the other 19th-century buildings in the area.”
The first-course broth is made using ham bones from acorn-fed pigs, giving it a unique, rich flavor. Chef Juan Gabalón says the soup is five hours in the making, and also includes corn-fed chicken. What makes cocido so surprising are the many personal touches that different cooks can give it. In the case of La Posada del León de Oro, Gabalón explains that this means not pouring out all the ingredients into a single serving dish: “A lot of people use whole carrots, along with chicken pieces, but we like to help our customers, who don’t want to be bothered cutting up the ingredients. So we prepare each plate individually.”
Then there is the question of what might be called added value: bread made from walnuts and raisins that can be dipped into a fresh tomato sauce featuring olive oil and cumin, and all washed down with the right wine: “We recommend a red Rioja, an Edulis 2010, a young wine, which is sufficient for such a heavy dish,” adds Gabalón.
Making a good cocido Madrileño is a complicated, time-consuming business, with a strict order regarding the cooking of the many ingredients — and one that some would argue is best left to Spaniards. But this hasn’t deterred Italian Roberto Capone. For the last three decades, his Antigua Tahona restaurant in the mountain town of Rascafría, 90 kilometers to the north of the capital, has been using the same wood-fired oven in which he makes his pizzas to produce cocido, which is prepared and served in clay jugs. “The difference is immediately notable,” he boasts.
With its stone exterior and wood-paneled interior, as well as a huge open fireplace, the restaurant is particularly inviting during winter. Roberto says that using a wood-fired oven is the secret ingredient of his cocido. That said, as an Italian, even one who has lived half his life in Spain, he is a stickler for tradition. “You think you know what you are doing when you start out at this, but you soon learn to listen to your customers and the local people, because they really know about cocido,” he says. “For instance, you cannot just put the morcilla into the stew; you have to fry it on its own first.” The chef says he remembers giving cookery classes to local housewives a few years ago: “By the end of the day, I was asking them for recipes and tips on how best to cook certain ingredients. I was writing everything down. They thought it was hilarious.”
The owners of the Antigua Tahona say they are especially proud of the meat they use in their cocido, which is organic denomination of origin, and pasture-fed in the rich grasslands of the surrounding Guadarrama mountains. Similarly, Roberto only uses local, free-range hens, something he says he was advised to do by Catalan chef Nandu Jubany. “Until then, I didn’t realize the importance of the chicken,” and now he doesn’t just use local birds in the cocido, but for everything, from risotto to cannelloni.
Roberto combines the old with the new, and is a firm believer in innovation. He recommends a starter of beer mousse (it looks rather like a block of soap, but is delicious), with cured ham. He also advises diners to leave a little room for pudding: he describes Deseo de chocolate (chocolate desire) as a chocolate forest with five different textures, and a base of cocoa short-crust pastry and almonds.