In May 2011, without trying to find, or having read a recommendation, I happened upon what I remember to be the best calamari I’ve had. It was in a small bar by the Cathedral in Granada; I remember sitting at a typically high, circular, wooden table – of which there were half a dozen – and sharing the space with both tourists and locals alike. Unlike many locations around, there was no difference between tapas and racions. Meals were priced individually, cheaply and came the size of what you would probably consider an over-generous tapa. There was nothing especially fancy about the calamari; it was simply one of those experiences, where everything is done so right, that you decide to add it to your list of absolute favourites. It became a staple that I would return to again and again, trying to find as many places that would serve it to me just the way I remembered it when it was perfect.
November 2013 and I was back in Spain. It seemed only appropriate, then, that I find my dreamed calamari and see how Spain – the country in which I added the simple seafood to my culinary priorities – delivered up the white rings elsewhere. Landing in Madrid with only one night to explore, I figured it appropriate to Google the best options. Now, searching for “Madrid + Calamari” is certainly opening a can of worms. I had spent several days in Madrid last time around and, to my complete bamboozlement, was unaware of the city’s fascination with calamari sandwiches. Madrid’s calamari consumption is out of control! Plaza Mayor, to be most accurate, was the place to hook yourself up; or rather, the place that contained the seemingly never ending number of bars, cafes, restaurants, and well, calamari shops to feast your fishy eyes on.
I put this prior oversight of the sandwiches down to the fact that that my initial visit to Madrid was my first experience of Spain, and having never visited the country before it can be quite overwhelming to get your head around. Firstly, for someone who has generally had dinner in the vicinity of 6.30 – 7 pm for his entire life, the premise of eating at 10 pm is simply ludicrous. How can my tummy hold on that long!? Secondly, there are way too many ways to eat; eat free tapas with a drink; pay for tapas with a drink; just get tapas (say 3 or 4 for tea with a drink), have a racion (a plate), eat and pay at the counter, expect table service, take pieces by the toothpick… And then there’s the question of quantity. Is it wrong for me to sit in one bar for several hours and just keep ordering 1 euro beers to get the freebie snack, accumulating these tasty morsels until I’m well enough fed?
As far as free tapas are concerned, the whole experience is like a game in which you progress from level to level with each drink. The more drinks you can handle, the more worthy you become in the eye of the barman for a greater culinary present. Consider toast with a tuna/tomato spread with the first cana (beer), followed by a mini bagel with soft cheese as the next, before they start firing up the grill and dishing up shish-kebabs, mini steaks or, if you’re so lucky, calamari! It becomes a challenge to see what level you can reach without (a) coming across as a freeloader and (b) falling off your chair.
So essentially, having no real prior experience with the Spanish way somehow caused me to miss a Madrid specialty. Poor excuse, I know, but the point is Google returned an onslaught of “BEST CALAMARI SANDWICH” results and I quickly decided it better to just find one myself before being consumed by recommendations. The premise of the food itself is simple – put the squid in a roll. The experience is the fun bit. It seemed that lunchtime on the weekend was as popular time as any to find a packed location. You squeeze your way to the bar and wave frantically until you have a sandwich in your hand and less shrapnel in your pocket (I paid 3 euro on average). Whoever serves you will be too busy for pleasantries, but that only served as proof that you need no real further convincing toward what you’ll order. You look at it briefly, then hoe down, enjoying it right where you are, soaking in the sound of a hundred conversations you won’t understand (unless you’re better prepared than me and, you know, learn the language).
The confusing part of all that Madird business is that Madrid is in the middle of the country, which is effectively in the middle of the desert. Are these some kind of super land squid I have yet to encounter? It’s a mystery to me, because the sheer quantities of the stuff used daily is tremendous!
Leaving Madrid, I had four stops to make on this particular Spanish excursion: Toledo for a few days, then Cordoba, Seville and Granada in Andalucia. A specialty of Madrid, the calamari sandwiches weren’t seen again, as such; although a great number of tapas were ordered, including the very Calamares de Andaluc I’d had in Granada three years back. The best of these was had in Toledo – served in a cone with token veggies, but cooked somewhat tempura style and served with mint aioli. This calamari was the boss squid, and blew Madrid out of the water, so to speak, as well as setting a bar – apparently too high – for the calamares tapas that followed. The others were straightforward, generally deep fried and served with a “salad” garnish. This is what I expected as this is what I fell in love with in the first place. Most were fantastic, but the odd one was slightly over or under done. Overall though, the Spanish seriously know their stuff!
The calamari in Granada, then? The one that had me bugging Tess at every bar to let me eat more squid (and more, more, more). The setting was spot on – the place was packed and the vino flowing. But sadly, that one turned out to be possibly the most disappointing of this trip. What I had previously regarded as the lord of the rings was a letdown, only slightly overcooked but too tough to compete against Toledo or others in Madrid, Cordoba and Seville. But it didn’t matter. The place had already fulfilled its purpose as far as I was concerned. It got me hooked, just like all those squids will continue to be literally hooked for my eating pleasure in the future.