IN the late eighties I lived in Madrid, on and off, for eighteen months, teaching English, drinking, eating, slacking, with loads of time to wonder what my life might bring but not spending too long over that.
It's marvellous and what the chefs do in the smallest kitchen in the North is a miracle
I shared a fifth floor flat in Calle Fuencarral without a lift and no air conditioning. It looked on one side into a courtyard, the far side of which was half ruined and populated by an extended family of cats. These would sit on the red tiled roofs until the sun got too high, stretch and make their way into the shade. The cats and I seemed to have pretty much the same atitude to life. With no digital distractions I read and read and read.
I think I was paying £8 a month rent.
Calle Fuencarral was off Gran Via, the equivalent to Oxford Street in London. On one side was Chueca district with terrifying gay clubs showing permanently running porn on large video screens and on the other was a red light area with a mixed bag of fabulous restaurants selling huge hunks of greasy roast lamb. There was an aging prostitute hanging out in those streets who is difficult to forget. She literally hung out. She had enormous breasts and all she wore was a string vest. You didn't know where to look, but you always did.
It’s all smartened up these days.
Gentrification has jumped in. I've not been back but apparently if bees really did have knees then Calle Fuencarral is where they'd choose to live in Madrid. If you want to buy my attic flat these days it'd cost half a million sterling. Rents are measured in thousands per month not in single digits. I wonder where all the cats have gone.
Our local bar was tiny and run by a man nicknamed Siri, we never found out his real name. He got in special pint tankard glasses because he loved the way the Brits drank to excess and poured money into his till. Often we'd drink our fill and then Siri would give us one last pint of Mahou beer for nothing. This was the last thing we wanted but for Blighty's honour we'd finish it and then I'd stagger up the five flights of steps and watch the cats wandering the roof ridges silhouetted against the moon.
That's the end of part one of my autobiography.
More relevantly, Siri revealed tapas for me. In Siri's I ate the usuals, tortilla, patatas bravas and ensaladilla rusa which we never get over here but also morcilla (black pudding) and pigs ears, which were crunchy and odd. Offal was a big thing. The tapas were free and came with the drink. Now tapas have been gentrified and like Calle Fuencarral risen in price.
San Juan in Chorlton is the closest to Siri’s bar I’ve ever found in Britain. It’s tiny, like so many Madrid bars, and usually packed, like so many Madrid bars. It was chocka on Tuesday evening, so much so we had to eat our tapas standing up until two stools were vacated by the fellas next to us. Standing, drinking beer and munching on tapas threw me backwards in time too.
The tapas were generally excellent in San Juan, a cut far above Siri's well-meaning pieces of gristle and grease.
The tortilla (£3.75) was warm and loose in the centre and the best I’ve had in Manchester. The spinach and chickpeas dish (£4.20) with garlic had a beautiful smoky character courtesy of almonds. I could have munched this all night. You felt it was doing you good. The paella was decent but nothing exceptional (£4.90). The creamy chicken dish (£4.90) was another real success, this time emboldened and enhanced by just the right kick of mustard. Meanwhile the boquerones (£4.90, anchovies in vinegar) were deliciously oily, fishy and again made you think God was in Heaven and all was right with the world - which is saying something as an atheist.
The only fail was a collation of veg, a pisto (£4.90), with a goats cheese whacked in the middle. It was clumsy and dull. "This is for the Chorlton veggies isn't it? To make them feel they're part of things," I said to the waiter. He winked at me and grinned. I'm not sure he understood what I'd said.
Despite the number of years it’s been on Beech Road I’d never dined in San Juan. This is because it’s so hard to squeeze in at any time. There’s a Spanish food revolution taking place in Manchester city centre at the moment, but the most authentic bar in the city is this one in Chorlton. The only thing the Brits resist is the urge to chuck napkins, olive stones and everything else they can find on the floor, a Spanish tradition I can do without.
If you’ve not been to San Juan get yourself down there, it’s marvellous, and what the chefs do in the smallest kitchen in the North is a miracle.
Back to the autobiography.
The house Rioja (£2.50, 250ml) in San Juan is better than Siri’s wine. The latter was the only alcohol in history that worked in reverse. It gave a hangover first and then took the brain into a sort of tranquilised swoon. I think Siri blended it with glue. The way it was dispensed revealed the crazy genius of the host.
Siri had rigged up in the backroom a full petrol pump and he dispensed his wine from hell through the gun nozzle into any suitable container. It cost next to nothing for a litre but when buying it you always had to remember the pain before the gain in the back of your mind.
When the litre was finished all you had left was the back of your mind.
San Juan, 56 Beech Road, Chorlton, M21 9EG
Food: 7.5/10 (tortilla 9, paella 6.5, pisto 5, spinach 8, chicken 8, boquerones 8)