Madrilenians invest a huge amount of their time and energy in eating and drinking. Forget all that stuff about the Mediterranean diet and don’t even think about cutting down on sugar, salt, fat or alcohol. Being in Madrid is really not compatible with healthy living. The buzzwords here are cholesterol, caffeine and calories.
Breakfast should be eaten out. Elbow your way to the counter at a local bar and choose whichever combination of stodge and sugar takes your fancy. Toast – white bread of course – is plastered with butter, browned on the griddle, then served with more butter and jam. Croissants and other pastries are also on offer, but for the true Madrid breakfast experience you should really have churros – sugar-coated deep-fried strips of batter – which must be dunked into coffee or, even better, thick hot chocolate. In Madrid, thicker tubes called porras, which taste not unlike Yorkshire pudding, are also very popular.
To do things properly, this nutritionist’s nightmare should be accompanied by a generous shot of brandy or Chinchon anisette, or even – why not go the whole hog? – both together to create a sol y sombra.
Thus fortified, you should be ready to face an hour in the Prado. When your blood-sugar level plummets at around 11 0′clock, join the rest of the population back in the bar for more coffee and a toasted sandwich or a wedge of tortilla.
A swift hour’s sightseeing is perfectly punctuated by the hora del aperitivo. This deeply-ingrained ritual should be experienced in a traditional bodega or tasca. You can drink beer, wine or sherry, but the purist’s choice is the locally-produced draught red vermouth with a splash of soda – vermut con sel. A dish of olives, some boquerones en vinagre and a few slivers of jamon iberico will get you thinking about the serious business to come: lunch.
Gastrobars and designer restaurants may be all the rage these days, but the culinary soul of the city lies in unpretentious, no-nonsense restaurants – although it has to be said they are disappearing fast. For ultimate authenticity, try and find somewhere with a frosted-glass frontage with half a pig, three aubergines and two tins of sardines arranged into an artless still life, or go upmarket with a traditional establishment with checked cloths and a wood-burning oven. Have the menu del dia, which is not only cheap but also saves you having to tax your brain deciding between too many options. And it includes wine.
After ploughing through the obligatory three courses, it is good manners to finish off your meal with an espresso or two and a copita (the diminutive form could not be more inappropriate) of brandy or pacharan, a powerful concoction made from sloes and aniseed that tastes not unlike cough mixture.
By this time, your cultural itinerary is probably looking less appealing, so head instead for the Retiro park, where a leisurely stroll around the lake will help the digestion along and prepare you for the next calorific onslaught: merienda. This involves a large coffee and a slab of cake or toast, or perhaps tortitas con nata - a platter of pancakes, syrup and whipped cream from a can. Or you can just go for more chocolate y churros.
As evening falls, a little light shopping up the Calle Fuencarral is followed by a few sprightly laps around the tapas bars, and before you know it, it’s ten o’clock and time for dinner, which should be an entertaining, highly social affair. Madrilenians like their restaurants noisy and lively, so choose somewhere busy and informal for optimum authenticity.
It will be well past midnight by the time you leave the restaurant, which counts as early in Madrid. And of course, you can’t go to bed on a full stomach anyway, as that would be very unhealthy indeed. So repair to a bar or pavement cafe for a few cocktails, gintonics or cubatas (rum, whisky or vodka with coke), after which your energy level will surge and you’ll be skipping off to the clubs to dance the night away with the rest of the population.
All too soon, dawn is breaking and it’s time to wind down and stave off the worst of the hangover with a comforting snack of chocolate y churros before going home for a few hours’ sleep and a drastic rejigging of the next day’s plans.