If you want to know what Madrid was like in the 1930s, there’s a bar on Calle Echegaray that you should visit. It isn’t somewhere you’re likely to stumble upon. It doesn’t have a prime location or a flash new website, and there’s nothing informing you that Hemingway once drank there, though he did. On the contrary, its owners shun publicity preferring to rely on the patronage of their regulars, word of mouth and the simple green and white sign that hangs above the lintel. But that’s all as it should be.
Step inside La Venencia and you’ll see that it’s more than just this marketing strategy that has remained unchanged over the years. The bar’s interior is much the same as it was in the days of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) when republican soldiers and supporters of the anti-fascist cause met to exchange stories of battlefield heroism and to lament the advance of General Franco’s forces, passing snippets of information to sympathetic foreign journalists like ‘Don Ernesto’, as Hemingway came to be known.
A wooden bar runs the length of the room and at the far end, by an ancient till with a handle like a one armed bandit, is a stack of barrels stained the color of molasses. Motionless wooden fans hang from the ceiling and covering the walls are shelves of dust-smeared bottles and faded posters for sherry festivals that have long ceased to exist.
On the raised level at the back, reached by a short flight of steps and separated by a white silk screen, is an assortment of antique tables and chairs, a wooden luggage rail, a glass fronted cabinet filled with tattered books and a heavy mirror, curiously angled towards the floor. But, of all the antiques in La Venencia, the bar’s namesake – an elegant silver serving device used for extracting sherry from the barrel – is the most fitting. Don’t come here in search of a beer, because carefully sourced Spanish sherry (jerez) is the only thing that La Venencia serves.
On a faded sheet of paper near the barrels there’s a poem and it goes something like this: ‘Manzanilla, Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado, Palo cortado’. Five Spanish sherries all for €1.70/€2 a glass or €11/ €12 the bottle, ranging from crisp and refreshing (the Manzanilla) to something more rounded (the Fino), with nut brown Oloroso the darkest and richest of the five and Amontillado and Palo cortado somewhere in between. There’s nothing else to drink. Just sherry (jerez) and tap water, but with wines as good as these, from selected bodegas in Andalucia, that isn’t the slightest bit of a problem.
Then comes the tapas; crisp, emerald green olives in herb scented oil that arrive with your first drink; slices of pale manchego cheese; preserved meats and chorizo sausage marbled with ivory coloured fat; and leathery mojama – cured tuna the colour of red wine. Sufficiently saline to make you drink like a fish, all of it is delicious, not to mention cheap.
You can watch the barmen write up your order in chalk on the surface of the bar, but don’t expect much in the way of conversation. Just as in many of the best places in Madrid, the staff at La Venencia are as brief and uncompromising as the menu, elderly Castilians who pride themselves on their surliness and work, as far as possible, in silence.
When they do say something it’s usually to cut you down to size. On this, my second visit, in the company of Gonzalo (a friend and La Venencia regular) we come to the aid of a group of American tourists looking for the sweetest sherry on the menu. “We don’t have sweet sherries,” comes the barman’s curt reply. Gonzalo smiles weakly and recommends the Oloroso. “Technically they wouldn’t consider any of them sweet,” he says.
The staff will speak up to enforce the rules of the house too, rules that have their origins in La Venencia’s Civil War days. There’s an outright ban on tipping, in line with the socialist principles of the Spanish republicans, and taking photographs is frowned upon because La Venencia’s clientele once had to be wary of fascist spies. Thankfully, the final rule, ‘no spitting on the floor’, now seems like common sense. Some things are best left in the Thirties.
If anything has changed over the years, aside from attitudes to hygiene, it’s the people who drink here. On a typical night, you’ll find elderly couples clutching slender glasses of Fino and groups of Spanish students gossiping over plates of salsichon. Socialites and flamboyant thespians prop up the bar and well-informed tourists snap furtive photos of the black cat, which stalks between the chair legs.
The quality of the air has improved a little too. “You used to be able to smoke in here,” says Gonzalo, motioning to the leathery, nicotine-stained walls. “It was like entering another world.” Though the fug of tobacco smoke and the republican soldiers may be gone, it still is.
– Thomas Rees
– Photos by Thomas Rees and Krista/Flickr
La Venencia, Calle de Echegaray 7, Madrid, Spain, +34 914 29 73 13 Open daily between 12.30 and 3.30pm and from 7.30pm until around midnight