La Venencia

Madrid has more bars per capita than any other city in Europe, but they aren’t all made equal. Find out what makes La Venencia, a historic drinking hole near Plaza Santa Ana, one of the very best.

La Venencia: The One Bar You Must Visit In Madrid

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.

Manzanilla sherry and olives at La Venencia

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

Breakfast in Madrid: Pan con tomate

Homemade pan con tomate (Thomas Rees)

Catalan-style pan con tomate (Thomas Rees)

The madrileño breakfast par excellence, you’ll find pan con tomate (tomato bread) at cafes and bars all over the Spanish capital. Pick a good one and you’ll be presented with crisp slices of toasted baguette that glisten with olive oil and fragrant, fresh tomato.

It’s just as popular elsewhere in Spain and different regions have different ideas about how it should be done. At the risk of upsetting my host city, where common practice is to blend the tomatoes before spreading the resulting salsa onto the bread, I more often make the Catalan version at home and rub a cut tomato directly onto the toast. While this method saves on washing up it isn’t without its downsides. You need exceptionally flavourful tomatoes to make it work as the toast softens before it has had a chance to pick up more than a thin layer of the flesh.

At the risk of upsetting everyone, I sometimes add a few slices of avocado, while slivers of ruby-red jamón serrano are a common addition, especially at brunch. Then of course there’s the garlic, which at breakfast-time many restaurants choose to omit. Personally, I’d rather take my chances. It’s the garlicky punch that lifts a piece of pan con tomate from the ordinary to the sublime.

However you go about it, it’s hard to think of a simpler way to feel both immensely satisfied and disgustingly virtuous before nine o’clock in the morning. ¡Buen aprovecho!

– Thomas Rees

For the recipe, along with an edited version of this article, head over to wanderlust.co.uk

The Madrileño Aesthetic

The Madrileño aesthetic: Cafe, Lavapies, Madrid (Thomas Rees)

The Madrileño aesthetic: Cafe, Lavapies, Madrid (Thomas Rees)

Perhaps it’s the pale brickwork and the sandstone, the wrought iron balconies, or the fierce sunlight that bleaches the city of colour and renders it in the sepia tones of an old photograph, but living in Madrid feels as much like being in another time as it does another country. 

It’s a city in which extravagant churches, palaces, and sweeping plazas stand beside tired looking cafes and dingy bars populated by cigarette machines and austere septuagenarians perched on tall metal stools.

Done out in formica and faux marble, many of these establishments have an air of old world formality. Waiters wear waistcoats or matching pullovers and your change arrives on a little metal dish. Yet, the floors are littered with scrunched-up napkins and discarded sugar packets, the paintwork is peeling and the awnings are frayed at the edges. It’s hard to tell a good bar from a bad one when so many look a little like dives.

Outside, the city is just as shabby, graffiti-daubed, and dated. Gaggles of old women in shift dresses and shawls sit at wooden benches surrounded by pigeons and bags full of shopping. Restaurant frontages sport faded photographs of seafood platters and cups of strong black coffee that look as grim as they taste, faintly of headaches and civil war rationing.

Even crossing the street involves a nostalgia trip of a decade or so. The laser-beam chirp of the traffic lights means you tread the tarmac to the soundtrack of a ’90s arcade game.

But this old fashioned feel, this air of gentle decay and dilapidation, adds much to Madrid’s charm. Like the noise of shouted conversations on the street below or the frenzy of extravagant beeping that erupts during rush hour, it endears you to the city and it makes you smile.

Moreover, it chimes with a lack of pretension or concern for polish that feels thoroughly Spanish. Why sweep the floors or buy new curtains when you could pour your energy into shouting orders to the kitchen, arguing about the football with your clientele, or dashing about with hastily poured glasses of beer and bowls of complementary olives? Character and attitude beat style hands down. Modernity can wait.

– Thomas Rees