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Life In Old Spain - Part 3

THE APARTMENT - PART 4Clapping for the key. "You must see the Puerta del Sol. You should also go to the cathedral and the royal palace, and the park. Then you must visit the Prado. There is much to see in Madrid." The waiter clearly had a totally different view of Madrid from my friends in Barcelona. But then he was a Madrileño.

Naturally he had a poor opinion of Barcelona. "In Barcelona everyone thinks Catalunya is the only place on earth. Barcelona is a dirty city. It is full of factories and prostitutes, but there is nothing else. They are provincials. They are nothing."

I thought it best to keep quiet about Barcelona, but I couldn't help asking "Have you ever been there?"

The waiter snorted, and looked away. "Why should I want to go to Barcelona? I live in Madrid." And that was that. The place was much smaller than Barcelona, and certainly a lot cleaner.

After doing some site-seeing I went for a meal. I didn't have very much money and it had to last me another two weeks. Pollo asado is a poor man's dish. The two cheapest meats are chicken and rabbit. The chicken is generally served from a rotisserie, but the rich cuts are off the bone. The meat is then marinaded and cooked in a casserole, or with herbs and fruits.

After the civil war there was a serious problem with feeding the population, and one of the more sensible things done by the Franco regime was to set up chicken factories just outside each main village right across the nation. The idea was that each community would have its own supply of meat, and so chicken became the staple meat diet across the nation.

I quickly learned that chicken had a special place in the hearts of the madrileños. Everywhere in Spain people eat chicken. It is cheap and cheerful, but in Madrid they have turned the eating of chicken into an art form. My waiter had already told me "La galina hace la cocina." Chicken makes the meal; which really means: chicken is the foundation of all cooking.

A speciality of Madrid is galina en pepitoria. The chicken is jointed and lightly fried in olive oil, then garlic and onion are added and cooked lightly, then white wine is poured in and allowed to reduce. Flour is added and some stock, together with herbs. The cook then covers the pan and after half an hour adds chopped almonds and saffron, and maybe a little chopped fruit. When serving, the dish is sprinkled with chopped hard-boiled egg and parsley.

There are several dishes where the meat is cut from the bone and stewed with various other ingredients. This leaves the bones with just a small amount of meat attached. These left-overs are fried with onion and garlic, and served with fritos. This is what you get when you order pollo asado. With a bottle of tempranillo from Toro it is just the thing for a simple lunch.

Of course, nowadays the dish is more substantial, but this is in the early sixties. A family would eat the meat cut from the bones, then fry up the bones as a kind of left-overs dish, and finally those bones would be boiled for a nourishing soup.

After my meal I wandered into the cathedral across the square, and gave a cursory look at the palace, then meandered around the Retiro park.

The whole place had a kind of quaint gentility to it. Even the housing estates on the edge of town seemed quiet and sedate, not at all like the chaotic, filthy noisy tenements of northern and eastern Barcelona.

I had found a small hotel in one of the streets back from the Puerto del Sol. It was very quiet. On each side of the empty road were neat terraced houses. The main thoroughfares were busy, but the back streets seemed unusually quiet for a large city. In the evening the place was totally silent.

I walked out to the highway, which was a very wide rambla, similar to the one in Barcelona, but much wider, and again, somehow much more sophisticated and organised, and clean. Everything in Barcelona was a bit chaotic, and messy. Everything here in Madrid was ordered and sanitised. It was as if the whole city was some kind of government department. I could see what my friend at the theatre box office meant when he said everyone in Madrid worked for the government.

It was as if Barcelona had not been cowed by the Franco regime. The people may have been frightened, but they did not allow that to beat them down. In Madrid I got the impression that everyone had knuckled under, and had accepted the government ticket, and now felt obligated to smile.

For dinner I decided to have quail. The waiter explained it was a small game bird much loved in Spain. Since the time of Franco quail have been farmed on a large scale, just like the chickens.

"Weren't they farmed before?" I asked.

"No. They were shot in the wild, that's all."

"And the chickens?"

"Chickens were farmed before, but things have changed." And that was all. The waiter went back to the kitchen. Obviously something else must have happened during the civil war, and no-one wanted to talk about it. So often the seemingly most innocuous subject led to one of those conversational impasses. Suddenly the conversation simply stopped. People either started talking about something else, or they walked away.

My bottle of wine came. I'd decided to have something special to go with the quail, and the waiter brought me a rather fine Rioja.

A plate of olives arrived, and a plate of sliced cheese together with a basket of bread. This was all rather nice. Perhaps I had better move to Madrid after all. The cheese was hard and tangy, and tasted like a slightly mouldy cheddar. The olives were large and succulent. The Rioja was red and fruity. I leaned back in my chair and started to dream.

Twenty minutes later a brace of quail arrived. They smelled delicious. "So where has my quail come from?" I asked.

"There is a farm near Madrid. They keep the quail in small compounds, and from there they are delivered to the markets in Madrid."

"So what's the recipe?"

The waiter smiled, wrapped his serviette over his arm, and launched into a full description. "First the quails are cleaned, and disjointed. They are then seasoned with salt and pepper, and then bacon, ham and parsley are wrapped in a bundle and placed inside. Next the quail is fried. In a separate pan garlic and chopped tomato are fried to make a sauce. This is poured over the quails and they are reheated and served very hot." He stood back and beamed at me.

I clapped my hands in applause, took a deep sniff at the aromas from the quail and said "Estupendo." We beamed at each other, and he was off back to the kitchen.

When I had finished my meal I wandered round the centre of the city for an hour or two and then headed back to my hotel. The street was as silent as usual. The hotel door was locked of course. I walked into the middle of the street, put my hands above my head and clapped three times, and waited.

Nothing happened. I clapped again. Still nothing happened. This was not how things were supposed to go.

In the old days each small group of streets had a guardian who had a set of keys to all the houses. When you came back late at night, shut out, you were supposed to clap and he would hear you and come along with his bunches of keys and let you in. I never did understand how he was meant to hear you clapping if he was three streets away. Obviously the guardian needed excellent hearing. But equally obviously the guardian for this set of streets was as deaf as a post or had fallen asleep somewhere.

What on earth was I supposed to do? I couldn't spend the night in the street. I clapped again. Another man came into the street and clapped also. We both paced up and down for a while.

"Have you been clapping for long?" he asked.

I shrugged. "Five or six minutes."

"Ha!" he snorted. "The scoundrel is in the tavern. Come. We find him."

We walked past the next street, and then down the length of the further street to a bar on the corner. My companion strode inside and clapped loudly. A man hastily got up from his seat, jingling, and followed us out.

"He's always in the bar," said my new friend. "He is lazy. When it rains you go first to the bar. Don't bother to clap in the street." The guardian let my friend into his house, and then accompanied me to my door, found the key, and let me in.

I shuffled up the stairs, feeling seriously tired after my day's rambling and my excellent meal. What a strange way of dealing with tourists who have been locked out. Surely it would be so much simpler just to give everyone a front door key. They're a funny lot in Madrid!


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