By Adam Halberg
Calle Ponzano has become known as a vibrant “restaurant row” in Madrid over the past ten years with avant-garde eateries popping up beside moody classical taverns. Food is made by septuagenarians in some establishments and in immersion circulators in others.
Eating one's way up and down the street has even earned its own term in Spanglish: “ponzaning”.
There, strapped to a corner, sits El Doble.
A beer bar with, in true Iberian style, only one beer on tap, Cerveceria El Doble is clad in decorative ceramic tiles outside – and wallpapered with selfies (some polaroid-ancient) of the bartenders posing with famous footballers, powerful politicians and neighbors from nearby apartments.
Gourmands visiting Madrid pack tightly into El Doble to taste the famous specialties from its menu.
Order petit cockles, plump mussels or razor clams and the bartenders deftly do something uncommon at in-demand eateries elsewhere in the world. They peel open tin cans of the shellfish, pour out a half ounce of the liquid inside, add in a few drips of white vinegar and hand it to you along with a plate over-stacked with thin, salty potato chips.
There is no plate-design, no mood lighting, no music. A few things get fried and Galician oysters are served raw, opened with what looks like a table-mounted can opener, but the focus at El Doble is on your neighbors and on the quality of fish sitting in aluminum tins along the back of the bar.
Many Americans look askance at canned fish. Our tins of grocery-store tuna are sold for a buck or two each and the stuff inside coated with enough mayonnaise to cover up how dry and cat-foody it is. For some, canned fish conjures a horror-show of mid-century offenses to the modern palate, belonging to the era of grey canned peas, spam, oddly cut carrots suspended in gelatin molds and tiny marshmallows studding far more dishes than appropriate.
Spain’s conserva culture exalts tinned food with an adept craft and enthusiasm fully on the opposite end of the spectrum. The most desired tuna is ventresca, the same part of the fish’s belly worshiped by sushi lovers as toro. Peeled gently out of their tins, these filets are silky and decadent. Along the Basque Bay of Biscay to the north, Ortiz, which sells anchovies, tuna and mackerel in gourmet shops in America, has started marking their highest quality tuna with vintage years to learn how the complex textures and flavors may evolve over time like wine.
It’s not just fish. White asparagus become more tender during their gentle hibernation in jars of sweet vinegar. Partridge, confited whole in olive oil with garlic and herbs are plucked months or years later from cans, with smart cooks mixing the meat into salads of chicory, nuts and olives and using the aromatic oil as dressing.
Both American and Spanish tinned foods industries may have come out of wartime necessity, but the Spaniards have a hundred year head start, with the innovation burgeoning in earnest in the 1840s.
The embrace of conserved and preserved foods gradually turned their production into an art and the products themselves into luxury delights.
Now, as “foodies” in our country begins to lick their greedy chops at salted hams and cured olives, as domestic caviar quality begins to compete with that of Eastern Europe, they have also begun to awaken to the enchants of pure ingredients packed in premium oils and vinegars.
Conserva bars have started to poke their way into the culinary scenes of our cities, requiring minimal to no kitchens and still able to provide eye-opening taste experiences.
Back on Calle Ponzano in Madrid, those leaving a happy lunch of chips and tinned fish, stroll under chestnut trees in good weather. People watching and window shopping become the order of the afternoon. As the mild beer buzz begins to fade in the sun and the flavors of mussels, garlic and oil begin to transition to memories, a few blocks down another El Doble (of course, there are two) can be found.
Are these specialties good enough to entice people in twice in a row? Sometimes you just need one more perfect Cantabrian anchovy and a half glass of the coldest beer.