I am talking about the the world’s oldest restaurant, the famous Botín. It has always appealed to me, really traditional Spanish restaurants just do, they have an attraction to me that I cannot really define. I think it is the way the menus never change, food in some cultures is not an evolving art form, but a commitment to their past, almost an anchor to their traditions. Well good traditional Spanish food can be just that and I love the experience when it is done well, it is like being in a really good interactive museum.
So being the oldest restaurant in the world, officially – I expect it is something to do with retaining records, because I once read about a restaurant in Nanking which dates back to the 1300’s! – the Botín should be quite an experience.
Botin is in a superb location, just a stroll from the Plaza Mayor, which is one of the great open spaces in Europe and a delightful place in which to while away a caña or two of beer. The Botín can be found in the Calle de Cuchilleros where originally the cutlers could be found; Madrid was a planned city that supplanted both Valladolid and Toledo as the capital and is therefore younger than those two lovely places. Either the plan of keeping the various trades in certain areas had loosened over the centuries or cutlers had to have some where to eat!
The restaurant was set up in 1725 by Frenchman Jean Botín and his Asturian, a province of northern Spain – not a misspelling of Austrian, wife. It would originally have been a cookhouse where customers brought their own food to have it baked for them in the Botin ovens. Indeed one of the earliest photographs that exists of the place shows the sign describing it as a pastelleria, a baker or cakeshop.
The exterior is dark, somber and heavy with oak pannelling, it looks just as it did when Goya worked here as a waiter or when Hemmingway tried to drink away the memory of the First World War. I got a real feeling of excitement going in, the bar and reception area is small and dark with hanging copper pots, richly tiled surfaces, a jamón on a stand, bottles of wine, piles of menus and a lovely feeling of bustle. The smells are rich, savoury and appetising with herbs, garlic, jamón and roasted meat aromas wafting around the confined spaces.
The place is full of dark nooks and crannies and open hearths with room after room opening out the more you explore with narrow corridors and tiny twisting staircases taking you in unlikely directions. It is obvious that this restaurant has expanded hugely over the centuries with each addition needing a new access route to be inventively crammed in.
After a much needed beer at the bar I was asked to go down to the cellar to my table for one. Well, I must say I had assumed this was the way to the storage area, it was a tiny low staircase – I have met people who wouldn’t fit down there. However it was the way to my table, so pausing only to explain to a puzzled American lady that Verdejo was a grape and that, no it wasn’t like Chardonnay, as her boyfriend didn’t know and they wouldn’t ask the waiter, I descended the depths. A beautiful dinning room in a vaulted cellar was waiting for me, I was led to my table and started to really relax.
I settled in with my beer to leisurely peruse the menu, but truth to tell I already knew what I was having for my main course. Botín specialises in roast meat cooked in their ancient ovens, their two real specialities are cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) and cordero asado (roast baby lamb) – I went for the cochinillo.
So to my starter, I was drawn to the jamón, however in the end went for something that sounds strange, but is very traditional and quite wonderful; revueltos de la casa. This translates as scrambled eggs of the house and is cooked with morcilla (black pudding) and potatoes.
I ordered my food together with a bottle of Protos Crianza Ribera del Duero 2006, which was splendid and went brilliantly with all the dishes, and settled down to people watch. I had arrived at 2 p.m. so it was very early and most of the tables were empty, but had all filled up within thirty minutes. Large groups were the norm with that slightly heated, earnest discussion about food that the Spanish seem to take so seriously. It appears to me that the Spanish are always talking about food. Also, they look as though they never actually read the menu, or even consider it, but just order what they want.
My revueltos arrived and they were so tasty, not scrambled evenly as we understand it, just stirred a bit, so the yellow yoke and the white were sort of rippled, with chunks of crispy potato and pockets of morcilla. It was far better than you would imagine from my description, one of those dishes that is simple, but utterly scrummy.
The suckling pig was quite wonderful, tender and tasty with a depth of herby flavour I have never experienced in pork, the juices alone would have been worth eating as a bowl of soup or soaked up by the excellent bread.
Added to that the coffee was quite exceptional. Casa Botín really was an experience and one that I would urge on people who like traditional food and the real Spain.
‘We lunched upstairs at Botín´s. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank Rioja Alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of Rioja Alta.’ Fiesta – The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway