With its narrow sloping streets and sleepy squares, Conde Duque is a bit of a stylish secret in the heart of Madrid. Although it is in the centre, it is not somewhere you would stray into naturally unless you knew it was there, making it markedly less touristy than other downtown areas. But people in the know from other parts of the city and beyond are making their way here to shop at the increasing number of speciality food shops and gastrobars that are opening up.
The catalyst for the barrio’s new cooler status was the revamping, five years ago, of the Conde Duque cultural centre, which occupies a massive building that was originally the barracks for the royal guard. Built in the eighteenth century, the austere red-brick structure takes up an entire block and is now a venue for exhibitions, concerts, theatre, fashion shows and opera. In summer, the vast central courtyard becomes an open-air cinema.
After taking in an exhibition, the obvious thing to do is have a mooch around the neighbourhood, usually starting with Conde Duque street itself. There are no chain stores here (yet), just shops stocking clothes and accessories by local and international designers that you can’t find anywhere else in the city. People queue for sourdough bread at the Panic artisan bakery or get a sandwich-to-go from Crumb before wandering through the lanes to the Plaza de las Comendadoras for a beer.
Chalked up on a blackboard in Cultivo is the slogan #QuesosconRostro, which means “cheeses with a face.” What the dynamic young team of seven people behind this shop are trying to get across is that the produce they sell is made by real people, who all have a story to tell. Two of the team, Álvaro Carral and Rubén Valvuena, actually make their own cheeses – Cantagrullas from Valladolid and La Jarradilla from Cantabria – which are on sale in the shop, along with around 30 other cheeses from all over Spain and a select few from other countries. Labels state who made each cheese and where, and servers – including Álvaro and Rubén – have visited the producers at their dairies to learn about the cheeses first hand. They are always slicing off slivers for customers to taste, and everyone in the shop ends up chatting about the different textures and flavours. Artisan cheeses vary from batch to batch, so it is important to keep tasting, even if you have tried a certain cheese before. Sounds like a pretty good excuse, doesn’t it? More structured tastings regularly take place in a workshop at the back, which is also used by Home Cake for their organic baking business. What with one thing and another, there are always some delicious aromas floating through the air here.
To get to the ABC, just look up above the rooftops by the Plaza de Comendadoras to locate the red-brick tower that belonged to the first Mahou brewery, which was built in 1891. Although Mahou is still far and away the most popular beer in Madrid, it is no longer made here in Conde Duque. These days, graphic art rather than alcohol is the focus in what is left of the original building, which now has a startling new structure of triangular glass and steel tiles alongside. Standing in the courtyard at the entrance, with light reflected at all angles, is like being inside an art installation; it is worth coming to have a look even if you are not in the mood for exhibitions.
Inside, there are usually three or four temporary shows running, while the permanent collection traces a century of drawing, illustration, design, cartoons and comics, based on the archives of the ABC newspaper, which was founded more than a century ago and is still going today. Only small selections are on display at any given time, but the collection includes work by Eugeni d’Ors, Ramón Casas, Eduardo Arroyo and Antonio Mingote.
Drinking vermouth is both a traditional and a fashionable thing to do in Madrid, so you can’t go wrong really. Vermouth is actually made in the city, so drinking it counts as a cultural experience, too. Madrileños (inhabitants of Madrid) tend to drink it before lunch but there are no rules. A pretty good place to start your vermouth education is De Vinos, a tavern in a former neighbourhood grocery store that still has the original marble counter, tiled floor and wooden fittings.
Although it looks very old-school, De Vinos is quietly rather modern – you just have to look at the range of wines available by the glass, scrawled onto boards on the walls, many of which are from small producers in lesser-known Spanish regions. There is Zecchini Rojo vermouth from Madrid on tap and others from around Spain, including the zingy Petroni from Galicia. You can just draw up a stool and work your way through the vermouths on offer, or take things a bit further by signing up for a tasting in the back room, where the vibe is a lot more relaxed and raucous than at most wine events. You can book a vermouth or wine tasting session through Madrid Uncorked.
We are all guilty of making things just too complicated sometimes. Often the simplest things are indeed the best and the concept at Muy is mercifully straightforward. Run by Marta Romo and Ana Martínez, it looks just like a traditional Spanish kitchen but is actually a combination of bar, shop and café. While most places bang on about their fresh produce, here they rather perversely big up the fact that most of the snacks on offer come out of cans or jars. But we’re not talking baked beans or Spam – this is very much top-quality delicatessen stuff – and shows how you can make tasty tapas from store-cupboard ingredients. Specials are listed on white brick wall tiles and the space is kitted out with mismatched chairs, benches and tables. Behind the tiny counter, shelves are packed with tins of anchovies, mussels and quails, and jars of broad beans, peppers and capers – along with pots, pans and chopping boards on every available surface of the cramped area.
There is superb charcuterie and cheese too. Try a plate of cecina, the air-dried beef from the remote Bierzo area of León – where Ana is from – with a glass of Bierzo wine made with mencía grapes, which is very different from the wines of more familiar Spanish regions. There is also a range of craft beers, and if you pitch up on a Sunday afternoon, you may even catch a flamenco performance. You wouldn’t think there would be enough space but somehow it all manages to happen at Muy.