Enjoy the local culture with sherry at La Venencia together with dining and cigars at L’Obrador
By: Nick Hammond
I squeeze a little closer against the bar as yet another couple make their way to order. I raise my eyebrows and nod at my schooner, and the barman himself nods imperceptibly and refills the glass with amber liquid from a tap in a giant barrel behind the bar.
He sweeps a plate of olives in front of me, scribbles some hieroglyphics in chalk on the bar-top under my nose, and turns his attention to the new couple. Welcome to Madrid.
Even if Spain’s economy is shot – millions are unemployed and house prices plummeting – plenty of fun lovers are out tonight. Friday is a big night in Madrid and every tapas bar is packed.
The Spanish Way at La Venencia
You can find great restaurants here with little effort, but if you have wanderlust, just post up at a few of the thousands of bars and you’ll get fed anyway. Any order of drinks comes with something; a plate of olives here, some bread there, a bowl of crisps or earlier, here in La Venencia, a plate of odd smelling cubes of meat.
This, I’m informed, is dried tuna. There isn’t much I can’t grow to like, but this is pungent in the extreme, and clangs against the flavor of the palo cortado sherry I’m enjoying to such an extent, I give it a miss and stick to the olives.
There are five different types of sherry to be sampled straight from the barrel in this magnificent old bar – once a staple of Hemingway’s foreign travels – and they all have their attributes. By the time you elbow your way into the fresh air of the backstreet outside, however, be aware you may be a little high; this is fortified wine, don’t forget.
Plus, the Spanish don’t come out to play until late. Really late. So it may well be 10 p.m. and you haven’t eaten yet, so five glasses of sherry really send the pulse racing.
I make my way unsteadily to my chosen restaurant and ignore the trappings of the myriad of other bars along the route.
It’s a friendly place, with never any undertone of menace. As long as you stick to the well-trodden streets, you won’t have a problem, even at night. Everyone’s just out for a good time.
Dining and Cigars at L’Obrador
My destination is L’Obrador in Segovia, a posh district with plenty of fine eateries. This place was recommended to me by a new-found cigar pal – yet another benefit, as if you needed me to tell you, of making cigar friends worldwide.
I found my new friend in the cigar store in Las Rojas, a suburb of Madrid. He pointed me in the direction of this particular restaurant, because not only is it an excellent restaurant – but some special cigar facilities too.
As I collected some well-kept smokes from the beautifully stocked walk-in humidor, he told me, through an interpreter, how it was almost impossible to smoke indoors in comfort now in Madrid. Of course for much of the year, who cares? The outside terraces, squares and balconies are lovely places to smoke when the evenings are balmy. But in the winter, it gets very chilly here – and tonight, it’s coat and scarf weather.
So I’m glad to be making my way to L’Obrador, and even though it’s late by British standards, I’m the only one sitting down to dine here when I first arrive.
Owner Paloma introduces herself, speaking excellent English, and before long I’m tucking into lovely homemade bread and a rather delicious bottle of Rioja, which is just 18 Euros ($25) and worth every penny.
What follows is a delight; tiny breaded “croquetas” of prawn and cheese served in a dainty little pan, a wonderful, just-cooked octopus in a cheese and pimento sauce, and a barely-seared entrecote of beefsteak with thin, crispy, salty fries.
Cava 17, the Private Cigar Lounge
Suitably fortified, and clutching a digestif glass of 12-year-old Macallan Scotch (aged, appropriately enough, in sherry casks), I am led by Paloma to the stone stairs which descend into Cava 17 – L’Obrador’s smoking club.
You have to be a member to join it, but that’s easily enough achieved as long as you’re with someone who lives in Spain. I, of course, managed to find another new cigar friend to help me achieve this.
These underground vaults are magnificent. They’re light and airy, with each large room painstakingly renovated and refurbished by hand, to reveal some astonishing brickwork and masonry.
An air filtration system is fitted, some appropriate lighting, comfortable leather sofas and some cool sounds – and you have a wonderful cigar lounge in the warm and dry, no matter what the weather.
Incredibly, only a handful of people came down to avail themselves of the facilities while I was comfortably ensconced on my sofa. The caves – which Paloma tells me used to house an order of monks – are popular for private parties who can revel the night away in style without fear of upsetting anyone. The pictures upstairs of Real Madrid football [soccer for those in the U.S.] stars that have dropped in seem to back this fact up.
I enjoy sipping my Macallan and spark up an exquisite Cohiba Behike 52, once again purchased from my friend in Las Rojas. The “butter knife” sweep of the smooth and mysterious medio tiempo leaf across the palate is sublime.
Living in the Moment
Before I know it, Paloma is apologetically telling me she is off to bed shortly, and would I like anything else? A glance at the clock tells me it’s 2 a.m. Be warned, Madrid is like the Bermuda Triangle when it comes to losing time.
I say my thanks and head back out into the chill of the night air. Madrid is still heaving, with youngsters queuing up outside nightclubs and regular bars still pumping out the sherry, tapas, beer and music.
For an old boy like me, it’s bedtime, but not before I negotiate a taxi ride back “home.” As the city recedes behind me in a twinkle of lights, I can’t help but smile fondly.
Madrid is a great place to visit for all sorts of reasons – not least if you’re a cigar lover. There are decent cigar shops to be found with very agreeably-priced Cuban and New World sticks.
And if you’re lucky, you’ll also find a place like Casa 17 to relax away some hours in peace and conviviality. Until tomorrow, when I set off again to explore all that this great city has to offer. Viva Espagne!
Calle de Echegaray, 7
28014 Madrid, Spain
Phone: +34 914 29 73 13
L’Obrador and Casa 17
Celle de Segovia, 17
28005 Madrid, Spain
Phone: +34 913 65 84 12
Nick Hammond is an award-winning cigar writer from the U.K. He also writes on travel, food, drink, wildlife, hotels, the arts and more for publications around the world.