The first day of the tapas fair is strictly by invitation only. This makes it the most exclusive culinary event of the winter period.
Journalists, food critics, and restaurateurs descend upon La Feria de Madrid congress centre to sample dishes prepared by upcoming chefs, ready to cut their teeth and emerge from the culinary underbelly. A small army of journalists besiege the fair looking for a new story to tell and a new and upcoming chef to endorse—post banquet, the fair hosts the infamous drinks party known as ‘The Symposium.’
The morning begins with breakfast; the arriving guests crowd together in the press hall drinking wines from ancient Spanish enclaves. At the same time, they snack on oak marinated salmon and horseradish on sourdough bread.
The morning is a time of reflection and preparation; Journalists purposely arrive early to soak up as much as the atmosphere as possible, taking advantage of the quiet moments to prepare in silence and take position, like soldiers quietly going through the motions before the battle.
The journalists trickle through the door; smartphones clutched to their palms and laptop cases swinging around their necks. They hover around the press hall making small talk or looking for a place to hunker down and prepare for the offensive. Conversations osculate, and decibels increase as the wine begins to flow more freely, and the excitement begins to peak. Their chatter rises and falls, each word blotting out the next. Overworked bartenders pour pre-lunch martinis and Waiting staff move skilfully amongst the crowd with trays of lemon and caper foam on Toro tuna belly. All made out-of-sight by emerging chefs supported by armies of helpers from local culinary schools.
As the lunch hour begins to draw near, the momentum of the food fair begins to increase. The Journalists, now impatient, feverishly wait to break out of the press closure, like carnival bulls kicking at the wooden slats of their enclosure. Behind the scenes, the chefs subsist off of adrenalin, energy drinks, and indigestion tablets.
A jumbotron hangs above the main hall of the fair announcing the day’s events, book signings by local celebrity chefs, wine tastings, dish deconstruction workshops—a multitude of culinary wonders all under one roof, a golden ticket to gastro-wonderland. A slideshow of tapas flashes across the screen, each pixel sending taste buds soaring into heat; food porn at its most explicit, so bright it sears the eyeballs of anybody who dares to stare too long.
From the booth closest to me, I am immediately hit by a fresh salty hum of Sushi being prepared on long wooden boards. The Sushi is delicately handed out on individual bamboo tasting plates to passers-by by a gaggle of grinning Geishas.
The scent of Moroccan pastries follows, perfuming the air with a sweet and nutty aroma, making my mouth water—short, sharp whiffs of hot honey prod my senses. The aroma is however quickly dispelled by a food server dressed as a fisherman walking by with a bucket of fresh Oysters hanging around his neck, trailing a salty lemon perfume, hawking and shucking like a 19th-century fishmonger.
The centrepiece of the fair is a market stall that grills seafood. Razor clams cooked in garlic and parsley, squid slightly blackened over coals and lightly brushed with a mix of chilli, coriander, and lime. I decide to stop by and feast on sea urchins and oysters from the shores of Tarragona and tiny wedge clams seasoned with smoked salt from the Ebro Delta. They bring them out by the cartload, while the guests devour them, their faces contorted in gastronomic pleasure.
Next up, a stall from Austrias is grilling Sirloin steaks in a wood oven, served in a tomato and garlic-infused bread, topped with local mushrooms and rustic smoked cheese. The queue snakes around the fair, the guests eating Foie Gras with caramelised onion confit on toast while they wait.
Jose Andres, a heavyweight in the Hispano-American culinary megacosm, gives a workshop on dish deconstruction. The entire food hall practically migrates to the workshop section to see him.
He breaks tapas dishes down into their component parts. Each flavour is individually separated, and then re-added to the dish in an entirely different and unique way. Using a technical process called ʻspecification,ʼ he liquefies the olives in their own juice, and then he hands them out on spoons to the crowd.
After the workshop, I make more rounds. At the same time, the horde of Journalists decamp to seated areas around the halls to take note of the morning’s activities and check-in with their editors. Some sleep off late afternoon hangovers in the press room; others drink liqueurs to keep up the momentum.
Now, supercharged with alcohol and lack of inhibition. The tapas fair switches up a gear and takes on a festival-like atmosphere. A DJ strikes up from a pre-erected stage, and sweet wines and liqueurs begin to pour aplenty. The evening flows into the night, and the night flowed into obscurity. Steadfast Journalistic professionalism gives way to a hedonistic social scene and broken-down taboos.
The late-night hour’s blur and the fair takes on the spirit of an ancient ritual, a Roman Symposium. As the first night of the fair comes to a close, we move out into the Madrid night, hungry and ready for more. The journalists dance and fall about on the pavement, paying homage to the offering and those who prepared it. Many of whom would wake the next morning to find their name’s in the culinary sections of the international press.