Spanish Hot Spots
El Pirata Spanish restaurant in Down Street exudes Mayfair style. Matías Costa/©ICEX
Author: Hugo Arnold/©ICEX
Just like the iconic London Tube map designed by Harry Beck back in the Thirties, London is a city suffused with influences from all over the globe. As the Tube map shows different lines snaking through the city, the city itself is made up of so many interconnecting strands. Cosmopolitan, international, multi-cultural are descriptors invoked for every capital city in the world, but nowhere is it more true than in London. Why is this? Why is London special?
Perhaps it is the unique village nature of London which encourages strong identities. London is a collection of villages, many of which have retained their identities even as they have been gobbled up by the greater metropolis. In the more recent past the geographical spread has only been enhanced as the Japanese cluster in West London, Jewish communities in the north, the Irish in both Camden and Kilburn.
These days geographical location matters less. Sure artists and new technology cluster in the East End, but the city has become smaller and bigger at the same time. Virtual links are now more important, just as they are globally. And to pick up the Spanish thread requires some dexterity in moving about the city. You may take a cab but a combination of bus and Tube along with a little bit of walking is a far more rewarding way.
For any Spaniard in search of home, or anyone looking for a flavour of that magnificent country, pause occasionally and it is remarkable how much of Spain you will find. The Eagle in Farringdon Road is credited with being the first of the country's gastro pubs, more akin to a Spanish bar than an English pub. Gastropubs serve food alongside beer and wine. From day one custard tarts have figured on the menu similar to those found in both Spain and Portugal. Stop at trendy Fernandez and Wells in Soho and you will find cakes to munch on with your excellent coffee. Dip down the dark and sloping Villiers Street and at number 47 you will find Gordon's Wine Bar where they have been serving and celebrating sherry from the barrel since 1890 and still do.
While Spanish furniture and fashion are fast being recognised for what they are, it is Spanish food in London that has really gone through the most dramatic of revolutions in recent years. Largely gone are the sangria and paella pastiches of the Sixties and Seventies and even the Eighties to be replaced by a far more sophisticated representation.
While the bias of Moro restaurant is clearly southern Spain and one that is wrapped up with north Africa, it has undoubtedly done much to explode the delights of Spain for many Londoners. Its owners burst on the scene over 10 years ago with their own eclectic take on a world that may be divided by the Mediterranean but is linked in so many other ways. Drop in for tapas all day or feast on the likes of Pan fried field and wild mushrooms, ham and fino sherry with toast or Charcoal grilled lamb with vegetables from Murcia and pine nuts.
While gastronomy in Spain was leaping ahead, Spanish restaurants in London had lagged behind until the likes of Cambio de Tercio, Fino, Tapas Brindisa, Lola Rojo and more recently Ibérica opened their doors. Here for the first time were modern settings, white plates, light cooking and interesting flavour combinations. Spain was finally in London.
More than food
Credit for this is hard to pin-point exactly but to my mind two unlinked developments were significant. The Spanish Embassy in the shape of the Commercial Office started to invite food journalists to Spain to showcase food products while providors like Brindisa started to make chefs aware, and to supply, Spanish ingredients of the highest quality. Gradually chorizo, pimentón (a type of Spanish paprika), olive oil and saffron - all Spanish - began to be seen as what they were, world class. The secret was out.
Along with the likes of Galician octopus, veal sweetbreads with Palo Cortado and winter vegetables (Cambio de Tercio), deep-fired baby squid, chickpeas, barley and coriander salad (Tapas Brindisa) and pimientos de Padrón, morcilla and duck egg (Fino) came modern Spanish furniture, modern art and perhaps most importantly, a popular appreciation of just how multiculturally rich Spain is. The truth of course, as any art lover will tell you, is that the wealth of Spain was already known from the paintings and pottery that existed in the city’s galleries but more of that later.
If food is high on the agenda of those seeking Spanish satisfaction in London then wine must be close behind. All the establishments listed above have notable lists and generally well-informed staff to sell them to you. Another to mention is Cigala but yet again most of the better restaurants in London will have a section devoted to Spain.
If a light bite rather than something more full-on is required don’t miss out on Cafe Garcia, a good stop-off if you go to Portobello Market (Saturdays). And further up the road you have Galicia, a touch of the old-style perhaps, but all the better for that. Think hake with clams, prawns and asparagus, chorizo al vino or fried whitebait.
Spanish fashion has been rising through the international ranks faster than the models can change outfits. Jaime Mascaró can be found 53 South Molton Street and a short walk away at 34 Brook Street there is a Pretty Ballerinas from the same house. If Lily Allen and Claudia Schiffer covet these flats, then why not the rest of us?
Brook Street runs into New Bond Street which, over the last six or seven years, has managed to regain its reputation as the shopping street for premiere brands. All the big names are either on this stretch or running off it. Pronovias is at 94 while one of the Zara outlets is nearby at 333 Oxford Street.
If spirits are flagging then in nearby Down Street El Pirata exudes Mayfair style and has a crowd to match; European in both outlook and dress. The option to sip Spanish wines including sherry and nipple on elegant tapas is clearly preferred over the nearby pubs. The street level offers buzz over a basement that is quieter and more suited to winter and/or a more cosy dinner. Copies of the likes of Miró, Picasso and Dalí adorn the walls.
Regent Street sweeps rather elegantly down toward Piccadilly and contains Mango at 106-112, Massimo Dutti at 156, Tous at 260, Hoss Intropia at 211, Desigual at 218 and a large Zara Home branch at 127-131. Each of the individual brands are well known, but perhaps the significance of having six Spanish brands on one of the premiere shopping streets in London is less appreciated. They sit alongside the likes of Jaeger, Church's, Liberty and Habitat not to mention Hamley's.
Camper has developed global brand recognition not just for its ubiquitous softly tailored shoes for both men and women, but also for its innovative approach to what are often tiny stores. At 5-7 Foubert's Place you will find one of the company's Walk in Progress shops where designer Jaime Hayón continues to break new ground in comfortable, affordable and cutting edge shoe design.
If high street fashion is what you really crave and British weather is not kind to you a hop across town to the new and vast Westfield Shopping Centre is worth considering. This recently opened indoor retail heaven is billed as the largest shopping centre in Europe and manages to mix high end and street fashion under one, roof, even if it is a big one. Think Zara and Zara Home, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Mango, Blanco, Desigual, Camper and Tous. While there are plenty of places to eat and drink, sadly Spanish food does not figure at all.
Works of Art...from Spain
Enough shopping? As global brands go the likes of Velázquez, El Greco, Ribera and Murillo, Francisco de Goya, Juan Gris, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, and Picasso are all well represented in the vast collections in London's main galleries. Take your pick. You can feast on Goya at the National Gallery; you can lanquish in the V&A and soak up any number of Spanish tiles, glass vases or ceramic and pottery pieces including some from Manises near Valencia. What Spanish potters new long before others was how to use copper lustre decoration which put them somewhat ahead.
Tate Britain - somewhat overshadowed by Herzog & de Meuron's Tate Modern - is home to the likes of Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, and Picasso and although in a rather sleepy part of London is a wonderful collection. But don’t stop there. If Picasso, for example, is of interest, you can head down the Thames to The Courtauld Institute where you will find delicate drawings from the master.
And from there it is but a short hop to Tate Modern where the more cutting edge work of such modernists as Antoni Tàpies and Juan Muñoz can be found among this vast building. In need of further refreshment? Tapas Brindisa mentioned above is but a short walk along the river through a wonderful and ancient part of London which has been opened up to pedestrians in recent years.
Spanish infiltration of British institutions does not stop there and the recent appointment of Tamara Rojo as resident guest teacher at the Royal Ballet School is not one to pass over lightly. This principle dancer with The Royal Ballet has not looked back since it all started, when, on a cold day she stepped into a ballet class to keep warm and suddenly discovered what she wanted to do with her life.
If film does more for you than world class Spanish art then it might be worth planning your trip around the annual London Spanish Film Festival which takes place at the end of the summer in September one of the best months for visiting the capital when it is neither too hot or too cold but the autumn rains might hopefully hold off.
Keep in mind that if you are in search of Spanish art not all the works may be on show at any of the galleries as the collections are rotated all the time. What you will be assured of in this city of spires, is an eclectic take on the glories of Spain. A fitting tribute from one of the world’s major cities to one of the world's major countries.
Hugo Arnold is an independent food writer and consultant. He lives and works in Dublin, London and Scotland.