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If Marcel Proust had been a Madrileño, he would have exchanged his madeleine for a calamari sandwich.
When dipped in a cup of tea, about 50 pages into Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, the scallop-shaped cake sets off a flood of childhood recollections, from the aunt who gave the author the treat to the northern French village in which he used to stay.
But Madrid’s calamari sandwiches — in particular those of the El Brillante restaurant opposite Atocha station — outdo even the madeleine in the memory stakes. One bite of the simple snack — basically a clutch of fried calamari in a roll — can evoke all manner of associations. They range from the remaking of Spain after the country’s bloody civil war to the brutal 2004 terrorist attack in Atocha. The restaurant even has a sad story of its own.
The origins of the sandwich — in a city more than 300km from the coast — are steeped in, or seasoned with, mystery. But they are part of Madrid’s abiding, and impressive, love for seafood.
As is the case in places such as Ankara and Mexico City, the freshness of fish is a point of pride for Madrid. The idea is that no matter how far from the sea the capital may be, it can still summon the tastiest fruits of the deep. Some trace the obsession back half a millennium to the Counter Reformation and its tough enforcement of no-meat rules during Lent. Better transport connections in subsequent centuries delivered less rancid fish.
In any event, El Brillante popularised calamari sandwiches after it was established in 1952, just as Spain was emerging from the worst of its postwar hardship.
The dish also became a staple of restaurants around the city’s 17th century Plaza Mayor, part of the quintessential tourist experience of Madrid. But El Brillante enjoyed unquestioned status as the premier purveyor of a sandwich the landlocked city had no business being famous for.
The restaurant has also been in the news for other, more tragic reasons. When the jihadi bombs across the road at Atocha station killed 191 people in one of Europe’s worst terrorist atrocities, survivors were cared for in El Brillante.
Then late last month, El Brillante’s owner Alfredo Rodríguez, the son of the restaurant’s founder, suddenly died after suffering financial problems. His loss hit hard in a city that has often seen its struggle to return to normal after the pandemic through the prism of restaurant and bars’ attempts to cope with coronavirus.
The feeling was mutual: in the worst moments of the crisis, Rodríguez had sent a food truck to a Madrid convention centre hurriedly converted into a Covid-19 hospital.
Before his death, Rodríguez had introduced a policy of hiring people over 50, a growing cohort in one of the world’s most rapidly ageing societies.
You see the results as you walk into El Brillante, with Atocha behind you and the Museo Reina Sofia (which holds Picasso’s Guernica) in front. The waiters are younger, scurrying between tables, but those totting up the bills and making the coffee are of a certain age, with a stately bearing.
Despite everything that Madrid and El Brillante have endured, the ageing city and the ageing bar also endure, somehow coming through the bleakest of times with a wealth of sometimes painful memories.
El Brillante is not to everyone’s taste. The calamari in the sandwich is soft but with just a soupçon of grease. The price of a café solo at an outdoor table, at €3, is remarkably high by Spanish standards. And even I — known by family and friends for the gusto with which I attack disgusting foodstuffs — balk at the tripe omelette.
And yet to sit on the terraza at El Brillante, as passers-by weave their way through the tables, is to experience something of what makes Madrid Madrid. I asked a waiter how things were after the owner’s death. “Hay que seguir,” he said — “we have to carry on”.
Madrid is carrying on, post pandemic, after many indignities and tragedies. It has the right idea. I order another coffee and decide the day is advanced enough for a calamari sandwich. It is 9:30am after all.