Ernest Hemingway was far and away my late father’s favorite writer, and he bled some of that admiration into me. While I don’t presume to count myself amongst his class or style my prose style on his, I’ve read all of his published works and familiarized myself with his history, good and bad.
During a recent Lexus event in Spain, I managed to steal away from the after hours Spanish bar crawl through Madrid to walk in Hemingway’s footsteps for a while. Why anyone would set foot in a city so rich in history, art and architecture and choose to spend a night sitting in bars and sucking down beer available in any city across Europe escapes me. That’s not how I was taught a man should live. That’s not how Hemingway lived. So, with just a couple hours free, I decided to dine at one of the author’s favorite spots.
It also just happens to be officially registered as the oldest continually operating restaurant in the world.
Hemingway spent significant time in Spain before and after his army service in the Spanish Civil War and his eventual serious injuries. During his Spanish days, he’d often visit Botin for lunch or dinner while writing by hand into his favorite notebook.
Sobreno de Botin was established in 1725 and has operated uninterrupted since in the same location in the old center or Madrid. The building sits largely unchanged, as does the menu. The specialty off the house is suckling pig.
As for the meal, I ordered the special. Yes, I ate a small pig. It sits there looking at you, offering roast pork from snout to tiny tail. If you have a problem with eating an animal, if meat doesn’t agree with you, or if you’re bloodless whelp who forgot he’s top of the food chain, stop by for a photo and head back to your hotel.
The doorman doesn’t speak English and looks as though he’s been standing there since Hemingway last stopped by for a bite. He’s friendly enough, and the staff follows suit as though realizing they’re going to meat all kinds thanks to Botin’s history.
Visitors can visit the Botin oven and see the simple wood fire brick structure that roasts the sucklings. The little piggies wait in baking pans on the surrounding shelves, guaranteeing a steady stream of fresh pork for the tables. The meat is humbly prepared and completely satisfying. No frills. No elaborate preparation of sauces. It’s the same meal Hemingway enjoyed when he frequented the place — the same food he describes in The Sun Also Rises.
Hemingway’s table still sets reserved in the dining room — the same dining room the great Spanish master Goya worked in as a young art student.
Some locals say Botin took a step or two back over the years — especially as it became a tourist destination due to its historical notoriety. But, the simple cuisine, affordable pricing and quiet atmosphere makes for a pleasant meal.
For anyone who grew up reading Hemingway’s works, it takes on a special significance. I wish I could’ve brought my Dad with me.