Ever since I arrived in Madrid, I have been conducting a quest to find the best coffee in the city. Perhaps surprisingly, there are quite a few competitors. When you hear the words “great coffee”, Spain may not be the first place that springs to mind – Italy definitely, Colombia or Peru almost certainly, but España? Unlikely. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by the caffeinated treats on offer in the Spanish capital and beyond. Almost every street has at least one café/bar (they’re pretty much the same thing in Spain – it’s rare to find a café that doesn’t become a bar in the evening, or a bar that doesn’t also serve “chocolate y churros” during the day), where you can find a decent café con leche, usually for about €1.30. These are always served the same way; in a small, often handle-less glass on a saucer, containing a couple of inches of strong, black coffee. The bartender/barista/waiter will then ask you what temperature you would like your milk (most Spaniards state their preference when ordering), and fill the glass with either cold (“frío”) or hot (“caliente”) milk, or a mixture of the two (“temporada”). In my experience, this coffee is simple – no fancy milk frothing or foam stencils here – but of amazing quality for the price, especially compared to similar offerings at the equivalent pricing in England (can you think of anywhere that sells decent coffee for £1? Exactly). This type of coffee consumption has quickly become part of my daily working routine, as all the teachers practically sprint to the nearest bar as soon as the bell rings for morning break, desperate for their caffeine fix. When I expressed my amazement at the cheap prices to one of my colleagues, she looked surprised and informed me that it used to cheaper – ‘la crisis’ has forced the bars to raise their prices.
A bar is great if you want a quick and convenient solution to your hot beverage needs, but if you’re looking for a more glamorous coffee experience at almost unbearably low prices, Toma Café is the place to go. Nestled away towards the San Bernardo end of Calle la Palma in Malasaña (dangerously near my flat), Toma -whose name literally means ‘Drink Coffee’- is legendary amongst the coffee-drinking cool crowd for its teeny-tiny yet effortlessly hip interior (the only seating is a low, sack-covered bench and a small table along one side and coloured fairy lights and bicycles hang from the walls) and miraculously cheap yet beautifully presented and hard-hitting coffee (a small café con leche from Toma costs €1.50). The staff are always friendly and ask how you’re doing, taking the time to chat with regulars and newbies alike. What I find particularly attractive is the fuss-free menu; Toma has shunned the trend started by coffee giants of menus filled with choca-mocca-locca-frappucinalattes and instead offers the simple variations on a coffee (Americano, cappuccino, latte, mocha) in small or large, with a couple of fun twists thrown into the mix (the chaipuccino or chillipuccino spring to mind as ones to try). The staff are impeccably trained – or naturally gifted; I have been served by about five different people over my visits there and have never had a badly made or shabbily presented coffee. Plus, I’ve spent many a minute watching as they draw artistic patterns on my café con leche with not a stencil in sight. The foam art is so pretty, that when you order a coffee to take away it is filled to the brim with no lid, so that you can admire their handiwork. Yes, this does add an extra element of danger to your morning stroll, but it seems a shame to cover up something so attractive. Best of all, Toma is open until 8pm every day of the week, so it is scarily easy to keep yourself buzzing. A word of warning though: however hip and groovy you feel Toma-ing un café (and you will feel hip-per and groovy-er), try not to let yourself be carried away by the great taste and the cheap prices. That way lies danger – and shaking hands, and chattering teeth, and cartwheeling around your apartment. I speak from experience.
Or if you must return eight times in one day, make your last one a decaf.