Café con leche in Madrid
I pass through the Puerta del Sol, which marks the center of the city, at 8:30 a.m., when Plaza Mayor is almost deserted; there are some beggars and a group of Japanese tourists. Usually, this place is full of tourists, mimes, mariachis, preachers and, at this time of year, Christmas stalls.
I can imagine a time when the buildings were all filled with cafés, the first modern bars, or expensive shops stocked with imported goods. This was the center of cultural, political, and economic life in Madrid. Today, it is tourism, trade, and cheap entertainment. No longer are there cafés in the square; only a historic pastry shop and a couple of fast-food joints.
I walk into the El Fontan cafeteria and order a coffee and buttered toast. This nondescript breakfast has a long history. It became a Madrid institution in the second half of the 19th century, when cafés played a big part in the literary and political life of the capital.
When Josep Pla, a well-known Catalan journalist, came to the capital in 1921, he was struck by the locals’ love for coffee. He observed that there was no more satisfied citizen in the world than a Madrileño after drinking a café con leche.
The classic version is the “half-and-half” (half coffee, half milk). Today, everything can be a little more complicated; without even taking into account the type of milk or sweetener, coffees can be short or long, hot or mild, in a glass or in a cup. Each option has staunch supporters and detractors.
The café con leche is traditionally accompanied by toasted bread, to be buttered and dipped into the cup. This was a standard breakfast across all social classes, but for some people the “coffee with half” became a lunch and dinner staple too if they had nothing else to eat.
My breakfast arrives quickly. Through the windows, I see the offices in a block of buildings that once represented the economic power and modernity of the city, now little more than a façade. In a few months, this block will be a shopping center and a luxury hotel.
As an adoptive daughter of Madrid who has lived in the city for nearly 10 years, I have my own traditions with café con leche. Always in a cup, half-and-half, hot, no sugar. I prefer toast with butter, although it has always seemed messy to dip it into the coffee.
Winter has just arrived in the city, and a café con leche remains as comforting as Pla found it a century ago.