Empanada Boy and I spent two of our five days in Madrid visiting nearby towns and cities. We woke up feeling better after our rough jet-lag plagued first night. Isla Flotante and Salmorejo picked us up from our hotel in Islaâ€™s car for a drive out to the walled city of Ãvila, the center of Spanish mysticism. Ãvila is the home of Santa Teresa, a medieval nun and poet who wrote surprisingly erotic poems about her mystical communion with Jesus. It is also known for having some of the best beef in Spain.
After walking in the hot sun along the ancient, high walls that surround the outside of the city, we ate lunch at a spot called Restaurante Tres Siglos. Salmorejo selected a robust wine from Ribera del Duero, and we ordered two thin tenderloin steaks. Before those came, we ate a mashed potato dish, infused with smoky pimentÃ³n (Spanish paprika) and topped with crunchy pieces of ham. We also had gambas al ajillo (shrimp in a garlic oil sauce) and a platter of sliced chorizo and lomo (pork loin). Of these non-steak dishes I liked the pork platter the best. The potato dish was heavy, and the bacon pieces were too hard. The shrimp were measly, flavorless, cocktail adornments, not like the gambas we would see later in Barcelona.
But that steak was by far the best part of the meal. It was juicy and full of the flavor of the Castillian countryside. I prefer my steak to have gristle and chewâ€”more ribeye than filet mignonâ€”and this one had all of those elements expressed in their full glory. I could have taken or left the fries that came along with it, but this was a nice piece of meat.
We left Ãvila after lunch and continued on to El Escorial, the town that houses the palace built by Felipe II, who was the king of Spain from 1556 to 1598. In addition to the austere, but impressive palace, the grounds house a crypt where nearly all of the Spanish kings (and their wives) from Felipe onwards are entombed. Empty tombs ominously await the bodies of the parents of the current king, Juan Carlos. There is also a series of adjacent rooms filled with the coffins of innumerable princes, princesses and other royalty. Needless to say, we emerged from our tour of El Escorial burdened with the solemn weight of Spanish Catholic history.
Luckily, El Escorial is also known for its churros con chocolate. We went to a nearby cafÃ© and ordered some. They were crusty on the outside but perfectly light and chewy on the inside, and the chocolate was almost as thick as syrup and very rich. Churros must be accompanied with chocolate thatâ€™s much thicker than the typical drinking variety because they must retain the chocolate like sauce after being dipped. Isla Flotante told me the secret is to buy chocolate powder with flour mixed in for thickening. Inferior varieties use gelatin, which should be avoided.
A couple days later, EB and I hopped on a bus to Toledo, the home of El Greco and the marizipan capital of the world. Culinarily speaking, Toledo is known for small game like conejo (rabbit) and perdiz (partridge). EB and I wanted to taste some partridge, so we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Restaurante LudeÃ±a, which we read had it on the fixed-price menu del dÃa. As it turned out, the less expensive menu del dia offered cordonÃz (quail), which is basically like a smaller cousin. I decided to start with gazpacho and then order the cordonices. EB started with paella and then got merluza a la plancha (grilled hake).
The gazpacho was refreshing, although I couldn’t help thinking about Mango Mama’s complaint that it just tastes like watery, mild salsa. (That’s one reason I prefer Salmorejo, the bread-thickened gazpacho of Cordoba, or the Southern Spanish gazpacho de almendras made with almonds instead of tomato.) The cordonices were succulent, cooked in a rich sauce made with rum, bacon and onions. In typical Spanish fashion, the dish came with French fries. These were somewhat disappointing compared to the luxurious richness of the dish. They also did little to cut the considerable saltiness of the cordonices.
EB’s paella was excellent, with plump prawns and gently cooked mussels. The rice was al dente and evenly cooked. It was a substantial serving, so when the merluza arrived, it was almost as though another meal was being servedâ€”and eatenâ€”in quick succession. The fish was perfectly done, but blandly seasoned and fairly boring. The plate, complete with the ubiquitous French fries, looked a little too white for my taste. Some fresh green herbs could have made that fish pop visually and flavorwise.
For dessert we ordered flan and natillas, another creamy, eggy pudding, typical of Castilla-La Mancha. The desserts were fine, but they set us over the edge in terms of fullness. We basically rolled out of LudeÃ±a and gradually managed to work off the lunch through some aggressive touring of the mind-blowingly ornate cathedral, the El Greco sites and the ancient synagogues. By the time we had finished all of this, we were finally starting to get a bit hungry again. It was time for our merienda, the pre-dinner sweet snack, a meal that only the Spaniards could have invented. Luckily, I knew exactly where to go.
As I mentioned before, Toledo is known for its marzipan. The best marzipan in Toledo may well be the Mazapanes Santa Rita made and sold by the nuns in the Real Monasterio de Santa Ãšrsula. I never much cared for marizpan until I stopped in and bought some from the nuns when I was last in Toledo with Daddy Salmon, Mango Mama and Flava Flav. This has a soft chew to it and a genuine, sweetly almondine flavor, unlike others I had tasted that reeked of almond extract. Because this order of nuns lives a very cloistered existence the process of buying the marzipan is noteworthy. We walked into a dimly lit tiled lobby and climbs a few stairs to a door. Inside is a small window, occupied by a metal lazy susan turntable with a little wooden door on the other side. Then we rang a bell and a nun opened the little wooden door to request our order: the largest box full, of course. We put the money in our side of the turnstile, and the nun spun it toward her. She then sent it spinning back to us with our box of marzipan inside.
We ate a few marzipan, which come in different traditional shapes, as we sat and watched the sun set over the hillside. The candy was just as good as I remembered it. I could have eaten many more pieces, but EB and I wanted them to last. We ate our last one about 10 days ago. As with the madeleine for Proust, eating them will always bring me back to that sunset with the steep slope from the old city of Toledo to the new, coated in toasty almond gold.
Restaurante Tres Siglos
Calle de los Comuneros de Castilla, 11
05001 Ãvila, Spain
920 228 772
Plaza de la Magdalena, 10
45001 Toledo, Spain
925 223 384
Mazapanes Santa Rita
Convento de Santa Ãšrsula
Calle de Santa Ãšrsula, 5
45002 Toledo, Spain
92 222 235