Posted by: Hackney Tours | April 23, 2010

Toledo: Bad Bolognese in Quixote Country

How many hostels have this sort of view? The Alcazhar is the new home of the army museum.

There’s always a tension, when you’re on the road a lot, between being adventurous and risking disappointment, and playing it safe by going for the tried and tested. Do you go for the sheep brains and expand your culinary horizons, or do you play it safe with the pizza that you’re really craving?

Just as waking up in a strange place every day – this morning a youth hostel inside a castle – is both exciting but eventually draining, so food is an area where novelty sometimes needs to take a backseat to a big slice of ‘I know what I like’ satisfaction.

For whatever reason, be it chemical or psychological, I particularly enjoy Spaghetti Bolognese al fresco in the sunshine. As outdoor vices go, it’s pretty minor and every so often I indulge it.

A few weeks ago I was in Toledo, in Castilla La Mancha, the heart of Don Quixote country. This is the part of central Spain where Miguel de Cervantes’ legendary hero tilted at windmills in Spain’s most famous literary export.

In an unlikely coincidence, the literary light of Cervantes who lived, died and is buried around Madrid’s Plaza Santa Ana, was extinguished on this date in 1616 – the same day as England’s Shakespeare. 23 April is the Unesco-designated ‘International Day of the Book’.

After spending a night in the imposing castle San Servando in the historic ‘City of Three Faiths’, where coachloads come daily to pay homage to the talent of El Greco, I was keen to get back to Cervantes’ native Madrid to max out my time in modern-day Malasana.

I needed to eat quickly before descending the new lazy-tourist-friendly escalators to the revamped bus station and an hour-long long tri-axle bus back to the big city.

Leaving the tapestries and azulera of the Santa Cruz museum, I stopped to take a picture of some American kids from Ohio – home of the other Toledo – in front of the Cervantes statue that looks east from this strategic hilltop  location over flat plains ideal for donkey-based adventures.

Stepping through the arch behind his bronze head and into the plaza, the yellow arches of that omnipresent slice of high-calorie Americana reminded me I’d not had a ‘junk’ burger for a long time.

I pondered it, briefly; but in a country where Menu del Dia means all three courses and a drink for as little as €9 – how can anyone but the most additive-addicted food junkie justify €6 for a plastic patty?

Moving into a little alley around the corner, I thought I’d played it smart choosing a restaurant out of the sun and consequently ignored by my fellow tourists. A few tables full of Spanish – locals I thought – seemed like a good omen.

Then I saw the teenage statue sat in front of a computer at reception. Arms folded, she stared down at the keyboard with an expression that wavered between sadness and outright anger. This was one terminally fed-up small town girl.

Mocking her misery, the Eurythmics sanowng on the radio: “Hold your head (movin’ on); keep your head up (movin’ on)…” Sweet Dreams are obviously not made of long afternoons working in your mother’s guesthouse.

And then the spag’ bol’ (as it’s known in UK where even fully enunciating abbreviations is a bridge too far for the time-pressed Brit) arrived.

Now I found myself staring down with a similar scowl. Like a rescue chopper pilot searching for debris, I scanned the waves of Agent Orange sauce for any sign of meat that had survived kitchen disaster. But the sickly-sweet sea washing over cheap pasta was decidedly empty.

Cursing myself for being tempted by the red “Coke and…” menu sign that led me to waste €6 on this dismal destruction of a classic dish, my only consolation was that I had exercised some measure of consumer autonomy by opting for Sprite.

Spanish cooking is not terribly adventurous; I had turned my nose up at menus displaying such uncontroversial dishes as roast chicken and pork to play it safe. But I had still been disappointed. This wasn’t supposed to be how it works?

Just before the doors closed on the next bus to Madrid, two Japanese girls got on and sat next to me. Opening a familiar brown bag they started to very deliberately chew on buns that were bigger than their delicate hands.

Slowly they savoured what is arguably America’s most famous export, as their lunch spread its instantly recognisable smell all along the bus. Damn, those burgers smelled good.

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