Tasting Tapas with El Greco
Shady alleyways, quiet squares leading from steep cobbled streets, a historic maze dotted with churches and the remains of mosques and synagogues. This is the old quarter of Toledo, where little has changed over the centuries since 1577, when the great painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos (otherwise known as El Greco) came to the city unaware that it would be his final destination, the place where his work would reach new technical and artistic heights. We tour the narrow streets of Toledo, following in the footsteps of El Greco's work and imagining his stylized figures wandering through the city. From time to time, we'll be pausing awhile in taverns and bars to recharge and refresh. Tasting tapas with El Greco
The nerve center of the city of Toledo, only 30 minutes away by train from Madrid, is Plaza Zocodover, a square in which with traditional stores, terraces and balconied houses all jostle for space. Just behind the square is Santa Cruz Museum, based in a former 16th century Plateresque style hospice and housing a permanent collection of artworks. Walking up the busy pedestrian thoroughfare of Calle del Comercio, our route takes us to the Cathedral, where we'll visit the Sacristy to gaze at one of the greatest collections of religious art signed by El Greco.
We're now deep in Toledo's twisting maze of streets, a haven for taverns and bars where locals and visitors alike can indulge in the fine art of tasting tapas. Between Palacio de Santa Cruz and the Cathedral are two highly recommended places to stop: Bar Trébol with its star tapa, known as bomba (a potato stuffed with meat and topped with garlic mayonnaise and tomato), plus one of the city's oldest taverns, Ludeña (Plaza de la Magdalena, 10), where the bar is always absolutely packed and there's a tapa you simply have to try: carcamusas, a little casserole dish of meat stew with homemade tomato sauce and the faintest hint of chili.
Now, as we continue walking down Calle Tornerías, we'll be looking out for number 5, home to another of Toledo's tapas temples, Bar Tornerías, much loved by locals and serving delicious individual portions of venison stewed in red wine or Ibérico pork ribs with fig sauce and oven-baked potatoes.
A tasty afternoon with El Greco
It's unlikely we'll be hungry again for a while, so let's make the most of the early afternoon to continue following El Greco's footsteps around Toledo. After crossing the main square of Plaza del Ayuntamiento and turning a few corners, we come across Centro Cultural San Marcos.This makes an interesting contrast with the nearby church of Santo Tomé, which houses one of the painter's most instantly recognizable works, "The Burial of the Count of Orgaz". Just 5 minutes' walk down a cobbled street takes us to the El Greco House-Museum, the only museum devoted entirely to the artist's work.
Retracing our steps we return to Plaza de Santo Tomé for a visit to one of Toledo's most popular establishments, Santo Tomé bakery and patisserie. Since 1856 they've been producing the city's most traditional sweet treat, marzipan, a paste made with sugar, honey, eggs and almonds which they make into small shapes. They also make the popular "anguilas", marzipan sweets shaped by hand to look like eels and filled with sweetened egg yolk and pumpkin jam. Other handmade candies sold in Santo Tomé are "empiñonadas" (little cakes made with almonds, sugar and pine nuts) and "princesitas" (feather-light sponge cakes made with marzipan and egg).
We can carry on filling our shopping basket with more top quality local products in other stores nearby. Also in Plaza Santo Tomé there is a small butcher's, run for decades by the Jiménez family, who sell 100% artisan sausages, such as "grandma Julia's chorizo", made with a mix of Spanish ground red pepper, garlic and thyme, plus game chorizos and sausages (mainly venison and wild boar) as well as a selection of unpasteurized sheep's milk cheeses made in the province of Toledo.
Our next stop is Convento de San Antonio de Padua, which we reach as soon as we turn into Calle del Ángel. A massive wooden door opens out into the only public area in this closed order convent. It consists of a quiet store where you can buy the delicious candies and other treats made by the nine nuns still living in this 16th century convent, including marzipan, polvorones (small cookies made with flour, lard and sugar), jams and so on.
And to bring this food shopping session to a close, we'll visit the oldest gourmet food store in the city. Based next to the cathedral, in Calle Hombre de Palo, Casa Cuartero has been in operation since 1920. Five generations of the same family have run this business in a small but well-stocked premises selling all kinds of food and wine from Toledo and from other provinces across Castile-La Mancha. Their excellent quality products include saffron, Manchego cheese, sausages, preserved game, cured hams, artisan turrón (almond nougat) from Toledo, marzipan and extra virgin olive oil.
Spanish tapas at dusk…
Toledo's extensive old quarter, mostly surrounded by the Tagus river (the longest river on the Iberian Peninsula), has many other bars where we could end this gourmet tribute to El Greco. Tasting tapas is a deeply-rooted social custom here in the city, and most bars and taverns defend the quality of local produce. One example is Adolfo Colección, a restaurant and tapas bar owned by local chef Adolfo Muñoz, who turns out a perfect combination of traditional recipes presented with impeccable modern style. Be sure not to miss his version of carcamusas (see above), but his stewed partridge with baby vegetables and king scallop with Manchego pisto (a fried vegetable and tomato mix) and Manchego cheese are equally exciting. Adolfo Muñoz also produces his own extra virgin olive oil and wine, both of which feature on the menu at this restaurant with its minimalist decor and open-sided show kitchen.
Our search for the best tapas takes us to two other establishments that are very close to each other. In Plaza San Nicolás we'll stop in La Abadía to try their hearty grilled venison mini-steak, plus their smooth partridge pâté with Manchego cheese. We end our session in Alfileritos 24, a restaurant and tapas bar occupying an entire old house and inner courtyard (known as a "corrala") which, like many other houses in Toledo's old quarter, still preserves its original vaulted cellars. In Alfileritos 24 you can have tapas and individual portions for dinner or order from the main menu. If you go for the first option, do try the creamy boletus croquettes or venison with apple on toast.
The nerve center of the city of Toledo, only 30 minutes away by train from Madrid, is Plaza Zocodover, a square in which with traditional stores, terraces and balconied houses all jostle for space