(First published 2004 in Living Spain, U.K.)
Looking for Dulcinea
Four-hundred years after Don Quixote went looking for his ladyship, Dulcinea, in the town of El Toboso in La Mancha, I followed in his footsteps. While I never found “Princess Sweetie-pie”, I found a land rich in history, culture and natural beauty. Add to that Spain’s best cheese-Queso Manchego, many superb wines, and good and simple dishes such as shepherds’ stews. Oh yes, and sweets.
It was “more or less” on the stroke of midnight when Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, rode into the La Mancha town of El Toboso, on a quest to find the knight’s idealized princess, the lady Dulcinea. The village lay in silence. In the moonlight they advance through quiet streets and, seeking the lady’s “palace,” come bang up against the gothic walls of the village church. Oops.
El Toboso, at more or less the stroke of twelve noon in the fine spring sunshine, is almost as silent as midnight. The church, much embellished since Don Quixote’s visit (around the end of the 16th century, for the novel by Cervantes was published in 1605), is getting a new roof. A couple workmen are putting up a stage in the plaza for a theatre presentation for the Jornadas Cervantinas, an annual celebration of Cervantes.
I follow a local housewife around the corner in search of the only panadería, bread bakery. I am looking for typical sweets from El Toboso. Sweets in Dulcinea’s village seem appropriate, for her name means “Sweetie”. No buns or biscuits, today, just crusty fresh bread.
Just down the street from the church is the 16th century house that belonged to Doña Ana Martínez Zarco de Morales, the real personage for whom Cervantes is said to have modeled his fictional character, Dulcinea. Like typical Manchegan village establishments, the house presents an almost-blank wall to the street. Inside, it has two stories plus a tower and large, walled farmyard.
Known as Casa-Museo de Dulcinea-Dulcinea’s house and museum-much of the building has been reconstructed and furbished with a few period antiques. The great hearth in the kitchen is hung with a fine copper cauldron. Pottery jugs, esparto baskets, and other utensils lend a feeling of the epoch. In the yard behind the house, the original dovecote and olive press are preserved.
Just before the Casa Dulcinea, en una callejuela sin salida, on a little blind alley, I find the entrance to the Convent of the Franciscan-Clarisa nuns. The monastery dates from the 16th century, but hardly anything remains except for the church door. Nevertheless, the Clarisa nuns keep up the age-old traditions of making sweets. Traditionally, baked goods were distributed to the convent’s protectors. Nowadays they are sold to the public at the torno, a turnstile, where you place your order.
Though cloistered, Sisters Maria Victoria and Blanca Morras meet me in a chat room, where I sample their cakes and beg the recipes. I purchase a surtido, a selection of biscuits and cakes, packaged in a small box.
Around another bend, just beyond a 16th century public well (and where, on Wednesday mornings, there is a street market), is Casa de la Torre, a farm workers’ house of the 18th century, that has been converted lovingly into a handsome small hotel. Each of the guest rooms is decorated in a singular style by Isabel Fernández Morales, a gracious hostess, who knows just about everything about the local cuisine. (Double rooms from €80. Tel.: (34) 925 568 006. Meals by reservation only.)
The best local cooking is to be found at Mesón La Noria, another walled house with an old water wheel in the courtyard. Juan López Ramírez and his wife prepare authentic Manchegan dishes such as pisto, a medley of courgettes, peppers, and tomatoes; gachas, a garlicky gruel with bacon bits; duelos y quebrantos, Don Quixote’s Saturday eggs and bacon (with lambs’ brains, if desired); fried bread crumbs, and tender braised lamb. (Tel.: 34-925 56 81 92.)
I wander back up to the church plaza and find the Museo Cervantino, a small museum that displays copies of Don Quixote in 48 different languages, as well as original editions in Spanish and some signed by famous people. One of the most charming is a tiny book for children, edited in English.
Several substantial mansions of stone and brickwork, with family coat-of-arms over the grand doorways, are yet to be found in the streets of El Toboso. On one side of the tree-shaded Plaza de la Constitución, rise the austere walls of the Trinitarian Convent (the nuns here are known for their embroidery).
El Toboso is situated in the heart of the La Mancha region, within easy reach of other towns in the Quixote legend. Nearby are the windmills of Campo de Criptana, probably where Don Quixote had that awful mix-up where he imagines the windmills are giants to be vanquished. At the crossroads of Puerto Lápice is a venta or country inn, possibly the site where Don Quixote had himself dubbed knight. To the east is the castle of Belmonte, where Quixote and Sancho camped out. A pleasant drive to the south is the lovely lake region of La Ruidera, where Don Quixote experiences marvelous dreams in the cave of Montesinos.
By the way, Don Quixote never meets the “true” Dulcinea. The day after their arrival in El Toboso, Sancho convinces him that three peasant girls approaching mounted on asses are Dulcinea and her ladies. There is an encounter. The lasses snort and deride the prostrate knight. Don Quixote attempts to assist her to remount her steed, but she vaults onto the donkey’s back and gallops away. Later, Don Quixote says he was bowled over by the garlic on her breath. Sly Sancho assures the Don that vile enchanters have turned sweet Dulcinea into a coarse peasant girl.
Following are recipes for some specialties of La Mancha.
Manchegan Vegetable Medley
The signature dish of La Mancha. Serve it hot accompanied by fried egg or grilled meat or cold as a starter.
1 1/2 pounds aubergine, peeled and cut in
Place the cubed aubergine in a colander and sprinkle it liberally with salt. Let it drain for 1 hour.
In a stew pot, heat the oil and sauté the onion and aubergine for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and green pepper and sauté another minute, then add the tomatoes and courgette. Sauté on a medium heat another 5 minutes.
Season with salt, oregano, pepper and cumin seed. Cover and cook on a slow heat until vegetables are soft, about 20 minutes. It shouldn’t be necessary to add additional liquid, but stir frequently so that they don’t scorch.
Serve garnished with chopped parsley. If serving cold, a touch of vinegar is a good addition.
Braised Lamb with Sweet Paprika
This rustic dish derives from the shepherds’ caldereta, or iron stew pot, in which meals were cooked over embers.
2 ½-3 pounds lamb steaks cut from the leg,
with or without bone
Trim off as much fat as possible from the lamb. Sprinkle the pieces of lamb liberally with salt and pepper and allow to stand at room temperature for 1 hour.
Heat the oil in a large stew pot or lidded cazuela and sauté the sliced onions until lightly browned, 6-8 minutes. Put in the pieces of meat and turn them in the oil for a few minutes. They do not need to brown, only to lose their pink color. Add the dried tomatoes, bell pepper, parsley, thyme, bay leaves, and peeled garlic cloves.
Add the wine and water. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer until meat is very tender, 1 to 1 ½ hours.
Lift the pieces of meat out of the cooking liquid with any vegetables clinging to them and set aside, covered tightly. Skim off fat from the top of liquid remaining in pot.
Place a strainer over a bowl and pour the liquid through it. Discard the bay leaves. Lift out the piece of red bell pepper. Use a spoon to scrape the pulp from the inside. Put the pulp in a blender or food processor (discard the skins) with some of the onions, tomatoes and garlic remaining in the strainer.
Add the almonds to the blender with the two kinds of paprika and 1 cup of the strained liquid. Blend or process until the almonds are ground to a smooth paste.
Return the liquid to the stew pot and add the almond mixture. Bring to a boil, stirring. Return the lamb to the pot and cook gently 20 minutes longer.
To Char-Roast a Head of Garlic
Spear the head of garlic on a fork or grasp it with tongs (protect hands with an oven mitt) and hold over a gas flame, or put under the grill. Turn the garlic until it is charred on all sides. Peel the garlic cloves, rinse in water, and add them to the stew to continue cooking.
Look for more authentic recipes from La Mancha in Janet Mendel’s new book, Food of La Mancha, to be published in 2006 by HarperCollins-New York.
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