Simple pleasures on the plains of Castilla y Leon
In the tablelands between Salamanca and Valladolid, Hilary A White warms to the culinary passion of central Spain
'COME and see my bar," trills Juan Carlos in a cascade of Castilian. It had been a long day for my travel partner and I, battling Madrid's rush hour. We were in no state to refuse.
Visions of cold San Miguel washing down anchovies and olives floated into the mind alongside a brown-eyed barmaid busying herself to a soundtrack of flamenco. Old men would be eating jamon while Real took on Barca on the small screen. Surely that's what would be awaiting us in the streets of Iscar.
It turned out Juan Carlos owned The Dolphin's Tavern, Iscar's sole Irish bar -- and while the tapas and San Miguel were in place, there were also Guinness posters and Coldplay on the stereo. It may not have been postcard Spain, but the dark-wood interior and gushing hospitality were utterly Iberian.
Spaniards have never made excuses for being themselves. Work is but a minor inconvenience to propagate a life of joy. Vegetarians are welcome as long as they don't mind being cured. Wine, women and song are subjects of a thrusting passion you can't get away with at home.
We saw it firsthand on our road trip to nowhere around the plains between Valladolid and Salamanca. The region is one of nine strongholds of wine in Castilla y Leon, the largest of the country's 17 autonomous communities.
The attitude to main courses in this area is simple; vegetables are what your food eats. This goes for toston asado, a mouth-watering take on roasted pork. The same goes for lechazo asado, suckling lamb roasted slowly in an earthenware dish and the region's signature delicacy.
When the sun sets across the big skies and vast expanses of these tablelands, a magical aura clings to everything. Clusters of terracotta rooftops smoulder in the sinking rays, and the trees and dry-stone walls take on a painterly glow.
Our next stop is in the attractive town of Penadarana de Bracamonte. We pitch up in the four-star Hotel Las Cabanas, which is clean and comfy but bakingly hot. Breakfast is not something you would go to Spain for, but toast and coffee is sometimes all that you need.
Back in Madrid, we took the metro into Retiro in the south east of the city centre. We hit Pinchos Elcano, an award-winning tapas bar, and left new men. The achingly fashionable barrio of Salamanca was close by, and in between the boutique stores and designer furniture shops is Mercado De La Paz, a semi open-air market with just about everything edible known to man. One thing led to another. Thinking back on the weekend, I can't recall once refusing food if it was on offer. The national obsession with the simple pleasures of life had got to me. Of the two or three Spains I had come across, it was the Spain of the stomach that had really set up camp in my affections.