a taste of tapas: small plates of something delicious

a selection of tapas
"I love anything that involves getting to eat seven different kinds of food in a single sitting"

So says the character Ellie Hatcher in Alafair Burke's City of Fear referring to her love of tapas. A woman of impeccable taste, I suspect.

To me tapas mean several things - simple food cooked really well; a myriad of gorgeous flavours; a gathering of friends - convivial and ever-so slightly bibulous; of Spanish holidays and the ultimate taste of summer. Tapas is the perfect food for hot summer days when traditional British stodge just won't cut it; when you want something that is full of profoundly Mediterranean flavours.

While it occurs to me that sometimes I must be part Eskimo, (I am a typical northern European who tends to become lobster-red after any exposure to sun), I am also convinced there is a little bit of the Mediterranean in me. I love the food of this region and on discovering the existence of both mezze and tapas, felt that this style of eating could have been invented for me - I love to graze. Tapas tempt and tantalise the taste buds. The food stimulates all the senses, not just one's sense of taste. Food can be crisp morsels as well as a soft texture. Bland or highly spiced. Hot or cold. It is also all about the "social" - you do not eat tapas alone (although frankly I could and probably would - it's all mine I tell you, greedily!)

I first went to Spain at the age of 18, on a sort of cut-price 18-30 holiday. I am afraid that the food didn't really get much of a look in as in those days it was all about the boys and the booze. I didn't get to experience tapas (I would definitely have remembered!) although did have sangria (surprisingly nice) and the traditional Spanish omelette. 

My experience of Spanish restaurants had left me slightly scarred, largely because one restaurant owner's elderly mother, dressed in her black widow's weeds, came out of the kitchen to shout at me, while gesticulating with some urgency. After I had recovered what little dignity I had after this somewhat voluble wind-tunnel experience, her granddaughter cheerfully translated for me - My grandmother thinks you look a disgrace. that you shame your mother. I think you look great though. Do you come from London? I was so taken aback that I could just nod in agreement and after that decided to avoid restaurants in case my peroxide blonde crew cut offended the delicate sensibilities of any more old ladies!

The following year my brother went to Spain on a Geography field trip in his first term at university. (Clearly I had been on the wrong course - in my first week at uni, we visited a ruined monastery in drizzly north Yorkshire.) When Justin returned he told me that in the evenings, the students would all adjourn to a local bar. It was brilliant, he said. Every time we ordered a round of beers, they kept bringing us food. What sort of food? Well sort of roast potatoes and ham and cheese. It was great. But then he looked a bit shamefaced. They wouldn't let us pay, he said, looking a bit hangdog. 

My brother felt guilty (rather sweet really) that because of some kind of language barrier or the cultural differences, that perhaps they were supposed to tip or maybe move on to another bar. He had a nagging feeling that perhaps they had broken the rules in some way. Fortunately not, it was just tapas in a small village bar and he cheered up when I explained that I thought that the food was there to encourage you to drink, although not to get drunk (as is the way with some many Brits abroad, then as now). The only injustice of the whole thing was that my brother at that time had an orange Mohican haircut and nobody shouted at him. Grrr.

But I have discovered that I had experienced a form of tapas as a small child - pan con tomate (Catalan bread and tomato). There are some in my family, who think that my father, Henry, invented "tomatoes on toast". He has been eating this for as long as I can remember and apparently, talking to relatives and old friends, he was the first person they had ever met who did this. On discovering olive oil, Henry's simple toast, sliced tomatoes and a grinding of black pepper was now anointed with a drizzle of oil. It is still his favourite snack. He gets through bucket loads of tomatoes every week and has probably helped Italian olive oil producers in no small way. 

I had assumed that Henry might have learned about this kind of food when he was stationed in Gibraltar in the army, but it turns he did not. He learned it at 17 when he went to sea in the merchant navy (yes, do try to keep up!) As one of the watch officers, he couldn't always have access to regular meals, if the galley was closed. But the Goan cooks would leave food out and the watch officers were able to cook their own food - which is where Henry learned the joy of the simple pleasure of tomatoes on toast, together with the makings of a rather fine bacon sandwich. He still does them both beautifully, despite his advanced age. He says that you just make use of what you've got - whether it is in a basic galley kitchen or using a mess tin, and you need to try to make your food as tasty as possible. Now I know where I get it from, as if there was ever any doubt!

When I was trawling through my cookery books, books of food history and the internet, while there was some consensus of opinion about where and how tapas originated, there was not total agreement. There seemed to be a number of different explanations, but personally I think that some of them, though charming, are a little fanciful. Apologies if I am about to burst anyone's bubble, but I have plumped down very firmly in the more traditional corner of the tapas debate (and you have no idea how that pains me to be a "traditionalist"!)

Tapas probably began in Andalusia, the sherry producing region of southern Spain. Canny sherry producers would provide small terracotta lids, to place over the top of the sherry glasses. This would keep out the fruit flies attacked to the sherry's sticky sweetness. It is not much of a leap of imagination to think that small morsels of something of delicious would be provided by enterprising bodega owners and tavern keepers - a few olives, some salted almonds, a bit of ham or cheese or preserved fish - small morsels of loveliness to taste along with the sherry and give all one's taste buds a bit of a workout.

Bars would compete with each other to see who could out do each other. Some would develop reputations for their "house" delicacies - perhaps croquetas in one, marinated anchovies in another. I don't believe it would be any different centuries ago than it would be now. People don't change, just the technology!

So theories about Medieval Spanish kings being advised by their doctors to eat small meals in aid of their health is a rather delightful idea, but it doesn't strike me as very plausible. Nor do I believe that these small plates of food were used to feed agricultural workers in the fields. The average peasant is more likely to take something much more substantial into the fields with them - hunks of bread and cheese or perhaps some stuffed pastries, such as empanadas.

In Spain, tapas are eaten at tapa bars. Tapas eaten at home are considered something else entirely. Hors d'oeuvres probably! Tapas are eaten at a bar with drinks such as beer, wine or sherry (but rarely spirits) and often precede a meal, whether at home or going on to a restaurant. If you are in a large town or city, you can move from tapa bar to tapa bar. It is not just a change of scenery but an opportunity to explore the specialities of different bars. I imagine the exercise taken between bars is probably good for you - ameliorating the effect of over-indulgence in both food and drink.

Spanish cooking has a rich tradition of spices; the Romans introduced spices from Asia. There are still strong influences from the Arab Moors in the south of Spain, to those that were brought back from the New World including chillies as well as tomatoes and potatoes. Each region of Spain also has its regional specialities, not just in main courses but in tapas as well. In Madrid, spicy roast potatoes (patatas bravas) are popular, as is tripe. Er . . . I'm not sure if I am ready for that yet. But I do love black pudding and the Castilian Morcilla is a winner. In Galicia, on Spain's northern coast, seafood especially octopus and different types of omelette (such as chorizo and vegetable) are served. Andalusia, in southern Spain, is full of Moorish influences of Arab north Africa)

Some typical tapas are as follows, some of which I shall be posting over the next few days:
  • Garlic mushrooms
  • Patatas Bravas (roasted potatoes in tomato)
  • Prawns in garlic and sherry
  • Chorizo in red wine or cider
  • Romesco sauce
  • Tortilla Espagnola
  • Pimentos de Padron - padron pepper roulette - the bartender will warn you, "Unos pican y otros non"--"some are hot and the others are not". 19 out of 20 taste like green peppers. One out of 20 tastes like a chilli! Dare you! (You can't tell by looking).
  • Garlic mushrooms
  • Meatballs in tomato sauce (albondigas en salsa)
  • Gazpacho
  • Garlic soup (Ajo blanco)
  • Home-cured olives
  • A selection of cured ham such as jamon serrano
  • A selection of cheese, such as Manchego (a sheeps' milk cheese) often served with slithers of mebrillo (a quince paste)
  • Ham croquetas - why oh why can't I cook these? I've made them so that the béchamel sauce has the same consistency of silly putty but they still disintegrate in the pan - a sort of flying saucer fried gloop, looking like something from a 1950s B Movie - Invasion of the Grey Slime, with Pink Bits!


o cozinheiro este algarve said...

Just love this style of eating, particularly in the summer.Lots of lovely little picky things, hot cold, warm, crunchy, melty with or without skewer or fork.Just lots of deliciousness washed down with beer or wine or sherry.On the matter of how tapas originated - may I offer another version.
Yes I agree something was needed to keep the flies out of your drink. Tapas, Spanish for cap or cover.A Terracotta dish is far too posh- I go for a slice of bread and then came the need for something to top the bread with so they introduced toppings for the bread which then became tapas????

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

This has to be my favourite type of eating too - it is the variety on offer. I also never get over full when I eat tapas or mezze. I hate feeling stuffed!

I take your version of origins of tapas totally on board. I've also read that in some places they laid a piece of ham over the top of the wine - which doesn't sound terribly plausible as it seems to be storing up a whole world of pain!