The World of Infinitesimal Bites: Tapas

Barcelona happens to be my favorite city for a number of reasons (though Paris, not the idiotic girl, comes a close second). I love its architecture, the energetic Catalan people, the wondrous food, the pungent wines, and above all I love to stroll along the Ramblas, looking for new Bodegas (a Bodega is a wine cellar where barrels of wine and fortified wine are kept). Las Ramblas is a 1.2 Km walkway through the very heart of the city centre. Here you will see all sorts of stalls, restaurants, bars and street performers along with the many thousands of people that promenade up and down the Ramblas until the early hours of the morning. In fact life really begins at around 11pm.

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Imagine you are walking about in the middle of the day and you are kind of hungry. Step out of the Spanish sunshine and look for a Tapas bar. Through the Ramblas (and just about anywhere in Spain) you will find someone who will point you out to the nearest Bodega. Once inside, the interior of a typical bodega (or wine bar) has multi-colored tiles lining up the walls, earthenware-tiled floors shine with the patina of years of patronage, quaint wooden tables with vivid mosaic tops abound in the crowded room. Barrels of wine are stacked high behind the bar, taps at the ready. From wooden beams hang whole cured hams, links of Chorizo & and a myriad of tasty sausages, ropes of garlic, dried peppers & aubergines. A large glass display laden with goodies tells you to sit down and order a plate of Tapas with your drink(s).

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Tapas are small portions of foods, both hot and cold, served in bars, bodegas and tascas to accompany a copa of fino (dry Spanish Sherry or draught beer) or, in my case, a drop of red. Or two.

Some people say Tapas were invented in Andalusia. The word means “cover.” In Andalusian wine-making regions, a saucer is customarily placed to cover a glass of wine in order to keep the little fruit flies from swarming in. A tidbit of food, usually a slice of Chorizo or a triangle of hard cheese placed on the dish helps attract clients to the wine bar, so the cook, sometimes the owner’s wife, would outdo herself to produce more and tastier ones. That’s one story. The other, albeit less plausible, asserts that the tapa was born when, due to an illness, the Spanish king Alfonso the 10th, the Wise, had to take small bites of food with some wine between meals. Once recovered from the disease, the wise king decreed that no wine was to be served in any of the inns in the land of Castille, unless accompanied by something to eat. This, I guess, was a wise precaution to counteract the adverse effects of alcohol on empty stomachs.

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Let’s start with the cold stuff. Amongst cold dishes on the Tapa bar are a variety of salads, some wonderfully exotic, some downright plain. For example, salpicon with chopped tomatoes, onions and peppers might include prawns and other shellfish or it might be made with chopped, cooked octopus. Remjón is a salad of oranges, codfish, onions and olives. While this might sound odd, it tastes great. So does the ubiquitous potato tortilla topped sometimes with a fried green Padron pepper. Try the roasted pepper salad and “ensalada campera”, a lemony potato salad with cooked fish roe. Then comes a mountain of cured meats. I love the Serrano ham, which just means mountain-cured, and the Iberico, a tad more expensive but well worth it. This salt-cured ham is served raw, very, very thinly sliced. You will not have tasted Spain until you try the local Chorizo, a hottish sausage made from coarsely chopped fatty pork and usually seasoned with chili and paprika. A good plate of Tapas would include some hard cheese as well (Manchego, which is infused with rosemary, Iberico, made from sheep’s milk, Valdeon, made in Catalonia with goat’s milk & herbs, among others). Let’s not forget the olives! They can be the famed Seville olives, arbequina olives, meaty manzanillas or gordales, the size of small plums or the tiny black olives of Catalonia, olives stuffed with almonds. Or chillies. Anything goes!

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Then comes an endless variety of hot dishes. Some are cooked to order on the plancha (grill) as are the prawns pil pil, drenched with garlic and olive oil; Pinchitos (grilled miniature kebabs made with any kind of meats or seafood) flavored with Moroccan spices; you can savor tiny meatballs in almond sauce, Cojonuda (superb female): it consists of a slice of Spanish morcilla (blood sausage) with a fried quail egg over a slice of bread; puffy cod fritters dribbling with molasses; potato croquettes with spicy ground meat inside; Boquerones, fresh anchovies that are quickly fried; Espetones, fresh sardines galore; from rings of tender squid (calamares) to chunks of fresh herring and batter-dipped prawns. Look out for cazsn en adobo, a type of white fish marinated just before frying, and boquerones en vinagre, marinated raw fish (although this one is a cold dish). The selection of shellfish available in most Tapa bars is astounding: baby clams, razorshells, scallops in the shell, mussels, prawns ranging in size from the tiny shrimp to the Tiger Jumbo, hardshell crabs, crayfish, all types of octopuses and squids, and much, much more. I swear, writing this is making me real hungry. And thirsty.

There are, literally, thousands of Tapas. I could go on for another twenty posts as each region has its fair amount of variations and not be done with. And the Spanish wines to accompany them are divine. From Rioja and Ribera del Duero to the reds and whites from Penedés, the fine whites from Rueda, the “sherries” from Jerez, and the fine sparkling wines known as Cava. But that’s another post.

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