Spain – The Art of Tapas
One of the charms of España is the culture of tapas. Tapas originated in the southern province of Andalusia, where we are headed to soon. The word tapa means “to top” and the tradition started accidentally when vendors used a piece of bread to cover the customer’s drinks, so that flying insects don’t drown in the wine. Customers were eating the bread and vendors begun to top it with thin slices of ham or cheese to make it more palatable for the customers, who were also drinking more with a little bits of salty food. As time went on other tidbits were added and Spanish tapas were born. It became part of the culture to have a bite of this or that with a glass of wine or sherry out in the bars.
Today there are tapas zones in the larger cities, and in every community, however small, you see signs for tapas bar along the streets and promenades. We had to investigate it so we have been trying out tapas here and there as we travel up and down the mediterranean coast of Spain. There are different categories of tapas, from simple to more complex. The simplest include olives, cheese, sausages, ham, marinated vegetables and other items that don’t require cooking. Grilled tapas may include vegetables, seafood or meats. Artichokes appear in various forms, from fried to boiled to grilled. Potatoes are roasted and drizzled with spicy tomato sauce and mayonnaise (patatas brava). Peppers and tomatoes are roasted and chopped together in a warm salad style, small green peppers are grilled and served whole de Padron style (“Russian Roulette”, you may get a hot one). Spanish omelette made with eggs and potatoes is cut into wedges or squares and served in various sizes. Vegetables are roasted and drizzled with oil, chick peas are served in a light stew, sometimes with spinach. The possibilities are endless. We have seen Russian salad, stuffed hardboiled eggs, empanadas, meatballs, chicken, lamb and more. Ham is one of the specialties and you see it in in various forms from jambon serrano to Sobrasada (specialty of Majorca) to Jambon Iberico. Seafood of one kind or another are some of the most popular tapas choices it seems, at least here on the Mediterranean coastline: squid, shrimps, prawn, sardines, octopus, fish, clams, mussels, eels, snails and several other crustaceans that I am sure you have never seen or heard of, let alone tasted. This list is only the tip of the iceberg, there are so many variation and styles of tapas. I think whatever is in season can become a tapa dish. Tapas also vary regionally and tend to highlight the specialties of the region.
Not only tapas are varied, but how the Spanish eat them also changes through the regions. In places like Madrid and Barcelona locals go on a tapas crawl they call tapeo, going from one bar to another, all clustered in the tapas zones where tapas bars or tavernas line the streets. They taste one or two tapas in each before proceeding to the next bar. Often you’d be eating and drinking standing up at the counter. Smaller centres such as Valencia don’t do that. Valencianos settle in one place and enjoy their tapas, or they may visit a tapas bar before proceeding to have dinner at another restaurant, but they do not do the tapeo.
Cultures are fascinating. What I hear from locals is that people here do not not entertain in their homes the way we do in North America. The concept of inviting someone to your home for coffee or dinner is not common. You go out for coffee and have dinner with friends at restaurants, not at home. The home is reserved for family only, or perhaps very close friends. Same with tapas. Tapas are a bar thing, you go to the bars to have tapas. Well, thankfully in our Canadian culture you do invite people to your home so I can experiment with tapas as soon as we get back to my comfortable and well equipped kitchen:).
There is a relatively new style of tapas now called pinchos that we stumbled upon accidentally at Tapas de la Reina when looking for tapas in the Plaza de la Reina in Valencia one afternoon. Pincho refers to bite size foods held with a wooden pick (pincho), such as a slice of bread with a tall mound of various toppings secured by a wooden pick. Pinchos are served in many tapas bars now. You pick your selection of pinchos (it’s always self serve), enjoy them with wine or beer, then leave the picks on your plate so the waiter can count them and figure out the price of what you have had. We had 5 pinchos between us and when we finished I told the waiter we had 5. No, he said, you had 2 and 3, meaning that the type of toothpick (they are not all the same) indicates the cost of the item. The five pinchos and two small beers were less than 10 Euros. Not a bad deal for lunch.
Tapas today can make a full dinner and these larger portions are called raciones. If you make dinner out of tapas you want the dishes to come at a progression, not all at once, and at a good restaurant they will keep them coming as you finish them, having 2-3 on the table at once at the most. I have seen groups in restaurants going through quite a few rounds of raciones with a good number of bottles of wines or sangria (or both) to wash them down with. It was so much fun to watch them eat and enjoy the food. They take a while to consult the menu, discuss what they are ordering and talk about the food when it arrives, I love that. It’s the essence of living in the moment. I don’t know if we get as much enjoyment out of eating as they do here. No wonder food agrees with them and we are so afraid of it (no bread, no oil, no cheese, no eggs, no dairy, no gluten no this no that, the list goes on).
I loved the smaller lunch tapas places in Valencia. I noticed a few around the Mercado Central especially. Trays full with the various tapas were set on the glass shelve above the counter and people seating or standing at the counter were served small portions of whatever tapas they pointed to. The food looked so beautiful and fresh I wanted to eat at every restaurant, especially those that had a good vegetables selection (I saw artichokes, peppers, asparagus, potatoes, green onions and more. Ahh, so many foods, so little time. My capacity for eating is limited, unfortunately, or I’d be eating at every place we saw.
“The best tapas bar in spain”: We went to one famous tapas place in the rather remote city Alicante in Alicante, Valencia. Nou Manolin is a family owned establishment in business for over 50 years. They have a restaurant that can seat up to 500 and a smaller bar downstairs that seats a rather small number of guests but it is packed full. Tapas are set along the counter as well as made fresh as you go. I have heard that Feran Adria and Joel Robichon called it the best tapas bar in Spain and along the walls you see pictures and art by celebrities who have visited the place, including these two celebrity chefs. The images above were taken at the tapas bar at Nou Manolin.
Artichokes were probably my favourite tapas item and they are served in various ways, from boiled to grilled to fried, whole, sliced, halved or quartered. I made it a few times in my kitchens here and must admit that I liked them all. Here is an easy recipe ideas if you are inspired to make artichoke tapas.
Artichoke tapas with sherry vinaigrette
Adapted from The Foods of Spain by Claudia Roden
6-8 small artichckes
1 garlic clove
4-5 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 1/2 cups very coarse bread crumbs
1/2 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
1/3 cup pine nuts
Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
Cut of the top quarter of each artichoke.
If the artichoke have the stem don’t cut it off, it’s edible. You just need to peel it off but keep it intact.
Rub all cut surface with lemon to prevent it from darkening.
Drop the artichokes and pieces of lemon you used into the boiling water. Lower heat to a slow boil and cook the artichokes until tender. Pierce them with a knife to determine if they fully cooked.
When they are cooked remove them and let drain upside down until cool enough to handle.
When they have cooled, remove the hairy choke from the centre, scraping it clean.
Cut the artichokes into halves.
Prepare the dressing:
Place 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet and heat it up.
Add pine nuts and cook until beginning to turn golden.
Remove from heat and set aside.
Heat remaining olive oil and garlic in a skillet.
Add the bread crumbs and let them brown in the oil.
When they are golden remove from the heat and drizzle vinegar over.
Add salt and pepper
Place the artichokes in a serving dish and drizzle the bread crumbs with the oil and vinegar over.
Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts.
Serve warm or at room temperature. If you need to refrigerate then bring back to room temperature or warm it up slightly.