TAPAS: LITTLE BITES, BIG TASTES
In a compulsively social country like Spain, the tapeo—tapas bar crawl—is a ritual of near-religious importance. And it isn’t just the nibbling and the imbibing: In Spain, the tapeo embodies a whole worldview and a lifestyle. The verb tapear, says the Sevillian tapas expert Juan Carlos Alonso, “is a broad concept that encompasses multiple actions: drinking, eating, chatting, strolling, greeting, seeing, being seen . . .” Indeed.
In its original form, the tapa (from the word tapar, to cover) was a free slice of cheese or jamón that topped a glass of sherry, thus protecting the drink from flies and dust. The tradition originated in the nineteenth century in Andalusia, the center of sherry production, where scorching summers make full meals unthinkable. Besides, a strong, fortified drink such as sherry fairly demands a snack. From these basic beginnings, the tapa evolved into a truly protean concept defined only by size and function: a bite to accompany drinks, normally eaten with one’s hands, standing up. Place a portion of leftover stew in a small cazuela and you’ve got a tapa. Order a beer, chat up your neighbor, and it’s a fiesta. No wonder the Spanish prefer hanging out in bars to entertaining at home.
Although Spain is presently in the grip of a nueva cocina revolution, old-school tapas bars happily remain true to themselves. Imagine a heart-stoppingly atmospheric tiled dive suffused with the musky scent of jamones (cured hams) hung from the ceiling. Its walls are plastered with bullfighting photos. Its floors are scattered with napkins, toothpicks, and olive pits.The crowds stand wall to wall, shoulder to shoulder, exchanging cracks with the countermen, who shout out orders for another round of briny anchovies or batter-fried bacalao. At classic bars all over Spain, standbys like ensaladilla rusa (a mayonnaise-drenched potato salad), embutidos (cured meats), cheese, and potato tortillas seem inescapable. But beyond these stereotypes, tapas vary dramatically from region to region and from bar to bar.
Meatballs, patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy tomato sauce), and cups of broth from cocido (boiled dinner) washed down with beer or vermouth on tap are the stuff of old Madrid tabernas. In the northwestern region of Galicia, the tapeo involves squares of seafood empanadas, paprika-dusted poached octopus slices known as pulpo a feira, and stubby glasses of albariño. Sidra (cider) is the drink in the mountainous Asturias region, accompanied by a wedge of stinky Cabrales cheese and a link of chorizo braised in more cider.
In their Basque incarnation tapas are called pintxos and are almost always mounted on bread—fanciful canapés decorated with frilly mayonnaise borders and arrayed on bar counters like edible communion dresses. Andalusian bars seduce with a vast array of edibles, from small portions of stews or snails in a spicy sauce, to fried fish and delicacies like poached hake roe in a piquant aliño (marinade).
Spain’s Mediterranean regions— Catalonia, Valencia, Alicante—don’t have a long tapas tradition. But this is where you find the best bares de producto: ingredient-driven lunch and dinner counters that offer raciónes or media raciónes, full or half portions. Few things in life are more pleasurable than staking a perch at one of the counters at Barcelona’s colorful Boqueria market and nibbling on flash-fired baby squid, as tiny as a pinky nail; just-picked fava beans with a fried egg on top; or the season’s first asparagus.
Even within one region, bars tend to specialize: Some excel in fried stuff, like croquetas, others in griddled or skewered bites, yet others in montaditos (canapés). Certain bars draw crowds with their inexpensive portions of marinated carrots or roasted peppers, others with seafood delicacies like langoustines or goose barnacles for prices as steep as those at Tokyo’s sushi bars. Some bars have menus, others have ironlunged waiters who breathlessly recite the daily specials. Some lavishly display their wares on the counters; at other bars, each order emerges just-cooked from the kitchen. Wine bars and cheese bars, the breakfast bars of Seville and the beer bars of Madrid, bars out of central casting, and white neo- Moderne haunts with tapas artfully arranged in shot glasses, on skewers, and on spoons— at times, the entire country seems like one vast bar theme park.
Don’t have a crowded, food-filled tapas bar on your street corner? Create one at home with the delicious tapas recipes that follow. ¡Olé!