Time for Tapas
The myths about the origins of tapas are about as many as the flavourings of this bite-sized Spanish morsel. You can choose the one where Alfonso VIII, on a visit to Cádiz, was taking a glass of wine when the wind picked up. A quick-witted barman slipped a sliver of jamon on top of the class to keep the sand out and when the King had finished his drink and chewed his ham, he asked for another. (No-one seems to take into account, though, that the fattiness of the ham would have held on to the sand like the old strips of flypaper a fly – but that would have spoiled the legend.)
There again, you could go with the one about Alfonso X, The Wise, who, due to an illness, had to take regular glasses of wine between meals and a little something to nibble on to absorb it. When he recovered he continued the habit and decreed that no wine was to be served in any of the inns in Castile unless accompanied by something to eat, a wise precaution to counteract the adverse effects of alcohol on those people who, through lack of money to buy a nourishing meal, drank alcohol on an empty stomach.
The mundane truth is that it probably started off as no more than a piece of stale bread placed on top of a wine glass – or on top of a jug of beer in the north – to stop insects and dust falling into the glass in the murky old inns of yesteryear.
I’m being given the history lesson by Gerry Ramsey, resident of Jerez de la Frontera for thirty years, and owner of tenidiomas, a language school that includes tapas and sherry appreciation as part of the cultural elements of their courses, held in this beautiful Andalucian city. We’re at the beginning of my own private tapa tour, where Gerry has promised to take me from ‘tapa de todo la vida’, the most basic ones that have been around since either of the Alfonso’s days, to the tapas equivalents of haute cuisine.
“The word just means to put a top on something, to cover something, tapar, but a whole culture has developed around tapas. The basic idea is that it’s a way of eating small amounts of a variety of dishes as distinct from having a sit down meal and going through the courses.”
It’s also a very social way of eating, often done with a group of friends while stood at the bar. One of the benefits of eating tapas is that you can usually adapt the size of the dish to the amount of people who will eat it.
“There are some places that still only serve the tapas as something to have with a drink, usually a glass of fino in Jerez, or a beer. They are the size of something you would order for yourself, perhaps you’d have a couple before moving on to another bar. Other places also offer a ración and medio ración, which are a plateful and half a plateful, and those you’d usually share with a few friends, again choosing two or three so that you can try different flavours.”
We’ve started in Tabanco San Pablo, in Calle San Pablo, just off the city centre. It’s as basic and old-time as you can get, and the great barrels behind the bar aren’t there for decoration. The young barman draws the fino de casa from a 600-litre barrel into a three-litre carafe before pouring it into scratched old shot glasses. Here you don’t get the catavino, the fine-stemmed tulip-shaped glass that aficionados say is the only one to use to truly appreciate sherry.
The tapas here are simple, six choices including spicy sausage and small portions of jamon Serrano and cheese, with a couple of slices of bread and a handful of tiny bread sticks set on the side of the plate. Enough for a nibble as you enjoy your chat and glass of wine before moving on to somewhere more fancy.
“Tapas was probably the first fast food, because if you go into a restaurant for a meal you have to spend time looking at the menu, then ordering and waiting for it to be served, but with tapas usually everything is there on display on the bar, or what isn’t can be prepared very quickly. You’ll still find a lot of traditional tapas such as albondigas and pimientos rellenos, meatballs and stuffed green peppers, both usually served in a tomato sauce, or chicken livers cooked in sherry.” These dishes are still referred to as tapas, even though they are served in small earthenware dishes instead of on top of a piece of bread. Actually, it’s pretty rare these days to find the ‘something on a bit of bread’ variety, unless you order a montadito, a tiny one-bite sandwich.
We move on to La Carboña, Gerry’s favourite restaurant, and one that serves a mix of traditional and ‘designer’ tapas, as well as excellent regional cuisine. While he chats with Anna, the maitre’d, I sample chistoras al oloroso, small spicy sausages which, once cooked and the excess oil poured off, are sautéed in oloroso and served on a slice of fried potatoes, foie marinated in Pedro Ximenez, the king of rich, dark desert wines, caramelised goat’s cheese with a spoonful of sweet cooked onion, and a creamy sampling of salmon and avocado pear. Small servings, but plenty for two to share, and absolutely delicious. Anna shows me the Carboña’s bodega, which is used for wine tastings as well as a wine store. Their wine menu represents over thirty sherry producers, with 14 different finos alone and ten quality brandies.
While on the subject of drink, I ask about the whole idea of drinking sherry with tapas or even throughout a meal.
“In Jerez it’s the custom to drink a glass fino, the driest and crispest of the sherries, with a tapa, although a lot of people drink beer – it just depends how you feel. Recently the Consejo Regulador, the organisation that regulates the production of sherry and its Denominaciónes de Origen and also acts as a promotional body, has come up with the idea of maridajes, suggestions of which of the seven types of sherry go best with specific foods. For example, fino and manzanilla, which are the same except that one is produced in Jerez and the other in Sanlucar de Barameda,are best as an aperitif or served with seafood, and light cheeses, as well as with tapas; amontiallado goes well with consommés and white meats; and Pedro Ximénez is excellent with deserts, blue cheeses or paté. I’ve tried drinking different sherries with each course, but to be honest, most of the people I was eating with sampled the other sherries but kept going back to the fino.”
After having followed a tapas trail getting gradually more avante garde, including a unique desert called Gin y tonic a comer, not strictly a tapa, but an amazing glistening pale blue jelly made from the juice of crushed juniper berries, the main flavouring for gin, dribbled with a sharp sauce of finely grated lemon zest, I was curious whether the amazing dishes I’d sampled in the newer bars and restaurants, could they really be considered tapas, I asked Gerry.
“Of course they can, because they are small servings that you can either eat yourself or share with others. The important thing is to experiment, both in the making and the eating. The whole concept of tapear is a way of life. In Spain, and especially in Andalucia, life takes place in the street and the social element is extremely important. Eating out doesn’t have to be a special event, but it can be special simply because of the new tapas that are being offered. One of my greatest pleasures is on a Saturday afternoon, when I’m not very busy, whiling away a few hours with friends over a few tapas and beers or glasses of fino. It’s a delightful way of life.”