Quick Recipes and Easy

Spanish Tapas – The Small Plate With The Big Flavour

Imagine yourself on the terrace of an informal Spanish tapas bar. All around you, lively locals are engaged in animated conversation over their evening drinks. The atmosphere is buzzing – and loud!

In front of you is a carafe of house wine, two glasses and your best friend. As you are chatting and enjoying the ambience, you are both picking at a small plate of mixed tapas with your fingers. (Only tourists use a fork!)

There is serrano ham (jamon), some chorizo, maybe some Manchego cheese and some olives. You have some extra-virgin olive oil dribbled onto your plate and a small basket of fresh crusty bread to mop it up with.

The setting sun is warm on your face, the air is heavy with scent and you’ve just found the right flavour of the real Spain. Your very own small piece of tapas heaven!

But what is tapas and where did it originate? Tapas is simply a small snack or appetiser taken with a drink or two at lunchtime or in the early evening before the main meal. The Spanish generally won’t drink without eating something and originally these small snacks were given free to anyone who bought a drink. Now nearly all bars will charge you for anything other than maybe a bowl of olives.

The origins of tapas are the subject of many an argument in the local bar. (It seems to depend on which area of Spain you are from!) It is said that the first tapa was simply a hunk of bread which was placed over the glass to keep the flies out. Hence the word ‘tapas’ was born. Tapa literally meaning ‘cover’ or ‘lid’.

In the beginning somewhere must have been the humble olive. What better accompaniment to a glass of dry fino sherry? Or perhaps some almonds; fried in olive oil, sprinkled with salt and served while they’re still hot? These are the original tapas; the simplest of foods, requiring small or no preparation.

As the tradition developed, tapas became more of an elaborate event, with each region developing their own specialities. They were still ‘small dishes’ but the personalities of thousands of bar owners has stamped them with the identities that they have today.

Such is the diversity of tapas that in bars all over Spain and the world you can order virtually anything that takes your fancy. From an exotically-flavoured, spicy Moorish dish to a simple bowl of olives, the choice is entirely yours. But oh, my friend, what a choice it is!

How about a plate of succulent, wafer-thin slices of serrano ham or jamon iberico? If you haven’t tried this yet then you have missed out on one of life’s gastronomic pleasures. It truly is heaven on a small plate!

A glass of Manzanilla sherry with some salty and nutty Manchego cheese is very well loved with the Spanish locals. It doesn’t come much simpler and it takes some serious beating. All these wonderful flavours and we haven’t even started cooking yet!

Spain’s landscape is extremely diverse and covers areas such as mountain ranges and dusty plains, olive and fruit groves plus fertile orchards and rich arable lands. Spain also has climate extremes. Regions that are cold and wet, regions that are hot and dry, and just about everything in between. It has a huge coastline, facing both the Atlantic ocean and the Mediterranean sea. Hardly surprising then, that the cuisine of its coastal regions is very heavily based on fish and seafood.

The northern coastal regions have both fish and seafood from the Atlantic ocean and some of the finest cattle, sheep and dairy foods in Spain. The climate here is relatively cold and wet so recipes tend to be hearty, warming and filling. The hot southern coastal region is the land of olives, olive oil and sizzling fried fish from around the long coastline. The food of the eastern coast is exciting and richly varied. Here there are groves of oranges and almonds, large market gardens, rice fields, aromatic herbs and noticeable similarities with French mediterranean food. The western and central areas are lands of hardy countrymen, lamb and pig roasts and simple hearty cooking with many stew-type dishes. Also from here comes Spain’s best-known cheese: Manchego, as well as many other sheeps’ milk cheeses.

Tapas has evolved throughout the country’s long history and through the incorporation of many ingredients and influences from different cultures and countries.

The east coast was invaded by the Romans, who introduced the olive and irrigation methods.

The invasion of the north-African Moors in the 8th century also brought olives to the south, as well as almonds, citrus fruits and fragrant spices. The influences of their 700 year occupation remain today, especially in Andalucia.

The discovery of the New World brought with it the introduction of tomatoes, sweet peppers (capiscums), chilli peppers, beans and potatoes. These were readily accepted and easily grown in Spain’s ideal micro-climates.

Spanish food, and especially tapas, is based on simple methods and the imaginative use of seasonal vegetables and local ingredients. You can make your tapas with anything you like, there are no ‘specific to tapas’ ingredients.

Although to fully experience Spanish tapas at its best you should try a few of the classic dishes like tortilla (omelette), albondigas (meatballs) and calamares (squid). Tapas is essentially hearty and unpretentious. Ingredients are fresh, flavours are robust and recipes are simple. Preparation and presentation is generally pretty straightforward.

Why do they eat this way? Tapas is essentially a style of eating rather than a form of cooking. It means sociability, friends and family. People of a like mind talking and drinking in a relaxed atmosphere while nibbling away on small bites of intense flavour.

You can keep it simple or you can make it as complicated as you like but whichever way you prefer it, tapas is best served with an early evening drink among friends and lively company. You will not, I promise you, find a more pleasurable and flavour-filled experience anywhere in the world.

Wherever you live, these ‘small dishes’ will give you a tasty small mouthful of Spain. So sit back, take your time and delight in your tapas to the full. There is no better way to sample the real essence of Spanish life and culture.

Steve Lean lives in Andalucia, southern Spain and is the webmaster of proper-spanish-tapas.com Proper Spanish Tapas where you can find ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about tapas – the small plate with the BIG flavour.’



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