Tapas

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            I remember beginning to hear about Spanish tapas sometime in the last decade and the first time I actually had them was in Alexandria, Virginia at a wonderful Spanish restaurant.  I had pictured ordering tapas would be a Spanish version of ordering sushi off of a little conveyor belt, but the dishes we had that night were more like a series of starter or first course dishes made to order from a menu.  The plates were very good, but two, three, or at the most four was a full meal for two people so I still didn’t understand the Spanish idea of nibbling on these before going to dinner.  I have been curious ever since to find out what the true Spanish tapas are like.
            The idea is simple and evolves from a little saying, “Eat when you drink and drink when you eat”.  This isn’t a motto from over a tavern door, but comes from a more agrarian setting where men didn’t drink at home and didn’t drink alone.  They congregated after a day’s work at a home or commercial wine cellar to share a glass with their neighbors.  Following the above saying, they would have some bread with a simple topping of ham or cheese and place it atop their glass, between bites, to keep the flies off, thus the tapas, or top.  If another glass was poured, a different snack was introduced allowing them to communally enjoy the food along with the wine.  From this comes the variety of plates expected at a tapas bar or restaurant.  
            The first spectacular tapas restaurant we encountered in Barcelona had a display of about 100 premade plates, mostly comprised of multi-layered open-faced baguette sandwiches.  They were each little bits of artwork, but I feared, when we ordered a selection for lunch, that they might just look pretty, but all taste about the same.  You know the experience of those disappointing buffet sandwiches?  I’m happy to report, however, that my fears were unfounded.  Each one was a unique layering of a spread, a meat, a cheese, maybe some caramelized onions, and then little garnishes like olives, a shaving of a marinated vegetable, or even caviar that didn’t just look pretty, but actually contributed to the overall mouthful.  They were fun to eat, but they were rich.  
            We have been following the restaurant advice of a Barcelona resident Allan recently met and when Allan told me the restaurant he had made a reservation at for that night also specialized in tapas, I frankly felt a little sick.  I really didn’t think I could face more of those over the top little sandwiches.  But we went to the restaurant, an old place that is so small that when someone uses the cubicle sized washroom, they have to run the loud, electric hand dryer right in the dining space.  The waitress told us they had two specials of the day.  One was fresh clams in a garlic butter sauce and the other was baby octopus with beans.  Thinking …when in Barcelona… we ordered her two suggestions.  The clams came first and tasted exactly as clams in butter sauce always do.  
 Then came the beans and octopus dish.  What a surprise.  Two foods that had never previously been associated in my mind before were intermarried on this plate.  The white beans were soft and buttery, the octopus pieces were no bigger than the end of my pinkie and they were tender and blended with the soft bean flavor rather than standing out with fishiness.  All of this sat surrounded by a pool of a light flavored olive oil.  I don’t know how this sounds to you, but it was the best thing I have put in my mouth or my stomach since I got here.  It was Spanish comfort food and I am thinking my way through an attempt to replicate it at home.  There is no picture, but it wouldn’t look like much anyway because it was just mostly white.
            I researched some tapas recipes and quickly saw that many of them err on the side of being too simplistic, going down that dreadful road of looking cute, but tasting ubiquitous.  This particular website offers 71 tapas recipes and they actually look pretty authentic, meaning, multi flavored and built around seafood or jamon. http://euro.tienda.com/recipes/appetizers.html Unfortunately, I don’t see my coveted white beans with baby octopus on the list so I think I’m still going to have to make that one up, somehow.  But I may try a few of these others, too. 

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