After seeing last week’s shocking media coverage of reckless Covid crowds on Bournemouth and other beaches in the UK, completely trashing any semblance of safe protocol, I wanted to use a photograph of one said beach, and run a competition called ‘Spot the Brain Cell’. Unfortunately, it was almost impossible to locate one single brain cell amongst the thoughtless meleé, so I abandoned the idea and decided to lift the lockdown mood with a little ramble about ‘tapas’, possibly my all-time favourite way of eating and entertaining - my ultimate guilty pleasure.
Although I have not yet ventured back out into the world of restaurant dining, my nostalgic thoughts are drawn to those wonderful places, where instead of savouring one plate or two, you can feast on five or six. Maybe seven! I’m not being greedy, but top end tapas are not a snack to be taken lightly. Not just a ‘bite’ or a noble nibble, but a cultural statement that gives a big heads up along with a cheeky nod to Spain’s number one culinary gift to the world.
Forget paella, it’s those exclusive and imaginative tapas dishes that really get people jumping. Spanish and Majorcan social networking, pre Covid, was always a lively, fast moving lifestyle choice which had no time for sitting around through cosy, five-course, sit down designer menus. It’s about connecting, charging the batteries, then off on a mission! Which in the current climate, as things are slowly getting back to normal, is the perfect dining experience. Not too much hanging around!
Tapas has always been pitched for a busy, bustling Mediterranean culture like Majorca; one that’s always on the move and constantly evolving. Delicious tasters (never meant for sharing), traditionally taking no more than two or three bites at most, are usually eaten standing up with a drink in one hand and a mobile phone in the other, surrounded by packed crowds, laughter and buzzing conversation with friends. It’s a scenario I have revelled in many times and hope to reclaim very soon once the virus is sorted.
Tapas are a very visual affair, usually presented with no real menu to consider apart from a chalked up blackboard and daily specials, depending on the ethos of the establishment. It’s definitely a love at first sight – or bite, depending how you look at it. Taste buds tingle as something eye catching instantly attracts you at the counter, before delivering an ambrosial hit to the palate when you bite into your chosen selection.
Tapas are fun, playful, and a food fad that has taken off, globally, evolving as a sophisticated art form around the world. Yet no-one does it better, or more seriously than they do in Spain, where apparently there is an average of seven bars for every 1,000 people, which translates as twice as many as the rest of Europe.
Here in Majorca, tapas has taken a slightly different route and evolved into it’s own unique version of the mainland’s star - a custom they created here, and call ‘variat’ or ‘variadas’, which is a selected portion of various, traditional tapas served together on one (usually rather small) plate. What are those select Majorcan tapas? You might ask. Well it all depends on the local restaurant or bar, but usually it will include a selection of ‘frito mallorquin’(fried offal with potato and onions), ‘ensaladilla’ (Russian potato salad), albondigas (meatballs in tomato sauce), ‘pica pica’ (spicy cuttlefish stew) and ‘croquetas’ (chicken or ham croquettes), with tortilla and garlic mushrooms chasing up the rear and often somewhere in the picture, along with a huge stack of local bread.
Variadas are considered the queen of tapas by many here on the island. Yet some people (myself included) don’t like to mix everything up on one plate, and prefer their ‘little bites’ to be sampled individually, thus fully appreciating each delicious sample in its entirety.
The first emblematic tapas reputedly originated from Andalucia, and were served as house specialities to showcase local bars. Eventually ‘cervezerias’ all over Spain picked up on the idea, introducing their own variations on the Andalucian theme. Coastal towns introduced seafood while mountain areas created small, individual tasting plates called ‘raciones’, using regional meat recipes and offal in rich dark sauces, yet always something simple that needed nothing more than a spoon or fork, along with some bread, to mop up the juices. Anything using a knife was considered more for restaurants. After all a tapa is essentially finger food.
The ‘pintxo’ or ‘snack on a spike’, first appeared in San Sebastian, Northern Spain. It is said that the first tasty morsel ever speared with a cocktail stick, was an anchovy skewered between a pickled chilli and a green olive which even today, they still call ‘la gilda’. But decades since, San Sebastian the gourmet capital of Spain, has taken the tapa concept to another level, cranked up the volume, and turned simple snacks into a complete art form, creating photogenic masterpieces, showcasing towers of tasty tit-bits that balance and defy gravity, until you attempt to eat them!
Obviously, due to Covid-19, San Sebastian and all tapas bars across Spain and Majorca will now have to look at different ways of presenting their wares to keep their iconic tradition alive. I only hope the pressure of protocol doesn’t make it disappear altogether!
Absolutely the best tapas I have ever eaten came from San Sebastian, which continue to inspire me whenever I invite friends around for a tapa feast. I always prefer making a selection of different ‘small dishes’ and ‘tapas’ over one main course when entertaining; especially when everything can be prepared in advance and served together on platters with no constant running backwards and forwards to the kitchen. Plus you get to sit down with your guests and enjoy all the spoils of the party.
My favourite tapa is a melt-in-the-mouth ‘bacalao’ - salted cod glazed in a traditional parsley and garlic sauce served on a crusty slice of bread. Also ‘iberica’ ham with caramelized onion, tomato and grilled goats cheese with balsamic drizzle. Yum! ‘Pulpo a la Gallega’ is another winner – sweet, tender octopus in a piquant sauce with potato and onion. Swoon! I’m getting hungry now!
A quick, easy, and very impressive tapa dish I invented along the way is a deliciously stuffed red pepper. You need to find small red peppers for this (they often come in packs of three from Lidl) and try to choose ‘squarish’ ones, so they sit nicely when you cook and present them. Cut peppers in half, lengthways. Try to keep and cut through the stalk as this makes them look attractive on the plate. Line each pepper half with a slice of parma ham, letting the ham spill over the sides a little. Into each pepper half add some chopped garlic and ground black pepper. Quarter some tomatoes and arrange three pieces of a tomato into each pepper. Weave an anchovy fillet through the tomatos with some fresh basil leaves and a few black olives, then sprinkle with some dried basil. Pour over a little olive oil which will take the dried basil down into the pepper. Then drizzle with a little balsamic vinegar. At this stage you can cover and refrigerate for the following day or evening, or bake, packed together on a tray, for around 45 mins at 180C until slightly caramelised. Baste several times with juices while baking. Cover and keep warm. When ready to serve heat through in a low oven and top with two freshly sautéed prawns and a sprinkled garnish of coriander or parsley. Tapa heaven on a platter!
I pray that the world will soon right itself, and we shall all find our way back to our previous lives, where indulging in something like a simple tapa crawl or having valued friends back around the table will be a real treat. Can’t wait!