ANYONE who has ever followed their nose around a Spanish town or village will at some point have entered a tapas bar or bodega. Most people just follow the crowds, because participating in the tapeo (tapa-hopping) is part and parcel of the Spaniards social scene. The Spanish love to congregate and converse (loudly if possible) in the cool interior of a typical wine bar with clay-tiled floors, serrano hams hanging, drying from the ceiling and a bar top overflowing with colourful, tantalizing little portions of food, tempting to be eaten. The aromas of garlic, parsley, olive oil, peppers and saffron wafting from the kitchen is what draws you in, most times you will have to push your way to the bar (a little elbowing is permitted) to shout your order to the camarerro. Tapas are extremely varied, hot or cold, from simple to inspired, each region or even bar has its own specialties, you can eat a few as a prelude to dinner or eat a lot, hopping from bar to bar until you've had your fill. The literal translation of tapa is top or cover and although there are various theories to their origins the most plausible one is this... the sherry houses of Andalusia placed a small plate over the glasses of wine to protect them from fruit flies and dust. A slice of bread and a tiny piece of local ham were placed on top to entice clients to the wine bar, and the saltiness of the ham helped to sell more sherries. Before long the cooks from the bars would be creating evermore elaborate dishes to attract more customers and out-do the competition, and so the tapa was born. It has been said that participating in the tapeoprovides an opportunity to feel the pulse of the nation and with its diversity, colour and exuberance I think that sums it up for me. Tapas can be as simple as you make them, slices of serrano ham, marinated olives or fried anchovies etc. The following recipes are also simple and can be prepared in advance leaving you free to enjoy the company of your guests and stop them from drinking all your rioja while you slave away in the kitchen.