I’ve always liked the theory behind tapas, in that you get to try several things, the tastebuds just whetted but never quite satiated. Tapas began as a little savory snack, hot or cold, that would accompany a caña, (a small glass of draft beer) or a glass of wine for free, filling the stomach a bit with the pre-meal drink. Usually a slice of ham, a plate of olives, a scoop of potato salad, or a small fried fish. Gradually, these became more complex and some places eventually started to charge for them, allowing you to choose from a selection that may be laid out on or under a glass bar. They are generally eaten while standing up, although there may be a few token tables. Some establishments though, are more like restaurants, with menus that allow you to choose a few small plates, and some larger plates of more traditional meals like stewed oxtail, and the tapas become more like a meal. If you want to really get crazy, you go out for the evening and eat and drink your way from bar to bar, this is called to tapear. Because Spaniards lunch around 2 and then don’t sit down to dinner until 10, 11 or later, a tapa or two can be a welcome filler.
There are several stories about the origin of tapas, both concerning King Alfonso X. In one, he insisted that tavern owners serve a bit of food with drinks so as to dissuade drunkenness. The other is that he ordered a sherry and, it being a windy day, the tavern owner lay a piece of ham on the glass to prevent dust from getting in. The King liked this “tapa”, or cover, so much that he asked for another. Others say that it simply developed as a way to keep fruit flies out of sweet sherry.
Our first tastes of tapas were these four that we found at the Mercado de San Miguel. A really cool concept, this is an old indoor market that fell into disuse that has been completely renovated into something like a Columbus Circle for food. Centrally located, we discovered it on our first day in Madrid, and had some of the best café con leche I have had in a long time at a stand called Café del Arte (a must after a 6 am flight from Paris). You can wander around the single-level market and purchase typical Spanish delicacies to enjoy right there, including coffee, desserts, wine, sherry and cocktails, sangria, and plenty of tapas. There is also a grocer, I guess for verisimilitude. This is an excellent idea in theory, and indeed the place was packed with tourists, and apparently some locals, enjoying local cuisine. I love the idea of grazing from place to place, picking a few things here, a few things there that entice and then grabbing a glass of something, finding a perch, and digging in and finding favorites. Unfortunately, the food was just not there, quality-wise. Hello? This is a pickle sandwich. What is not to love? With a pickle filled with marinated tuna and red pepper, and olives and onions and two toothpicks holding it all together, I expected it to be salty, but delicious salty, flavorful salty. And it was just salty. Very disappointing. And hard to eat.When we sidled up to a stand with croquettes, little fried balls filled with cheese (also meat, fish or other things) I thought “What could go wrong?” We even added some little pig-in-blanket type guys. But then the lady put them, on their little plastic plate, in the microwave. Not long enough for them to even get melty in the middle, just long enough to get sad.These are pintxos, a Basque variation on tapas which usually involves things eaten on bread, like a canapé, with a toothpick (pincho) stuck through it. They looked super interesting; little pieces of brown bread with slices of octopus or cheese, pepper and chorizo. They were oh-so bad. They even look like they’ve been sitting around a bit.
This is just for you to see, I was not brave enough to try them. They are angulas, tiny baby eels, a super popular treat in Spain. Apparently they are endangered. Also apparently, these (and the many other versions we saw) may be fake, made out of the same substance as fake crab, since real angulas can be 50 euros a serving. After that fairly terrible experience, we decided to go somewhere they might put a bit more thought into the food. Well hello, dark, Spanish looking tapas bar with bullfighting parephernalia on the walls! You will do!
The special house tapas, which presumably changes daily, was some kind of mustardy fish paste on bread and smothered with potato sticks. It was very good.
And then we tried one of their less tapa-y and more small plate-y dishes, braised “bull tile”, which came highly recommended by the waiter, and we assumed was bull tail.
This tapa we had at another restaurant where we went to eat octopus. I had been wanting to try baccalao (cod) croquettes, since they are quite traditional, and we had that very bad experience with croquettes. These were great, freshly fried, soft and slightly sweet inside, even with the slightly hipster presentation (a wire “frying” basket lined with faux “New England” newsprint).