Tapas—Many Tales, Many Faces, Many Plates

April 5, 2009

Tapeo is like a baroque, sybaritic game, as it pleases the five senses by means of multifarious smells, friendly pats on the back, the sight and beauty of the streets. It induces states of inspiration and delight, it gives rise to witty banter on trivial topics and the interchange of snippets of juicy gossip.
~Alicia Rio

Tapa, the exquisite Spanish finger food, derived its name from the verb tapar, meaning “to cover.” From this widely accepted assumption, the stories of the origins of tapas are many and disparate.

One legend suggests that the Spanish monarch Alfonso X “El Sabio,” who reigned in the 13th century, had fallen ill. He was advised to take small snacks between meals with some wine. Once recovered and convinced of the healing properties of this lifestyle, the king decreed that all inns must provide small delectable morsels when serving wine to patrons. He reasoned this avoided excess intoxication and intestinal problems caused by imbibing on an empty stomach.

To comply with the king’s edict, botillerias (bottle shops) and tabernas (taverns) apparently began cropping up around Spain. They served glasses or jars of wine covered with a slice of cured ham or cheese to block fruit flies from falling into the wine and also to assure the booze fell on a full belly.

Another version offered is that farm hands needed to consume smaller amounts of food during the work day so they could perservere until the main dinner was served—a meal so hearty that a siesta was often needed for digestion.

Tapas are not so much a type of food as they are a Spanish way of eating and socializing in a convivial bar atmosphere…even a way of living. Tapas venues, called tasca, are not restaurants in a formal sense, but exuberant and lively bars. They vary regionally based upon available foodstuffs and gastronomic preferences. Most historians posit that tapas was born in Andalusia, Spain’s second largest and most southern region, and not surprisingly the closest to North Africa.

Tapas, served hot and cold, are generally classified according to how they are eaten. Cosas de picar (meaning “things to nibble”) basically refer to finger food, the traditional being the quintessntial olive. If utensils like banderillas (decorated toothpicks) are used, the tapas are known as pinchos. Cazuelas (little dishes) are tapas that are lightly bathed in sauce. Whichever you choose from the wide array of tapas—from olives to eggs to hams to shellfish to peppers to potatoes, and so on—you are in for a regal treat.

TOMATO TOAST WITH SERRANO HAM

4 slices baguette or other rustic artisanal bread
2 ripe tomatoes, cut in half
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
4 paper thin slices of serrano ham (jamón serrano)

Without grating the skin, rub the open face, fleshy side of the tomatoes on a grater into a bowl. Add 3 T olive oil to the grated tomatoes. Season with salt and mix. Lightly brush or drizzle the bread with some olive oil, then toast the bread on both sides in the broiler or better yet on a barbeque grill. Spoon a small layer of the tomato mixture over the slices of the toast, evenly. Place a slice of serrano on each toast, then drizzle with a small trace of olive oil. Serve.

More tapas to follow on the next post.

Serrano hams (jamón serrano) are literally “mountain hams” which are a dry-cured Spanish delicacy that has attained national treasure status. The pigs feed on grass, fruit and, most importantly, acorns that fall every autumn from holm and cork oaks. This gives their meat a unique nutty flavor.

The hams are cured from 18-24 months in drying sheds (secaderos) which are usually found at higher elevations where the atmosphere is cooler and drier. It is generally considered to have a deeper flavor and firmer texture than its close cousin, Italian prosciutto.

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