Spotlight on food: Tapas are Spain’s miniature culinary masterpieces

Story by Bryan King // Photos by Maria Amasanti

SALAMANCA – At the bar Don Mauro, on the east side of the bustling Plaza Mayor, Chef Juan Jose Vega Rodriguez carefully lays out the ingredients for the day’s tapas selection.He’s making gazpacho, the traditional Spanish warm-weather dish. The creamy soup is a customer favorite.

“People like it because it’s a seasonal item,” said Rodriguez through a translator. “It’s only for the summer.”

To begin, the chef loads 20 tomatoes into a large silver pot. He tosses in a peeled, whole yellow onion, four cloves of garlic, a peeled cucumber and red bell pepper. Next, Rodriguez adds a quart of olive oil, two cups of water and a handful of salt.

If he looks poised and confident, it’s because this isn’t the first pot of gazpacho for Rodriguez, 38. He studied at Auxiliar de Clinica, where there is an emphasis on nutrition and health, and has been working at this particular restaurant for four years. He is in charge of the kitchen.

With two hands bracing a heavy industrial Bermixer, Rodriguez purees the ingredients and removes the pulp with a cone strainer. The result is hard to resist, a pinkish-red soup that’s smooth, rich and velvety on the tongue and meant to taste the same as it did 800 years ago when it emerged in the cafes and taverns of southern Spain.

Historically, the word tapas means lid, or to cover – as in to use the food as a cover on top of a glass of wine to keep bugs out. Functionally, the concept is to have a small portion of food that can be held in one hand.

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To Spaniards, tapas are not just about convenience. Their presence in everyday Spanish life is part of the country’s cultural mélange of food, drink and socializing.

“The Spanish are a vibrant and loquacious people who eat very late, even by European standards, and they enjoy a night out on the town,” said Clifford Wright, a California-based chef and author of the 2000 book The Mediterranean Feast.

Fernando Balsa, a professor at the School of Hospitality in Salamanca, echoed Wright’s explanation. For him, sharing the culinary tradition with friends and family is as important as what is actually on the plate. He said the essence of the experience is “to have a drink and have a tapa, and move around the different bars and pubs with your friends and family.”

Nutritionally, tapas are viewed as a bridge between meals. Wright said the finger foods help tide Spaniards over through the long gaps in the conventional Spanish eating schedule. Here, it is typical to have a light breakfast, a tapa and coffee around 11 and then a large, multi-course meal around 2:30. Another visit to a tapas bar often precedes dinner, which is around 8:30 or 9 or even later in Spain.

But tapas are not viewed as a snack might be in another country. They are crafted with care, drawing on the best and freshest ingredients in the country. That freshness also drives what tapas are on the menu at a particular establishment.

“Tapas are dictated by the customer and region,” says executive chef Alejandro Vaca Gomez of Tapas de Gonzalo, through a translator.

He explained how the northern regions of Spain are usually more seafood-oriented, whereas in central Spain, pork and beef tapas are more typical. A popular dish in this region is cochinillo, which is a pig that only feeds off its mother’s milk for three weeks before it’s served.

Chef Jesus Morales Carrero of Los Torres explained through a translator that tapas also vary by season. In the winter, tapas are usually warmer and heartier, while summer dishes tend to be characterized by fresh vegetables and spices. Traditionally, gazpacho, for example, was only served in the warmer months to help farmers combat the long workdays in the heat, according to Gomez.

Many chefs’ styles and spins on tapas vary depending on their training and resources. Emilio Muriel Rodriguez, chef at Casa Paca, believes in simplicity and sticks to more traditional tapas. The same can be said for Carrero. There are also chefs, such as Gomez, who are considered the “new alternative” because of their use of ingredients from other cultures.

“The traditionalist says you can only eat tapas with fingers,” said Balsa.

“The size of the tapa you only can touch with fingers. Now, tapas [are] not so traditional [but] complicated with the techniques of the cuisine. In different bars and pubs you have to use knives, forks and spoons but the traditionalist just [uses] one hand,” he added. “With imagination, with technique, you can try to convert any dish into a tapa.”

Magic mouthfuls: The ingredients that make tapas distinctive

Celebrated gastromone Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously saidTell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” Spanish tapas chefs would say the same about how they prepare their morsel-sized meals. The ingredients – specifically the meats, the cheeses, the vegetables and the spices – are carefully selected and calibrated to create a memorable culinary experience with each bite. Click on the gallery below to read more about the mouth-watering ingredients that many of Spain’s most distinctive tapas are made from.


About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.

Posted on May 17, 2014, in Reporting from Salamanca and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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