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THE WORLD ON A PLATE

One bite fits all

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Tapas has evolved with various cultural influences from the Romans to the Moors

Ceramic plates and painted tiles decorate the walls. Huge pieces of cured ham hang from the ceiling. Platters of small green peppers fried in salt (known locally as pimientos de pardon), deep fried pieces of eggplant, chunks of chorizo sausage, special manchego cheese, jamon (Special Iberian ham made from pigs that only feast on acorns), swordfish with vinegar and garlic and the omnipresent tortillas with eggs and potatoes (Spain's signature dish, clearly) keep flowing in from the kitchen.

We are on a tapas crawl with Joanna Wivell, our vivacious guide who runs Insider Madrid, which does specialised niche tours on cooking, flamenco and shopping. Joanna tells us, "Madrilenos love to talk and converse, so the tapas is all about that, a kind of social ritual". The locals meet every evening to argue, discuss sports or politics and spend some time in a convivial atmosphere before heading home. A very important part of the ritual consists in moving from one bar to another looking for a particular atmosphere or speciality. Many locals joke that the only exercise they get is walking between tapas bars.

Every culture has foods meant to awaken the appetite like hors d'oeuvres or mezze but tapas is more akin to a separate dining experience. It might have originally been just about simple snacks, maybe almonds fried in olive oil or just olives. Moreover, tapas used to be offered for free, but as dishes became more exotic they had to be paid for. Today, these bite-sized morsels that the Spanish wash down with beer, wine or sherry may be hot or cold but are always freshly made. The drink that I take to instantly is Sangria, the blood red mix of cognac, red wine and diced citrus fruits. Every restaurant has its own sangria recipe - typically a mix of wine, brandy and fresh fruits, served over ice.

And every bar across Spain has its signature tapas dish, usually a specialty from one region of the country. Some may specialise in grilled mushrooms;others may specialise in gambas or shrimps. In fact, the Spanish love tapas so much that they even have a verb for it - tapear, a verb that means 'to go out and eat tapas'.

The word tapas is derived from the Spanish word 'tapar' meaning a lid or cover. Legends say that the original tapas were the slices of bread and meat that were used to cover drinks in the bars in Andalusia to prevent fruit flies from hovering around sherry glasses. Some say that the practice originated from King Alphonso X, 'The Wise', who recovered from an illness by downing small dishes with wine. He decreed that the taverns could not sell wine to customers unless it was accompanied by a small snack or tapas.

Others say that it was King Felipe the Third, who ordered that drinks should always be served with a small snack so that his subjects stayed sober. We also hear about the claim that tapas was invented by hard-working farmers who needed to eat small amounts of food to keep them going until the main evening meal. But my favourite story is the one which goes that a few 16th-century tavern owners from Castilla-La Mancha discovered that the strong smell of mature cheese could help disguise the fact that they were serving bad wine to their customers. This offering of free cheese when serving cheap wine soon became wildly popular and was probably the precursor of the first tapas. And tapas evolved with many influences from different cultures: the Romans brought olives, the Moors brought almonds, citrus fruits and potatoes, and chili peppers and corn came in from the New World.

With discarded tissues and olive pips on the floor, El Neru is an example of the grungy cider bars that the Spanish so love. This building used to be a printing press and is now well known for its 'filter coffee' style of pouring of a stream of cider into a pint glass by an adept barman. The cider has to be drunk fast so as to not lose the mix. We feast on small pieces of bread with creamy blue cheese before we walk to the new epicenter of tapas here - the swanky wrought iron and wooden Mercado de San Miguel, an old covered market which was converted into an Art Nouveau style gourmet food market. Instead of air conditioning, the market's ceiling is fitted with a misting system and we get sprayed by micro rain as we dig into our tapas. We enjoy trawling through the stalls selling a wide range of food and drinks from fried almonds and traditional sweets like rosquillas and bolitas de coco (a sweet with coconuts) to platters of seafood, oysters and thin slices of ham. The market remains open till 2 am on weekends and as we head back to our hotel we notice that the roads are still crowded as the vibrant night owls, Madrilenos, fortified by their afternoon siestas, are quite ready to party until dawn.

TAPAS-TIQUETTE


You can order for Banderillas while you wait for your tapas. It's bite-sized food on a cocktail stick and it's named after the barbed darts used during the bullfight Eat standing up by the barra (counter) as locals do. Bars charge a little more to serve tapas on a table If you are travelling in a group, order raciones (which is approximately a plate)

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