Sovereign bites

Sovereign bites

The Spanish are very Indian; or, alternatively, we are very Spanish. For one thing, they prefer social dining between 9 and 11 pm, perhaps even at midnight.

 And since their great, noisy restaurant lunches are between 2 and 4 pm, there’s a lot of time in between. They fill the time in between by snacking, not as we do at street vendors’, but at tapas bars.  And thereby hang some fascinating tales.

A royal snack

Spain is a bright and sunny Mediterranean land where wine is an essential part of a meal. It is not something to be drunk after office hours. Our favourite Spanish tipple is a sweet fortified wine from Jerez, formerly Xeres pronounced sherez, and now known as sherry.

 We and a myriad others like it and so do fruit flies. To keep away these dot-sized insects, Spanish barmen started placing a slice of ham to cover, or tapa, the glass. Since the salt in the cured ham also makes one thirsty, sherry vendors were delighted! Then on a tiring trip around his kingdom, King Alfonso X stopped at a tavern. It was a gusty day, so the tavern-keeper covered the royal glass with a tapa of a slice of bread and a snack: a sort of open sandwich.

The king was delighted and he asked for a second glass along with a similar tapa. Later, the king observed that everyone who had a tapa snack with their drinks remained sober. Alfonso decreed that henceforth, in his kingdom, tapa snacks would always be served with drinks at no extra charge. This could be one reason why Alfonso X was known as el Sabio, the Wise.

Alcohol goes to the head when it passes into the bloodstream through the stomach. But if the stomach is busy digesting food… particularly fried or fatty food, the head-spinning effects of the alcohol are cut down. This is why drinks in Defence Services messes, good clubs and bars have to be accompanied by fried nuts or chips. The accepted convention, in civilised societies, is that though one can drink, one must never be drunk.

But neither peanuts nor potatoes had reached Europe at that time, so other obligatory snacks had to be invented. This gave rise to the wide array of Spanish nibbles called tapas. Over the centuries that followed Alfonso’s culinary diktat, the affable Spanish refined the tapas experience into a fine social art. Moreover, the tapas habit had other far-reaching effects on the Spanish way of life. 

Not only do such small snacks place less of a strain on the digestion, but they also allow conversations to be conducted in an easier, freer-flowing manner than the constraints of course-servings would allow. This, among the sociable Spanish, has given rise to the word tapeo: the art of eating tapas as a gregarious social encounter. We, personally, took to it like ducks to water and discovered that Madrid, the capital of Spain, has a wide range of tapas bars.

To start with, we concentrated on the lanes that weave off Plaza Santa Ana and the first tapas bar was at the back of a ham shop: Jamon 10. Legs of cured ham hung from rails above the counters, many of them had the black hoofs that indicated that these prized animals had been fed on flavour-enhancing acorns. 

Slice of goodness

A customer waited while a butcher in an apron carved fine slices from a cured leg. We walked past the counter to the back of the shop where there were a few tables with chairs, and racks of wine. When the glasses of wine were served to us, they were accompanied by small trays of the speciality of the house, the jamon iberico de bellota ham, as well as sweet sausage from the Balearic Islands, morcilla black pudding, and other savouries.

The snacks were light and varied and so we were able to pick and choose without making a substantial hole in our pockets. This is one of the major attractions of tapas bars in contrast to restaurants. In restaurants, customers have to pay for substantial portions of the food ordered, regardless of how much has been actually consumed. Snacks, in any outlet, are served in smaller, and therefore more economical, portions. This is true of tapas bars as well. 

The term ‘tapas bar’ has a different connotation in Spain from the word ‘bar’ in India. ‘Bars’, at home, often conjure up the erroneous image of dimly-lit, rather macho, places where the only women who would care to enter would be the hard-bitten, hyper-sophisticated, Page 3 types. In Spain, however, we’ve seen whole families sitting animatedly at tables in brightly-lit tapas bars, in full view of passers-by. These friendly establishments have a sort of Big M atmosphere without their American eat-and-run bustle!

All through our excursions to tapas bars in Madrid, and across the southern province of Andalusia, we were never offered spirits with our tapas; nor did we see any of the other customers drinking those hard liquors even when they were Germans and Brits. Some drank beers but by far the greater majority sipped wines. We enjoyed an excellent Rioja Allende 2004 from the little La Rioja region tucked below the Basque Country and Navarre, to the north of Spain, near France. 

Which brings us to a possible solution to the perennial dilemma of desperately dry states. Ban intoxicating spirits if you must, but then permit all bars to serve less objectionable wines with obligatory tapas snacks. It will encourage conviviality, discourage bootlegging and lead to the evolution of pan-Indian fusion snacks and a flowering of creativity among our vintners. Every Indian fruit and berry can be fermented into a wine with a wide range of strengths and full of vitamins. They can all be served with our own vast range of indigenous tapas.

The politician who has the foresight to do this would certainly earn the Spanish title of el Sabio, the Wise. As we said, we and the Spanish have a lot in common.  

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