Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Tapas, Pinchos, Pintxos and Montaditos
The days of free tapas are almost completely over in Spain. Nowadays, the free, simple, bread based tapas I remember from my very early Spanish forays (circa 1960s) have been mostly replaced by charcuterie on crusty baguette slices or small cooked plates; and the vast majority costs money.
Tapas may be cold such as mixed olives and pickled vegetables, cheese wedges or jamón and sausage slices or pickled fish on bread or hot such as “albóndigas” (small meatballs in sauce) or “gambas al ajillo” (cooked prawns in sizzling olive oil with lots of garlic and chili peppers). In most bars and tascas of the larger towns in Spain, tapas have evolved into sophisticated regional cuisine.
A pincho has a toothpick speared through it. The toothpick is used to keep whatever the snack is made of from falling off the slice of bread and to keep track of the number of tapas the customer has eaten. Differently priced pinchos have toothpicks of different sizes or color. With the exception of large cities (Madrid, Zaragoza, Seville etc.) tapas are avoided at lunch. It’s more of a late afternoon or evening tidbit shared with friends while having a glass of wine or beer; in the larger cities tapas replacing a quick lunch are generally acceptable. In the Basque countryside, Catalonia, Andalucía and Navarra tapas are regarded as the underpinnings of local culture and social interaction. It is very common for a bar or small local restaurant to offer 8 to 15 different excellent tapas on top of the bar; otherwise the establishment would not survive for long.
There is still confusion, even amongst the Spaniards themselves, on whether tapas are free and pinchos are paid for or the other way around. In the 17th and early 18th century, at the time tapas originated, tapas -- the Spanish word for “cover” -- were a piece of bread large enough to cover the mouth of a wine glass; they were there to stop insects from trying to get into your glass of wine. At the time, the average Spanish wine, especially sherry, was much sweeter and would attract fruit flies, bees and other winged creatures.
By the mid 18th century some enterprising Andaluz tavern owner realized that if your tapa had a piece of salty cured meat or salty cheese on it, the customer would probably eat it; the salt would cause thirst, therefore you would consume more wine. Another possible explanation for using a cheese tapa was when the tavern sold poor quality wine; the strong smell of a very ripe cheese would cover the poor smell of cheap wine. That is the reason simple tapas of salty meat or cheese were free, to cause thirst and more wine drinking or cover the poor taste of cheap wine. It is much later on, by the late 1920s, that tapas started appearing as small amounts of cooked food on a piece of bread.
In the Basque region such as the city of Donostia (San Sebastián), you are served “pintxos”; it is never written “pinchos” and they are never called tapas. You always pay for your pintxos. In Salamanca, in most bars, you are served “pinchos”. They are almost always a piece of meat or cheese or pickled fish and nowadays even something more elaborate, skewered with a toothpick and served on a piece of baguette bread. However, here sometimes they might be free, one for each glass of wine you drink. In Granada and some other nearby cities as well as in some bars in Madrid, a small portion of food, whether served on bread or not, is always a ‘tapa’.
“Piparras” are a kind of pincho that consist of pickled items like olives, garlic cloves, baby onions, cornichons and pieces of pimentón mounted together on a toothpick without bread; sometimes they include a pickled white anchovy. In Murcia and the capital city of Madrid, a vinegar pickled white anchovy (boquerón) and a salt-cured dark anchovy (anchoa) on a piece of square white bread are called matrimonio i.e. marriage; and you will find them served in many bars. In Seville and other parts of Andalusia all small portions are called tapas. They are not free; neither are “montaditos” the Catalan name for a tapa made of something on or in a piece of breadroll the size of a tapa. The montadito is a tradition that predates even the sandwich, all the way back to the fifteenth century. In most cities, plated portions large enough to share with at least another person or two are called “ración”. There is also “media ración” which is smaller than a ración but larger than just a tapa.
On our first evening in Barcelona, we went “tapear” i.e. walked from tasca to tasca drinking good Catalan red wine and munching on tapas and montaditos.
We first stopped at TAPEO, Carrer dels Assaonadors 25, a rather narrow space with a small seating bar and a few tables where patrons, young thirty- or forty- something locals were sitting or standing three to four deep. The minuscule kitchen at the back of the space is cramped as four or five cooks work to prepare the fare, but what comes out of it is absolutely exceptional.
Merce Dalmau Cortés, the owner of Clos Galena in Taragona who had come to visit with us was surprised to find that one of her wines, the Formiga was on the wine list. Formiga is a blend of Garnacha Negra, Samsó, and Syrah that I had enjoyed very much a few years back and I now keep in my cellar, as it is available in the US. We ordered the Formiga bottle and numerous specialties of the house.
Small plates were delivered and the tabletop was fully covered by delightful surprises. The most memorable were: Chicharones de Cadiz, fried ham slices with sea salt sprinkled on top; the strips of meat tasted like fresh non-smoked bacon. Rabbit with snails; the rabbit saddle was quick fried and the snails were in an onion, vinegar and tomato ragout. A Rabo de Toro sandwich, slices of which we shared, was tail-of-bull meat in a red wine sauce. Small Catalan saffron beans with cod fish. An unexpected surprise was chips with wassabi – salty, spicy and an excellent pairing for the last gulps of the Formiga.
We finished with a glass of PX (Pedro Ximenez), a sweet, dark and brooding wine that accompanied a chocolate truffle sprinkled with sea salt and small bowls of lemon custard covered with a caramelized top of sugar and half a ripe strawberry. Pure delight!
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