Madrid bars turn tapas into fine works of art, offering an innovative take on the traditional style of cuisine.
Tapas is often little more than a plate of anchovies or a slice of tired chorizo, but a tapas festival in Madrid showed how the humble bar snack is catching up with Spain’s mould-breaking restaurant cuisine.
Many of the 38 bars vying for the 3000 euro (US$4668) first prize served Spanish classics: Spanish omelette, pots of gooey tripe, freshly grilled prawns and Madrid’s own specialty, “patatas bravas” – fried potatoes covered in spicy tomato sauce.
But others, inspired by the “Nueva Cocina” or “New Cooking” championed by Spain’s Ferran Adria – described as the world’s most influential chef –offered an innovative take on traditional tapas.
At one stand, Cristina Montalban was quickly spooning warm black pudding and apple on to small canapes and drizzling on a red pepper puree as she worked to meet demand from some of the 100,000 people visiting the four-day festival.
Montalban and her brothers Javier and Juan run La Parroquia in Miraflores de la Sierra near Madrid, and were runners-up in last year’s competition to find the Madrid region’s best tapas.
“There’s the influence from ‘New Cooking’ of course. The mixture of sweet and savoury, for example. But you also have to keep your traditional roots,” said Montalban, who was also offering tapas of smoked cod with peppers and balsamic vinegar, and goats cheese with caramelised onions and walnuts.
Restaurants like Adria’s El Bulli have dumped traditional kitchen techniques in favour of high-tech creations distilling flavours into foams and gels, although one of Spain’s leading chefs last month labeled such “New Cooking” as pretentious.
DRINK DRIVING CURE?
Having a quick beer and a tapa has long been a pre-meal ritual in Spain, and many Spaniards credit the tradition with having saved them from drinking’s worst excesses.
“On Sundays you go out and have a tapa. It’s a tradition, like the English with their tea,” said retiree Caridad Bustos.
No one knows exactly how the tradition started.
Tapas means “lid” in Spanish and many say the word comes from the south where drinkers used to place a slice of bread over their glass to stop flies falling into their sherry.
Others say tapas was the result of a royal decree that food be served with every drink so cart drivers and coachmen did not get drunk and crash while travelling from one inn to the next.
San Sebastian near the French border is credited by many as having Spain’s best, though most expensive, tapas, while in the south, a drinker in Granada can end a night with a full stomach, having paid nothing for simpler food.
David Gonzalez who prepares tapas at El Chabolu in Madrid, said bars must be careful not to over-elaborate and lose sight of the fact it should be a simple – and free – barside snack.
“The guys starting now prefer the cooking of Ferran Adria and it’s a shame. They should start with the basics,” he said.
Tourists should be wary though; the bar, not the customer, decides what to serve, and visitors to the capital will occasionally be given a Madrid specialty – pigs ears.