Saturday, June 14, 2008

Kingly Thoughts on Tapas

A week ago, my travels through sunny Spain took me to the beautiful town of El Puerto de Santa Maria. It is one point in the famous Sherry Triangle which connects with Jerez and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. These three places produce all of the sherry in the world. In El Puerto I visited the famous Osborne bodega. They make amazing sherries and brandies but you might know Osborne from hearing about or seeing the huge black bull signs along the highways of Spain. They are an incredible sight.

After the tour of the bodega I was offered (and accepted - hic!) plenty of samples of sherry and plates of olives and potato chips. These plates are referred to as tapas. Tapas? More on than in a moment. Before I left I had to have my picture taken with one of the famous bulls. It was a bit tricky holding on after a dozen samples!

Tipsy bull riding!

In addition to sampling sherries and eating, I walked around the town and came across Castillo de San Marcos which was built by the Moors in the 13th century (as a watch tower and mosque) and then taken over and rebuilt (as a castle) by Alfonso X. The castle today, ironically is owned by the Callabero bodegas. Outside the castle is a statue of the king, also known as Alfonso the Wise. I had my picture taken with him (as seen below) Many also refer to him as Alfonso the Tapas King. Tapas you say?

Me and the Tapas King

Anyone who has ever visited Spain will be familiar with tapas. If you're not, I offer a small history.

Tapas is the name given to a wide variety of appetizers in Spanish cuisine. They can be cold or hot, they may be small dishes of meat, seafood, olives, tortillas (Spanish omlettes) or potato chips and they may even be vegetarian (usually bread with cheese and tomato).

The legend of tapas, like many legends, has a few different versions. According to one, the tapas tradition began when Castile's King Alfonso the Wise (Mr. Tapas himself - with apologies to the late Joe DiMaggio) recovered from an illness by drinking wine and nibbling small dishes between meals. Once he felt better (the wine I'm sure was better than any medication!) the king ordered taverns to serve their guests food along with wine, and tapas was born!

According to the famous book The Joy of Cooking (although one might argue that another Joy of book - I'm sure you know which one I'm referring to - is more famous!) the original tapas were slices of bread which sherry drinkers in Andalusian taverns used to cover their glasses between sips. This prevented fruit flies from flying into the sweet sherry. Soon, enterprising bartenders were putting small snacks on the bread, and the tapas (from the Spanish tapar, "to cover") became just as famous as the sherry.

Now others believe that the name originated sometime around the 16th century when tavern owners from Castilla - La Mancha (or Don Quixote country) found out that the strong taste and smell of mature cheese could help disguise that of bad wine, thus "covering" it, and started offering free cheese when serving cheap wine. Kind of like offering free peanuts or nachos or chips when serving crap draft beer (think American Budweiser).

Yet another popular explanation says that another king, Alfonso XII stopped by a famous inn in Cadiz where he ordered a glass of sherry. The waiter covered the glass with a slice of cured ham to protect the wine from the beach sand, as Cádiz is a windy place. The king, after drinking his wine and eating the tapas, ordered another sherry "with the same cover".

So whichever story you believe, one thing is certain, there is nothing like sitting in a bar sipping on a fino or manzanilla sherry and having a nice (veggie please!) plate of tapas. One thing I think we can all agree on is that king Alfonso X was very, very wise!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post, I am almost 100% in agreement with you