Last Saturday night, two friends joined us for an evening on the Ruta Tapa. This is a three-day event that involves many of our local restaurants. Each participating restaurant makes one tapa solely from local ingredients and one tapa of its choice. During the Ruta Tapa – literally, the Tapa Route – each delicious tapa plus a small drink costs €2,50 (that’s two and a half Euros, just in case the comma threw you). Three or four tapas make an excellent meal, and you get to try new restaurants. and restaurants get a bump in business during the low season. The tapa pictured above is a local fish dish, and trust me, it tasted even better than it looks.
But did I start in the middle of this story for some people? I’d never heard of tapas until a few years ago, so let me offer a quick explanation. Tapas are small portions served on small plates. It’s Spanish dim sum. Tapas offer you an opportunity to sample new dishes without the risk of ordering a new entree in a conventional restaurant and hating your dinner. Mark, for example, has become a real fan of sausages in cider. I order cod croquettes whenever I can. And we both adore patatas bravas (think home fries with a spicy tomato-based sauce) and patatas alioli (think home fries with garlic mayonnaise). Yum.
Of course the best way to eat tapas is at a tapas bar. In a place like that, you sit on a stool or stand at the scarred wooden bar and order from among the tapas in the glass case in front of you. The best places like this are tiny holes in the wall, about the size of a college dorm room. Two or three kinds of beer might be available, along with a house red and a house white. Sometimes you can get a soda, and water sin or con gas is always at hand. Choosing a tapa can be a bit of a crapshoot, as not much English tends to be on offer. But everyone knows how to point, so you don’t leave hungry. Typically a jersey or pennant from a beloved fùtbol (that’s soccer to us Americans) team hangs on a wall, along with signs for various cervezas the bar may or may not serve and a few rather bedraggled attempts at decorating, such as giant ceramic flowers painted in color not found in nature (at least on this planet) or a bad painting of a female flamenco dancer swishing the skirt of her red dress. A place like that is an experience.
The best thing about tapas, though, is that they are small. You can get a big portion; that’s called a ración. But a tapa is a few bites, a sample, a suggestion. It’s a caress on the cheek, not a full-body hug. It’s a few notes hummed in remembrance of a long-ago dance. It’s a wink, a glance, a Mona Lisa smile of food on a little white plate. In a world that chants “bigger and better” and “grow or die,” a tapa is a tiny food rebellion, an homage to the small and perfect.
We loved the Ruta Tapa and will participate again the the Spring version. And in the meantime, we will eat our tapas at the little bars with the garish flowers on the wall. We’ll enjoy our time with the small treasures they serve.