“Eat when you drink, drink when you eat” is the Spanish philosophy. Spanish men traditionally drink outside the home and rarely alone. Tapas are not meant to be a meal (although a racion is a substantial portion). One tapa per person and a different one with each drink is the idea, then everyone enjoys tasting and sharing. Tapas food is real food – good local ingredients presented with flair. I adore morcilla, a Spanish version of black pudding (and being Lancastrian by birth black pudding is in my DNA !), frequently served as a tapa. The morcilla of Burgos is the most renowned. I love wafer like slithers of manchego cheese served in a little olive oil, cubes of tortilla, patatas bravas, pan fried chorizo, slices of bread rubbed with tomato with a slice of serrano ham on top, garlicky prawns. Where ever you go there are different ideas and combinations; they are never boring. The name changes from region to region. Montaditos, pinchos (pintxos in Basque), banderillas, raciones, cazuelitas, pulguitas – all are variations on the same theme. Chiefly though, there are three main types according to how easy they are to eat: cosas de picar, pinchos and cazuelas. Cosas de picar – meaning ‘things to nibble’ basically refers to finger food- in other words anything that can be easily picked up with fingers and thumb alone.
(above) Ornate ceiling of a favourite tapas bar in Barcelona…
The supreme example of this is I guess, the mighty olive. They are so Spanish. They even look Spanish! Spain offers the punter an estimated 260 different varieties of olive, from the shimmering olive groves that spread over a considerable sweep of the country. While many of these varieties are grown for olive oil there is still a huge selection grown for the table, to be enjoyed as plain black or green olives or stuffed with a variety of tasty fillings as part of a tapas selection. Here are the key varieties that you will come across.
The Manzanilla olive is perhaps one of the best known Spanish olives. From the small town in Andalusia also famed for its sherry, this is a juicy green olive that is often pitted and stuffed with anchovies, pimento or garlic. This is also the olive most often used in martinis.
The Arbequina olive is a small earthy green olive grown predominantly in Catalonia with a delicate, mild, smoky flavour, very popular as a table olive. Then we have the Empeltre olive – a medium sized Spanish olive of a purplish black colour and elongated shape. It is often served soaked in sherry as a special tapas dish. It is also a popular olive for making a black olive spread (tapenade) with a wonderful deep flavour.
The Sevillano or Queen olive has large, plump, round fruit. It is mostly grown for the table rather than for oil and is generally brine cured and stuffed with a variety of fillings.
The Picual olive tree is the predominant variety for olive oil production in many areas of Southern Spain. The large black olives of the younger trees are excellent for curing as table olives with a peppery, firm flesh.
The Hojiblanca olive is mostly used for oil, but has an intense flavour as a table olive, with fruity and peppery overtones and a hint of nuttiness.
The Picolimon olive is round and juicy with a fresh citrus flavour that goes well with many other foods and is great in salads.
The Verdial olive is a large dark olive with a robust flavour, perfect for olive lovers who like a full spicy taste. These are just a very few of the amazing types on offer.
Today Spain is the world’s biggest producer of olives and olive oil, with vast swathes of olive groves spreading over southern Spain, especially Andalusia. It was the Phoenicians who first brought the olive tree to Spain, but the Ancient Romans are credited with establishing vast farms of olives, often owned by absentee landlords who lived back in Rome. Although Italy produced its own olives, the Romans relied on Spain as a major supplier of olive oil to the Empire. The Moorish invasion of Spain in the 8th century AD developed and sustained the olive industry in Southern Spain, as it declined in many other parts of the former Roman Empire, introducing new varieties and production methods. 800 years later when the last of the Moors left Spain and it was ruled by Catholic kings, a taste for olive oil was considered to indicate suspicious sympathies for the old regime and believe it or not, lard was re-established as the principle cooking fat in all but the southern regions of Spain. As a Mancunian raised with lard in his diet I can only admire the idea, but today, give me olive oil every time!
(above) A favourite tapas bar of ours in Zaragoza…