Salvelio and I have been immersing ourselves in the tapa culture of Spain, with even the tiniest of village bars offering their own delicious and often unique specialities.
You typically get a free tapa or snack with your drink and we were amazed that one of these combined, say, with a glass of Rioja or Ribera red or a ¨small¨ beer called a caña, could still cost as little as 1 Euro.
That is pretty much what we paid the last time we were in Spain four years ago, which is surprising considering the word on everyone´s lips right now is ¨crisis¨.
You notice the effects of the country´s economic troubles by speaking to ordinary people; for instance a friend of ours from Salamanca who was once a successful carpenter but for whom work has dried up to the extent he must now work in an abbatoir in order to feed his family.
The whole of Spain has summer sales at the moment as as I was trawling the stores I noticed that, despite tantalising offers, most of them appeared quite empty, including the iconic El Corte Ingles or one of my favourites, Massimo Dutti – further indication times are indeed tough for many.
But what was far from empty were the countless little bars and restaurants – the Spaniards will forgo summer sales but never the opportunity to meet and feast.
Salvelio´s home village of Guijuelo in the region of Castilla y Leon is where we have been having many of our tapas or “pinchos” before heading ¨home¨ to Julio Carlos´s mom Señora Isa who, like her son, is an excellent cook.
There will never be fewer than three or four stops for “cañas y tapas” before lunch; often we´ll be on our way home only to bump into an old friend or acquaintance of Salvelio´s who will then insist: come, let´s go for a tapa.
There is a level of spontaneity in Spain, especially in the villages or pueblos, that we have seldom experienced in South Africa, except perhaps when we were students.
The tapa bar experience, too, is never about getting drunk and disorderly, but always about togetherness. There are few drunkards here, only community centred people old and young who will gather in the bars to catch up before lunch, often with young children in tow.
In Guijuelo one of our favourite tapas bars is La Taberna, which belongs to Toñi, a vivacious and intriguingly attractive young woman with huge blue eyes and a ready smile.
The almost seductive way in which she carves paper-thin slivers of jamon Iberico (Iberic dry-cured ham) from the leg mounted on the wall behind the bar before plating it with slices of sheep´s milk cheese or “queso de oveja” could in part be why her bar is so popular, especially among the town´s bachelors!
Toñi also serves a variety of “tostas” or toasts drizzled with olive oil and graced with various toppings. We especially enjoy the tostas with anchovy and blue cheese – a combination that sounds radical but is quite delicious – or the goat´s cheese tostas with caramelised onions.
You can also get a slice of morcilla or blood sausage on your tosta, or else a slice of farinato which is a type of bread sausage made with bread (of course), aniseed, pimenton or smoked paprika, pork fat and aguardiente, the latter a type of liquor not unlike witblits. It sounds hideous, I know, but top it with a fried quail´s egg as she does with the farinato or morcilla tostas and you´ll soon be asking for another!
Guijuelo is famous for its jamon Iberico as this is the town in Spain where most of the country´s jamon factories are centred. Just about every bar will have the finest jamon on offer and indeed most homes will also have a leg from which they can carve slices as needed.
Every region has its own specialities and when in La Rioja, some four hours’ drive from Guijuelo, tapas are often enjoyed along with a glass of fine Rioja red wine for which the region is renowned.
A friend of ours who grew up in Guijuelo has been living in the city of Logroño in Rioja for 10 years or more. During our visit there Mariangeles took us to the main ¨tapas street¨in the city centre.
Our first stop was Bar Lorenzo where whe had fantastic pinchos morunos (like a South African sosatie) made from Iberic pork and grilled over the coals with the bar´s secret salsa made with fresh herbs and olive oil.
These were wolfed down with such relish I got salsa in my sandals and took my well-lubricated toes all over town – including to a bar called Blanco y Negro (black and white) where we had toasted buns stuffed with white anchovies or “boquerones” and grilled peppers.
Another tapa highlight was at a nondescript little bar called Juan y Pinchame where the speciality is prawns threaded onto skewers with pinapple, which are then perfectly grilled.
Salvelio and I have always enjoyed doing tapa-inspired lunches or even dinners at home rather than the usual three course effort. We have been gathering some great new tapa ideas and can´t wait to try them out once we are back in South Africa. We might even ask for tasting volunteers (hopefully not victims).