There are numerous theories about how tapas came to be. Tapa literally means "lid" in Spanish, hence one of the most enduring theories: that bar owners used to offer a piece of bread or a littleplate of salty snacks for guests to cover (tapar) their beer, wine, or sherry glass to keep flies and anything else out of their drinks. Today, tapas are designed for sharing—small plates brimming with robust flavors, perfect for mixing and matching. In Spain, tapas dining is almost always a very casual affair, accompanied by a glass of sherry, wine, or beer prior to a sit-down dinner. To tapear is to hop from one tapas bar to another—say, from one specializing in seafood to another for sausage. It's an excuse to enjoy life and the company of those you care about, and to unwind after a busy day.
Serving tapas is a chance to savor a world of flavor in one sitting. This style of eating, so popular in the Mediterranean, enables diners to choose how much they'd like to eat, when, and how often. Unlike our traditional festive meals, it doesn't marry you to a heaping main course of turkey and fixings; tapas offers something different—you can keep it light and graze, or indulge if the mood strikes. It's all about sharing, and what better time of the year in which to do just that? Pick and choose your favorites and remember to keep some of the items noted stocked in the pantry and fridge; you'll be happy you did.
Choose a delectable selection of Spanish cheeses from your local cheese merchant or gourmet food shop. A few suggestions:
- 12-or 18-month aged Manchego. A cheese made from the milk of sheep that wander the grassy fields of La Mancha. Its nutty, rather earthy flavor makes it very popular in Madrid's tapas bars.
- Idiazabal. This cheese comes from the Basque country in Spain. During production, the cheese wheels are lightly smoked over beech, hawthorn, or cherry wood for 10 days, imparting a faint smoky quality that adds a beautiful undernote to the rich, nutty flavor of this sheep's-milk cheese.
- Mahon. One of the few cow's-milk cheeses made in Spain, this one is from the island of Menorca and has a crumbly texture with lemony, sharp flavors.
- Tetilla. The most recognized cheese of Galicia, this giant chocolate-kiss-looking cheese (which resembles a woman's breast, hence the name), is made from pasteurized cow's-milk cheese and is mild tasting, almost sweet in fact.
- Vino de Cabra. A goat's-milk cheese that is submerged for 72 hours in a bath of doble pasta wine made with Mourvedre grapes, giving the rind a vivid purple hue. Mild, sweet, and fruity, it has a smooth, creamy, semifirm texture.
- Cabrales. Spain's favorite blue cheese, this flavor-forward veined variety is not for the weak of palate! Made with a blend of milk from cows, sheep, and goats, it is an intense, sharp cheese that pairs nicely with a Pedro Ximenes sherry.
To accompany the cheeses, add bowls of dry-roasted walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and pine nuts; or freshly roasted chestnuts.
The Spanish like to have something a little sweet with their cheese. This includes fresh pear slices, apple slices, grapes, figs (dried are fine), dates, raisins, or dried apricots. Membrillo, a quince paste, is a popular choice. Drizzle honey on a mound of cheese like Mahon for a nice touch.
We can't forget the Iberian ham, Spain's version of prosciutto. Some say it's the better, less salty, version of a cured ham; you be the judge. The most expensive is the Jamon Iberico de Bellota, at $45 for 15 slices. Other varieties, like a good quality Serrano ham, aren't nearly as expensive but are lovely in flavor nonetheless.
Other savory accompaniments include olives such as manzanilla, empeltre, or my favorite, the little Arbequina olive. These can be plain or stuffed with almonds, anchovies, or red peppers. Fire-roasted red pepper slivers and a hearty, crusty loaf of bread round out the savory plate.
Wash this all down with sangria, red wine, sherry, cava (Spanish sparkling wine), or Spanish beer such as Estrella Damm.
Want more tapas recipes? Check out the delicious recipes for Spanish Red Onion and Orange Salad, Catalan Style Tortilla, Mushrooms with Garlic and Parsley Sauce, and Apple Plum Brandy Cake. Gather all your favorite people and enjoy the feast together. ¡Buen provecho!