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Salads from the Grill - Spain: Discovering Small Bites

DK PublishingDK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks

Spain: Discovering Small Bites

We first came across tapas nearly 30 years ago in the tiny, somewhat decrepit working-class bars of Madrid. We walked into the first of these minuscule joints—nothing more than a long, narrow bar with a few stools and some standing room—at random, in search of a mid-afternoon beer.

At first we were puzzled by the fact that the floor was literally covered, like a carpet of fallen leaves, with scraps of paper. Then we discovered the primary pastime of the patrons—gambling. For a couple of pesetas, you bought little slips of paper and tore them open to see if you had won anything. Imitating the regulars at the bar, we bought them by the handful and sat there opening them and throwing them away like so many peanut shells. And, like everyone else, we accompanied our triumphs and disappointments with many little glasses of beer or Rioja and an endless succession of the savory snacks known as tapas that were lined up on the bar, each impaled with a toothpick. Oddly, each time we ate one and discarded the toothpick, we noticed that the bartender would carefully place a clean toothpick on a plate in front of us. After many quizzical looks and shrugs of the shoulders, we finally figured out that he calculated the bill according to the pile of toothpicks in front of you, each tapa costing exactly the same. A chunk of spicy chorizo, a trio of smoky arbequina olives, a fresh fig topped with a smidgen of Cabrales cheese, a single slice of acorn-fed ham—each was a tiny treat of intense, deep flavor. Today tapas are globally known and immensely popular. Wherever I find them, though, they always take me back to those lazy, innocent afternoons of what we like to think of as true cultural exploration.

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