Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Andalucia Tapas Trail

Tapa is a small lid on the top of a drink. The bartender would traditionally place something complimentary, like olives or fried seafood (mariscoes), on top of it. This is the story about the origin of tapas that I knew until I read the entry on Wikipedia. It suggests so many possible alternatives that instead of being confused, I stick to my initial understanding – it helps that most people in Seville believe it as well.

I have eaten tapas in London, in Chennai and in Krakow with varying qualities and interpretations of tapas. Even within Spain, while Taller de Tapas chain is an easy way to introduce oneself to tapas in Barcelona with tasty food and efficient service, it is too sanitized for a real tapa experience. The picture completely changes in Andalucia. You realize that it is not really about the food and that nothing can come close to experience of tapas-hopping in Seville, Granada or cities of the southern Spain.

It is unlikely that a bartender in a bar in Madrid or Barcelona can so endearingly have a laugh at a tourists’ expense as they routinely do at Las Columnas (officially called Bodega Santa Cruz, cheapest tapas bar in the Santa Cruz district of Seville), a place full of character. You may not be offered an English Menu, but you will still find places where tapas are free with a drink (though unlikely in Seville). What Las Columnas is to the tourist heartland of Seville, Bodega Castaneda is to Granada. In both these places you will be lucky to have standing space in busy hours, and even luckier to have a waiter’s attention for more than a few seconds. But the waiters or the bartenders will always be nice to you while they take their order, even though it is a very brief interaction! The walls of Sol y Sombra reflect its great bullfighting tradition as does the menu (famous for its cola de toro or oxtail)! Continuing with bars that offer more than food, another interesting place is El Faro de Triana, a former lighthouse on the banks of Guadalquivir in Seville. It is more of a friduria (fried fish and seafood), but you are here for the view.

While jamon (cured ham), sausages and other pork and seafood items are integral to a bar menu, vegetarians need not lose heart. And I am not talking of surviving on queso manchego (cheese from La Mancha), patatas bravas (somewhere between chips and potato wedges) and tortilla (omlette with potatoes).

Though sceptical after reading the description, we fell in love with berenjas con miel (fried eggplant with honey). There was another cream and spinach tapas (can someone help me with the name?) at Las Columnas which was always an item for a repeat order. Espinacas con garbanzos (stew of chickpeas and spinach) is anyway popular even outside Spain. Something else that is popular beyond Spanish shores is Gazpacho. While Gazpacho is a nice cool drink for Spanish summer, its thicker form, Salmorejo (tomato

soup thickened with bread giving it a creamier texture) should be a not-to-miss item for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Better still if you try it at La Giganta on Plaza de los Terceros in Seville. Next door to La Giganta is Rinconcillo, arguably, the oldes tapas bar in Seville; also inarguably the one with grumpiest staff!

Each bar is famous for a few tapas, so sampling different things at different bars is the best idea. And if you are tired of walking, and want to make a meal of you tapas at a bar, then order a ración (plate) or media ración (half-plate) of the same dish. The best thing we did is that we shed our inhibitions, and in our completely inappropriate pronunciations started ordering from the items listed on the blackboard.

Chipirones (baby squid), gambas al ajillo (prawns sautéed withgarlic) and such items were figured out from the guide book, but the rest was a raffle – one in which you always won! Anyway with 2 – 4 Euros for a tapas, you cannot go wrong. While talking about the price of tapas, it is fun figuring out if the bartender at Las Columnas has got your bill right.(he tries recollecting all that you had ordered while he writes the amounts on bar counter using chalk, adds it up and you know the total amount – would you still want to crosscheck?)

For a detailed listing of tapas bars in Seville, visit

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