Published on July 7th, 2014 | by Alastair Gilmour


Tapas takeover

We’re now addicted to what were once dismissed as nibbles on the bar. Tapas are now as British as smörgåsbord, as Vincent Zeller discovers

Tapas are a Spanish institution, a way of life. A British equivalent may be “bar snacks” and “nibbles”; neither of which do this drinking and eating celebration of life any sort of justice at all.

But in recent years we’ve gone big on sharing platters in the North East, whether it’s cold meats and terrines, seafood in all its guises, or chicken served as spiced thighs or crispy wings. Pubs are in on the act big style; they’ve done their homework and seen for themselves what works, so it’s safe to say, tapas are as British as spaghetti bolognaise and chilli con carne.

18cOf course, there are other equivalents to tapas; the Middle Eastern mezze, the Swedish smörgåsbord and Russian zakuski – not to mention hors d’oevres which is possibly going off at a bit of a tangent, but we’re getting a picture here of small bite-size offerings taken with alcohol.

It’s the perfect marriage of food and drink; it’s about lunchtimes and evenings out, meeting friends, handshakes, beautiful company, inspiration, banter, gossip and generosity of spirit.

Traditionally in Spain, tapas form part of a circuit – however good a bar’s tapeador is (what a wonderful word that is), the idea is to tarry a while then move on to the next bar in a series of visits that aids digestion and stimulates the appetite even more.

Tapas could be bread with a portion of meat on top – marinated slices of pork are popular – chorizo, or morcilla (a kind of black pudding made with blood and rice or onion and served fried). Commonly though, tapas feature chunks of fried potatoes coated in a hot, spicy sauce made from tomatoes and chilli peppers.

18bOther nations have their equivalents, of course. Mezze means “taste” or “relish” and from their ancient Persian origins in fruits such as pomegranates and lemons, the tradition spread west to Greece and the Balkans and south through North Africa. It is said that “no Greek drinks without eating” and often they would be served free with ouzo. Typical modern mezze are olives, cubes of cheese and more complicated dips such as taramosalata, tsatsiki and hummus.

Cicchetti are a speciality of Venice in Italy – typically garlic mushrooms, mini calzone and chicken and peppers skewers.

The Russian zakuski means “little bites” and were originally sweet delicacies and pies served after a main meal. Now it’s the other way round – served with vodka which cleanses the palate and leaves it stimulated for the next taste – often eaten standing up and consisting of salted and pickled fish, caviar, apples, sausage, cheese and other preserved meats.

Playwright Anton Chekov wrote that “the very best zakuska, if you would like to know, is the herring.”

I always thought of smörgåsbord as simply an open sandwich of varying descriptions – the word translates literally as “buttered bread table” – but they’re actually slightly different from tapas in that they’re normally served before a main meal or as a buffet. Typical courses would be herring, cold meats and cheese. The Finnish equivalent is voileipäpöyta, but now we’re getting a long way from tapas, particularly the pronunciation.

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Alastair Gilmour

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