The Culture of Tapas
Arriving just before sunset in Cádiz—a 3,000-year-old city built on a peninsula attached to the mainland by a whisper of land—Pablo, Nastassia, and I prepare for our next tapas encounter with a long walk past giant rubber trees and the lighthouse, and out on the breakwater to San Sebastián Fortress. The Atlantic evening chill eventually sends us in search of El Faro, Cádiz's most famous tapas emporium. Having staked out a corner of the handsome mahogany bar, my friends and I study the glistening display of mariscos for which the establishment is justly renowned: chocos (cuttlefish), acedías (small sole), pijotas (small hake), gambas (shrimp), cazón de conil (small dogfish)—all just hours out of the sea. We settle on puntillitas, and within minutes the dapper barman serves us a plate of piping hot, tiny squid cooked in olive oil, with garlic, parsley, and plenty of salt. We quickly devour the juicy morsels, interrupting our conversation only to discuss our next order: albóndigas de chocos, fried balls of tender squid in a light saffron sauce. Then it's time to move on—but we can't leave without sampling the berza gitana con su pringá, a rich meat and vegetable stew made with whatever the kitchen has on hand, which might mean veal, pork, blood sausage, kidney beans, chard, celery, cabbage. It's a typical Andalusian dish, and this version is exceptional.
While many tapas bars, including El Faro, are attached to full-scale restaurants, Casa Manteca, just a few steps down the street, is a rough and rustic tasca—a simple tavern—little changed since 1952. The walls are covered with pictures of flamenco dancers, singers, bullfighters—the images of La España Cañí, the Andalusian ''gypsy'' Spain of bulls, guitars, wrought iron, and lace. At Casa Manteca, the tapa of choice is chacina variada, different cuts of cured ham and sausages served on small sheets of waxed paper. Standing at the bar enjoying this treat is a familiar face: Carmen Rivera, sister of the famous matador Paquirri, who was killed in the bullring almost two decades ago. Despite her celebrity, Rivera is left undisturbed.
From Casa Manteca we head for Mesón La Cuesta, where Juan Rodriguez cooks us his house specialty, urta a la piedra. Urta, a strain of sea bream found only in and around the nearby Strait of Gibraltar, feeds exclusively on crustaceans. Rodriguez takes advantage of the fish's juicy, firm white flesh by cooking it in a savory stew of green peppers, tomato pulp, onions, and white wine, adding shrimp, crab, and baby clams. Sated, we wander the tiny streets of old Cádiz, passing through leafy Plaza San Antonio, where we stop for a manzanilla nightcap.
Morning comes quickly. After a few strong espressos near the Mercado Central, Pablo, Nastassia, and I begin the great Sunday lunch version of the tapeo, practiced all over Spain but perfected in Cádiz—which, as probably the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Western world, has had a lot of training. At El Nuevo Almacen, eggs scrambled with young garlic and Jabugo ham leads to anchovies with cod and tomato, and a chat with the owner, Daniel López, who sends us off to La Perola for further adventures. Cádiz's most innovative tapas sanctuary, La Perola is run by Francisco Leal, who combines Spanish home cooking with medieval Moorish influences. When we arrive, the mayor of Cádiz, Teófila Martínez Saez, is carefully listening to Leal explain how he prepares his garbancitos con acelgas, a hearty dish of baby garbanzos, chard, red peppers, tomatoes, cumin seed, and vinegar. We can't resist sampling it ourselves. It's good, but we prefer the creamy and delicate paté de cañaillas (sea snail pâté) and the flaky, Moroccan-inspired pastela (phyllo filled with chicken, nuts, and raisins)—both a change of pace from traditional tapas-bar fare, but still in the tapas spirit.
From La Perola, it's a short walk to Plaza de Mina and the top of calle Zorrilla. Every Sunday a boisterous street party unfolds in this scenic spot leading out to the seawall, a 35-foot-high breakwater and promenade protecting Cádiz from the Atlantic. By midday, the area is packed with tapeo devotees spilling out of various taverns and tascas, and vendors hawking everything from lottery tickets to boiled shellfish. It seems that everyone, including us, is drinking manzanilla and crunching on baby shrimp, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the fragrant sea air. Talk of food dominates: the sole last night at Romerijo, the berza at El Faro, and where to continue the quest for the perfect morsel. ''How about San Sebastián?'' offers Pablo with a sly grin as the three of us start back along the seawall and head for points north. ''You must be missing those Basque tapas.''
Well, not exactly. In the end, I have to admit that Andalusian tapas, though simple, are also infinitely varied and creative. As much as I love the frenetic Basque bars, Andalusia has won my heart—or at least my palate.
George Semler, a Barcelona-based journalist who covers life around the Mediterranean, wrote about Corsica for our April 1999 issue.