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Menu Nineteen: Tapas Party

by David Tanis


Madrid spoiled me. Seville ruined me. I first met tapas in Madrid's Plaza Mayor, where a bronze statue of King Philip III on a horse hovers at twilight like a dark spirit over the enormous square bordered with tapas bars. The bars are open all day, but they don't really get going until 11 P.M. I found an appealing place and ordered a ración of jamon ibérico. A plate arrived, big enough to feed a tableful. I couldn't get enough of that cured ham—I finished it all.

My flamenco guitar friend, Kenny from Berkeley, told me there was one place in Seville I could always find him and that was the Bar Modesto, a place that specializes in seafood tapas like angulas—baby eels sizzled in olive oil. In an odd sort of cross-pollination, the restaurant had all its tapas cast in plastic in Japan, they way they do sushi. At the bar, the entire counter is an array of plastic tapas displayed in clay cazuelas.

There are just a few things appropriate to drink with tapas: chilled fino sherry, draft beer, a big Spanish red, or tinto de verano, the unknown and better cousin of sangria: half a glass of red wine with half a glass of sparkling water and ice. Or J&B whiskey. In Seville, the eating and drinking went on all night. You'd never want to abandon the group, so you'd habitually stay up until five.

Of course, once I was back in California, I made the somewhat predictable mistake of trying to bring that tapas culture home. I'd prepare many little plates—shrimp a la plancha, stuffed piquillo peppers, and pinchos moruños, little spicy skewers of grilled pork—to serve at parties that would begin late and last forever. I was ready to party all night, but my friends were tired by midnight and had to get up for work the next morning. But while the Spanish form didn't exactly translate, the substance did.

Small bites Spanish-style are an ingenious way to have a party and feel like a guest too. Much can be prepared ahead, ready to serve. It's free-form, really, no need to set the table, or bring things out in courses, and it doesn't really matter where you begin or where you end.


A Spanish Breakfast

We've been drinking and dancing all night in a small village near Seville, eating radishes and olives and garbanzo soup in a dirt-floored bodega. As the sun is rising and most of the others depart, we're exhausted, but we want to keep the party going just a little longer. So we go over to Florita's tiny one-room apartment. Florita, as it turns out, is formerly Judy from Brooklyn, but she's been in Seville so long she looks and speaks like a gypsy.

Florita makes us strong coffee, then brings out a shallow earthenware platter, pours in an inch or so of Spanish olive oil, and a small handful of finely chopped garlic, coarse salt, and pepper. We drag chunks of crusty bread through the oil and eagerly wolf them down. Florita pours little glasses of a fiery liqueur. La Fernanda, a local flamenco star well into her sixties, lifts her tight skirt and does a little dance on the table. A few more jokes, a bit of a song, and we're out the door, everyone in dark glasses. Home to sleep the day away.


Buy A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes


A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes


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This page created December 2008