"Tapas" has recently become a familiar style of serving food in many countries. In many cases this doesn't actually have much resemblance to style of food found in Spain being more of a re-branding of familiar foods by placing them into small terracotta dishes. People seem to love the idea of small portions of food and often the adoption of an unfamiliar cuisine is heavily biased towards this style of meal. Perhaps this is why that while most of us are familiar with tapas, anti-pasti and mezze, if not the wider cuisines that they derive from, that to date why I have never seen mention of “ración” on a menu outside of Spain. Tapas (singular “tapa”) were originally simply free bites of food given with drinks, the root of the word said to be derived from “'tapar”, which “means to cover”, the implication being that these small bites of food, such as a slice of bread or ham, were used to cover the mouth of the drinking vessel. Which is all very well, but actually when eating “tapas” with friends, more often then not you will not actually be eating a “tapa”, but sharing a plate of food known as a “ración”, related to the English term “ration” in the sense that it is a portion of food. So if you happen to find yourself in a tapas bar in Spain, don’t be surprised if there is some confusion if you order a tapa of an item that listed on the chalkboard – it may actually only available as a ración.
Whatever the terminology eating tapas at a bar, while drinking a glass of manzanilla is a fantastic experience. Venues that sell tapas vary hugely; from tiny bars with containing only dozens of shouting customers, hanging hams and board covered barrels as the bar top, to glittering restaurants in elegant 18th century buildings. In the former case when you make an order, your tab will be written on the bar top in chalk, the length of the chalk scrawls a graphic reminder of how much you have eaten at the end of the evening. The types of foods available varies a great deal from venue to venue and also between regions. Here are some of the more interesting intems that I have eaten, along with the raw ingredient in some cases.
Casa Balbino. An lovely atmospheric tapas bar in Sanlucar. This bar is so popular that although there is a huge amount of outdoor seating and there is still times when you have to prowl around the outskirts of the seating, waiting for a table to become free. The food is very good and the staff second to none. I should stress this last point, as really they were very good to me, considering my profound lack of Spanish and how busy they were. Here are some more interesting items on the menu.
Ortiguillas in there raw state, as sold in the market. These are actually Snake-locks anenome (most likely Anemonia sulcata). These were simply floured and fried and served with a side of cabbage salad (cabbage, paprika, cumin, lemon juice and olive oil). They have a similar brine-iodine flavour as fried oysters, but a much softer, almost creamy texture. Well worth trying.
The fried Ortiguillas.
Tiny shrimp (most likely Palaemon longirostris) used for marking Tortillas de Camarones. See this link for a video of them hopping about like fleas at the market. These tortilla demonstrate why Andalucía is famous in Spain for it's fried dishes. They huge crispy wafers of shrimp which really are quite extraordinary, a beautiful demonstration of the fryer's art.
A fiddler crab (Uca tangeri) next to a sprig of marsh samphire (Salicornia europaea) on mudflat on the Guadalquivir river. Apart from the mud, all quite edible. On the Sanular side of the river, the large claws of the male crabs are harvested. In theory, once returned the crab lives to produce another claw. I have seen a similar practive of claw harvesting on large brown crabs on the west coast of Ireland.
Boca (the local name of the fiddler crab) as served as a tapa.
A bag of snails, Theba pisana to be exact. These tiny snails under go aestivation during the summer months, where they climb up any upright structure and go dormant in great pearly clusters. In the market these snails (as well as several other species) were sold with small bags of specific spices to cook them with. The spices used were: Anise, coriander, black pepper and chilli.
The cooked caracoles, served in there cooking liquor. Many places don't even mention the word caracoles, just a few spirals of chalk on the blackboard seems to be enough to send a great proportion of the local population into a snail eating frenzy. They are delicious and it is a nice way to kill some time chatting, picking out the flesh with a toothpick and sucking any stubborn bits out of the shell. The broth was delicious, almost rosemary flavoured, I could drink it alone.