‘Authentic’ Tapa are hard to come by. Talk to any Spaniard or Spanglophile (a term I have coined for Spain enthusiasts) about a Tapas restaurant in the UK and they will nod politely before saying something along the lines of, ‘it sounds very nice, but it’s not real Tapas’. This is normally smug and almost always said with frustrating aloofness. As though they had been fed Tapa by King Felipe himself.
I have been politely informed that even the terms ‘Tapas’ and ‘restaurant’ do not belong in the same sentence, these bites are drinking food belonging to bars. ‘Authentic’ drinking culture? This is nothing new, we have it in Scotland. But in Scotland if you asked for nibbles at a pub, you would be bludgeoned by a Presbyterian mob. Tapa are the perfect marriage of drink and food which sounds easy and idyllic.
In fact, it is a minefield of pernickety foodie purists, reminding me that I haven’t had an ‘authentic’ experience. Punch-drunk in Barcelona after the sweetest suckling slow-cooked pork and plum, sardines in olive oil, and cod balls, I was utterly convinced ‘this is Tapas’. No? Perhaps the same level of intoxication in Zaragoza, with beautiful croquettas, crisp pork belly and Spanish potato salad. Still no? I tried again in Madrid, a kilo of tortilla, even better croquettas, salty bacalao. It was inexpensive, I was drunk, it was finger-food, despite this I am reassured that the real tapas have alluded me. Most recently I was politely told that because I had ordered a caramelized onion and goats cheese tortilla, that it could not possibly have been any good.
In Zaragoza a fat and friendly local took us under his wing, with almost no English he explained his favourite foods and gestured the barman to bring them, whilst chuckling away at our gawky Englishness. A bizarre gherkin arrived, stuffed with what seemed to be tinned tuna and an olive on-top. The pickle was sweet, the tuna was, well just tuna really, but I was well aware that this was about as ‘authentic’ as any tapas I would ever eat. It was only okay.
As globalisation, cosmopolitanism and migrant populations make cities more multicultural than ever are we shutting doors by setting rules on just how ‘authentic’ things should appear? This unbearable narrowmindedness is ultimately foodie xenophobia. Until I have been reborn a Spaniard I will never discover authenticity: I will not have the beautiful olive-skinned chums, a relaxed linen wardrobe nor penchant for Brylcreem. Tapas are only allowed to be eaten by beautiful Spanish people, basking in southern European sunlight, not pallid English oiks like myself.
I revisited Madrid only last weekend, funnily enough there was a festival of the elusive finger-food. The Tapapies festival is an annual celebration of nibbling and the diversity of the capital, in one of its most entertaining drinking quarters: Lavapies. There was barely an ‘authentic’ item on the menu, Chinese, South American, African, you would be pressed to find a so much as a bowl of olives in such a cacophony. The only thing more multicultural than the food were the people eating it.
Straight-faced Tapas, it appears then has been colonised by fun, at least in Madrid. But in fact, it has returned to its roots, these miniature bites came about as tasters for the main dishes offered in taverns, one might then order an entire portion of your favourite dish. The word ‘tapa’ is a distant relative of the English word ‘top’ as these dishes literally were on-top of the larger pots. These restaurants are using the Tapa festival in order to introduce newcomers to their cooking in the same way which tavern owners might have two hundred years ago. It is a sort of sensory menu, originally for the Spanish illiterate and now for the gastronomically illiterate, to sample the delights of foreign cuisines.
The ‘Spanglophiles’ can keep their ‘authentic’ nibbles: oily chorizo in more oil, mostly-microwaved meats, soggy tomato-bread etc. There is far more excitement, innovation and thus flavour on the plates of the Spanish who endorse the new wave of completely inauthentic and perfectly iconoclastic tasters. I found Spanish ‘Tapa’ in a Squid-Ink Bao Bun more than I ever did in a Bocadillo de Tortilla.