One of the finest meals I've ever had wasn't really a meal - it was an event. My husband and I had rented a little Renault and were wandering the back roads of the Basque region of southwestern France and north-central Spain. "Wandering back roads" in this case meant not caring if we got lost.
We set out to avoid major centres, but somehow while crossing the high, dusty plateau dotted with ancient almond trees in Navarra (Nafarroa to the Basque) we found ourselves on the road to Pamplona (Iruña to the Basque).
Any traveller in her right mind would have hit Pamplona the week before, during the famed running of the bulls. But as if by way of proving the haplessness of our itinerary, we made it after the event, when the streets were eerily empty and four-star hotels were willing to cut outrageous deals.
On our first night, a rag-tag little carnival had set up on the outskirts of town. That didn't hold our interest so we wandered the twisty streets where our shadows played long in the fading sunlight and the only sound was our footsteps on stone.
My husband was window shopping, but my morbid preoccupation was keeping my eyes downcast in search of any bits of dried spectators' blood on the cobblestones or other evidence of the potentially gory running of the bulls.
And so it was that I spied at my feet a delightful scene framed in a long, narrow, window. For there, below ground level, was an ancient tapas bar filled to near-overflowing with some of the liveliest, loudest, young-at-heart Euros I've seen in a long time.
So this was where the people were! After work on a Wednesday night, grabbing a drink and a snack. One of the bartenders waved us in, so down we went into a room flooded with laughter and the wonderful smell of good garlicky food.
Our Spanish isn't great, but in a room like that, who needs language? We'd simply point and order and our fellow customers, jammed against us like vacuum-packed chorizo sausages, would pass the small trays of tapas over their heads from the bartenders to us. Bocadillos , stuffed olives, mussels steeped in a savory tomato and red wine sauce, gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic) - my favourite - it all came whizzing overhead fast as we could order.
The fine food, combined with a glass or three of sangria and the friendly efforts at communicating on the part of our tapas-munching compadres all added up to a night to remember, bulls or no bulls.
All delicious things Spanish - Spanish wine, Spanish cheese, and, of course, tapas - have permeated the world, especially the New World, for centuries, intermingling with the cuisines of Latin American and teasing us in more northern climes with the essence of Spain. With places like Ferran Adrià's elBulli on the Costa Brava now pushing culinary limits, it's no wonder that gastronomes, along with us regular folks who simply like good food, are rediscovering Spanish cuisine en masse.
With a little flair and not much more work, you can put on a Spanish-inspired feast that will have your friends egging you on - as in the classic Spanish omelette, tortilla Española - for more.
One of the latest trends is to serve up gazpacho in shot glasses as a tapa. Gazpacho, the cold soup originally from the Andalusian region of Spain where it was a popular lunch for field workers, is now being reinvented in many permutations, with beets, cherries and hazelnuts.
But here's a classic recipe to get you revved up, Spanish-style. It's from my former neighbour in San Diego, who grew up in Mazatlan, Mexico, just one of the many areas where the flavours of Spain rule. I've been making it for years, and it always gets a wow of approval.
Olga's gazpacho (Serves 8)
3 lb. (6 cups) fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 onion (sweet or regular, depending on your tastes), cut into chunks
1/2 c. green pepper chunks
1/2 c. cucumber chunks
2 c. tomato juice
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1/4 c. good olive oil
1/4 c. white wine vinegar
Blanch the tomatoes by pouring boiling water over them to peel them easily. In a blender or food processor, combine the first four ingredients, blend until smooth and transfer to a large soup tureen or bowl. Add the tomato juice, garlic, cumin, salt and pepper. Cover and chill well (best overnight). Before serving, stir in the olive oil and vinegar. Serve cold with garnishes: 1/2 c. finely chopped green pepper; 1/2 c. finely chopped green onion; 1/2 c. croutons.
Many good tapas recipes can be found in The Culinary Institute of America's book, Spain and The World Table , which includes the recipe, below, for perfect sangria. If you take an especially long siesta, and have time to prepare nothing else, a bowl of gazpacho with some toasted baguette slices rubbed with garlic and olive oil, and a glass of this sangria is all you need. ¡ Chin chin !
Sangria should not be too sweet, with only a moderate amount of orange juice. The wine should be a fruity one; best to use organic fruit.
6 tbsp. sugar
6 tbsp. water
8 strawberries, quartered
1 c. raspberries
1 c. blueberries
1 c. blackberries (great to get wild ones around Whistler in August)
8 slices peeled oranges (1 whole orange)
5 c. dry (fruity) red wine
1 1/2 c. orange juice (try fresh OJ - delicious)
2/3 c. Grand Marnier
1 1/2 c. sparkling water
Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Combine the fruit gently in a bowl. Mix the sugar-water, wine, OJ and Grand Marnier in a large pitcher. Add the fruit to the pitcher and stir gently to combine. Add the sparkling water and serve immediately, or allow the mixture to sit refrigerated, for up to 12 hours, before finishing with the sparkling water and serving over ice. To serve, spoon 1/3 c. of the fruit into each glass and pour the liquid over.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer whose first glimpse of Spain was during Franco's reign, when Basques weren't allowed to speak Basque, police toted automatic weapons and shots of tequila were a dime.