Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Food and drink: Tip your party table to tapas

Spark up some warm times with Spanish food and drink

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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.

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