Sitting on the runway at Detroit Metro Airport, I, for the first time, began to really think about my destination: Barcelona, Spain.
Barcelona, population 1.6 million, is a modern city but equally proud of its Catalonian heritage. So much so that it has its own language (Catalan), its own flag, and a reputation for being fiercely independent.
Aside from Barcelona’s rich history, architectural attractions (it’s home to Antonio Gaudi’s modernistic masterpieces) and its seafaring culture, Barcelona is also home to one of Europe’s most vibrant culinary scenes, with every imaginable cuisine available to the savvy epicureans who travel to this magical city to enjoy everything from street food to Michelin 3-star restaurants.
A lot of them.
But what was most exciting to me about this trip was that I had both Barcelona and Bilbao, Spain, on my itinerary. Both cities are on or near the sea, and both, as you could well imagine, specialize in fish and seafood dishes.
This was right in my wheelhouse because I absolutely love fish and seafood, and I love trying all sorts of small bites of dishes, never wanting to invest my appetite in any sit-down meal with one big plate of food.
In Spain, they have just the meal plan to do both.
They’re called tapas.
Tapas, like so many foods, have a history. In this case, the word tapas translates to “cover or lid” or “top.” This tradition began centuries ago when people would cover their small glasses of Sherry (another Spanish treasure) with a “lid” of sliced bread to keep the small fruit flies out of their wine.
Over time, these food lids (usually with some garnishment of sliced meat or other savory on top) became as popular as the wine they were protecting, and thus began a style of cuisine (and a social scene) that is still popular today. And it’s one enjoyed at thousands of tapas bars and by millions of their patrons every year.
From a culinary perspective, fish, seafood, small portions and an almost endless variety of things to try is about as close to nirvana as it gets.
Even before the wheels left the tarmac in Detroit, I was imagining the tastes of these delicious morsels, knowing full well I had to suffer through a couple of airline meals before enjoying my first bites.
Another thought that ran through my head (since I’m somewhat Spanish challenged) was deciding how I was going to be able to try the tapas I liked if I didn’t know their names?
Was English going to be an issue?
Actually, as it turned out, not at all.
In fact, nearly everyone I met throughout Spain spoke some English, so between my limited Spanish and their English, language was no barrier whatsoever when it came to eating out. Even better is the fact that, if it’s tapas you’re after, it’s even easier to order what you want because most tapas bars have their selections displayed in platters right between you and your bartender (who’ll likely be your server). So, it’s as easy as pointing to what you want; holding up one, two or three fingers to explain how many of each one you want; and then just enjoying it! It’s probably the easiest experience you’ll ever have ordering food.
Of course, you’ll want to have something to drink with your tapas selections.
Again, tradition would have you drinking sherry, but more often than not, the drink of choice is the Spanish sparkling wine Cava, a beer, a spritzer of wine and soda or some other choice of still wine.
Traveling throughout both Barcelona and Bilbao, there were tapas bars nearly everywhere, and among them, the most popular offerings were small, open-face sandwiches with various meat and seafood toppings (pretty much true to their original lid concept); platters of small fried fish and shellfish; small skewers of olives, cheese and vegetables; small (almost pizza-like wedges) of egg flans with various garnishments; raw, marinated ceviche salads; and assortments of local sausages, fish cakes and the like.
Speaking of tradition, if you’re into tapas, you best prepare to chill out for a while because nothing here is rushed. Expect a leisurely respite (even at lunch). Find a place to sit (many choose to stand) and then decide what you want, get their attention, and point to it or do your best (in any language) to explain what you’d like to try. Finally, and most importantly, relax.
And you’ll probably have to request a check, too, because no one ever seems to think you’ll be leaving. Depending on if you’ve chosen the right tapas bar and the right food, you may not want to anyway.
As I enjoyed my last meal in Bilbao, Spain, and was ready to leave for another food adventure in Venice, Italy, I reflected on my tapas experience and concluded that the whole culture of it really suited my style. I loved the bite-sized variety as well as the casual, social atmosphere it creates. It’s unfortunate that so few of these types of restaurants exist in the states.
Then again, if they did, could we ever slow down and learn to appreciate them?