The past few years have seen a big increase in the amount of tapas bars opening across the country, with lots of established eateries now also offering the option of tapas. Historically, we’re not a nation known for light bites and to this day I know many a person who will say ‘can we not have dinner’ when the suggestion of tapas arises. And yet, here in the south east of Ireland, new tapas bars regularly appear on the scene and flourish.
My favourite place to eat tapas is of course in Spain where they originated, and I recently flew three hours from the South East of Ireland to the South East of Spain to learn more about this custom.
Tapas are snacks traditionally served with drinks in Spain. It is believed that they originated from the custom of a barman covering your glass with a slice of bread, cheese or meat to keep the flies away. Spain’s capital Madrid is probably the country’s best known tapas destination, but the tapas tradition is alive and well throughout the land, particularly in the south east of Spain. As the market garden of Spain, Murcia and its neighbouring province Alicante are havens for authentic tapas bars.
Spaniards eat their main meal during the day, taking hours to relax and enjoy their food with family and friends or indulging in a little siesta before returning to work in the evening. Restaurants don’t open until 8 or 9pm and this is when the bars come to life with locals enjoying wine and accompanying tapas for soakage (yes, this is their modern day purpose). You will often be served a ‘pincho’ – a mouthful that comes with the price of your drink or you can order a selection of tapas to accompany your wine. Each region in Spain has its own tapa specialties, just like each region has a signature rice dish.
So how different is the tapas experience in Spain compared to Ireland? Of course the climate in which you are eating them is remarkably warmer and drier, but the main difference is price. Settle down for an evening with your companion at a tapas bar in the Ricote Valley area of Murcia and enjoy hours filled with tapas and wine (produced north of Murcia in Jumilla) and leave with change from €20.
Step away from hotspots like Madrid, Barcelona and Marbella and there is a treasure trove of tapas to be discovered, with prices as low as €1 per dish (patatas aioli). If countryside is not your thing, towns like Elche in Alicante are full of restaurants offering not only tapas, but full menus laden with local produce at a very reasonable price.
Some of the best fish restaurants and seafood tapas bars can be found in the Mar Menor area of Spain, and my favourite at the moment is Restaurant Le Bleu in Guardamar del Segura, Alicante that offers a sublime seven course tapas tasting menu. With offerings such as Mejillones con velouté citricos (Mussels in lemon sauce) and Dorada con crema de coliflor (Bream with cauliflower cream), it is more expensive than regular tapas (€25 per person for seven courses) but the price is reflected in the sophisticated, well thought out food journey you embark on. Having said that, the whole experience still costs less than wine and a few tapas in Ireland.
Have I sold you on the idea? With the South East of Spain covered by two airports, access to the region is easy and the locals are friendly so why not make a trip – it’s a lovely way to top up your vitamin D.
My top tip: When you order your wine in a tapas bar at night, ask your server to bring his/her tapas recommendations to the table. Rest assured you will enjoy the freshest salads, fish, meat and breads. I have never tasted calamari so succulent and fresh, a richer olive oil or crustier bread than when sitting at a countryside tapas bar in the heart of Spain. Veer away from the beaten path in the South East of Spain and, no matter what your budget is, you will eat like a king.
Author of “Food from an Irish Garden”, Fiona Dillon lives with her husband and four children at Hunters Lodge in Co Carlow. Her recently published “Freddy Buttons” series of food adventure books for children (Orpen Press 2015) were written so that Fiona could share the food provenance message amongst young children. Her Freddy Buttons food-themed garden at Bloom 2015 won Fiona a silver medal.
One of Ireland’s best known food bloggers, Fiona documents her back to basics lifestyle through her blog www.fionadillon.com. She is also a feature writer for the Irish Farmers Journal’s Irish Country magazine. As Food Correspondent for KCLR96FM’s The Saturday Show, Fiona shares the latest food news from around the country with her Carlow/Kilkenny listeners. When she’s not busy giving talks on topics such as sustainable living or blogging, Fiona can be found tending to her honeybees or writing the next epic adventure for Freddy Buttons.