The perhaps once colloquial, but now widely accepted verb “tapear” was invented by the Spanish solely to describe the act of eating tapas. Though, it occurs to me as I write “eating,” that this isn’t even the word I’m looking for; in fact, I can’t find the word I’m looking for–do I mean to write “enjoying,” “consuming,” “indulging”….? Though I find the exact meaning of this word is a little ambiguous, I have come to understand that “tapear” means to spend an afternoon (most commonly on a Sunday) moving from one tapas bar to another sampling the regional offerings. Tapas bars, when done right, are each unique; one may serve small dishes distinct to the Basque Region of Spain (a region in the Northeast), one to the Galician (the Northwest corner), or one that is strictly madrileño (of Madrid). They are enjoyed slowly, with good company, (and do I even need to say it?) good wine. Tapas are an entirely Spanish novelty; once again, for madrileños, it is not necessarily about the consumption of food or wine (though that certainly has much to do with it!), but the quality of time spent doing it. The word “tapas” doesn’t translate to mean a specific dish, rather it refers to a process. Just like everything else in this country, “tapear” epitomizes the art of taking one’s time and taking pleasure, this time… in food.

In Madrid, there is a small winding street in the La Latina district–Calle de Cava Baja–that is most famously known as home to some of the best tapas spots in the city, maybe the country, and who knows–maybe the world. I know I can hardly take credit for hard work here, but I am proud to say that it indeed took some good shopping around before my friends and I found the perfect spot. But perfect spot we did find. Called La Camarilla, this place was neither pretentious nor humble. A combination of old-world wood work and modern chic lines, this restaurant oozed quality and refinement. But aesthetics aside–and more importantly–La Camarilla showed us what “tapeando” is about: picking and choosing exactly what you want, when you want it, and how you want it. Some say America is the land of choice, but I have never had so many choices to face in a meal before…

Standing before a long glass case, we gaze at rows upon rows of beautiful culinary inventions laid out on white ceramic plates. Before me: a piece of delicate, fried cod over grilled vegetables on a small tosta (meaning “toast,” from a baguette); skewered chicken with fresh tomatoes and caramelized onions; thin slices of salami, prosciutto, pepperoni on tosta; brie with a thin slice of meat and mushrooms on tosta; zucchini stuffed with mushrooms and cheese rolled up and sprinkled with parmesan; buttery rolls; garlic-infused and stuffed olives; miniature omelets (they are called “tortillas” in Spain); anchovies on tostas; manchega cheese thinly sliced, and the list goes on…. Each displayed like an individual work of art. Flustered and delighted, my friends and I–over the din of chatter and jazz–took on the overwhelming task of ordering. The menu was of little help. The job was left up entirely to our senses–our gaze upon the small dishes, the smells of meats and cheeses and breads and oils, the clatter of plates and forks, the chatter of people around us–and our sparse knowledge of Spanish food vocabulary.

“¿Qué es ‘morcilla’?” I ask the aloof and very stunning waitress. “Sangre del cerdo, con cebollas,” she responds, unblinkingly. Ah, so this is blood sausage. Maybe I will leave that culinary delight for my next tapas outing, I tell myself…

Soon our orders are whisked away to be heated and served, right from under our tantalized noses. My mojito arrives. The real work begins. I ordered the cod over roasted peppers and zucchini on a tosta, as well as the chicken skewers with tomato and onion, and the mushrooms with roasted jalapeños and prosciutto–innocent enough. But this was my predicament: the room was packed with people drinking, eating, talking. Everyone standing around small tables–plates balancing precariously on knees, stools, any open surface–oblivious to everyone else but their own party, with a frantic waiter carrying not two, not three, but four plates at a time as he rushed from group to group. My friends and I arrived at peak lunch hour–2 to 3pm is typical–so were given the option of standing at the tapas bar itself, forced to form a sort of semi-circle around a more or less non-existent counter space. So, balancing a large piece of cod on a small baguette while trying to avoid stepping on my neighbors toes, knocking over a plate of meat, or spilling my mojito or someone else’s, I wondered just how the hell I was supposed to eat this thing. (Where is my comfortable table with chairs? I guiltily sighed.) So, without much choice, I dove in. The tapas were messy, beautiful, challenging in every sense of the word, and delicious. I ate my cod/vegetable/tosta, chicken/tomato/onion skewer, and mushroom/proscuitto/roasted pepper tosta with gusto, spilling crumbs and mushrooms as I went. Washed down with a fresh squeezed mojito, this was decidedly one of the best meals I had experienced in a while.

With the check paid, our stomachs full, and our spirits lifted, my friends and I burst back out into the cold (well, relatively speaking) January air, with the startling realization that the process had taken a considerable portion of our afternoon. I considered this a small success; I had finally spent an afternoon tasting. With our arms-length personal bubbles temporarily popped, and our gastronomic understanding of Madrid broadened, we left the small tapas bar–and with resolute promises to return.



Filed under Madrid

4 responses to “tapear.

  1. Linda Snyder

    Not only could I see and feel the scenes you described but I could taste the smells and hear the charlas as well.
    Con Carino….
    Linda from the Rock.

  2. Linda from Tolo!

    I remember when we had to trick you into eating mushrooms! Now look for Tapas con squid! It is fantastic to share in your experiences. Deliciously written!

  3. Josephine Bergum

    What a wonderful description of the tapas. I could almost envision and taste them. Guess I will have to study my tapas cookbook ans decide which to try first. You certainly did whet my appetite. A trip to Spain is sounding more and more appealing.

  4. Rick Martinez

    Well written, Nieta. Our observations have been that Spain’s greatest asset is the many cuisines found within its various regions. Don’t forget to sample the fine tempranillo wines from the Basque provinces. Yum. Buena Suerte.

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