Tapas: that assortment of wonderful Spanish snacks

One Sunday we saw an advertisement touting an unbelievably inexpensive week in Madrid, where neither of us had ever been before, so we decided to go and visit our friend Bernie. Bernie is a translator who has been working at the Madrid conference on security and cooperation in Europe and, having gotten to know the ins and outs of eating in the Spanish capital, he seemed very eager to share his knowledge with us.

We landed after a surprisingly nice flight on Spantax, which, we are told, is the charter wing of Iberia, and were whisked by Bernie to a little cafe-restaurant in the old part of Madrid. In its window, nestling in a bed of salad greens, were tiny suckling pigs that could not have weighed more than five or six pounds each, and above their heads were hanging beautiful partridges. That all augured well for dinner, but we soon learned that the way to enjoy food in Madrid is not necessarily to sit down at a table and eat a meal, but to enjoy what these people call tapas.

The Spaniards dine very late, with many restaurants not even opening until 9 p.m. and not getting really busy until 10 or later. The gap between the siesta and dinner, and any other gaps that might appear in the day's schedule, are filled with snacking. The streets of Madrid and other Spanish cities are lined with pleasant cafes, open all day long and serving the most wonderful snacks, known collectively as tapas.

Apart from the few hours we spent in the Prado museum, I seem to recall that we passed all our time in Madrid-walking around the city, and that every time we saw or smelled something savory, in no matter how unsavory-looking an establishment, we stopped to refresh ourselves with a snack of tapas, an activity that Bernie has, in his time in Madrid, named "tapping."

We refreshed ourselves on some of the 10 or so varieties of shrimp and prawns which arrive fresh, not frozen, daily, along with a wonderful range of Mediterranean and Atlantic fish. We enjoyed tender, flavorful boiled octopus, deep fried potatoes -- salted before frying so as to form a salty crust -- and charred, grilled strips of pig's ear, all moistened with salsa brava.

This sauce is the much-imitated but never equaled specialty of one Madrid cafe. It is hot and smoky, and the cafe serves it on anything and everything from the hearty pigs' ears to the delicate octopus. It is very good and quite addictive.

We tasted skewered meats, marinated and cooked on a griddle; extraordinary mountain hams; deep fried fish and seafood; and marinated fish and fish salads. In one place we had a mound of inch-long baby eels, lightly floured and deep fried to perfection.

We ate lots of olives, pickled in a great variety of herbal mixtures, sometimes along with little onions. We also had a good number of Spanish omelets and tortillas filled with spinach or onion and potato, with mushrooms and ham optional.

A couple of times we actually saved room for dinner. We ate in an Asturian restaurant which served us thick vegetable soup, baked beans with various sausages and smoked pork meats, and braised partridges, which had not been farm-raised. We suspected this from the complex, gamy flavor and knew for sure when we came upon the occasional fragments of lead shot embedded in the meat.

In Asturia they drink a lot of cider, and so did we. A little bit of the excellent, tart cider is poured from a great height into a huge glass, with the restaurant owner holding the bottle way up here and the glass way down there. This is meant to aerate the cider, and it is done by practiced hands without spilling a drop. When our unpracticed hands tried it, from a considerably lesser height, many drops were spilled.

On other nights we had roast lamb and roast suckling pig, both much younger, smaller, and tenderer than they are ever found here. A single serving of the lamb, for example, consisted of a whole leg, overcooked by French standards, but moist and tender. We had thought that the best French fries in the world were served at Sweetings fish restaurant in London, but Casa Paco in Madrid outdoes it, probably owing to the use of olive oil in the frying basin.

On the weekend, Bernie decided to risk his car getting us all out west to Estremadura and back. Our visit took place during the pre-Lenten carnival period , when odd things happen. Wandering down a street in the town of Trujillo, we noticed everyone else going the other way. We forged forward, but finally a man called to us and suggested that we join him and his family on their porch behind a strong iron railing.

"The cows are coming," he explained. "It would be wise to get out of the way." The cows turned out to be young, exuberent bulls, which are encouraged to thunder down the main street once a year, followed by packs of courageous children. This is not for the benefit of the tourists, for, apart from the three of us, there were none. We met our savior that same night in a cafe, wearing a false nose and a sheet, disguised as an Arab. Yes, odd things happen during carnival.

We had dinner in an Estramaduran town. Bernie made me promise not to reveal which town, for he is jealous of his restaurant finds except on a "need to know" basis. The second-floor restaurant overlooking the town square is owned and operated by a short, stout, elderly woman in a black dress who shuffles to your table in her carpet slippers with a loaf of bread tucked under one arm.

As we arrived, she was stoking the charcoal braziers which are found under each table and which keep the diners' feet warm. The weather was spring-like that night, but it is the thought that counts. She offered us dinner and we accepted: That is the extent of the choice.

A guest can always refuse a course or two, but the evening's dinner consists of what the woman has cooked. The night we were there she had cooked a potato, onion, and mushroom omelet served with a tomato and onion salad; vegetable soup; roast chicken; beef stew; and French fried potatoes. Dessert was fresh fruit.

The only other customer at that early hour of 8 o'clock was the town priest, who, as town priests should, wore a tattered cassock and invited us to attend an organ recital in his church the following day, which we could not do as we had to move on. Our dinncr was marvelous. Not very good cooking, really, but served with great concern for our well-being, and in a wonderful home-like setting. I did not in fact learn anything much about cooking in Spain, although we all tasted new things which we liked very much and which we look forward to eating again. But one item I have added to my list of staples for a quick meal is the Spanish omelet. Cafes always have one or more omelets available as a tapa, and they are served lukewarm and by the wedge. The basic tortilla is made with onion , potatoes, and lots of olive oil, which keeps moist. Ham, peas, peppers, or mushrooms can be added as well, and spinach omelets are popular, too. The fact that these pancake-like omelets are as good cold as hot makes them very useful for hors d'oeuvres or as picnic food.

Here is the way to make a simple Spanish omelet for a single serving. The other ingredients I mentioned may be added at your discretion to cook with the onions and potatoes. Tortilla espanola (Spanish omelet): 1/2 medium onion 1 small potato peeled 1/4 cup good, fruity olive oil Salt and pepper 3 eggs Another dribble of olive oil Ham, peas, peppers, mushrooms or spinach (optional)

Slice onion and potato into very thin slices 1/16 inch being ideal. Stew them in the olive oil with salt and pepper in a covered pan until potatoes are completely cooked. If you like, let ingredients brown slightly over a higher heat, although this is not often found in Spain. Set vegetables aside to cool. They need only cool to the point that they will not scramble the eggs when you mix them in.

Beat eggs in a bowl and add stewed onions and potatoes. Adjust seasoning. Take a six-inch pan to which you know the eggs will not stick, either a well-cared-for omelet pan or a nonstick skillet, and heat a little olive oil in it. When it is quite hot, add the egg mixture. Cook over medium heat until the eggs are nearly cooked through, then turn the omelet and cook very briefly on thc other side. Slide onto a plate and serve hot or at room temperature, possibly with a salad.

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