A salty little inducement to order another glass at the counter, the tapa in the bars of Andalusia is, in its traditional form, no more than a mouthful which, along with olives and bread, comes included in the price of the wine. The wine, if authenticity is what you’re looking for, is sherry or Manzanilla, the straw-pale, bone-dry wines of the region, made by the solera method of blending old with new by passing it from barrel to barrel till the wine is ready for drinking.
A harbor town where seafood is king
A tapa-round this summer with Vicky González — the youngest family-recruit to join sherry-makers González Byass — took me to Puerto de Santa Maria. In the 1970s, when I lived with my young family just along the coast, Puerto was little more than a little fisherman’s port at the mouth of the river Guadalquivir on the Atlantic coast of Andalusia, whose chief claim to fame was that it was from here that Cristóbal Colón set sail on one of his voyages. On high days and holidays, entertainment was to be found in the half-dozen or so harbor-side bars which served whatever the fishermen had landed either as tapas (cheap-and-cheerful freshly-marinated anchovies, a grilled sardine), or something more luxurious (shrimp in garlicky olive oil with chiles, chunks of grilled monkfish threaded on skewers) which came in the form of a ración, a more substantial plateful to share between four.
These days Puerto is no longer a sleepy little harbor town, but a busy resort packed with eateries and clothes shops where the well-heeled citizens of Seville and Jerez go to take the sea breezes in summer and weekends. What hasn’t changed is the tapa-round, a wander from bar to bar in search of those good things which come from the sea: plump sardines crunchy with salt slapped straight on the grill; fresh anchovies flipped through flour with their tails pinched together and fried in fans; frittered cuttlefish, squid and ortiguillas, sea anemones cooked in a crisp little jacket which taste and look like oysters; cañaillas, spiky sea-snails with tender flesh which slip from the shell like cream; tortillitas de camarones, lacy pancake-fritters speckled with the little jumping-shrimps caught live on the sandy shoreline. The most expensive of these treats is shellfish, mariscos, a term which covers anything that wears its skeleton on the outside, from the smallest violet-shelled clam, concha fina, to a scarlet-carapaced spider-crab, centollo, as big as a dinnerplate. You choose what you want, pay by weight and expect to empty your wallet for quality. My favorites are the little palm-sized shore-crabs, nécora, and the long-bodied razor-shell, navaja, which opens to reveal tender tubular flesh. And I won’t go home without my ration of percebes, the prosaically named goose barnacles that look like a miniature elephant’s foot but taste like lobster.
Perfect seafood needs little embellishment
The rest of Spain dismisses the cooking of Andalusia as dependent on the frying pan, which is indeed true. But since the raw materials are exactly as they should be, no need for fussing around with recipes. The raw material of the feast — straight from the sea, or trucked overnight from as far away as the waters of the north Atlantic — is slapped straight on the grill, or plunged briefly into boiling salted water and eaten with a squeeze of lemon or, in the brief spring season, bitter orange, a flavoring for olives as well as the perfect counterpoint to seafood. Crustaceans are served fresh from the boiling pot or opened on the grill, but the skill of the cook can most easily be appreciated in a light hand with the fryer, the use of olive oil as a cooking medium. The flour-and-water batter is seasoned with rough gray salt from the Cádiz flats and prepared with coarse-grained flour milled from the hard-grain wheat which soaks up the sunshine the hot dry earth of the floodplain of the Guadalquivir, the river which bisects Seville, spreads much of its waters through the marshes of the Coto Doñana and flows down to the sea at Puerto.
The city of Seville and its surrounds — Jerez, Puerto Santa María, Sanlúcar, Cádiz — is the undisputed tapa capital of Spain. The natives will tell you that the habit of taking a little something with a glass of wine dates back a mere couple of centuries to a moment when a certain bartender was inspired to pop an edible lid on the glass to keep the flies out of the drink. I’m not convinced — not only because flies on the food is surely no better than flies in the wine but also because it can, it seems to me, be no accident that the mezze tradition of the southern shores of the Mediterranean so closely resembles the peripatetic eating habits of a land which flourished under Muslim rule for seven centuries.
So, should you find yourself in Puerto de Santa María one merry weekend — not much happens on a weekday except in high summer — head for Casa Paco for frittered sea anemones, jumping-shrimp fritters and, if the inshore boats have just come in on the tide, hake-fritters, pavía de merluza, and the little semi-transparent flatfish, lenguaditos, caught in the delta of the Guadalquivir and nowhere else. Afterward, take your custom and your wallet to Casa Romerijo and make your choice among the heaped trays of ready-cooked seafood. Not to be missed are nécora (small blue-shelled swimmer-crabs), quisquillas (big red shrimp), camarones (smaller pinker shrimp), percebes (goose-barnacles), cañadillas (spiny sea-snails), bocas de isla (crab claws). While traditionalists will choose as accompaniment a glass of well-chilled Manzanilla, the dry slightly salty sherry-like wine of the town, a warm autumn day might suit a caña (mug-sized measure) of pale golden beer from the keg, or a tinto de verano, summer wine, a tumbler of red wine, well-iced, topped up with gaseosa, lightly-sweetened fizzy water.
Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.
Image: A watercolor of the region’s seafood. Credit: Elisabeth Luard