When in Andalucia and looking to eat tapas, which one should always be doing when in Andalucia, I have one simple rule.
I was in Ronda last week, home of the oldest bullring in the world, perched astraddle the sheer El Tajo gorge and looking like a CGI set from a Star Wars film. I was talking to two American ladies I’d met in the street, and we were debating where to eat lunch. They had lists of recommended eateries and I did not. I like to lunch by serendipity. This has had some very good results and some very bad results.
We walked down from the Old Town toward Plaza de San Francisco. They had identified two places next to each other, and we hovered in the clean winter sunshine. The places looked good and smart, as you would expect. There was a waiter in a smart apron. The tablecloths were fresh. The cutlery gleamed. “Which one should we choose,” said the one American woman.
“Neither,” I said.
They looked at me in surprise.
“Take a closer look at those tables. What do you see? Or more accurately, what don’t you see?”
They looked at the tables, where people sat and chatted and sipped at their beers or their glasses of fino and shook their heads in incomprehension. Now I understood what Holmes felt when dealing with Watson, or Poirot with Hastings. They look, but they do not observe. Every table had a glass on it, but unless someone had ordered a meal, there were no small dishes. There was no free food.
Bar policies are not uniform throughout Spain. In Madrid when you order you drink they give you a snack, usually large, delicious briny green olives. When you order another drink they tend to give you something else, something even better and more substantial. The more you drink, the more they reward you with free good food. I think if you have the liver to hang in long enough, at a certain point they bring you out a whole roast suckling pig. In Catalonia, however, a place proverbial in the rest of Spain for its wealth and meanness, when you order a drink, you get a drink. If you want food, you have to buy it.
In Andalucia in southern Spain – my favourite part, with its narrow coastal plain beside the Mediterranean and the tiny winding roads that lead up into the sierras with their pine-forest slopes and snow-capped peaks and peasant villages and gorges and mesas strewn with lemon trees and olive groves – there’s no fixed policy. Some places you get food, some you don’t.
“This place looks good,” the American ladies said, defiantly. “We’re going to eat here.”
I bid them farewell and went wandering down the streets. I was hungry, but haste was the enemy. I drifted past bars and restaurants that didn’t make the grade. I hesitated, I was tempted, but it wasn’t quite right. Then, in a scruffy courtyard just inside the old city walls that seemed to double as an informal car park and motor-mechanic’s workshop, I saw Bar Sanchez.
It was a rough-looking establishment. The tables were ratty and had plastic tablecloths. The grizzled bar-owner, perhaps Sanchez himself, shuffled around in a filthy tunic, delivering drinks. He didn’t say anything friendly when he delivered the drinks, he banged them down, and then banged down beside them a bowl of food.
I sat and ordered a Fino.* It arrived with a bowl of the finest green olives I have ever eaten. They weren’t the giants that you get in Madrid but they were meaty and savoury and surprising complex. They had a taste I’ve never tasted before, and I made an embarrassing half-moan of surprise and delight.
If you want to get the measure of a place’s tapas, order the tortilla. It came proud and fresh upon the plate, huge and just sufficiently moist, with flavourful potato and generously seasoned. I ordered Rioja by the glass, then chorizo in wine, and a fillet montadito** with a spicy red sauce, and another fillet montadito, and mushrooms stuffed with garlic and breadcrumbs, and pork belly, and a tortilla montadito. A tortilla montadito? Yes! A tortilla montadito! The flavours were deep and strong and robust and generous. It’s generosity you’re looking for when you’re looking for food in Andalucia. You’re looking for the people that understand that food is an expression of joy and humanity, that we are all lost and wandering travellers starving for love. Mark my words: in Andalucia a place that gives you free food is a place that gives you good food. Each dish cost one euro, except for the ones that were one-fifty.
As I sat back and pointed my belly at the blue Spanish sky, the two American women came past from their lunch. Their faces looked northern and sad. They stared at the empty dishes silently.
“You may as well start from the beginning,” I said.
They sat and called for drinks and Sanchez came shambling over with two Finos and a big bowl of olives.
*A very dry, delicate sherry, served chilled, and typically with tapas
** Similar to bruschetta, a montadito is a lightly toasted slice of bread served with various toppings