Understanding Tapas

After the third time, I feel it would be rude to continue saying “No, thank you.”

“Would you like any wine?” Juan Suarez asks encouragingly.

“Well…” I stammer, “are you having any?”

“Sure,” he replies easily, eyes already on his significant selection of seventy-plus bottles at Northampton’s Tapas Wine Bar, Ibiza.

“Most of our wines are Spanish,” he says. “I have a lot of favorites.”

Suarez selects a bottle of Dacu Tempranillo and pours us each a generous glass, switching them after he notices that his has a milliliter more wine in it.

“This one has more,” he explains. “Salud.”

“Salud,” I reply, dutifully sniffing the aroma before taking a small sip and then a slightly larger one.

“Delicious,” I say appreciatively. And it is.

Suarez sips his wine contentedly. “I’ll get us some tapas,” he says, heading off into the kitchen before I can reply with a nod of my head and another sip of his wine.

In order to understand tapas, you must experience tapas.

From the kitchen I hear a compressed Spanish conversation consisting of words my high school language teacher would be disappointed I can no longer decipher. Taking another sip of wine, I look around at the large glass bowl of wine corks under the turned-off television, then glance down the long wooden bar out the front window to Strong Street, then again across the bar to the restaurant’s insignia of the Ibiza bull, which resembles what might be a modern Picasso-style imitation of the famous cave paintings in Chauvet, France.

A moment later, Suarez returns with a small plate of cod baked in between thin pastry crusts, accented by raisins.

“It’s my mother’s recipe,” he says.

He puts two servings of Empanada Gallega de Bacalao on my plate and takes one for himself as well. Happy to acquiesce to his generosity, I take one bite and then another, agreeing with Suarez that the raisins, onions and paprika olive oil provide the perfect counterpoint to the salted cod.

A native of Galicia, Spain, just north of Portugal, Suarez opened Ibiza about three years ago, after operating another Ibiza tapas restaurant in Hamden, Conn., just north of New Haven. (The Northampton Ibiza’s new website, ibizatapasbar.com, Suarez points out, is the site with the Spanish guitar music. It’s Paco de Lucía’s recording of “Entre Dos Aguas,” which, incidentally, was featured several years ago in Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona. While the website ibizatapaswinebar.com has links to both the Hamden and Northampton restaurants, and another Ibiza in Danbury, Conn., it plays no guitar music.)

In America, Suarez notes, tapas is largely misunderstood. “A lot of restaurants say they do tapas, but it’s just a small portion,” he says. “They do each one cooked to order.”

Real tapas, as he notes on his website, is “the best gourmet fast food that exists.” And there is an art to eating tapas, the “delicate and tasty small dishes of Spain.”

As I put down my fork and take another sip of wine to better digest the cod turnover, Suarez immediately asks if I would like a tortilla. But it’s a rhetorical question, and before I can answer, he is off to the kitchen again, reappearing a moment later with a small plate of Tortilla con Chorizo, a potato and onion omelet with sliced grilled chorizo and cumin aioli sauce. The ingredients complement each other perfectly.

“Everybody eats tapas in Spain,” Suarez continues. “It’s more of a socialized meal. You get a variation of dishes, three or four tapas for one large meal price.”

Before I notice my wine glass is empty, he has filled it up for me, pouring enough to fill four times the minuscule space I attempt to indicate with my forefinger and thumb. Ever the hostpitable host, he pours a little more for himself as well, then places on his own plate a bit of tortilla.

“In Spanish,” he explains, “tapas literally means ‘to cover.’”

Hundreds of years ago, Suarez tells me, a king was having a meal on a beach in Spain. It was a windy day, and not wanting any sand to fly into his wine, the king kept asking for small plates with which to cover his wine glass. “Tapas (cover),” he said over and over. Thus the small-plate style of eating tapas was born. And the king kept all the sand out of his wine.

“That’s the story, anyway,” Suarez says, smiling through another sip of wine.

I do the same, contemplating his tale.

It’s a good story, I tell him. The kind that is perfectly digested with a bit of tapas.•

Author: Pete Redington

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