Trawling the tapas bars of Spain
In search of the country’s best croquetas, toothpick by toothpick
WE’VE been on a culinary mission. Our goal has been to find the best croquetas in Spain. A croqueta (croquette to us), as you know, is a mix of (usually) meat or seafood in a bechamel sauce wrapped in breadcrumbs and fried.
Now that is a whole little package of culinary bliss right there without saying another word.
If you’ve made them at home you’ll know there is a lot work in involved: first cooking the ingredients, then making a bechamel separately, then mixing it all together, letting it cool overnight, shaping it into little balls or oblongs, then dipping in flour, egg wash and breadcrumbs and finally frying.
That’s a lot of toil for a small bite. Easier to visit Spain and visit the tapas bars on a croqueta mission such as the one we are on now, no?
Oh, how we love the tapas bars in Spain. The established-for-generations bars are favourites.
They are usually dim places with long wooden bars and tiled floors and beams and barrels about the place and with shelves almost toppling under the weight of wine bottles.
Some have giant jamon (hams) hanging from the ceiling and some have a bloke whose sole job it is to slice paper-thin wafers of jamon in front of you.
Dozens of varieties of tapas are displayed on the bar top. Take a plate, fight to get close, and then go for it.
The tapas sit on chunks of bread with toppings skewered with a toothpick.
You pick up by toothpick, eat your fill, and then pay at the end by the number of toothpicks left on your plate.
We have had many toothpicks left on our plates. You would too. Crab meat wrapped in smoked salmon, piquillo peppers with pungent cheese, tangy pickled fish, jamon with squares of potato, spicy sausage with black olives – and that is just the cold stuff.
The hot stuff comes out with waiters who do the rounds of the busy bar with plates of sausage and fried fish and stuffed olives and then – here they come – the croquetas. Everything else fades when these hot lovelies are waved in front of us.
We don’t even bother to ask what is in them. We like to bite into a surprise and, so far in our mission, we have encountered Iberian ham and padron green peppers, veal and black garlic aioli, creamy codfish and Cabrales cheese, and we are on day two.
There are a few theories about the origin of tapas. The most likely is that long ago a small plate of bread, ham or olives was used as a lid to keep the flies out of a drink in rustic bars frequented by farm workers who liked a snack in between toiling the fields. Tapa means lid, so that makes sense.
In Australia we know tapas as just about everything. You see “tapas’’ on menus when they are really Greek mezze or Swedish meatballs or Danish pickled herrings or German bratwurst or specialities from any country other than Spain. But we are like that.
A person could spend a lifetime searching for the best croqueta in Sain – most tapas bars make that claim – and never come to a conclusion. What a gratifying mission.
◗ Going on the hunt for the best tapas in Spain is difficult, but someone has to do it.