COLUMN: April 12, 2018

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This is not a meal

TAPAS is a tremendous concept. I don’t know if you speak the language but “tapas” is Spanish for “can’t divide the number of items on the plate between the number of people at the table”.

Before the tapas revolution came to this country it was terrible. You would go to a restaurant and choose, usually, three dishes, a starter, a main course, and a pudding. They were designed so that your starter would pique your appetite, but not leave you too full for a main course, and your main course would leave enough room for a pudding.

And then you would stagger out into the cold air, pleasantly full, or, at least, not feeling that if you got your skates on you could catch the chippy. Imagine how awful that was, that feeling of having been looked after.

It’s much better these days, now we have Taken Back Control. How dare those expert restaurateurs decide what makes up a balanced meal, when we are perfectly capable of choosing three different starters even though we have literally no idea how much will be on each plate?

For nobody has ever walked away from a tapas meal having endured the tyranny of eating the correct amount of food. They have always over-ordered, on the basis that it’s better to order too much than not enough, or under-ordered, because they remember what happened last time when they ordered too much.

And how great it is that this tapas experience is no longer confined to Spanish restaurants. Every restaurant that opens these days is a “small plates” enterprise, so now you can have no idea how much food to order across a much wider range of world cuisines.

Before the big roll-out, if you wanted to have an argument because one of your companions didn’t order croquetas on the basis that “we’re all sharing anyway, aren’t we, and I’ll just have one of the three croquetas that you, the person who really wanted croquetas, ordered”, you would have to go to a Spanish restaurant.

But now you can have an argument anywhere, and not just over croquetas. You can have seething resentment boiling over into passive-aggressive comments like “Somebody didn’t have any lunch, eh?” about falafels or the last siu mai dumpling.

And, because the food “comes out when it is ready”, you can enjoy the experience of sitting there unfed for half an hour while you watch your friends tucking into the pad Thai and albondigas they ordered, and then let them wait while you eat the three dishes you chose and which finally came after everybody else’s (small) plates were cleared away.

I know, I know. I have over-ordered sarcasm. The fact is I have no idea why small plates have become so popular in the catering industry. I can only assume that they’re cheaper to clean. It can’t be because the small plates experience is actually good.

Because the tapas experience was not designed for the restaurant business. Tapas or the Italian version cicchetti were for bars. You’d go on, essentially, a pub crawl around Barcelona or Venice and you’d have a drink, and you’d choose a plate of tapas to go with it.

One bar would specialise in seafood. Another would do the best patatas bravas for kilometres around. But it would be a snack to have with your cerveza or dry sherry. It’s the Mediterranean equivalent of having a packet of nuts ripped from one of those cardboard displays featuring a woman who is not dressed for a trip to Sainsbury’s.

Imagine opening a restaurant in Madrid based on the British pub snack experience. You would be shown to a table which smelled of lager-soaked towels and the gents’. Your (small) plates would be placed on beermats.

And then the food would emerge from the kitchen, “as it’s ready”. A waitress with a Chinese character neck tattoo saying “mum” would rip open a bag of cheese ‘n’ onion crisps and leave it in the middle of the table. Tooth-shattering pork scratchings would appear, if you were lucky. If it were a particularly fancy joint, a rubbery pickled egg, dripping with vinegar, would be delicately placed in a repurposed Worthington E-branded ashtray.

And then, 20 minutes after you’d finished these traditional British delicacies, and were thinking about the bill, out of the swinging doors would come the scampi-flavoured fries both you and the kitchen had forgotten about.

Actually, this might work. I must have a word with my bank manager.

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2 thoughts on “COLUMN: April 12, 2018

  1. True. It is also about how they imported the concept as an excuse to serve overpriced tiny portions. Large groups in Spain would not share tapas: they would either order individually or order large platters (“raciones”), or a mix of platters and a tapa of something you fancy that no one else does.

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