What are tapas? M.T., Weston, MA
Tapas are the Spanish equivalent of what the French call hors d’oeuvres, the Italians antipasti, and some other Mediterranean nations mezes — appetizers or small bites of simple foods eaten before, or in lieu of, a big meal. The apocryphal beginnings of the tapas (the verb tapar means “to cover”) tradition come from the story that small plates were often placed over the tops of glasses to keep dust and fruit flies from getting into the sherry or wine. Where there is a plate, there is often food. Barkeeps quickly learned that a few thin slices of ham, almonds, or cured olives — all high in salt — encouraged the thirst of their patrons, and soon tapas became a welcome addition.
Today, just about every region in Spain offers its own specialty tapas. The classic jamón (ham) remains a favorite, and depending upon where in Spain you happen to be, you’ll be offered serrano (from the mountains) or ibérico (raised on acorns), both salt and air cured, rather than smoked, like most American hams. Olives, too, are ever present, with enticing names such as arbequinas, cornicabras, hojiblancas, and manzanillas — in fact, bar tabs are often tallied by counting pits and toothpicks.
Tapas by design are simple foods and rely on what is locally available and in season. On the coast, your tapas selection will undoubtedly include fish and shellfish (razor clams, shrimp, squid, and even barnacles), while inland you will find cheese and cured meats.
For excellent and authentic tapas in Massachusetts, visit Toro in Boston’s South End. Chef/owner Ken Oringer (of Clio and Uni fame) offers more than three dozen choices that are more than just inspired by Spanish cuisine — you’ll think you’ve stepped into a bar in San Sebastián.
Toro, 1704 Washington St., Boston, MA. 617-536-4300.