“Over there you can buy bull’s meat, but beware of buying meat that has been taken from animals who died in a bullfight. They are drugged beforehand and during the fight, they are very, very stressed. So that meat, is not at all healthy.” Chef Lalo Beltrán, thirty something, with beard and lots of energy, is taking us, a group of tourists, around Barcelona’s famous La Boqueria Market, just off La Rambla. The idea is that we will learn to make tapas today, but first we have to know how to buy ingredients for these small Spanish dishes.
The amount of information that is thrown at us is dazzling, and at the same time, inspiring. Why you should buy the expensive Iberian ham, for instance, and not the cheaper one -because the meat has cured for five years and the taste will therefore last longer in your mouth. Or that you should buy small oysters, as the big ones are from France and don’t have the right taste.
That food and cooking are his thing, is obvious. Beltrán, with us in tow, seems to know every stall keeper in the market that sells ingredients to his taste. “Amazing!,” he calls the eggs from the egg stand. The woman who sells organic tomatoes smiles, even if today he isn’t buying any products. “These are small farmers. They have their stand on the outskirts of the market, in front of the pub, until early afternoon. “
If we think the shopping is complicated, it’s because we haven’t started cooking yet. Tapas are Spain’s most famous food and we are learning how to make them at Barcelona Cooking, a cooking school in the heart of the city, which was started up by three Galician friends who met in Barcelona. In an apartment block right in the middle of La Rambla, they have built two state-of-the-art kitchens where visitors can be initiated into the secrets of Spanish food.
The culture of Tapas in Spain is one that dates back to the 16th Century. There are many stories about its exact origins, but most agree it is all about its name. The word Tapas comes from “tapar”, or “to cover”, and a tradition to use breads and meats to cover drinks – typically Sherry – and protect them from flies. The story goes that innkeepers noticed that the more snacks they provided, the more people would drink. And so a culture was born.
By now there are many kinds of tapas, and each one needs as much preparation as a whole meal. For the watermelon Gazpacho, a fruity cold soup, we mush watermelon, tomatoes, bread and about 15 other ingredients. Then there is coca bread with olives and escalivada, a small pizza, which involves baking bread and decorating it with eggplant, peppers and onions. The main dish, meat balls with cuttlefish, is the absolute topper with 21 ingredients. Luckily for us, Barcelona Cooking is an organized place and they send the recipes to your email address while you are cooking.
Tapas doesn’t stop at savory dishes either. There are dessert tapas, like chocolate ice cream made in part from olive oil, served almost at room temperature on crispy bread, with a small drizzle of salt, just to name one experimental example. At Barcelona cooking, we make homemade mato cheese with strawberries to top off the meal.
At the end of four hours of hard work, we get to taste all these creations, served with three kinds of wine. That’s when one of the participants of the class asks when Spanish people get together as a family and have tapas. “They eat them in restaurants,” Beltrán answers. “Each restaurant has its own specialty. So you have some in one place, and then you move on to the next one. And that’s what you do, until late at night.” These little bites might be too much work to make, but now that we know what goes into them, we will appreciate what we are eating next time we order them, just like the Spanish people, in a restaurant.
Barcelona Cooking, http://www.barcelonacooking.net , La Rambla, 58, Barcelona, Spain 08002, (+34) 931.191.986, firstname.lastname@example.org.