After a sun-kissed month in Madrid this summer delighting in the delicacies of Iberian cuisine, it was with a heavy heart that I returned to the grey North-East and the prospect of student cooking and bog standard English fare.
Indeed, I was only two mouthfuls through a plate of own-brand beans on soggy toast and already I was pining again for the tastes of Spain.
Paella, gazpacho, jamon serrano… such treats seemed all so distant now as I looked bleakly at my cupboard full of Tesco value tins and Uncle Ben’s rice. I’d try my best to recreate a little bit of Spanish magic at home – an ill-fated tortila de patatas being my first and only attempt – but alas my cooking skills proved woefully inadequate.
What to do? How to banish my withdrawal symptoms and satisfy that craving for one more experience of la cocina española? Fortunately I was in luck.
As all Durham foodies will know, nestled on the high street between Market Square and the Cathedral is La Tasca, a tapas bar that offers all the signature dishes of the Iberian Peninsula. It was here that I found hope of getting that one last fix of Spanish cuisine before resigning myself to an inevitable fate of Michaelmas microwave meals and bland pasta dishes.
But walking through the doors of La Tasca I still had my doubts. Would it be a disappointment? Could you really find a real taste of Spain in the heart of Durham? Or would it be a pale imitation of the real thing?
I needn’t have worried. The tapas at La Tasca were excellent, a mix of bold flavours and Spanish flair wonderfully washed down with a caraf of ice-cold sweet sangria. Better still, the portion sizes were slightly larger than the tapas you might find in Madrid (who said the English couldn’t do something right?) and hence it was great value for money.
If you ever get the chance to go to La Tasca then here’s a list of my top recommended tapas, complete with a bit of cultural background that you can use to pass yourself off as a connoisseur of all things Iberian.
Paella – this is a world-famous classic of Spanish cuisine and should be your starting point if you’re new to tapas. Be it cooked with seafood, meat or a mixture of both, paella is a delightful dish of saffron sticky rice and vegetables.
It’s traditionally cooked in great big dishes and for many Spaniards is the staple of a lazy Sunday lunch with the family. It can also be a source of fierce regional pride; ask a Valencian and they’ll tell you that real paella can only be found in their region, where the qualities of the water are said to give it its distinctive flavour. Indeed, I’ve been fortunate enough to try paella in Valencia and they have a point!
But to the uninitiated this shouldn’t be a worry. Paella is awesome full stop and it’d be a culinary crime not to give it a try.
Croquetas – you’ll find these in lots of different cultures but the Spaniards do particularly mean croquetas as a tapas dish. They’re little fried breadcrumbed rolls usually filled with potato, ham or cheese. The best croquetas will simply melt in your mouth and are unfailingly moreish.
A word of warning though – they may be small but they’re deceptively filling so be sure to savour every bite!
Calamares – don’t be fooled by their ‘onion ring’ style appearance, calamares are in fact fried squid in batter and are another hot favourite on the tapas scene. When in Madrid I got some envious looks on the underground as I tucked into a baguette filled with calamares. And who could blame them? Try calamares with a dash of lemon and they’re a treat.
Gazpacho – perhaps not best appreciated in Durham, gazpacho is a refreshing tomato-based soup-style dish widely popular in Spain. The locals usually have it chilled to cool off after a day in the sun. Of course you won’t get these benefits in the North East but it’s still tasty all the same and full of vitamins.
Tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette) – good, wholesome, simple: tortilla de patatas embodies the best of no-frills Spanish cuisine and a tapas outing would be incomplete without it. It’s essentially a large omelette made with potatoes and onion, fried in olive oil. You can have it hot or cold and it goes great with gazpacho or salad.
Churros – strictly speaking these don’t count as tapas but I just couldn’t leave them out. Churros are rings of fried, crunchy pastry that you dip in thick hot chocolate and to a sweet-toothed simpleton like myself they’re irresistible. They’re particularly popular amongst club-goers in Madrid as a post night-out snack, the Spanish answer to the kebab if you will. More conventionally though you’ll see people eating them in cafes in the morning before work. La Tasca offers churros as a dessert and they’re a perfect way to round off a taste of Spain in Durham.