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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 August, 2003, 11:41 GMT 12:41 UK
Spain's tapas revolution

By Claire Marshall
In Bilbao

Burly Luis Valdes, a huge hulk of a man, performed the cleansing of a calamari with a surprising lightness of touch.

Prawns
Chefs are able to transform simple ingredients
Sweating slightly under the fluorescent lights of Bilbao's fish market, first he plucked the eyes of the squid out, then he isolated the ink pouch and kept it safe for those customers who fancy cooking calamari en su tinta - calamari in its ink.

Finally he scraped off the pinkish outer skin, turned the body inside out and proudly laid out the tube-like torso on the wooden board.

Luis is the fourth generation of his family to work at this market as a fishmonger.

"I was practically born here," he says.

Every day, Bilbao's chefs come to this stall to pick out fish from their beds of crushed ice to be filleted by Luis' skilful hands.

These joyful little morsels are the secret weapon of the bar owners
Many of these chefs are starting to capitalise on a growing demand for that Spanish fast-food staple - tapas - or as they are called in this region - pintxos.

Something magical happens in the kitchens of tapas bars in Bilbao.

The unappetising squidgy grey calamari are transformed into a piled-up plate of hot crisp golden rings.

A slice of lightly toasted baguette is crowned by a piece of roasted red pepper, and topped by juicy flakes of cod.

These joyful little morsels are the secret weapon of the bar owners.

The idea is to encourage you to linger for just that one more little bit of food - and just that one more glass of wine or beer.

Impossible to resist

Typical tapas bars seem to be designed specifically to show off the food on offer.

When you duck out of the bright sunlight, usually in through a simple wooden door, the room is dim and smoky.

However the bright array of tapas stands out, arranged seductively on plates on the bar - usually under spotlights and placed just beneath your nose.

They are impossible to resist while drinking.

The floor is normally covered with their remains - prawns heads and olive stones are scattered among crumbs of bread and little screwed-up bits of tissue paper.

People often prefer to go out and move around different places drinking wine and beer and having tapas, rather than sitting down for a big meal
Tapas client
This is not swept up until the end of the day - and the more debris the better.

It is seen as a testament to just how many people have been standing in the same place, enjoying themselves.

There are even awards for the bars which serve the best pintxos.

Sipping a Rioja and nibbling on a delicate creation involving ham and asparagus, one late-afternoon client said: "Eating like this is a way to socialise.

"People often prefer to go out and move around different places drinking wine and beer and having tapas, rather than sitting down for a big meal."

Patting his endearingly wobbly belly, Javier Urroz said he was not sure how he moved from being a political correspondent, to writing about food.

"Well in the world of gastronomy there are many people who cook, and not a lot of people who read.

"I read, and I like food, and I like investigating."

When I remarked that it did not sound like a bad way to earn a living, Javier replied "s'engorda" - "you get fat."

Gastronomic art form

Javier thinks that there is a new tapas phenomenon developing.

Whereas there used to be just bars serving alcohol which happened to provide little snacks, now there are places opening which specialise in tapas.

They are also getting more and more complex.

Looking at the bright array on the counter, and thinking how far away these temptations are from the slice of cold tortilla you used to be served, it does seem as though a gastronomic art form is taking shape.



WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Claire Marshall
"The growing popularity of Tapas is vital to the economy of the Basque region"



SEE ALSO:
Landlord banned over tapas bar row
03 Jul 01  |  UK News
Country profile: Spain
23 Jul 03  |  Country profiles


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