From edible lids to keep fruit flies out of your sherry to Spain’s most exported gastronomy, Belinda Beckett discovers why the whole world has gone tonto for tapas.

‘An ancient tradition has been brought to Manhattan direct from Barcelona – Tapas Time, the Spanish cocktail hour, when colourful platters of octopus and pig’s ear accompany drinks’, exclaimed an excited food critic, reviewing The Ballroom in 1983. The quirky cabaret restaurant serving Spanish snacks between bursts of Eartha Kitt and Peggy Lee was the original New York tapas bar.

Folks across the Atlantic didn’t really ‘get’ the concept until over a decade later, when Spanish-American chef José Andrés opened Jaleo in Washington DC, now with branches in three other cities. Today, from SoHo, New York to Tokyo, Japan, the world’s gone ‘tonto’ for tapas. The concept is even celebrated with its own World Tapas Day in September.

Spanish cuisine has been hot for a while but tapas turned up the gas and the chef who fanned the flames was Ferran Adrià, the Salvador Dalí of gastronomy. The Catalan chef elevated the small portion from unpretentious bar-counter freebie to three-Michelin star cuisine at his Costa Brava restaurant, elBulli.

The tapa became his template for a multiple-course dining experience of miniature surprises featuring foams, spherifications and other tricks of culinary alchemy that shaped global gastronomy.

elBulli closed in 2011 but Adrià’s minimalist, theatrical style has been emulated by chefs the world over and you’d be hard put to visit a major city today and not count a couple of dozen arty tapas bars.

New York alone has more than 70! As the great man himself foretold, “Tapa is Spain’s most exportable gastronomy, a way of understanding life, a representation of our country’s culture.”

He also saw the huge financial potential. “It’s a question of using tapas as a channel for chefs, food companies and restaurants to launch their businesses outside Spain,” he said. “If 100,000 tapas bars are opened abroad, how many bottles of olive oil or kilos of jamón could be sold?

In fact, sales of Spanish produce to the rest of the world represented 16 per cent of total exports and a value of over €30 billion in 2012, and that trend is still upwardly mobile…

Words Belinda Beckett

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